NOW has landed in hot water with its defense of Andrea Yates, the
Texas woman who drowned her five children. Allen Houston asks who is
attacking NOW, and how it is handling the pressure.
Deborah Bell, the amiable president of the Texas chapter of the National
Organization for Women (NOW) has been shocked by the amount of hate mail
and vicious messages that she has received since NOW organized the
Andrea Pia Yates Support Coalition with the ACLU and other Texas-based
Yates, the Houston-area woman who drowned her five children in a bathtub
earlier this summer, had a history of mental problems and was diagnosed
with postpartum depression after the birth of her second child. She had
spent nine days in a treatment facility and on two occasions had tried
to commit suicide. Once, according to records filed by her defense team,
her husband had to forcibly take a steak knife away from her. Also, she
had been taking an antipsychotic drug called Haldol.
The grisly nature of the story ensured that it got top billing on all
the nightly news programs and was splashed on the front pages of
newspapers nationwide. It touched a raw nerve in the nation's psyche,
addressing the issues of motherhood, insanity, and most importantly, the
loss of innocent children.
NOW said that it would encourage members to donate money to the Andrea
Yates legal fund. It also said it would protest the death penalty (which
the prosecutors are asking for), and would use Yates' case to spotlight
the issue of postpartum psychosis, a severe form of postpartum
depression that affects one of every 1,000 mothers. But the group was
instantly hit by a media whiplash of negative press claiming that such a
stance proved NOW is anti-motherhood.
Stories bearing the title "Feminists using Yates case to attack
motherhood," "NOW's pity misplaced" and "Andrea Yates - a killer or a
cause?" flooded AP, Reuters, The Washington Post, the Houston Chronicle,
the Fox News Network, and National Public Radio.
"We didn't have our message framed in exactly the right terms before we
came to a decision about Andrea Yates," admits Deborah Bell, president
of Texas NOW. "Instead of hearing what we were trying to say, the media
has been trying to spin and sensationalize the case. It's easy for them
to demonize NOW rather than take responsibility and admit that this
woman fell through the cracks."
The Texas chapter of NOW is planning a number of ways to raise awareness
about postpartum depression. The group will hold an educational forum in
the Houston area to address the issue of postpartum research. It is
developing a brochure about postpartum depression that will be sent to
doctors' offices and clinics. The most aggressive part of the campaign
calls for NOW to place copies of A Mother's Tears, a book offering
advice about postpartum depression, in libraries throughout the US.
NOW also held a candlelight vigil on September 11, a day before Yates'
most recent court appearance. At the vigil, members of the coalition
showed their solidarity by singing songs and holding candles to
represent the five children who were murdered. "We're not excusing what
she did. It's because of the children that we are doing this. If we can
inform one mother who is suffering from postpartum depression and
doesn't know what to do, then I think we have achieved our goal," says
Pressure has been so intense on the group that Kim Gandy, the newly
elected president of NOW (whose first priority was to "send Bush back to
Texas"), has had to issue a statement and take to the airwaves to defend
NOW's position. Last week, Gandy was on FOX and CNN doing just that.
Furthermore, her statement sent to the media addresses the negative
press the group has been receiving: "The media's oversimplification of
this case, and in some cases their misrepresentation of NOW's role, are
both deplorable and dangerous." The statement also read, "We hope that a
broader discussion about the mental health issues involved may prevent a
similar tragedy in the future, and may increase the help available to
other families coping with such a crisis before it turns deadly."
NOW on the defensive
The negative press directed at NOW has claimed that the group is
anti-mother, and that the group's stance against the death penalty in
Andrea Yates case will cause copycat killers to use the "postpartum
plea." On September 6, in Washington, DC, the Independent Women's Action
Project, a right-wing coalition of women, marched outside the
headquarters of NOW to protest the defense of Andrea Yates.
"NOW is dead. They only represent a ridiculously small number of
American women," said Audrey Mullen, a director for the Independent
Women's Action Project. "NOW wants to cover every issue from judicial
nominees to abortion rights. This only proves that they are
anti-motherhood. We believe that this is not a mental health issue.
Jeffrey Dahmer was mentally ill, but he was still held accountable for
A column by right-wing columnist and failed Bush appointee Linda Chavez
says that postpartum depression should not be an excuse for one's
"It's true that the male hormone testosterone plays a major role in
provoking aggression - even violence. Yet we don't excuse criminal
behavior in males because their hormones may contribute to their violent
behavior. Should we let women off the hook because their hormones are
out of whack temporarily?"
Even postpartum support groups believe that NOW has stumbled in the way
that it handled its message. Jane Hoinkman has worked with postpartum
issues since the late '60s, when she was first diagnosed with the
During the '70s, she tried to get NOW involved in the issue of
postpartum depression, but the group was uninterested, calling
postpartum depression a family disease.
"They didn't do their homework before they spoke to the press," says
Hoinkman, the founder of Postpartum Support International. "Actually,
people on the other side of the debate are not reading or doing their
homework either. Every time there is some horrible incident like this,
the issue of postpartum comes up, gains attention, and then recedes. But
do I think this hurts NOW's credibility? No, they will ride out the
negative press they are receiving."
Not everyone is a detractor of NOW. David Atwood, cofounder of the Texas
Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (TCADP), says that he has more
respect for NOW since it has stood up for Andrea Yates and taken the
criticism from the press. "I have an appreciation for the group that I
didn't have before," says Atwood. "A lot of the things that I have read
about the group have been misperceived. It seems like the stories are
more about slamming NOW than addressing the situation with Andrea Yates.
I do believe that many of the people who are slamming NOW are doing so
because they have other agendas and want to discredit the group."
"Ultimately, we are doing the right thing, and that is going to enhance
our position," Bell says. "If people can manage to think for themselves
and look beyond the right-wing talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh, they
will see that we are trying to heighten awareness about the issue of
postpartum depression. If we can save one life, it'll be worth it."
Meanwhile, the phone calls keep coming.