June 23, 2015
Terry O'Neill (L '80), president of the National Organization for Women and former Tulane Law School professor, leads discussion on modernizing the organization at its annual conference in New Orleans.
UCLA School of Law Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw and NOW President Terry O'Neill explore the problems that arise when public policies don't account for coinciding gender and racial issues.
Photos by Paula Burch-Celentano
Terry O’Neill (L ’80) says she never anticipated that she’d use the legal training she received at Tulane Law School to advance the causes of feminism.
“The opportunity found me,” she said during a break from leading a packed agenda of activities during the recent National Organization for Women annual conference in New Orleans. “It was a series of accidents.”
O’Neill, who taught at Tulane Law for 12 years, has been NOW president since 2009 and is guiding the organization’s efforts to modernize in order to stay relevant and attract new members while maintaining its grassroots identity.
The June 19-21 conference explored problems that spill across gender, racial and socioeconomic lines. For instance, one panel discussed financial disparities affecting women: A 2010 study showed that median net worth is $100 for single black women and $120 for Latinas but $41,500 for white women.
O’Neill said the grim economic outlook for minority women isn’t just a racial issue, it’s a women’s issue, and NOW’s mission is to empower women across the board.
“As allies, we must refuse to accept this and work for public policies to help our sisters of color,” she said. “Fix it for my sisters, and fix it for me.”
One session co-chaired by Tania Tetlow, Tulane law professor and associate provost, investigated the role of women in the upcoming presidential and congressional elections. Tetlow addressed ways women can engage in public policy after the elections.
O’Neill has long been making connections across fields. She initially worked on corporate securities and business transactions before joining the Tulane law faculty in 1990 to teach corporate law. But on her own she also explored feminist, critical race and queer theory.
She got her first taste of grassroots politics in 1991, campaigning door-to-door against David Duke in his Louisiana governor run. She said that “humanizing” experience showed her the power of local activism and changed her view of politics.
After the election, she remained interested in politics and women’s rights but had no outlet for them until a friend suggested she join NOW’s New Orleans chapter. She knew she’d fit in when she spotted a sign at her first meeting that read, “Sexism, racism, homophobia – connect the dots.”
O’Neill credits her Tulane Law background for shaping her successful career, fueling her drive as a student and helping her connect with others as a professor. She said today’s women graduates should remain flexible and think creatively about their careers: “Keep your options open, and always look around for opportunities, because you never know what accidents will be waiting.”