The National Organization for Women Turns Fifty. This Is Why NOW Still Matters.

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tags: womens history, National Organization for Women

Katherine Turk, an Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is the author of Equality on Trial: Gender and Rights in the Modern American Workplace.

Fifty years ago Thursday, twenty-eight women set out to create what they called “a civil rights movement to speak for women.” Author Betty Friedan arrived in Washington, D.C. at the conference of State Commissions on the Status of Women prepared to push an activist agenda. When President Lyndon Johnson “figuratively patted our heads” and encouraged participants to “go back home and volunteer again our service to help the children, the poor and all the others who depended on our goodness,” Friedan rounded up some fellow “rabble-rousers.” Together they formed the National Organization for Women (NOW), which became the largest feminist membership group in American history. 

NOW’s radical premise was that all women could reach their “fullest human potential” by channeling their efforts into a single organization. Unlike the nascent feminist cells that sacrificed numbers for ideological purity, NOW envisioned women as a diverse but cohesive class.  Members identified shared concerns such as sexual violence and economic justice while highlighting the overlapping challenges faced by women who were racial minorities, working class, and—within a few years—queer. 

This idea proved tremendously popular.  “NOW grew by itself,” declared labor leader and NOW founder Catherine Conroy.  “We just have to knock people on the heads to join unions, but NOW—you can’t keep them away.  They bother you to death, call you up, call you back.” NOW’s grassroots-led structure freed local chapters to work on the issues that mattered to them.  Membership swelled to several thousand after a few years and tens of thousands within a decade. 

In confronting sexism in the law, labor force, media, and elsewhere, NOW became a major presence in the American political landscape.  Although it is best remembered for its failed campaign to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, NOW can boast many victories: opening up male-dominated jobs, holding the line on reproductive rights, blocking conservative judicial appointments, and, most important, making feminism mainstream.

Could such an expansive feminist organization catch on and capture the national spotlight today?  Doubters might cast NOW and the impulse that drove its architects as relics of the last century, when women had more in common, misogyny was more blatant, and grassroots associations were sprouting up everywhere.  Today’s multitude of female identities might prevent women from defining themselves as a single group—even if they wanted to.

But building a broad feminism has never been easy.  NOW’s founders included radical labor leaders and nuns, scholars and bureaucrats, queer and socially conservative women, African American and Latina as well as white women, Democrats and Republicans, and men. As NOW grew, the challenges of cohesion compounded, and the only universal characteristic of its members was that they were everywhere. NOW became contested terrain where feminists of all stripes debated and forged a path forward.  Straining to address differences of identity, region and creed, NOW splintered and nearly collapsed several times. It survived these ordeals by returning to the founders’ open-ended blueprint and reinventing itself for each feminist generation.

Today, much like fifty years ago, there is widespread concern over the sexism that marks American life.  But contemporary debates over feminism’s boundaries and utility tend to play out among pundits, celebrities, and businesswomen—individuals, not associations. This shift aptly represents how popular memory of our feminist past has warped and shrunk. Feminist identity was born of a movement created by women and men who saw that social change would require collective action. Over time, this history has been boiled down to a narrow conversation about personal liberation and choice.

In membership and clout, NOW is no longer the powerhouse it once was.  But now may be a ripe moment to reinvest in an inclusive, grassroots-driven feminism. Young feminists recently embraced intersectionality and rejected tokenism when they spurned Madeline Albright’s and Gloria Steinem’s attempts to whip up women’s votes for Hillary Clinton. Instead, millennials pointed to class and race issues that have always been at feminism’s core. The Black Lives Matter movement has shown how hyper-local activism can reshape national politics.  Cross-class coalition could pay off for the professional and working-class parents who have launched separate critiques of our society’s disrespect for reproductive labor. 

For fifty years, NOW has defended the idea that while feminists are different, they must share a broad and flexible agenda.  NOW’s history teaches us that drawing power from diversity is difficult work. It also reveals that individuals who are willing to disagree as they build a mass movement can make dramatic change. 

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