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From Encyclopedia of U.S. Political History

Of the feminist organizations in the United States, the National Organization for Women (NOW) is the largest and one of the most prominent. Its founding in 1966 ushered in the "second wave" of the American feminist movement. The first wave of feminist activity ended in the early 1920s, after Amendment XIX granted women the vote. After decades of virtual dormancy, a second wave of feminist activity arrived in the 1960s, when a new generation of women became motivated by the gains made in the civil rights movement.

The founding of NOW was largely due to the government's hesitancy to take significant action against women's economic inequality. In 1961, Pres. John F. Kennedy signed an executive order creating the President's Commission on the Status of Women. By 1964, state-level commissions were meeting annually in Washington, D.C., to discuss progress on women's rights. These actions, although initially promising, proved to be a frustrating reminder that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was failing to protect the rights of working women. At the 1966 meeting of the National Conference of State Commissions on the Status of Women, a group of women led by Betty Friedan pushed the national commission to live up to its stated purpose. However, at the meeting the group was not allowed to present its specific demands, including the enforcement of Title VII, which banned sex discrimination, and the reappointment of Richard Graham, a sympathetic EEOC commissioner. Following this failure, the group immediately formed the National Organization for Women.

The founders were a group of professional, well-connected, and rather powerful women. They were attorneys, labor organizers, and businesswomen, and many of them held government positions. Their collective professional networks and contacts made them uniquely qualified to put pressure on elected officials. But beyond its potential as a pressure group, NOW filled what had been a void for many American women. It offered an opportunity for average citizens to come together to support women's rights and increase women's representation on issues that affected their lives. Women responded to NOW in large numbers, and by 1973 the organization had 600 chapters.

In NOW's early years, policy changes regarding women were at the center of the organization's agenda. At the group's national conference in 1967, members adopted a "Bill of Rights for Women," demanding the enforcement of equal employment opportunity laws, rights for stay-at-home mothers, federally funded day-care centers for children, equal education and job training opportunities, and provisions for poor women. To be sure, these were ambitious claims, but given the political connections and networks of its leaders, NOW was able to push its agenda into political institutions and into the hands of elected officials. However, along with its institutional strategy for seeking policy changes at the highest levels of government, NOW's leaders also supported grassroots activism and the development of feminist consciousness for individual women.

While NOW has always advocated for a wide variety of issues, its campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) profoundly shaped its organizational history. The amendment had been around for decades, a legacy of the suffrage movement of the early twentieth century. It gained momentum again with the support of newly formed feminist organizations such as NOW. The ERA finally and overwhelmingly passed Congress in 1972, and 30 states ratified the amendment within two years. NOW's ERA drive pulled thousands of new volunteers and donations into the organization and its passage seemed all but assured. But after the initial rush, the ratification process slowed. Feminist groups faced an increasing backlash of antifeminist "family" groups organizing against the ERA. Thus NOW was forced to direct more attention and money to the campaign, pulling the organization deeper into mainstream politics than many members and leaders were comfortable with. Internally, NOW's members debated whether they could really create social change by working within the framework of what they believed to be a fundamentally oppressive system.

Ultimately, the amendment failed to gain ratification, but NOW's drive for ERA left the organization flush with resources and with a virtual army of volunteers ready for the next fight. After the defeat of ERA, NOW moved more resolutely into the realm of conventional politics, but it has continued to allow its local chapters the freedom to organize and engage in politics the way they see fit. Indeed, NOW remains one of the most influential feminist organizations in the United States. Criticized at times for being both too conservative and too radical, NOW continues to be a site of struggle for activists and elected officials to determine what women need and what women should demand.

Bibliography and Further Reading
  • Barakso, Maryann. Governing NOW: Grassroots Activism in the National Organization for Women. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004.
  • Davis, Flora. Moving the Mountain: The Women's Movement in America since 1960. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.
  • Feree, Myra Marx, and Beth, B. Hess. Controversy and Coalition: The New Feminist Movement across Three Decades of Change, rev. edition. New York: Twayne, 1994.
  • Mansbridge, Jane J. Why We Lost the ERA. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
  • Ryan, Barbara. Feminism and the Women's Movement: Dynamics of Change in Social Movement Ideology and Activism. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Kelsy Kretschmer
© 2010 CQ Press, A Division of SAGE

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