|Attendees of the NOW founding conference. Betty Friedan, first row, far left.|
Note: Seem to be stuck a day behind this week.
On October 29, 1966 30 charter members gathered in Washington, D.C. to formally launch a new Civil Rights organization dedicated to improving the status of women in all areas of society. In no time at all National Organization for Women (NOW) was shaking things up and spearheading a new wave of feminist activism.
The steam seemed to have gone out of the women’s movement after decades of struggle finally was rewarded with the adoption of The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1920. Without a clear, unifying focus organizations withered or went off in different directions. Many assumed that when women exercised the franchise, other societal reforms would follow naturally.
Culturally the flappers of the 1920s seemed to signal a freedom from the cumbersome garments that had restricted the ability of women to move easily in the world and a daring new sexual equality. The grim realities of the Depression years focused attention on other issues, especially unemployment which as seen as a problem of men who could not support their families. World War II brought women into the work place as never before, proving that in a wide range of jobs from the factory floor to the executive suite that they were as capable as men. But at war’s end there was enormous pressure on women to abandon their new jobs to make way for the waves of returning veterans. Partly this was to prevent the post-war joblessness of veterans and that had haunted the immediate years after World War I.
By the 1950 cultural expectations were pressing women to conform to a role in an entirely new kind of family—the autonomous nuclear family of dad, mom and kids with mom at home and without the support of extended family or community. Even though more than a quarter of women of age remained in the work force they were increasingly confined to career ghettos as teachers, nurses, secretaries, and such with little or no chance of advancement. Many more women, largely ignored even by activists willing to speak up, were employed in low level factory work, as waitresses, in retail, and—most invisible of all—in agriculture. The existing women’s organizations, while well meaning and often vocal, seemed incapable of finding a handle on how to deal with the situation.
There were stirrings of discontent. Betty Friedan’s 1963 best selling book The Feminine Mystique is generally regarded as both manifesto and a launching pad for a second wave of feminism. But as much of a breakthrough as it was, it could not have been successful if it did not touch deep wells of discontent and resentment by women chaffing at their assigned roles in society. The same year Congress passed the Equal Pay Act of 1963 which called for “equal pay for equal work” for women, but left it largely unenforceable and did not address the problem of low paying job ghettos.
The following year Southern Democrats inserted an amendment to add a ban on discrimination on account of gender to the Civil Rights Bill of 1964. Although the original sponsor of the amendment, Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Howard W. Smith of Virginia did have a long relationship with Alice Paul, the former militant leader of the National Women’s Party, most Southern Democrats supported the amendment in hopes it would derail the entire bill. The strategy failed. With the strong arm twisting of President Lyndon Johnson, a filibuster in the Senate was broken and the law passed with Title VII banning sex discrimination in employment intact.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was formed in 1965 to enforce the Civil Rights Act. Aileen Hernandez and Richard Graham fought hard as commission members to enforce the Title VII prohibition on sex discrimination but were outvoted 3 to 2 on the critical issue of whether sex segregation in job advertising was permissible. A month later Yale law professor Dr. Pauli Murray, a member of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, made an impassioned public denouncement of the Commissions decision. After reading an account in the press, Friedan contacted Murray and they began to explore possibilities for further action.
The first opportunity was the Third National Conference of Commissions on the Status of Women which met in Washington June 28-30, 1966 and was attended by both women. Despite the theme of the Conference, Targets for Action, they and other women were stymied in an attempt to pass a resolution demanding that the EEOC carry out its legal mandate to end sex discrimination in employment. They were told that they had no authority to even put such a resolution forward. Dissident EEOC commissioners Hernandez and Graham and Commission attorney Sonia Pressman Fuentes privately told Friedan that there was, “…need for an organization to speak on behalf of women in the way civil rights groups had done for Blacks.”
On the evening of June 19 fifteen or twenty angry women met in Freidan’s hotel room to plot a strategy including Murray, Catherine Conroy, Inka O’Hanrahan, Rosalind Loring, Mary Eastwood, Dorothy Haener, and Kay Clarenbach. They agreed that some sort of organization was needed. Freidan doodled the initial NOW on a napkin. The next day at the formal concluding banquet for the Conference 28 women sat together. According to participant Gene Bower, “Catherine Conroy pulled out a five-dollar bill from her wallet and, in her usual terse style, invited us to ‘put your money down and sign your name.’” An infant organization was launched.
There was some debate whether NOW would be the National Association of or for Women. The former would indicate an organization for women only; the latter would be open to men who agreed with its aims. It was decided to be inclusive although only a handful of men, notably Commissioner Graham, were among the 300 or so charter members who signed on before the official founding conference in October.
Although only 10 % of that charter membership was able to attend the founding conference, participants wasted no time getting the new organization up and running. Freidan was elected President, Clarenbach Board Chair, Hernandez Executive Vice President with the responsibility of day-to-day administration, Graham as Vice President and Caroline Davis Secretary-Treasurer. The organization entrusted authority to its general membership in Annual Conferences with a Board of 35, including the five officers empowered to act between Conferences. Between regular Board meetings the five member Executive Committee would be free to act to carry out decided policy.
Freidan drafted a founding Statement of Purpose, which was intensely debated, but ultimately adopted with mostly cosmetic changes. It outlined the broad concerns and aims of the organization in all aspects of affairs that impact women and avoided becoming a single issue organization.
On a practical level, the Conformance launched the first initiatives of the new organization including immediate action on Title VII enforcement efforts and authorization for a legal committee to take action on behalf of flight attendants and to challenge so-called protective labor legislation. Task forces were devised to take up these and other issues.
Describing the founding Conference Freidan wrote, “We wasted no time on ceremonials or speeches, gave ourselves barely an hour for lunch and dinner...At times we got very tired and impatient, but there was always a sense that what we were deciding was not just for now ‘but for a century...’ We shared a moving moment of realization that we had now indeed entered history.”
Soon the rapidly growing organization in addition to pioneering work on workplace equality was spearheading a renewed drive for the Equal Rights Amendment, demanding the end of restrictions on access to contraceptives and abortion, pushing for equal opportunity in academics and sports. NOW saw the “second wave” of feminism grow into a tidal wave by the end of the decade. Dozens of other organizations, many of them seeded by NOW or founded by their leaders joined the efforts on specific issues.
Despite strains in the movement over militant separatism in the ‘70’s and changes in society, NOW remains the preeminent voice for women’s rights. Its familiar round logo is seen on signs at demonstration across the county wherever past gains are threatened or new ground is to be broken.