The National Organization for Women (NOW) was officially established on June 30, 1966, in Washington, D.C., by a group of twenty-eight attendees at the Third National Conference of the Commission on the Status of Women. Its startup budget, collected from these founding members, was $140. By the end of its first year, its membership had increased to approximately 1,200. Nearing its fortieth year, in 2005 it claimed more than 500,000 dues-paying members and 550 chapters in 50 states. It remains the largest and most wellestablished American feminist organization.
The organization arose out of frustration at the slow pace with which women’s inequality was being addressed through established channels. The issue of discrimination against women was already widely recognized when NOW was formed: by the mid- 1960s, most states had established women’s commissions, and women’s workplace rights had been addressed at the federal level in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, barring sex discrimination in employment. However, many felt that these measures were little more than window dressing, and that no real change would occur unless a new organization, dedicated to women’s equality, ensured that women’s issues were given higher priority.
Among NOW’s founders was its first president, Betty Friedan, a journalist and author of the bestselling book, The Feminine Mystique. Other founders had strong ties to the labor and civil rights movements, and to networks of lawyers, teachers, government workers, and other professional groups. While white middleclass women were overrepresented, particularly in its early years, the group included women and men from a range of backgrounds. For example, Aileen Hernandez, an African-American woman with experience in the labor movement, was an earlyNOWleader who served as organization’s second president. Rev. Pauli Murray, the first African-American woman Episcopal priest, was also a founding member. She co-authored NOW’s original statement of purpose which begins as follow:
The purpose of NOW is to take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men.
As a national organization, NOW operates through a chapter structure. Local and state chapters organize their members around a range of issues, and send representatives to participate and vote in national NOW gatherings. Binding these chapters together is a set of official NOW priorities and issue-oriented task forces. These priorities include pressing for a constitutional equal rights amendment; achieving economic equality for women; championing abortion rights, reproductive freedom, and other women’s health issues; and ending violence against women. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, NOW has provided particular leadership in defending abortion providers against attacks from anti-choice radicals such as Operation Rescue and in leading efforts to secure federal legislation to address violence against women. NOW’s grassroots structure facilitates these efforts. In the case of clinic defense work, individual NOWchapters provide escorts and local onthe- ground assistance while the national organization presses for more effective federal enforcement. In successfully lobbying for enactment and subsequent reauthorization of the federalViolence AgainstWomenAct, NOWsimilarly enlisted its extensive grassroots network to mobilize support for the legislation.
NOW’s issue priorities have at times provoked some internal strife. For example, in 1967, some members who disagreed with NOW’s emphasis on protecting women’s right to abortion left the organization and formed the Women’s Equity Action League, a now-defunct organization focused on women’s economic rights. Another faction protested when, in the late 1960s, NOW first articulated its support for lesbians’ rights. The priority given to the constitutional equal rights amendment has also proven controversial among members who believe that the current federal constitution is adequate and that organizational energy could be better spent on other issues.
NOW’s emphasis on action, including grassroots action and civil disobedience, distinguishes it from many other women’s organizations. In addition to electoral and lobbying work on the federal, state, and local levels, NOW also participates in litigation and organizes mass marches, rallies, and pickets. NOW’s record of mounting mass actions is particularly notable. A decade after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and the ill-fated Poor Peoples’ March on Washington of 1968, the NOW-organized 1978 march in support of the equal rights amendment drew more than 100,000 people to Washington, D.C. National Marches for Women’s Lives, which was co-organized by NOW, drew 500,000 reproductive rights supporters in 1989, 750,000 in 1992, and more than one million in 2004.
Philosophically, NOW generally ascribes to the ‘‘equal treatment’’ branch of feminist thought, rejecting public policies that give women special treatment because of perceived differences from men. For example, in the Supreme Court case of California Federal Savings & Loan Association v. Guerra (1987), NOW argued that a state law granting women extra work leaves on account of pregnancy constituted sex discrimination. Instead, argued NOW, the law should give women and men the same benefits. Similarly, NOW has been a leader in efforts to eliminate gender- based insurance rates, disputing actuarial tables that justify such sex-based rate making, and which, in some instances, inure to women’s financial benefit. According to NOW, use of sex as a rate-making tool masks the utility of lifestyle factors that would be even more accurate, such as smoking and exercise habits, and that would avoid status-based discrimination. Finally, NOW has opposed a return to the pre– Title IX days of single-sex public education, arguing that girls do not need special treatment and special classes to thrive, but that they should be given equal treatment in stereotype-free coeducational settings.
Despite its focus on formal equality, however, NOW acknowledges the special issues that face women. Its support of legislation to address domestic violence is based on the understanding that such violence is overwhelmingly directed at women. Likewise, NOW has championed efforts to expand government support for childcare in recognition of the fact that women generally bear the burden of caregiving within a family.
In the twenty-first century, NOW has increased its efforts to diversify its ranks, hosting a series of conferences focused on issues of concern to young women, women of color, and other allies whose views were not well represented in earlier iterations of the organization. Although participation in activist organizations is on the wane nationally, and NOW must struggle to maintain its vitality in the face of the growing power of conservative women’s organizations, NOW remains a force for women’s equality in the political and popular arena and at every level of government.
MARTHA F. DAVIS
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