NOW Co-Founder Muriel Fox’s Memoir Is ‘Momentum for a New Revolution’

Right: The Women’s Revolution. Left: Muriel Fox (Veteran Feminists of America)

In her new memoir, The Women’s Revolution: How We Changed Your Life, Muriel Fox, one of the co-founders of the National Organization for Women (NOW), offers firsthand stories of NOW’s fight to pass and enforce laws prohibiting discrimination in employment, education, housing, credit and more.

Fox worked closely with Betty Friedan to create NOW, serving as the organization’s public relations director, vice president, chair of the board and National Advisory Committee chair. She was the co-founder and president of NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. Fox’s new memoir documents NOW’s efforts to pass and enforce sex discrimination laws in the face of government indifference and massive resistance from business interests.

The Women’s Revolution has received broad praise: “No other book covers feminist action in such an exciting first-person mode,” said Professor Marjorie C. Miller. Professor Brittney Cooper described the book as “an essential volume recounting the pivotal second wave of U.S. feminist history that enshrined women’s rights as a matter of law.”

Current NOW president Christian Nunes praises The Women’s Revolution as “a much-needed book documenting the untold stories of NOW and feminists who relentlessly fought to transform lives, disrupt oppression by changing laws, and advocate for equality and justice from the streets to the courtrooms.” AndThe Nation columnist Katha Pollitt said the book “sets the record straight on the second wave of feminism.”

Ms. spoke with Muriel Fox about The Women’s Revolution and her memories of NOW’s fights for women’s rights.

Carrie N. Baker: Why did you write this book?

Muriel Fox: In recent years, I got angry. I was angry about the Dobbs decision and the ERA and Congress. Many young people have never heard of Betty Friedan. There are some who have never even heard of Gloria Steinem or NOW. They don’t understand what we did, and therefore what they can do in the future. I really was angry. I wrote the whole book in one year—at the age of 94.

Baker: I love your subtitle: “How we changed your life.” How did you change our lives?

Fox: For millennia, people took it for granted that women were subordinate to men, and the property of men. We were told again and again, “That’s how it’s always been.” There were great leaders who I talk about in my book. There are 30 people I name, but really there were hundreds of thousands. Each one did their little part about something that made them angry and that’s why it happened so fast. But the truth is, it wasn’t easy.

Baker: What was the focus of NOW in the beginning?

Fox: Our revolution at the beginning was about jobs. That was what we were really interested in more than anything else: getting Title VII [prohibiting sex discrimination in employment] enforced and getting women into jobs. When I applied for my first job, they turned me away and said, “We don’t hire women.” That was legal. That was the way it’s always been. Well, our revolution finally changed that.

Baker: One of NOW’s first campaigns was to get rid of sex-segregated help wanted ads in newspapers. Can you tell me about that?

Fox: Young people today don’t know we had those ads that said “Help wanted: Male” and “Help wanted: Female.” How could that have been? When Betty Friedan wrote to the Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham, who was a friend of hers, and said, “You’ve got to end this,” Graham responded, “Oh, that’s how it’s always been. It’s a convenience.” The truth is that the newspapers liked those segregated ads because they made money from putting the same job into the “Help wanted: Male” column, and also the “Help wanted: Female” column. So they were getting twice as much money!

Baker: What do people most misunderstand about NOW’s history?

Fox: Unfortunately, I think some people have made the mistake of characterizing our revolution as something that only helped elite women get jobs. All our early cases were for working women in factories, to get them a promotion, to get them onto the Union seniority list.

One reason we succeeded so quickly was because the media understood immediately that this was an important revolution.

Muriel Fox

Baker: In your book, you show how winning a new law was not enough, and that enforcement was most of the battle.

Fox: Absolutely. With Title IX, we changed education forever. That’s because we got the law enforced. The government was very lazy about enforcing the law. We had to get the parents mad. We had to get the teachers mad. We had to press school boards. NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, which is now called Legal Momentum, led the way for high schools and elementary schools. And WEAL [Women’s Equity Action League] focused on colleges. We worked together, and there was a lot of anger. I think there’s a lot of anger today, and I hope that will bring more momentum for a new revolution.

Baker: What was it like to head media relations for NOW in the early days?

Fox: The media got it from the very beginning. The first story about the founding of NOW appeared on the front pages of major newspapers in major cities. One reason we succeeded so quickly was because the media understood immediately that this was an important revolution. The media were what built us at the beginning. They communicated our revolution immediately. Our August 26, 1970 march woke up women in the smallest towns across the country and across the world to the fact that this revolution had arrived. We were on the front page of The New York Times. They understood that this was a very important revolution.

Baker: One thing that’s striking about NOW is from the very beginning, you included men and envisioned men as co-beneficiaries of the agenda.

Fox: We are the National Organization for Women. Very often scholars make a mistake and say it’s the National Organization of Women. It’s for women, because we had wonderful men in the organization from the very beginning, fighting for women’s rights.

Baker: Looking back at the movement, does anything surprise you?

Fox: Betty Friedan and I used to say to each other how surprised we were at how fast it all happened! We never believed there would be so much change so quickly. This happened because hundreds of thousands of people got the point and believed in this. And, because we were right. Sometimes I’m surprised we didn’t behave better to one another, and I’m surprised at some of the internal battles we had, which were destructive. In the early days of  NOW, we talked about an NAACP for women. We were part of the civil rights revolution.

Baker: How has NOW persisted so long, while many radical feminist groups that started in the 1960s and 1970s did not?

Fox: I think many organizations had so much loyalty because they were like a religion, but like a religion, they also didn’t tolerate heretics. NOW managed not to be that way somehow. NOW managed to concentrate on the work at hand. It might be getting a woman a job as a yeoman in a maritime union, or something so specific that we were always focused on the job to be done. I think the other groups probably were thinking more in terms of philosophy. NOW always kept our eye on what needed to be done. For instance, our fifth (and seventh) president Ellie Smeal focused on ratifying the ERA and also on getting mifepristone distributed in the U.S. We called it RU-486 in those days. I give Ellie much credit for the availability of medical abortions today.

Black women were central to NOW from the beginning.

Muriel Fox

Baker: You note how NOW’s statement of purpose specifically addressed racism against women of color.

Fox: Black women were central to NOW from the beginning. Pauli Murray was a co-founder and Aileen Hernandez was the second president of NOW. We always felt that we were working for women of all races, and that we were part of the civil rights revolution.

Baker: In the book, you address criticisms of NOW that it was slow to work on abortion or that it discriminated against lesbians. What’s the most important thing for people to know about these issues?

Fox: People have to understand, we were a very new revolution. We didn’t have all the answers at the beginning. Some people say, “Wasn’t it terrible that NOW didn’t immediately decide to take up the issue of abortion?” Well, we argued about whether it was part of our mission. Some people said jobs was our only mission. It took us one year to vote to fight for abortion rights. I think that’s pretty good. As far as lesbian rights, we had to discuss whether lesbianism was a feminist issue or if it was a separate issue that people should work for in separate organizations. We had heated arguments, but there were never any lesbian purges. Frankly, a lot of us learned. There were arguments about everything. I mean, it was all so new. We evolved.

Baker: Why were there so many bitter internal battles in NOW?

Fox: Because people had such deep beliefs. It’s true of every do-good organization in history.
We would have achieved so much more if we weren’t fighting among ourselves. It’s a very unfortunate part of our history. People want everyone else to believe exactly what they believe. They feel so deeply about it that they don’t listen to others. There was also trashing in our movement: attacks on women who were in the limelight. Gloria Steinem was one of the greatest victims of trashing while she was doing so much for the feminist cause. It’s a fight for power very often more than it is ideology.

Baker: Do you have any regrets?

Fox: I really regret that we never achieved a federal law to support childcare. That is our big unfinished business, apart from abortion rights. We got a wonderful childcare bill passed in 1971, but it was vetoed by Richard Nixon, who said it was socialism.

Baker: As chair of Veteran Feminists of America, you’re documenting feminist history for the public through oral histories and publications. What have you learned through these efforts?

Fox: We have learned about the importance of an individual. How much difference they can make in their own world, whether it’s in their company, in their community, in their union, in their school. How one person who wants to make a difference can make a difference. The Veteran Feminists of America have a book called Feminists Who Changed America with 2,200 biographies. Each one of those 2,200 people was a leader.

Baker: NOW had so many successes, but the ERA did not succeed and now abortion rights have been overturned. What advice do you have for feminists today?

Fox: The answer is politics. I did some research for this book, which showed me something very interesting. All advances and laws that we obtained in that very short time were achieved with a Democratic Senate and a strongly Democratic House. So that shows us today we have to fight to get a Democratic Congress. That’s the only way right now. Not only in the National Congress, but in our local state legislatures and local school boards. Heather Booth, one of our great heroes, has said, “Don’t agonize, organize.” I think it’s a matter of getting good candidates and raising money for them. We’ve got to win in November 2024.

Baker: What can we learn from NOW’s history?

Fox: I think one thing we can learn is, first of all, you can do it. That the odds may seem very much against you. You may be ridiculed, and people may say you can’t do it or that it’s not right, but we did it. We can also learn that it’s all about politics. We absolutely need to promote feminist women and men into political office.

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Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman professor of American Studies and the chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.