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History of National Organization for Women

Instructor: Jennifer Keefe

Jennifer Keefe has taught college-level Humanities and has a Master's in Liberal Studies.

Founded with the goal of promoting social change, the National Organization for Women is about more than you might think. Read on to learn more about the story of this history-making organization.

What N.O.W. Was Founded On

Can you imagine an America where men and women are not seen as equals? During the 1960s, different groups were fighting for the equal rights and opportunities we live with today. One of those groups, The National Organization for Women (N.O.W.), was a leader in the battle for equality. During one of the most turbulent times in modern history, when African Americans struggled to gain equal rights, protesters filled the streets and average Americans grappled with fears of Communism and the Vietnam War, N.O.W. emerged as a grassroots organization focused on women's rights.

The National Organization for Women was officially founded on October 29, 1966, when a group of women gathered in Washington, D.C. and adopted their first statement of purpose. Their goal was make sure women had the opportunity to fully participate in all aspects of society with the same status as men.

N.O.W. History

The feminist movement in America was rooted in activism that began in the 1800s. Women like Susan B. Anthony, who wrote the Federal Woman Suffrage Amendment that gave American women the right to vote, saw great injustice in the way women were being treated in industrialized nations around the world. When the 19th Amendment was adopted in 1920, many women were satisfied, and little else was done to help women gain additional rights. By the end of World War II, there was a push to drive women back into the home, and few voices continued calling for equality.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, religion and national origin also protected Americans from discrimination based on sex. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, EEOC, was created to ensure that provision of the Civil Rights Act (known as Title VII) was enforced. However, in 1965, the EEOC was sharply criticized when it passed a rule that allowed businesses to advertise jobs for men and jobs for women.

Early Members of N.O.W.
NOW Early Members

In June of 1966, Betty Friedan (second on the left), who had written The Feminine Mystique, a pioneering book about women and their role in society, and Dr. Pauli Murray, a law professor who opposed the EEOC's job advertisement plan, met with other women's rights advocates at the Third National Conference of Commissions on the Status of Women. Friedan suggested forming the National Organization for Women, and before the conference ended, she and about 20 other women met to lay out goals for the organization.

By October of 1966, N.O.W. claimed 300 charter members. That same month, about 30 women attended a conference in Washington D.C. and elected Kay Clarenbach as the chair of the board, Betty Friedan as president, Aileen Hernandez, who had been part of the EEOC when it passed the job-posting laws, as executive vice president, Richard Graham as vice president, and Caroline Davis as both secretary and treasurer.

The organization's goal was to improve all areas of life for women. Members formed task forces on a range of women's issues and began taking immediate action against the EEOC's Title VII laws.

An Accomplished Organization

N.O.W. has a rich history of fighting for women's rights. Countless protests, challenges, achievements and setbacks have shaped the organization's current goals.

The Early Years

In 1967, members of N.O.W. proposed the Equal Rights Amendment, which would guarantee equal rights for women. Although Congress approved the ERA, the amendment failed to be ratified by enough states to be adopted. Inspired by calls for equality, women around the country began to form chapters of N.O.W. Throughout the remainder of the 1960s, members of the organization demonstrated to draw attention to businesses that didn't treat men and women the same way. They demonstrated for five days outside Colgate-Palmolive to protest the company's rule that required workers to be able to lift heavy weights in order to be eligible for promotions. That rule denied women access to higher-paying jobs. Other accomplishments during the early years included the Freedom for Women Week that began on Mother's Day,1969, and called for better treatment and equal opportunities for women. That same year, several colleges and universities began offering courses in women's studies.

Broadening the Mission

During the 1970s, N.O.W. continued to protest the unequal treatment of women. Those efforts eventually led to anti-discrimination laws at colleges and universities. The organization also protested the Federal Communications Commission's practices and corporations such as AT&T.

After the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in Roe v. Wade which legalized abortion, members of N.O.W. started escorting women into and out of abortion clinics. They also staged a national one-day labor strike called Alice Doesn't Day which was meant to highlight to all the small jobs and tasks women do. During the 1970s, N.O.W. began advocating for the rights of gays and lesbians and helped to pass a Rape Shield Law which prohibited attorneys from questioning a rape victim about her past sexual history.

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