The National Organization of Women (NOW), founded in 1966, developed a strategy and tactics to deliver full legal equality of women to men before the law. NOW was effective in winning reforms through a barrage of lawsuits combined with protests and mass actions, particularly against employment discrimination. It began by pushing for an end to sex-segregated job listings in newspapers, combining lobbying efforts with picketing and demonstrations to end the practice by 1968. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency tasked with enforcing the Civil Rights Act, rules against discrimination in employment, only began enforcing the law on sex discrimination after a NOW campaign forced the change.
On August 26, 1970, the National Women’s Strike saw tens of thousands of women come onto the streets all across the country around three central demands: the right to abortion, the right to childcare, and equal opportunity in employment and education. Activists within the growing women’s liberation movement put forward more radical demands: free abortion on demand, free 24-hour childcare, and equal pay for equal work. Demonstrations varied in character from city to city, but it was because of the existence of NOW that the Women’s Strike was a nationally coordinated action. In New York City, 50,000 women marched down Fifth Avenue, and a banner was hung from the Statue of Liberty, emblazoned with “Women of the World Unite!” The one-day strike was a huge success, and NOW’s membership increased by 50% in the following months. At its peak in 1974, NOW could claim 40,000 members, a reflection of the fact that the women’s movement had begun to acquire a mass character.
NOW’s efforts helped to popularize demands around childcare, abortion rights, equal tax and divorce laws, and against sexist images of women in advertising and media. It was the face of feminism for the majority of ordinary women in this period, especially if they were isolated in more conservative or rural areas. NOW continued to function as the de facto umbrella organization for feminists through the 1970s.
While these were positive features, NOW was also designed as a liberal feminist vehicle that often, though not exclusively, emphasized the concerns of middle-class women and sometimes took positions in opposition to the interests of working-class women. Somewhat paradoxically, among its principal founders were several women’s rights activists of long standing who reached prominence as union organizers and leaders and who had championed women’s rights as workers and within the labor movement.
Betty Friedan, NOW’s first president, embodied the contradiction within NOW. Friedan had years of experience as a journalist and activist who worked for a Communist Party-led union, writing articles and pamphlets that highlighted the struggles and oppression of working-class women and black people. And yet, Friedan has been fairly criticized for approaching feminism as if all women were white, middle class, and heterosexual; this is especially apparent in her seminal 1963 book The Feminine Mystique. Friedan’s and other NOW founders’ move away from class-based politics limited the appeal of NOW and of the broader women’s movement to working-class women.
While NOW raised relatively bold demands, it did not seek to challenge the capitalist system, but to win women an equitable place in it. In the interest of appearing more acceptable to the “mainstream” of society, NOW’s leadership consciously pushed away radical feminists, along with socialists and anti-capitalists. Despite some positive work on racial inequality, NOW had serious inadequacies on its approach to women of color. Betty Friedan also infamously referred to radicalizing lesbian women as “the lavender menace”; lesbianism didn’t fit in with Friedan’s respectability politics. NOW’s refusal to fully take up racial and sexual diversity in organizing and its focus on legal equality rather than a program addressing working women’s needs constituted a significant weakness. While gaining further elements of legal equality with men represented a major step forward for women, true liberation requires dismantling the class society that underpins the oppression of women. The leaders of NOW were certainly opposed to challenging capitalism.