In June 1966, feminist author Betty Friedan attended a national conference on the status of women. She was disturbed that despite the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act -- which prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex, race, religion or national origin -- women continued to face serious inequities in every aspect of their lives.
On that summer day, Friedan took out a pen and scribbled on a paper napkin the founding statement for the National Organization for Women. She wrote: "The purpose of NOW is to take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society … in truly equal partnership with men."
Claire Moses, a women's studies professor at the University of Maryland, says NOW defined a new consciousness for American women. "An awareness that the American definition of fairness was not actually permitted to us."
NOW President Kim Gandy joined the organization when she was 19 and has worked as an activist on the local, state and national level for more than 30 years. She says NOW has changed the landscape of the country for women. "One of the first things we did was [to] get a presidential executive order opening federal contracting to women, which opened hundreds of thousands, millions perhaps, of jobs to women that they never even thought of before," Gandy says. "Fairly quickly after that, we opened the first rape crisis shelters, and the first domestic violence centers across the country. We gave sexual harassment a name and then got laws passes against it."
The National Organization for Women is the largest feminist group in the United States with 500,000 members and 550 chapters located in every U.S. state and at many colleges. Over the years it has pushed for educational and employment opportunities for women and has successfully fought for equal rights in court, in the workplace and in sports arenas.
Gandy says NOW's effectiveness springs from its grassroots strength. "It's the women and men in those local chapters taking action every day, writing the letters, making the phone calls, going down and meeting with their city council or state representative or member of Congress and speaking out on the issues that affect women in their communities. That's where NOW gets our clout. That's how we are able to make a difference."
To achieve its diverse goals, NOW employs a variety of strategies, from litigation and lobbying to mass demonstrations like the 2004 "March for Women's Lives," which brought more than one million demonstrators to Washington, the largest protest rally ever in the nation's capital.
Despite its success on many fronts, critics say NOW's positions are out of touch with mainstream American values. In the early 1980s it lost the support of many political conservatives when it strongly backed the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. ERA opponents feared the measure would grant too much power to Congress and the federal courts to strike down state and local laws judged to be discriminatory against women. The amendment failed to become law after a decade-long struggle.
NOW's positions have also alienated women who say the organization leans too far to the left politically and are uncomfortable with its close ties to lesbian causes. NOW's Kim Gandy dismisses those claims. "The reality is that there are lots of lesbians and gay men in our society. They are entitled to equal rights. Lesbians are women too - obviously - and of course that is important to us," she says. "We work for the rights of all women and that includes lesbians."
On the current political scene a debate rages over abortion. Gandy fears the attacks on a woman's legal right to an abortion could overturn the 1973 Roe versus Wade Supreme Court decision that guaranteed a woman's reproductive rights. "We are not only in danger of losing Roe v. Wade, but there is an all-out assault on women's right to use birth control, the right even to take birth control pills or to use emergency contraception, and that is a right that we cannot lose."
Gandy says as NOW marks its 40th anniversary, it's more important than ever that the organization stay on the course set by its founder and first president, Betty Friedan: "We will not stop," she pledged, "until we are truly in equal partnership with men."
While many women embrace NOW's mission, some feminists say the organization should go even farther and support the struggle of women globally, but especially in non-Western and developing countries.
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