The Herstory of the National Organization for Women
The National Organization for Women is the largest organization of feminist activists in the United States. NOW has 500,000 contributing members and 550 chapters in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Since its founding in 1966, NOW's goal has been "to take action" to bring about equality for all women. Both the actions NOW takes and its position on the issues are often unorthodox, uncompromising and ahead of their time.
NOW activists use both traditional and non-traditional means to push for social change. NOW activists do extensive electoral and lobbying work and bring lawsuits. They also organize mass marches, rallies, pickets, non-violent civil disobedience and immediate, responsive "zap" actions. NOW re-instituted mass marches for women's rights in the face of conventional wisdom that marches were a technique that went out with the 1960s. A march in support of the Equal Rights Amendment drew more than 100,000 people to Washington, D.C. in 1978. NOW's March for Women's Lives drew 750,000 supporters to Washington, D.C. in 1992, for the largest abortion rights demonstration ever. In 1995, NOW organized the first mass demonstration to focus on the issue of violence against women -- and drew a quarter million people to the Mall. The 1996 March to Fight the Right in San Francisco drew more than 50,000 activists to kick off an electoral season focused on efforts to defend affirmative action.
These ongoing efforts established NOW as a major force in the sweeping changes that put more women in political posts; increased educational, employment and business opportunities for women; and enacted tougher laws against violence, harassment and discrimination. NOW's official priorities are winning economic equality and securing it with an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that will guarantee equal rights for women; championing abortion rights, reproductive freedom and other women's health issues; opposing racism and fighting bigotry against lesbians and gays; and ending violence against women.
One of NOW's strongest concerns is gaining recognition of the value of women's work, both in the home and the paid labor market. NOW first popularized the slogan, "Every Mother is a Working Mother" and the phrase, "women who work outside the home." In the 1970s NOW's lobbying and pickets of newspapers and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission forced newspapers to eliminate sex-segregated "Help Wanted" ads, opening up more diverse and high-paying jobs to women. NOW also pressed landmark lawsuits against sex discrimination in employment, winning millions in back pay for women. For example, in the 1969 case Weeks v. Southern Bell, attorney Sylvia Roberts, NOW's Southern Regional Director, won a U.S. Fifth Circuit ruling that it was a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to bar women from jobs that involved lifting more than 30 pounds. This landmark decision was the first to apply Title VII to sex discrimination. NOW continues to expose and address both the glass ceiling and sexual harassment employed women face and the dire situation of poor women in this country.
See http://www.now.org/issues/wfw/ for information about current campaigns against sexual harassment.
Equal Rights Amendment
In order to pursue economic equality and other rights for women, NOW launched a nationwide campaign in the 1970s to pass an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution. As part of the campaign, NOW leaders distributed buttons reading "59" to draw attention to the wage gap; that figure represented the median wage then paid to women for every dollar paid to men. When the ERA was not ratified by the original deadline Congress set, NOW succeeded in its campaign to extend the time limit for ratification by more than three years.
In the course of its high-profile ERA work, NOW became a huge network of more than 200,000 grassroots activists and began operating with multi-million dollar annual budgets. Leaders organized two political action committees, NOW/PAC and NOW Equality PAC, that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for pro-ERA candidates.
The work toward constitutional equality for women continues. Part of NOW's strategy is to build support for a comprehensive amendment for the next campaign.
For more information, type the words "Constitutional Equality Amendment" into the search engine on our web site or connect to http://www.now.org/issues/economic/cea/.
Although NOW activists did not win their first campaign to secure a constitutional equality amendment, they established the political structures and strategies that live on to this day. Most significantly, they began to focus less on trying to influence men in power and more on electing feminists to replace them. The seeds sown during the Equal Rights Amendment campaigns gave root to the current -- and expanding -- crop of women elected officials.
NOW's independent Elect Women for a Change campaign in the 1992 elections sent an unprecedented number of feminist women and men to the U.S. Congress and state capitals. NOW contends that in addition to its strong get-out-the-vote efforts, two major factors contributed to those electoral victories: the threat to abortion rights and women's anger over the U.S. Senate's treatment of law professor Anita Hill and its confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. NOW's record-breaking abortion rights march kicked off its 1992 electoral work.
Just as the events preceding the 1982 and 1992 elections helped motivate women to run for newly open seats, we are busy filling up the pipeline for the next big opportunity -- 2002 when re-apportionment again hits congressional and state legislative districts, opening up new seats for women. NOW's Victory 2000 campaign aims to play a significant role in that effort. The campaign calls for electing 2000 feminists by 2000.
The NOW PACs web site address is http://www.now.org/pac/.
Sexual Harassment and Violence
NOW's work on harassment and violence dates back to its earliest days. NOW activists organized the first Take Back The Night marches. They founded hot lines and shelters for battered women and lobbied for government funding of programs aimed at stopping violence against women, winning passage of a new ground-breaking federal Violence Against Women Act in 1994. Sexual harassment was one of the key issues that motivated students across the country to form high school chapters of NOW in the early 1990s. In 1998, NOW activists are organizing in support of new, comprehensive federal legislation focused on prevention, state-level programs for poor women who face violence and legal recognition of hate crimes based on sex and sexual orientation.
Promoting Diversity and Ending Racism
Since its founding in 1966, NOW has worked to oppose racism and support diversity. The late Rev. Pauli Murray, an African American woman and Episcopal minister, was a NOW founder who co-authored its Statement of Purpose. Aileen Hernandez became the second president of NOW in 1971, and two years later NOW established its first task force on women of color. In 1980 NOW instituted an affirmative action program, which today means that women of racial and ethnic diversity make up one-third of the organization's national board and 19% of staff. NOW has been a co-sponsor and organizer of three marches commemorating the 1963 civil rights march when the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his "I Have A Dream" speech.
In February 1998, NOW organized a Women of Color and Allies Summit, entitled "Linking Arms in Dangerous Times." More than 600 activists came to the summit to build coalitions and develop strategies for eliminating racism, classism and sexism.
NOW works closely with other groups on civil rights, affirmative action, welfare rights, immigration reform, bilingual education, migrant worker and tribal issues.
At http://www.now.org/issues/diverse/index.html, there is more information about NOW's work to eliminate racism.
Abortion Rights and Reproductive Freedom
In 1967 NOW became the first national organization to call for the legalization of abortion and for the repeal of all anti-abortion laws. Since then NOW has been fighting for full reproductive rights for all women, including poor women and young women. NOW won a pivotal U.S. Supreme Court victory in the 1994 case NOW v. Scheidler. The ruling affirmed NOW's right to use federal racketeering laws against anti-abortion extremists who organize campaigns of fear, force and violence to deny women their right to abortion. In April 1998, a federal jury returned a unanimous verdict confirming NOW's charges that Joe Scheidler, Operation Rescue and other defendants are racketeers. NOW's litigation and lobbying are part of Project Stand Up for Women, which has trained thousands of abortion rights supporters to serve as clinic defenders. Find several documents related to this case at http://www.now.org/issues/abortion/scheidlr.html.
NOW's advocacy efforts to ensure access to abortion for all women include lobbying against restrictions on Medicaid funding, parental involvement, elimination of abortion from federal government and military health insurance coverage and abortion procedure bans. Likewise, NOW's commitment to full reproductive rights led to work against child exclusion measures in the 1996 federal welfare repeal and coerced sterilization.
NOW's web site includes more information about this work. See http://www.now.org/issues/abortion.
In 1971 NOW became the first major national women's organization to support lesbian rights. It has been one of the organization's priority issues since 1975 and was the theme of national conferences in 1984 and 1988. A national summit on this issue is planned for the coming year. Through the years, NOW activists have challenged anti-lesbian and gay laws and ballot initiatives in many states. Over 15 years ago, NOW gave strong support to a landmark 1979 case, Belmont v. Belmont, that defined lesbian partners as a nurturing family and awarded a lesbian mother custody of her two children. The plaintiff in that case, Rosemary Dempsey, served as NOW's Action Vice-President from 1989 to 1997. Click Here to go to: Equality Florida.
The section of the web site with details on NOW's lesbian rights work is http://www.now.org/issues/lgbi/index.html.
NOW, Inc., was established on June 30, 1966 in Washington, D.C., by women attending the Third National Conference of the Commission on the Status of Women. Set up in 1961, the Commission reported in 1963 that despite having won the right to vote, women in the United States still were discriminated against in virtually every aspect of life. Among NOW's 28 founders was its first president, Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique (1963).