On this day in 1966, the National Organization for Women convened its founding conference in Washington, DC. NOW chose as its first president Betty Friedan, author of the The Feminine Mystique, and drafted its “Statement of Principle”. That document charted a centrist path for the organization, explicitly rejecting separatism by beginning with the words, “We men and women”, before calling for equality between the sexes.
Many of the demands outlined in the Statement of Principle focused on economic issues. In 1966, women working full-time earned approximately 60% of what similarly employed men did. And although nearly half the adult women in the United States worked outside the home, less than 1% of the nation’s federal judges, 4% of its lawyers, and 7% of its doctors were female. The Statement also pointed out that the U.S. lagged behind other industrialized nations when it came to providing health care, child care, and pregnancy leave for working women. NOW’s organizers questioned the “assumption that these problems are the unique responsibility of each individual woman, rather than a basic social dilemma which society must solve.”
For years, the media largely ignored NOW, focusing instead on the women’s liberation movement. The Times, for example, covered NOW’s founding in an article that sat beneath a recipe for turkey and stuffing. NOW also spent its early years chronically underfunded. Friedan’s apartment in New York City served as a makeshift policy shop.
That said, the biggest challenge facing NOW stemmed from its moderation. The question of reproductive rights threatened to split NOW just two years after it formed. In 1968, several of its leading members, rather than supporting a woman’s right to choose an abortion, formed the Women’s Equity Action League (WEAL). The role of lesbians — who Friedan labeled the “lavender menace” — within NOW proved even more divisive until the organization recognized their rights in 1971. Then there was the case of Valerie Solanas. An artist in New York’s avant-garde scene, Solanas wrote up the SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) Manifesto in 1968. She later shot Andy Warhol. When the president of New York NOW, Ti-Grace Atkinson, appeared at Solanas’s trial to lend her support, members of NOW’s national board publicly worried about being associating with “man-hating” women. And finally, although NOW’s leadership often focused on issues of sex discrimination in the work place, conventional wisdom held that the organization, whose members were largely middle-class and white, ignored the problems of working women and women of color.
Nevertheless, NOW enjoyed a series of extraordinary successes. In 1970, the organization helped hundreds of women employed by corporations that received federal funds to secure back pay. In the same year, NOW helped block Judge Harold Carswell, President Nixon’s choice to replace Abe Fortas on the bench, from the Supreme Court. Two years later, Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment and Title IX, which began a process of placing women’s scholastic athletics on equal financial footing with men’s sports. And in 1973, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Roe v. Wade.
Of course, all of the above ignores the backlash. But given the hour, that’s probably a story best left for another day in history.