National Organization for Women, Inc. History
Washington, D.C. 20005-2112
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The purpose of NOW is to take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men.
- NOW is organized.
- NOW is incorporated.
- A legal defense fund for the organization is created.
- Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizes abortion.
- NOW Foundation is formed.
- NOW celebrates its 25th anniversary.
- NOW faces challenges from conservative women's groups, a Republican administration, and a Republican-controlled Congress.
The National Organization For Women, Inc., better known by its acronym NOW, is a Washington, D.C.-based organization with 500,000 members and 550 local chapters spread throughout the United States, pursuing both grassroots activism as well as national lobbying efforts to achieve equal treatment for women. A not-for-profit corporation, NOW is governed by a 42-member national board of directors, drawn from nine regional entities. NOW also includes state organizations, which focus on issues of local importance. The NOW Foundation serves as the educational and legal arm, pursuing policy initiatives and advocacy work. NOW/PAC is a political action committee that aids candidates for national office. A separate political action committee, NOW Equality PAC, focuses on local elections. The NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, although established by NOW, is no longer directly affiliated with the organization.
Modern Women's Rights Movement Begins in 1960s
The roots of the American women's rights movement date to the mid-19th century with the focus on suffrage, or the right to vote, for women. In addition, activists such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sojourner Truth sought equality in the workplace and elsewhere. The right to vote was finally secured in 1920 but efforts on other fronts failed and the movement languished. Equal pay for women legislation was introduced in 1945--after women had proven themselves in a wide range of occupations when filling in for men who were serving in the military during World War II--but the provision was repeatedly defeated. In the postwar years, the significant presence of women in the workforce became accepted, but many women found their efforts at career advancement thwarted by gender discrimination, encountering the so-called "glass ceiling." As the 1960s began, women were once again spurred to take action and pursue equal treatment under the law in much the same ways that African Americans were pursuing civil rights.
A major spokesperson for the modern women's movement, and a founder of NOW, was author Betty Friedan. In the early 1960s, she lost her job as a newspaper reporter following a second maternity leave and turned to writing articles for women's magazines on a freelance basis. All too often she had her work edited so that references to a woman's life outside the home were virtually eliminated. What remained, she observed, was a fantasy of female domestic bliss, one heavily supported by the media, so that a woman's life had little meaning beyond love, marriage, and motherhood. She began interviewing housewives about the true state of their lives in the postwar years, resulting in a book she titled The Feminine Mystique. It was published in 1963 and quickly became a controversial bestseller while transforming Friedan into a celebrity and leader of the resurgent women's movement. Political pressure from women had achieved limited success with President Kennedy, who was compelled to establish a President's Commission on the Status of Women after failing to appoint more than a token number of women to his administration. The appointment of Eleanor Roosevelt as chair of the commission brought much needed attention to the endeavor, although she died a year before a report was released several months after the publication of The Feminine Mystique. Perhaps more important than the recommendations that resulted from the report, the President's commission led to the creation of state commissions, which in effect served to create a network of people devoted to advancing the status of women. Moreover, in 1963 federal equal pay legislation was finally passed and amended the Fair Labor Standards Act. A year later major Civil Rights legislation was passed which on the surface bolstered the rights of women but as implemented by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) proved less than adequate to feminists such as Friedan, who came to believe that women needed a national organization to press their case in the same way African Americans had civil rights groups.
1966 Origins in a Hotel Room
It was at the Third National Conference of the Commission on the Status of Women (with representatives from the state commissions that grew out of the original President's Commission) held in June 1966 in Washington, D.C., that the desire for a national women's group came to fruition. Frustration with EEOC also came to a head when delegates were prohibited by conference rules from passing resolutions that called for the EEOC to enforce the sex discrimination provisions under its legal mandate. Attending as a writer and observer, Friedan invited a group of women to meet in her hotel room to discuss the idea of alternative strategies, although she arrived at the conference already convinced of the need for a national women's civil rights organization. The number of participants in this legendary meeting ranged from 15 to 20. What is not in dispute is that the discussion of alternative strategies quickly turned into an organizational meeting for the National Organization for Women, with the meaningful acronym of NOW, purportedly coined by Friedan. The meeting was contentious at times, with some of the attendees more cautious than others about launching a new organization before exploring alternatives. Supposedly at one point, Freidan tried to evict one of the skeptics from the room and failing to do so locked herself in the bathroom for 15 minutes. In any event, the participants agreed to form NOW, with some 28 people becoming the group's initial members, with a startup budget of just $140. The group's statement of purpose, which Friedan reportedly wrote on a napkin, called for NOW "to take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men."
NOW held its organizing conference in October 1966 in Washington, D.C., attended by more than 300 men and women in the Washington Post Building. Elected as the first chairman of the group was Kathryn Clarenbach, while Friedan was named president despite her lack of administrative skills. Friedan's name recognition was a key asset in gaining media attention, and her large readership was likely to translate into NOW memberships. Both women served until 1970, but Clarenbach's contribution to the growth of NOW became overshadowed by Friedan's celebrity. Clarenbach not only possessed the organizational skills that Friedan lacked, but she was also well connected in academic circles and to a lesser extent in Washington, D.C. Moreover, she brought into the ranks of NOW leadership people possessing equally strong skills and connections. Much of the longevity enjoyed by NOW is the result of this early decision to split the initial leadership between Friedan and Clarenbach.
NOW was incorporated as a not-for-profit in Washington, D.C., on February 10, 1967. The organization, despite the lack of paid staff members or a budget, quickly set about the task of organizing task forces to tackle the problems of women in the areas of employment, education, law, religion, politics, as well as their image in the media. Local chapters were also being founded around the country so that by the time of its second national conference, NOW grew to 1200 members. It was at this meeting that NOW formulated a "Bill of Rights for Women," which included the call for passage of an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution and the repeal of all abortion laws. NOW, in fact, became the first national organization to advocate for the legalization of abortion. At this time, NOW very consciously avoided the subject of lesbianism within its ranks, which the group's leadership felt could tarnish the image of the organization with Main Street America. Not only did this tactic prove unsuccessful in controlling media coverage, it hurt the group's standing in the gay community. Other feminist groups that emerged in the 1960s were more radical and not as circumspect. There was WITCH (Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell), the Redstockings, Cell 16, and the October 17 Movement--now all but forgotten. To these feminists, NOW was too middle class, too cautious. Nevertheless, NOW pressed on, pursuing its goals and evolving with the times.
In 1970, NOW founded its Legal Defense and Education Fund. A year later, with membership totaling 15,000, NOW joined with other feminist groups to form the National Women's Political Caucus in order to become a more coordinated force in politics. Also in 1971, at its Fifth Annual Conference, NOW surprised many observers when it approved a resolution that acknowledged the "oppression of lesbians as a legitimate concern of feminism." Efforts by NOW and other groups on abortion rights culminated in the Supreme Court's landmark 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion. In that same year, NOW established a separate Public Information Office in New York, resulting in a marked increase in media attention for the organization and its activities. The office would operate until 1975, when budget constraints forced its closure. Nevertheless, the office was instrumental in helping NOW to outlive numerous other feminist organizations.
"Majority Caucus" Takes Control in 1975
In the mid-1970s, NOW faced an internal revolution instigated mostly by younger members who formed the "Majority Caucus" and wanted the organization to become actively involved in more radical issues. To them it was not enough to acknowledge that lesbians had legitimate grievances or to decry violence against women--they wanted action. Their slogan was "Out of the mainstream, into the revolution." In a bitterly contested election in 1975, the group, led by Eleanor Smeal, won a majority of seats on the executive committee and board of directors. Much of NOW's news coverage now focused on its internal riffs and many in the media opined that the organization might soon dissolve. Instead, NOW found its equilibrium and continued to pursue its agenda. In 1978, it declared a state of emergency on the ERA, which had failed to gain enough accep- tance at the state level to become added to the Constitution. Although proponents of the ERA were able to gain an extension on ratification, the amendment was narrowly defeated in 1982.
NOW's efforts in the ERA fight were not, however, without tangible benefit. The organization gained respect from politicians who recognized that NOW was able to work effectively within the system. In earlier years, candidates might ask that NOW avoid an endorsement, fearful it might hurt their chances of election, but now many began to actively seek the group's support. It was during the early 1980s that NOW coined the term "gender gap," noting how women had been less inclined to vote for Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election. It pushed the media to acknowledge the "gap," and in turn influence politicians, with the hope that women would be viewed as a distinct voting block. An endorsement from NOW and grassroots support, it was hoped, would become an important factor in future elections. Some 20 years later, the gender gap would continue to be invoked, although its origins were seldom recalled.
For all the revolutionary talk from its new leadership, NOW was still pursuing a mainstream approach to accomplishing its goals. By the early 1980s, it had a budget of more than $4 million, a far cry from the $140 it had in the bank just 15 years earlier. NOW did face a backlash, however, as well-financed conservative women's groups emerged to challenge it on a number of fronts. Moreover, with a conservative administration in power, the days of government activism for societal change were long past. The 1985 platform at NOW's National Conference called for a return to street demonstrations and marches, and in 1986 it organized the National Organization for Women Foundation as an education and litigation organization to fight for women's rights. In particular, the foundation employed a litigation strategy in its "Stop the Rescue Racket" project that sought to combat violence at abortion clinics and acts of anti-abortion terrorism. In 1987, NOW was instrumental in organizing nationwide opposition to the nomination of Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court, but in general NOW was just another advocacy group, albeit a well-established one. With conservative women's groups directly opposing its positions, and other feminists charting their own course, NOW could not credibly maintain that it represented all women, a position implied when the group was formed in the mid-1960s.
Gains and Setbacks in the 1990s and Beyond
NOW was not without power and influence as it entered the 1990s. It began to establish high school chapters. In 1992, NOW's 25th year in existence, it organized what it maintained was the largest march and rally ever held in Washington, D.C., as 750,000 people turned out to support abortion rights. In that same year NOW supported a large number of men and women who won election to the U.S. Congress and to state legislatures, a reflection of the organization's commitment to electing influential people rather than just attempting to influence those in power. With the change in campaign finance laws and the rise of Political Action Committees, NOW formed PACs and raised money for them, both on the national and local levels. A legislative highlight of the decade was the 1994 passage of the federal Violence Against Women Act. A year later, to bring attention to the issue, NOW drew an estimated 250,000 people for rally on the Mall in Washington, D.C., focusing on the issue of violence against women. It organized a march in San Francisco in 1996 to support affirmative action, and later in the decade championed legislation and programs to help poor women who faced violence, as well as efforts to gain legal recognition for hate crimes based on gender or sexual orientation.
With the election of George W. Bush and Republican control of the Congress in the early years of the 21st century, NOW, like many progressive groups, faced a challenging period in the political wilderness. Rather than making progress on many of its issues, it was now fighting to hold onto hard-fought gains. In particular, 30 years after Roe v. Wade, NOW was worried about erosions in reproductive rights. The fate of the issues that NOW cared so much about may have been uncertain, but there was little doubt that the organization was strong, well entrenched, and likely to remain an influential voice in America for many years to come.
Principal Subsidiaries: NOW Foundation; NOW/PAC; NOW Equality PAC.
Principal Competitors: Independent Women's Forum; Concerned Women of America.
- Carabillo, Toni, The Feminist Chronicles, Los Angeles: Women's Graphic, 1993, 306 p.
- Barker-Plummer, Bernadette, "Producing Public Voice: Resource Mobilization and Media Access in the National Organization for Women," Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Spring 2002, pp. 188-205.
- Forman, Gayle, "The Nuts 'n' Bolts of NOW," Ms Magazine, July/August 1996.
- Gabrels, Sara Terry, "The Changing Face of Feminism," Christian Science Monitor, July 20, 1998, p. 7.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 55. St. James Press, 2003.