Happy Birthday, NOW!
Forty years ago today, the National Organization for Women (NOW), was founded in Betty Friedan’s hotel room in Washington, DC. Friedan and the 26 other founders were frustrated by the unwillingness of the National Conference of Commissions on the Status of Women to take any meaningful action against the well-documented widespread discrimination against women. Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had outlawed discrimination on the basis of sex (an accident, really: the category of sex was added by a Southern legislator who assumed that this addition was so absurd it would derail the Act), this element was not enforced. (For more on this, click here.)
Friedan and her fellow activists learned from the successes of the civil rights movement, and decided that they needed an “NAACP for women,” a separate civil rights organization to focus on advancing gender equality.
At first, NOW focused primarily on issues of working women (equal pay, maternity leave, sexual harassment, etc.). Soon, it responded to the demands of younger women to address reproductive rights, lesbian rights, and racism – issues that remain central to its core mission today.
NOW has come a long way from its hotel room origins: today it is the largest feminist organization in America, with over 500,000 members across the country. Unfortunately, though it has had many victories, its agenda is by no means obsolete.
NOW may have reached middle age (though they say 40 is the new 30), but I think its birthday offers young feminists some important reminders: the history of NOW proves the power younger women can have in shaping the agenda of national organizations that may harbor some fear of being too radical, and also suggests what we can learn from older, more politically-seasoned women. NOW also reminds us that feminism was never for women only – thus the name National Organization FOR Women, not OF Women. From the start, NOW’s founders understood that they needed to partner with men to achieve gender equality. So as a birthday gift to NOW, let’s take these lessons about alliances and mobilize – through new and old avenues – for a world of greater equality for all.