A History of NOW and its Women who Made History

The Women of NOW review: superb history of feminist growth and groundswell

Katherine Turk has produced a must-read on the group which did so much for American women in the 1960s and 70s

Clara Bingham

Pauli Murray – an under-appreciated feminist-civil-rights-labor activist and thinker, also a founder of NOW. From a wall mural on a Durham NC street

What do a bestselling author, a segregationist congressman and a Black legal scholar have in common? Through a series of serendipitous events, Betty Friedan, Howard Smith and Pauli Murray lit fires that ignited the largest social revolution of the 20th century.

Friedan wrote the 1963 blockbuster The Feminine Mystique. Smith added “sex” to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In 1965, Murray wrote the first legal analysis comparing Jim Crow to gender discrimination. With the benefit of hindsight, this unwitting but timely partnership can be seen as the launchpad of the second wave feminist movement, a movement synonymous with the National Organization for Women, or NOW.

Almost 60 years after its inception, we think of NOW as a mainstream national feminist group. But in 1966 it was founded on the radical idea, as Katherine Turk describes it, “to organize and advocate for all women by channeling their efforts into one association that sought to end male supremacy”.

In a world where most women were denied credit cards and mortgages, entrance into marathon races, medical school and law school, jobs as bar tenders, editors, pilots, and factory managers, ending male supremacy seemed unfathomable.

Turk’s The Women of NOW is a fascinating account of the foundational organization that for many decades served as the central tentpole of this multifaceted movement. Despite the hundreds of books that make up the rich cannon of modern women’s history, Turk has done a much-needed service, writing the first full history of NOW.

A professor at the University of North Carolina, Turk devoted 20 years, beginning with her undergraduate thesis, to telling this complex story. With gumshoe reporting precision, she traveled the country, unearthing hundreds of boxes and thousands of files that had been collecting dust in library archives. Combining this detailed documentary roadmap with interviews, Turk weaves the root story of an organization that drove the most transformative mass movement of the modern age.

A NOW Co-founder (1926-2017)

Turk makes sense of NOW’s unwieldy geographic spread and 60-year history by telling it from the points of view of three very different leaders: Aileen Hernandez, Mary Jean Collins and Patricia Hill Burnett. Hernandez, an experienced Black union organizer, Collins, a young working-class political activist, and Burnett, a rich Detroit housewife and former Miss Michigan, personify the broad reach of the organization which tried, and sometimes failed, to represent all women.

Mary Jean Collins, NOW pioneer

Collins, who became president the Chicago chapter in 1968, greeted her new cause with giddy enthusiasm, saying joining NOW was “like waking up from a dead sleep, like ‘this is wrong; and everything is wrong.’ And away we went.” Their goal was nothing short of reprograming American society; revamping the way people lived, worked and loved.

Hernandez, the most professional of the three, was one of the first five commissioners of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. When the commission opened in 1965, its main mission was to strike down workplace race discrimination. To the surprise of its leaders, a third of complaints came from women. When the agency decided it would do nothing in response to complaints from stewardesses who were fired when they turned 32, and AT&T telephone operators denied higher-level jobs, it became clear to Washington insiders like Pauli Murray, Catherine East, Mary Eastwood and Sonia Pressman that the country needed a women’s version of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. On 30 June 1966, 28 women, with Friedan their fearless if flawed leader, created an organization to “bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society and in truly equal partnership with men”. NOW was born.

Fayetteville NC’s NOW chapter, still vibrant in July 2013, protests vote suppression and anti-women policies at the state capitol in Raleigh

Turk thoughtfully recounts the feminist groundswell and the growth of NOW. It counted just 120 members in 1966 but it grew to 18,000 members and 250 chapters in 1972 and to 40,000 members and 700 chapters in 1974. NOW took on big corporations like Sears, AT&T and the New York Times (over its gender-segregated classified ads). Covered by the mainstream press, lawsuits, protests and press conferences helped spread the word. But as grassroots chapters proliferated, so did different priorities.

Growing pains started early and never really subsided. Riven by divisions over race, class and sexual orientation, the organization that aimed to represent all women would eventually sink from its own weight, if not before powering the women’s movement in the 1960s and 70s.

Hernandez and Murray, two of the most influential and strategic members of NOW, winced at white women’s “racist slights and oversights”. Lesbians like Rita Mae Brown rebelled against homophobia. But on 26 August 1970, hundreds of thousands of women from all backgrounds took part in the largest nationwide women’s protest in history, the Women’s Strike for Equality. This was the moment the movement went viral.

Two years later, when the Equal Rights Amendment passed the House and Senate with huge majorities, Now had enjoyed a five-year run of victories in its righteous and politically popular cause. Seeing the ERA as a one-shot inoculation against systemic sexism, NOW leaders made the fateful decision to double down on the amendment’s 38-state ratification, a single-issue mission that would alienate Black women and invite organized opposition. The effort to amend the US constitution ultimately foundered in the face of powerful conservative forces lead by Phyllis Schlafly and Ronald Reagan.

As Turk deftly guides her readers through NOW’s roller coaster of victories and defeats, we come away with a clear blueprint for change – replete with cautionary tales – as we face new challenges to women’s freedom and equality. The Women of NOW can show today’s feminists the path forward. It is a must-read.

  • The Women of NOW: How Feminists Built an Organization That Transformed America is published in the US by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

  • Clara Bingham’s book The Movement: How Women’s Liberation Remade America 1963-1973 will be published in May 2024


3 thoughts on “A History of NOW and its Women who Made History”

  1. This is the complete text of the Equal Rights Amendment :
    Section 1. Equality of rightS under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.
    Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
    Section 3. Thia amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

    The review of Ms. Bingham’s book does not explain why NOW’s decision to pursue ratification of the ERA alienated Black women. I was an active member of a NOW chapter in the state of Illinois , and I would have known about any vocal opposition. We were aware of Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, which appealed to fear by convincing many women they would be forced to share bathrooms with men, forced into military service and many other canards that worked. My collection of campaign pins includes one that says “Phuck Phyllis” . At the time, we thought she was our main organized opposition and were not aware of Black women’s opposition.
    I read about it years later, with sadness and some skepticism. If Friends know of data supporting this idea, I would appreciate their sharing it with me. In its absence, I consider it an ad hominem attack on feminists of any color.

  2. Thanks again, Chuck, for moving me on from Elizabeth, Lucretia, Alice and Susan B. to Betty, Katherine, Aileen, Mary Jean, Patricia and so many more. I was well aware of the beginnings of NOW, and joi9ned early, but I was busy with my young life and didn’t p[ay much attention to the details. I’ll look for Katherine Turk’s book and get myself more up to speed.
    ERA NOW!

  3. There is a review of a new book entitled “Betty Friedan, Magnificent Disrupter” by Rachel Shteir in the online edition of the New Yorker dated Sept.11, 2023.
    My impression, based on the review , is that Shteir’s book may provide readers with a more accurate picture of the feminist movement and its iconic leader than does Turk’s .
    I was surprised by some of the facts I learned about Friedan, the catalyst whose ideas shaped the feminist movement.

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