Today in Feminist History: N.O.W.— Bringing Women into Full Participation in Mainstream American Society (June 30, 1966)

Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.


June 30, 1966: A new, and proudly feminist organization has just been born!

Betty Friedan

Twenty-eight people got together today and formally set up a National Organization for Women to finish the generations-long fight for total equality. The group’s founders have been in Washington, D.C., since day before yesterday attending the Third National Conference of the Commissions on the Status of Women.

Many of those attending the conference were action oriented, and wanted to do something specific and meaningful to fight sexism—beginning with a resolution demanding that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission do its job—and start enforcing laws against sex discrimination in the workplace. But though the theme of the conference was “Targets for Action,” delegates were told that “government commissions cannot take action against other government departments,” so even this modest motion was ruled “out of order.”

At that point it became obvious that no governmental entity could take the kind of rapid, independent, sometimes militant actions that will be needed to overcome the last bastions of sex bias. So beginning over lunch yesterday, followed by a meeting in Betty Friedan’s hotel room last night, and at informal sessions today during breaks in the conference, 28 of the conference attendees managed to create a new activist group before rushing to the airport for their flights home.

The purpose of the new group will be:

“To take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society NOW, assuming all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men.”

Author Betty Friedan—The Feminine Mystique—came up with the name, which she scribbled on a table napkin during yesterday’s luncheon. But Kathryn Clarenbach of the Wisconsin Commission on the Status of Women will temporarily head the group.

According to Analoyce Clapp, it has been decided:

  • “That members join as individuals; it will be a voluntary organization, speaking only for ourselves.
  • “That the group will be called the National Organization for Women (N.O.W.).
  • “That N.O.W. will recommend action in the area of equality for women.
  • “That we begin with the assumption that we will not have unanimity on all questions.
  • “That N.O.W. will be an action organization for the advancement of women into equal participation in the whole spectrum of American life.
  • “That each member contribute five dollars per month toward the expenses of the organization. The ultimate financing will be decided later.
  • “That N.O.W. keep in touch with all similar groups, both action and non-action groups.
  • “That a telegram be sent to each of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commissioners urging them to rescind the Commission’s recent ruling that help-wanted ads again be labeled ‘Male’ and ‘Female.’
  • “Recruiting of Charter Members will continue until August first.”

Among the issues of immediate concern to the new group are:

  • Equal jury participation by women. Female defendants often face all-male juries due to unequal jury selection laws. In 22 states women can get an automatic exemption from service, and Florida requires women to register with the Clerk of the Circuit Court in order to be in a pool of those eligible to be called. Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina prohibit women from serving at all.
  • Title VII (a part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) and the failure of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to enforce its prohibition of sex bias.
  • Newspaper “help wanted” ads that label jobs for “men” or “women.”

Though an organization presently consisting of 28 members spread throughout the country—with no office or employees—and assets of only one hundred and forty dollars doesn’t sound like much of a challenge to the entrenched prejudice of government, industry, media, law and custom, neither did an initially small group of suffragists that eventually became a widespread, powerful political and social movement due to the righteousness of their cause.

Despite great strides, such as a Constitutional ban on sex discrimination at the polls won in 1920, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and inclusion of “sex” in the list of forms of discrimination banned by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the goal of total equality is still as elusive today as it was over a century ago. But if the dedication and persistence of those in this second wave of feminism is equal to those in the first, then N.O.W. will be just as successful in achieving its worthy goals as were those who worked so tirelessly to win the vote.


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About

David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.