Share story

After Terry O’Neill graduated from Tulane law school and became a successful attorney, her mother — a Texas native who didn’t believe in women working outside the home — used to introduce her as a “lady lawyer.”

It drove O’Neill nuts. Why didn’t her mother call O’Neill’s then-husband, Kevin, “a gentleman lawyer”?

“She was distressed that I didn’t turn out right,” O’Neill said the other day.

But after decades of working for equal rights, and ascending to the presidency of the National Organization for Women, she believes her mother would’ve come around.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

“I think she’d be more proud than distressed,” she said. “It has become socially acceptable to be a feminist, a lawyer, a high-achiever.”

Socially acceptable, maybe, but still hard work.

Her priority at the moment? “Saving the Senate,” O’Neill declared over lunch at Capitol Hill’s Vios recently.

That means getting more women elected to the U.S. Senate — or at least, more people who support women’s rights.

That might have prevented the House’s recent vote to pass a 20-week abortion ban.

“President Obama may veto it,” O’Neill said. “But he can’t veto everything.”

She set her fork down with a sigh.

So this is what it’s like to run the 48-year-old feminist organization. You can’t eat your lunch out of fear of politicians, laws and other factors eating it for you.

O’Neill went on: The federal budget, as it stands, will cut programs for women, but make room for more military spending and tax breaks for millionaires.

Then there is the threat to Social Security, which happens to be the largest source of income for senior women. And, because women still earn less than men in the workplace and have less access to retirement benefits, Social Security is the last defense against poverty for women in their golden years.

That concern is what brought O’Neill to Seattle last week. She joined U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, of Bellevue, and Marilyn Watkins, of the Economic Opportunity Institute for a community forum on the future of Social Security.

It’s dire, she said. Women cluster in low-paid occupations that have no pension, no 401K, no health care — and they’re responsible for their elders and their children. At the end of their working lives, they have no savings.

“But what they do have is Social Security,” O’Neill said.

The trip turned out to be a chance to talk about where women stand politically and culturally.

Just a few days before O’Neill’s visit, a 22-year-old man went on a shooting spree near the University of California, Santa Barbara, killing six people before killing himself. He left behind a misogynistic manifesto that spurred the Twitter campaign #YesAllWomen. The campaign had already registered a million tweets, news that O’Neill welcomed with an almost maternal smile.

“Women often don’t have a megaphone,” she said. “It was a spontaneous outpouring.”

She remembered one tweet that said: “Because I have told a man who was hitting on me that I had a boyfriend.”

The message? That an imaginary boyfriend had more power than a live, present woman saying she wasn’t interested.

“Women manage men’s bad behavior every day,” O’Neill said. “I believe it. I lived it. You’re always picking your battles.”

At the same time, she said, “I actually feel like we are getting somewhere.”

It’s nice to see that Hillary Rodham Clinton is being urged to take another run at the White House, O’Neill pointed out.

“I look around at all the people in all the parties and I think that Hillary Rodham Clinton would be the best president.”

Clinton seems to understand the importance of the women’s movement. While traveling the world as Secretary of State, Clinton made a point to meet with women’s organizations.

That said, O’Neill has some reservations — mainly around Clinton’s hand in doling out economic justice.

While a U.S. senator, Clinton voted for a bill that changed bankruptcy laws to benefit banks.

But she didn’t seem to get that the U.S. can borrow money at zero percent and fully fund programs that prevent violence against women, or Head Start programs “that would put women to work and pay them what they’re worth,” O’Neill said.

She stopped, softened, took a few more bites and waves the air, slowing herself down. Sometimes no easy task.

O’Neill, twice divorced and the mother of a daughter, is an admitted workaholic who spends four hours a day reading email and who has learned to meditate on airplanes — during takeoff and landing, when she has to turn off her iPad anyway.

Even so, she still tends to get a little overexcited about the job.

Once, at a rally where she appeared with Eve Ensler, author of “The Vagina Monologues,” O’Neill stood at the lectern and declared, “I have a vagina and I vote!”

“I do have my moments,” she said with an embarrassed smile.

But time is of the essence. O’Neill is one year into her second, four-year term as president. She’s only got three years left to do her job — and finish a full meal.

“It’s my job to actually lead the transformation of our society,” O’Neill said. “It’s my job to achieve women’s equality.

“And I am pretty good at my job.”

Nicole Brodeur:

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.