At the National Organization for Women, we often receive heartbreaking messages from women across the country, expressing their pain, fear and frustration over sexual harassment, wage discrimination and many other forms of gender oppression.
The #MeToo movement is empowering more and more women to share their stories and seek legal recourse—but the lack of legal information and resources available to them is a persistent barrier to justice.
Protecting women’s and girls’ rights begins with the law. That was true 50-plus years ago when NOW’s co-founder Betty Friedan famously scrawled “NOW” on a paper napkin—and it’s still true today.
This piece is excerpted from the Spring 2020 issue of Ms.
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It’s why, back in 1970, NOW established the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund—known today as Legal Momentum. The organization got straight to work on employment cases, including Bowe v. Colgate Palmolive Co., in which the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the company’s policy excluding women from jobs that required lifting objects weighing more than 35 pounds. Ever since, Legal Momentum has been at the forefront of legal advocacy for women and girls.
While there have been improvements in workplace protections in the ensuing years, a 2017 Pew Research Center survey found that about four in 10 working women in the U.S. report that they have experienced discrimination on the job because of their gender. Women also filed 83 percent of complaints of sexual harassment with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2019.
Knowing that an estimated four-fifths of poor Americans are unable to access the legal services they need because they can’t afford the cost, NOW and Legal Momentum have teamed up again to create the SYMS|Legal Momentum Helpline—which provides free information, assistance and referrals to women and girls facing discrimination and harassment at work, in school and at home.
The simple fact is that policymakers are not doing enough to protect women and girls. NOW advocates fiercely for legislation that will help to provide structural change and advance equal rights for women, including the Paycheck Fairness Act, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and the BE HEARD in the Workplace Act, to name a few. Many bills such as these advance in the House only to lie in the Senate graveyard. We at NOW hope that through efforts such as this helpline we can work to even the playing field for women.
Women can come to the SYMS | Legal Momentum Helpline for free legal support at the very earliest stage— which is vital.
As deputy legal director Jennifer Becker, a former Bronx sex crimes prosecutor, points out, the helpline is crucial because it assists its clients in getting organized and immediately connecting with the right legal representation—which, in some instances, means working directly with Legal Momentum’s team of attorneys.
NOW has received requests for assistance from women facing discrimination in higher education and in the workplace, including women in fear of being fired. The helpline receives calls from women in all 50 states who report that the helpline has empowered them to advocate for themselves. The cases that result from these calls set precedents and advance the law for all women—on issues ranging from pregnancy discrimination to equal pay to employment discrimination.
This is the ultimate goal of NOW’s partnership with Legal Momentum: empowering women so that they themselves can empower other women. NOW encourages other organizations and individuals to join us in lifting up this powerful resource so that we can create a network of champions.
Assist us in making the helpline’s free legal information and support available for the millions of women facing inequality and sex discrimination across the country. The time to work together for women’s legal rights is now.
Editor’s note: In addition to the SYMS|Legal Momentum Helpline, additional online resources have popped up or expanded—like If/When/How’s legal helpline and the Women’s Funding Network’s #SignalforHelp campaign—to help ensure women’s physical and legal safety in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.