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“An idea whose time had come”: The National Organization for Women at its half-century mark

Fifty years ago this month, twenty-eight women came together to create what they described as “a civil rights movement to speak for women.” “How did we know each other?” author Betty Friedan asked of the self-described “rabble-rousers” who broke away from the gathering of state Commissions on the Status of Women to form the National Organization for Women (NOW). “We recognized the honest fire.” Within a few months, NOW had three hundred members; by the end of the decade, three thousand. The Strike for Women’s Equality, a string of protests that marked the fiftieth anniversary of women’s suffrage in 1970, added thousands more to NOW’s ranks. As the feminist historian Elizabeth Balanoff reflected, NOW was “an idea whose time had come.”

In the decades that followed, NOW became the largest explicitly feminist membership organization in American history. Women and men nationwide projected their own visions of feminism onto NOW, and national leaders responded by constructing a grassroots-driven structure that put local chapters in the driver’s seat. NOW also became a sophisticated lobby group that pursued feminist aims at the national policy level. While it is best remembered for its vigorous, but ultimately unsuccessful campaign to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, NOW targeted a stunning array of American institutions: the workplace, the media, the insurance industry, and much more. According to its third president Wilma Scott Heide, NOW was “interested and active in just about everything that affects and/or would substantially improve the status of women.”

Friedan, Betty; Rawalt, Marguerite 1895; ireton, Barbara; National Organization for Women; Federal Bar Association. PD-US via Wikimedia Commons
Friedan, Betty; Rawalt, Marguerite 1895; Ireton, Barbara; National Organization for Women; Federal Bar Association. Smithsonian Institution from United States. Uploaded by Magnus Manske. Public Domain from Flickr’s The Commons via Wikimedia Commons.

NOW may be the best example of a grassroots association established in the 1960s that remained relevant into the 2000s. Throughout its history, NOW grappled with questions that continue to inspire and challenge feminists today. How can an inclusive agenda avoid papering over members’ disparate identities and ideologies? To what extent does creating sex equality require denying differences between the sexes—whether essential or socially constructed—and should law and culture ever account for those differences? Does feminism require separating from men? Can it coexist with capitalism? Along the way, NOW developed strategies that built undeniable momentum and made feminism mainstream. These accomplishments were made possible by the expansive and open-ended blueprint its founders drafted. NOW’s ambiguity was thus its greatest strength, as successive feminist generations remade it to suit their own climate.

Scholars tend to agree that NOW was significant, but none has yet written its comprehensive history. Instead, in histories of American feminism, NOW often serves as a moderate backdrop for more dramatic, and allegedly more radical, forms of activism. Reflecting the broader fragmentation of women’s and gender history, the scholars who have written on NOW have tended to tackle its size and complexity in pieces, analyzing its founding moment or tracing the development of single chapters, issues or campaigns. While these accounts illuminate key aspects of NOW’s past, its broader history remains an underdeveloped mosaic. As I worked on other projects related to feminism in NOW’s most active years, I longed to consult a more synthetic history of that organization. Since such a book does not exist, I decided to write it myself.

As former NOW Vice President for Action Mary Jean Collins told me, “It’s a broader organization than it’s remembered, [and] it had more aspects to it than people know.” Many scholars and NOW veterans have shined spotlights on portions of NOW’s past. Now, as the organization passes the half-century mark, it is time to turn on the floodlights.

Featured image: Newly enfranchised women voting in the recall election of Hiram Gill as mayor of Seattle, Washington, February 1911. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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