National Organization for Women (N.O.W.)

views updated

National Organization for Women (N.O.W.)

Established in 1966, the National Organization for Women (N.O.W.), was born out of frustration at the lack of progress on women's issues in the wake of John F. Kennedy's 1961 establishment of the President's Commission on the Status of Women in the United States. Similar commissions had been set up in all 50 states, but their failure to achieve their goals provoked a core group of activists at a national convention in 1966. Gathering in Betty Friedan's hotel room and writing their guidelines on a paper napkin, the activists laid the groundwork for N.O.W., which was formally launched that October at a convention that attracted 300 men and women. Friedan was elected the group's president. By the end of the twentieth century, N.O.W. had grown into the largest and most organized of the women's groups. It boasts more than 600 local chapters in all 50 states and more than 250,000 active members.

In the early days of the organization, Friedan continued to be the motivating force and is considered to be the "mother" of the modern women's movement. She was a logical choice for the first president since she had almost single-handedly aroused the nation's consciousness with her landmark book, The Feminine Mystique, in 1963. Pointing out that existing institutions had perpetuated "the problem that has no name," Friedan demanded that women be treated as equals and be allowed to develop their talents while pursuing their own individual goals. She was also instrumental in the formation of the National Women's Political Caucus NWPC, a bipartisan support group that promoted the election of women to public office. Friedan insisted that, as the movement grew and attracted media and public attention, she was ousted in favor of more photogenic leaders such as Gloria Steinem.

On October 29, 1966, the National Organization for Women issued its Statement of Purpose, detailing its agenda and establishing itself as the voice of the women's movement. The chief points of that statement were:

A recognition that the time had come for women to take full partnership in American society; a call to action to claim inherent rights; the insistence that women not be forced to choose between marriage and motherhood or careers; a continuation of the revolution started at Seneca Falls in 1848; and a commitment to use the powers of education, the law, and political office to attain these goals.

Throughout its history, N.O.W. has continued to promote a group of core issues: abortion and reproductive rights, economic equality, women in political office, and an end to discrimination against women. In response to the changing environment, other issues have been added: affirmative action, an end to sexual harassment and domestic violence, fighting the political right, advancing global and young feminism, and advancement of women in the military. The issue of lesbian rights has long been controversial for N.O.W. A bitter break occurred in the early 1970s; but by the 1980s, promoting lesbian rights was a permanent part of N.O.W.'s agenda. Controversy still continues over the issue since many moderates believe that this championship has hurt the women's movement. The early days of that movement was centered around the needs of white, middle-class women. In an effort to broaden its base of support and be more responsive to the position of minorities, N.O.W. has also reached out to minority women and pledged support for racial and ethnic diversity. To achieve its political goal, N.O.W. has successfully engaged in such activities as mass mailouts and the picketing of offending businesses and politicians. It has been most effective in its class-action suits, public demonstrations, promoting legislation favorable to women, and simply calling attention to the concerns of women around the world.

Less than three decades after the birth of the modern women's movement, many women believed that the battle had been won, and support for N.O.W. began to wane. This trend was abruptly halted in 1989 when the United States Supreme Court handed down a decision in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services that curtailed access to abortion. Membership in N.O.W. rose dramatically. Susan Faludi noted that a 1989 poll revealed that women as a group believed that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans were responsive to their needs. The three groups most responsive, they insisted, were N.O.W., the leaders of the women's movement, and feminists. Women were instrumental in the election of Democrat Bill Clinton to the White House in 1992.

Despite a claim by Time magazine in 1998 that the success of the popular television show Ally McBeal signaled the end of feminism, the continued presence of the National Organism for Women indicates that women remain aware of the ongoing need for an advocacy group of their own.

—Elizabeth Purdy

Further Reading:

Belafonte, Genia. "Who Put the Me in Feminism?" Time. June 29,1988, 23-26.

Faludi, Susan. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. New York, Doubleday, 1991.

Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York, Dell, 1963.

About this article

National Organization for Women (N.O.W.)

Updated About content Print Article


National Organization for Women (N.O.W.)