At a speech Dec. 11 to the National Press Club on how women should respond to the war on terrorism, NOW President Kim Gandy excoriated "people who cynically take advantage of a tragedy to their own ends." She went down a list of shame, a list of people who attached their own agenda to Sept. 11: Jerry Falwell, Rush Limbaugh, Laura Schlesinger ...

Gandy then explained the proper political response to the war on terrorism: Demand justice for the women of Afghanistan, advocate the right of women soldiers to have abortions abroad, speak out for gay and transgender soldiers.

It is intellectually stunning for Gandy to suggest that her proposals are not part of a political agenda. Especially when NOW's cash-starved hand is reaching out to snatch at the federal relief money intended to aid people in the recovery from terrorism.

The grab for the relief money began innocently enough. NOW's Legal Defense and Education Fund produced a video entitled The Women at Ground Zero, which highlighted female rescue workers and volunteers. But the agenda behind the video soon became clear as intense lobbying on Capitol Hill commenced. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., expressed the video's goal: "Just as women played a crucial role as firefighters and rescue workers at Ground Zero, they will be technicians and contractors, working to rebuild the city."

In fact, women played less than a crucial role at Ground Zero: Only 25 of New York City's 11,500 firefighters are female. NOW wants to correct that imbalance. As the Dec. 28 Washington Post commented, NLDEF's president, Kathy Rodgers, "views these federal resources as the best chance in years to move tens of thousands of women into higher-paying jobs." NOW wishes to use relief funds to promote affirmative action of women to nontraditional recovery-related jobs, such as firefighter and police officer, in which women comprise less than 25 percent of workers.

NLDEF has declared its willingness to file gender discrimination suits to get at the funding. It is prepared to legally complicate and possibly delay the recovery process in order to assert its agenda. After all, rebuilding after terrorism is what Rodgers calls "the demonstration project of the decade" and she clearly wishes it to demonstrate her brand of feminism. Why should widows, orphans and others devastated by tragedy impede her vision? Of course, Rodgers expresses the hope that legal action can be avoided. But she expresses this only after making the threat.

Rodgers could be dismissed if she were not part of the transition committee of New York City's new mayor, Michael Bloomberg. The feminist grab for 9/11 funds could be ignored if it was not receiving support. But it is. Rep. Jane Harman — the ranking Democrat on the House Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security — has been airing The Women at Ground Zero. Her office has issued a press release stating that the role of women "has been overshadowed" by reports about the "heroic men." Harman intends to monitor recovery money spending to ensure gender fairness.

Harman's version of fairness assumes that any imbalance in female to male rescue workers is proof positive of discrimination in employment practices. In short, an inequality of results is said to indicate an inequality of access. It doesn't matter that standards and qualifications for entry into such occupations have already been diluted to allow access for qualified women. If there are fewer women than men, then prejudice must exist.

The fact is that an equality of access often yields unequal results. Women and men often choose widely divergent career paths, especially in regard to dangerous "muscle" jobs or ones with irregular hours. Why? One reason is that biology matters. It's not a trivial fact that women give birth. This biological difference may alone explain why, statistically, women prefer jobs that allow them to juggle family commitments. This is not true of all women, certainly. But it is true of enough women to account for much of the gender "imbalance" in hazardous occupations.

An imbalance in the gender of firefighters, however, may indicate nothing more than the fact that women freely choose to work elsewhere. But hurling statistics and accusations are all that NOW has to offer. And why not? That approach has worked handsomely in the past. Statistics mixed liberally with accusations have been enough to intimidate people in the past.

And the stakes are higher now than ever before. Gender feminist organizations like NOW are starving for funds. At its 30th birthday last month, the impoverished Ms. announced a merger with the Los Angeles-based Feminist Majority Foundation. The news Web site Women's E-news, created by NLDEF, just went independent with an immediate appeal for funds.

NOW is so desperate that, at a time of national crisis, it is willing to divert money from its intended recipients. Thousands of people died at Ground Zero. Tens of thousands more have been emotionally devastated by the tragedy. The relief funds were meant for rebuilding and healing. They were not attached to a gender agenda; they were not slated for affirmative action. The threat of tying up relief funds in discrimination suits is beyond cynical. It is obscene.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the forthcoming anthology Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.