National Organization for Women Forms to Protect Women’s Rights

The National Organization for Women, or NOW, was an outgrowth of the burgeoning women’s movement of the 1960’s and of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which initially did little to protect and ensure the rights of women.

Summary of Event

The formation of the National Organization for Women (NOW) was critical to the development of the feminist movement in the 1960’s. In this, the third major feminist movement in the United States since the mid-nineteenth century, American women sought to achieve full equality. National Organization for Women
[kw]National Organization for Women Forms to Protect Women’s Rights (Oct. 29-30, 1966)
[kw]Women Forms to Protect Women’s Rights, National Organization for (Oct. 29-30, 1966)
[kw]National Organization for Women Forms to Protect Women’s Rights (Oct. 29-30, 1966)
[kw]Rights, National Organization for Women Forms to Protect Women’s (Oct. 29-30, 1966)
National Organization for Women
[g]North America;Oct. 29-30, 1966: National Organization for Women Forms to Protect Women’s Rights[09020]
[g]United States;Oct. 29-30, 1966: National Organization for Women Forms to Protect Women’s Rights[09020]
[c]Women’s issues;Oct. 29-30, 1966: National Organization for Women Forms to Protect Women’s Rights[09020]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Oct. 29-30, 1966: National Organization for Women Forms to Protect Women’s Rights[09020]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Oct. 29-30, 1966: National Organization for Women Forms to Protect Women’s Rights[09020]
Friedan, Betty
Griffiths, Martha
Steinem, Gloria
Abzug, Bella

While no event in itself can be credited with the rebirth of a feminist movement in the 1960’s, a few important developments should be noted. Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique
Feminine Mystique, The (Friedan) (1964), deserves credit for its role in raising women’s consciousness about their roles and status in American society. The Equal Pay Act Equal Pay Act (1963) of 1963, which called for equal pay for equal work, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Civil Rights Act of 1964 , Article 7 of which required equal employment opportunities for women and minorities, were landmark pieces of legislation. These developments played a crucial role in the genesis of NOW and of a revitalized women’s movement. Although the struggle for women’s working rights had been pursued, with partial success, since World War II, a broadly based movement to ensure full equality for women in the workplace, and in society generally, did not exist.

The President’s Commission on the Status of Women President’s Commission on the Status of Women[Presidents Commission on the Status of Women] strongly endorsed the principle of equal pay for women. The commission strongly supported the Equal Pay Act of 1963, a law which to some degree paved the way for the inclusion of women under the protection of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was principally designed to protect African Americans and other minority groups. Congress included women among protected groups because of significant lobbying by a few women’s organizations. Some have argued that inclusion of women under the protection of the act was an attempt to weaken the emphasis on African Americans. Support by women for the inclusion of women under the act was not universal because there was fear, on the part of women in government and other groups, that the new law might signify the end of special protective legislation for women workers.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act applied only to enterprises that were engaged in interstate commerce and had at least twenty-five employees. Enforcement was through the newly formed Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Little was done initially to enforce the law on behalf of women, and a few members of the EEOC expressed their sense of helplessness in dealing with the problems. A special concern at that time was the EEOC’s failure to prohibit job advertisements that discriminated against female applicants. Congresswoman Martha Griffiths, a leading spokesperson for women in Congress and supporter of the legislation, advocated stricter enforcement. Implementation of the new law was largely left in the hands of the state commissions on the status of women.

During a June, 1966, meeting of the National Council of State Commissions on the Status of Women National Council of State Commissions on the Status of Women , it was recognized that little could be done to combat job discrimination if enforcement were left to the individual states. Some of the concerned members of the state commissions present joined with a few prominent women to form the nucleus of the group later called the National Organization for Women, whose initial purpose was to promote the enforcement of Article 7 of the Civil Rights Act. NOW was officially established, with Friedan as its first president, at an organizing conference held October 29-30 in Washington, D.C. In its early days, NOW campaigned for enforcement of Article 7 and brought several cases to the courts for resolution. In particular, NOW argued in favor of abolishing protective legislation for female workers, which had the unintended side effect of removing women from consideration for lucrative jobs.

In the 1970’s, persuaded by NOW and other groups, Congress amended Article 7 to extend coverage to firms in the private sector with at least fifteen employees. The EEOC could bring lawsuits against employers violating the Civil Rights Act. In the early 1970’s, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act corrected many of the problems involved in the implementation of Article 7 of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

NOW expanded its program beyond implementation of equal employment opportunities for women. The organization held its first convention in October, 1967, at which time it published an eight-point women’s bill of rights. Among the most important concerns in the new, broadly based program were an Equal Rights Amendment Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, equal opportunity in employment, child care, and reproductive freedom. As the organization grew at the state and local levels, its focus was harder to maintain. NOW had five hundred chapters by 1973. For some women, NOW was too radical; for others, too conservative. This led to splintering and the establishment of other groups. The abortion Reproductive rights issue was an especially divisive one. When NOW became identified with a strongly pro-choice position, some members left. On the other hand, NOW moved too slowly for the more radical women, who formed leftist feminist organizations, including Redstockings.

As NOW grew, it was recognized that there was a need for special-purpose organizations. Those most interested in the pursuit of women’s legal and economic rights formed the Women’s Equity Action League Women’s Equity Action League[Womens Equity Action League] (WEAL) in 1968. In 1971, some members of NOW interested in promoting women’s active involvement in politics formed the National Women’s Political Caucus National Women’s Political Caucus[National Womens Political Caucus] (NWPC). Friedan, Bella Abzug, and Gloria Steinem were NOW leaders who played a role in developing the NWPC. Steinem, a journalist and NOW activist, established the well-known magazine Ms. in 1971 as an outgrowth of the work of NOW. NOW was a strong advocate of the Equal Rights Amendment. Despite organized lobbying in the states, the ERA failed to be ratified. This was perhaps NOW’s most notable failure and its single most intense battle. Congress’s second attempt in the 1980’s to pass an equal rights amendment also fell short of the required two-thirds majority.

Abortion rights have been another area of long-term involvement for NOW. NOW was an important supporter of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade (1973) Roe v. Wade (1973) , which permitted abortion under women’s right to privacy. NOW became one of the leaders of the pro-choice position in the United States in 1973. Since the mid-1970’s, NOW has also been identified with defense of the rights of gays and lesbians. More recently, some NOW leaders called for the establishment of a separate women’s party, a strategy that does not have universal support.

From its origins as a small group united to implement Article 7 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, NOW grew to become an organization of more than fifty thousand members by the early 1970’s. NOW brought together concerned women from various segments of society. Most of its members, however, tended to be middle- and upper-class, urban, well-educated women. Rural women, factory workers, and the urban poor were perhaps underrepresented in the organization. From its narrow beginning, NOW expanded its work to many areas of American political, economic, and social life.


NOW was the first broadly based feminist organization in the United States, arising from the women’s movement of the 1960’s. It could rightly be called the “mother” of most of the other women’s groups formed since the late 1960’s. Its efforts in advocating the implementation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 led to significant improvements for women in the workplace. Without such efforts, the implementation of Article 7 might have been neglected for some years.

As an organization, NOW’s interests expanded into most areas of American life, and its early leaders, like Abzug, began to play important roles in the political arena during the 1970’s. NOW, as an organization occupying a liberal position, failed to satisfy moderate and conservative women, on one hand, and radical women, on the other. Over the years, as the organization grew and its leadership and membership evolved, NOW attained a reputation of leaning toward liberal or even radical feminism.

After the successes achieved by NOW and other groups in promoting women’s rights, the early fervor and unity of the women’s movement largely evaporated. Where once Friedan spoke of a malaise affecting American women, women began speaking of a malaise affecting women’s organizations. NOW continued its work in defense of reproductive freedom and other perennial issues, but, like numerous other women’s groups, did not emerge with a clear agenda for the future. After the defeat of the ERA, feminists no longer felt the pressure to present a united front. As a result, there has been debate and discussion about which specific measures would best help women.

NOW’s work in the mid-1960’s in the struggle of women to obtain equal opportunity in the workplace was an important step in the struggle for women’s human rights. Women are no longer perceived as auxiliary workers willing to tolerate poor conditions and smaller salaries. Women are now found in almost all jobs, earning salaries commensurate with their work. Although the struggle has not had complete success, great progress has been made in achieving equal opportunity for women in the workplace. National Organization for Women

Further Reading

  • Barakso, Maryann. Governing NOW: Grassroots Activism in the National Organization for Women. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2004. A history of NOW, with a special focus on how the organization “governs” itself. Includes the chapters “Inventing NOW: Principles and Processes, 1966-1971” and “NOW’s Strategic Evolution.”
  • Barker-Plummer, Bernadette. “News as a Feminist Resource? A Case Study of the Media Strategies and Media Representation of the National Organization for Women, 1966-1980.” In Gender, Politics, and Communication, edited by Annabelle Sreberny and Liesbet van Zoonen. Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton Press, 2000. Provides a case study of NOW’s strategies in dealing with the media and how the media came to represent the organization from NOW’s founding in 1966 through 1980.
  • Deckard, Barbara Sinclair. The Women’s Movement: Political, Socio-Economic, and Psychological Issues. 3d ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1983. This history of the women’s movement gives an interesting account of the context in which NOW was conceived. Much of the book deals with radical women’s movements, rather than with mainstream groups such as NOW.
  • Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Dell, 1964. Friedan’s attempt to identify the deeply rooted discontent of women in the United States.
  • Gelb, Joyce. Feminism and Politics: A Comparative Perspective. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989. Gelb provides a good chapter on the mobilization of feminists in her comparative study of feminist politics in the United States and the United Kingdom. NOW’s central role is analyzed as Gelb provides a brief history of the feminist movement and the organization.
  • Katzenstein, Mary Fainsod, and Carol McClurg Mueller, eds. The Women’s Movements of the United States and Western Europe: Consciousness, Political Opportunity, and Public Policy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987. In this serious work, the women’s movement in the United States is compared and contrasted with other women’s movements. Katzenstein provides a comparative overview and other authors detail specific case studies involving consciousness, political strategies, and issues in Europe and the United States.
  • Mansbridge, Jane J. Why We Lost the ERA. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. In this highly respected work, Mansbridge chronicles the struggle of the ERA. Significant attention is given to the role of NOW and other groups in attempting ratification. Includes Mansbridge’s reflections on the lessons to be learned and on the women’s movement after the ERA movement.
  • Randall, Vicky. Women and Politics: An International Perspective. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. Randall uses a generally comparative approach in discussing women and politics and women’s movements, but most of her focus is on the United States and the United Kingdom. She provides a brief history of the women’s movement in the United States, helpful in putting NOW into historical perspective.
  • Staggenborg, Suzanne. “Stability and Innovation in the Women’s Movement: A Comparison of Two Movement Organizations.” Social Problems 36 (February, 1989): 75-92. A case study of the Chicago chapter of NOW, which was founded in 1969. Staggenborg compares the Chicago NOW group, which continued to exist at least until 1989, with the more radical Chicago Women’s Liberation Union (CWLU), also established in 1969 but dissolved in 1977.
  • Stetson, Dorothy McBride. Women’s Rights in the U.S.A.: Policy Debates and Gender Roles. 3d ed. New York: Routledge, 2004. One chapter traces the origin of NOW in the implementation of the EEOC provisions. This important book focuses on legal issues and rights affecting women in the workplace, the family, and society.

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