When the National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded on June 28, 1966, its goal was equality of the sexes. Betty Friedan, Pauli Murray, Kay Clarenbach, Dorothy Haener and the 24 other women and men who launched the organization imagined a future for women that involved full participation in American society. This year, NOW turns 50—and is looking toward continuing to fight for more progress for women. In an upcoming feature, “This Is What a Revolution Looks Like,” by Jeanne K.C. Clark in the Summer 2016 issue of Ms., she charts the organization’s history and envisions the path forward for NOW.
NOW was quick to name its goals in 1966. Its members called for a repeal of all anti-abortion laws, passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and publicly funded child care. These rights were named as part of the “Bill of Rights for Women.” By 1971, NOW’s National Conference had also included a resolution in support of lesbian rights, making them one of the first organizations to champion the fight for LGBT equality. The organization also set a precedent in feminist organizing with their decision to launch chapters across the country to do work on a local level while also supporting NOW’s work nationally. As three-time NOW President Eleanor Smeal told Clark, “Local actions build movements.” Over 500 local and campus chapters of NOW exist today in all 50 states.
NOW’s historic accomplishments are many. The 1973 Supreme Court rulings in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton overriding state laws banning abortion and effectively legalizing the procedure came after many years of organizing by NOW activists. Over the next several years, NOW successfully fought for the passage of national legislation that changed the landscape of women’s lives—including the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1975, the Rape Shield Law, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 and individual state Title IXs.
NOW has never wavered in its pushes for progress. Although the ERA ultimately fell short of ratification, NOW’s vigorous organizing got it passed out of Congress—and their cross-country campaign in support of its ratification is often identified as one of the largest grassroots campaigns in U.S. history. Ronald Reagan’s presidency coincided with an intense backlash against women’s rights, but NOW activists continued to work on every level to make sure abortion remained safe and legal. Beginning in 1986, NOW led a series of massive marches for reproductive rights, and in 2004 partnered with the Feminist Majority, Planned Parenthood, Black Women’s Health Imperative, National Latina Institute, NARAL and hundreds of other allied groups to organize a National March for Women’s Rights—the largest of its kind in history with 1.15 million participants.
Some of the issues NOW saw 50 years ago as central to the fight for women’s equality haven’t yet been won in full—and as the movement for women’s rights marches on, it goes without saying that NOW will remain at the forefront.
“NOW really is and always was on the cutting edge in many important ways,” current NOW President Terry O’Neill told Clark and Ms. “We have helped make feminism the norm in our country.”
This article was based on reporting by Jeanne K.C. Clark. Join the Ms. community today to get the complete story on NOW’s 50 years of revolutionary change.