Activism

Title

Activism

Subject

Activism, 2016

Description

The Origins and Impact of the National Organization for Women

NOW emerged in 1966 in response to the need of a national organization to address discrimination against women. The National Organization for Women emerged shortly after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Women were experiencing a time in which African Americans were fighting for equality through the use of different groups and organizations. Seeing the progress they were achieving, the organizers of NOW knew if they were going to have a fighting chance for equality they would need to achieve it through government legislation. NOW had approximately 300 members at the time of their first conference in 1966. There were many women responsible for the creation of NOW but one of the leading founders was Betty Friedan. She was the first president of NOW and held that title until 1970.  Equality in the workplace and violence against women were just a couple of issues addressed by the organization. There have been many organizations created in the history of the United States to fight for the rights of women but none have been as instrumental as the National Organization for Women in achieving the goals of equality.

Over time, NOW addressed diversity by addressing inequalities experienced by women of color, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered women. Once NOW was formed, women in cities across the U.S formed local chapters. At the national level, liberal feminism shaped the agenda utilizing lobbying for government legislation. Liberal feminists believe in the power and authority of individuals utilizing their rights to obtain equality. Radical feminists influenced local chapter’s strategies for gaining equality through challenging existing institutions and policies rather than following a political process.

Betty Friedan drafted a statement of purpose for the organization, outlining issues that led to reforms pursued by the organization. “NOW’s 1966 Statement of Purpose focused on equal rights and equal opportunities for women, with a vision of “bringing women into full participation in the mainstream of American society…exercising all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men.”[1] This organization was the first official organization for women in the second wave of the women’s movement. The organization is dedicated to women in their fight for full participation into American society. Friedan was not only a dedicated activist for women’s rights but an accomplished author and an educated woman who graduated from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Friedan was a woman of many accomplishments but did not become a public figure until her book, The Feminine Mystique was published. Friedan was prompted to write her book after realizing her discontentment with suburban lifestyle. She was an educated woman not using her intellectual capabilities. She knew there had to be more women like her and so she started surveying her neighbors and old college classmates which led her to writing, The Feminine Mystique. In Women’s Rights in the United States: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Issues, Events, and People, Suzanne O’Dea Schenken writes, “The Feminine Mystique helped launch the modern feminist movement in the United States by exposing the haunting sense of dissatisfaction many women felt and by portraying the experience as one that many women shared.”[2] Friedan’s encouragement helped push the issue of women’s equality into the public sphere influencing the establishment of a national organization for women’s rights. Although liberal feminism shaped NOW at the national level, radical feminists were prominent in local chapters, including the Memphis Chapter, and gave voice to women’s issues that had previously been ignored.

In 1970, the Memphis chapter of the National Organization for Women was established.  Memphis has always had a mixed history of activism within the city. In looking at the Memphis NOW, one historian describes the Memphis Chapter as “a feminist organization that was simultaneously liberal and radical in a ‘sleepy little river town’.”[3] The Memphis Chapter of NOW organized around the need for women’s pay equality (especially in male-dominated fields) and concerns over sexual violence against women. By 1975, Memphis activists referred to their city as “the rape capital of the nation,” and strongly advocated against rape and domestic violence. Activists demanded public and political attention to the too-often private issue of rape. They employed radical feminist strategies, included organizing a march around the thirteen-block perimeter of Overton Park in midtown Memphis.” [4] These activists used strategies popular with radical feminism.

Many feminists agreed that their ultimate objective was to gain equality for women in all aspects of life, although the tactics used by different chapters of NOW did not always mirror one another. The Now chapter of Memphis produced a document stating that tactics would require imagination. “Tactics from a mass-based organization should flow from the principle that what you have is numbers.”[5] Activists believed that these collective actions would result in a reaction from those who opposed women’s equality. The document outlined which tactics should and should not be used by the organization.

During the 1973 NOW national conference titled Revolution: Tomorrow is NOW, a publication was circulated that outlined the strategies and policies that the group wanted to address.”[6] With the 1973 Supreme Court Roe v Wade decision, feminist activists saw a major victory, giving women the right to explore their sexuality and leaving their long time patriarchal bondage that had been passed down through the centuries. Looking at Revolution: Tomorrow is NOW in section 7 page 15 titled Reproduction; NOW is clear as to what things women should have uninhibited access to such as; all forms of birth control, and abortions to anyone that is requesting such services. Further down in the document titled Revolution: Tomorrow is NOW page 19 section 11 titled Criminal Justice[7], NOW outlines how rape will not be tolerated, nor will it be ignored by authorities. Also, victims will not be shamed or ridiculed.  This is later carried out in a resolution during the 1974 Southern Regional NOW Conference[8] held in Memphis, Tennessee. Members of the Memphis local chapter of NOW supported these initiatives. Memphis NOW chapter member, Juanita and the word “carried”, indicating the chapter members’ approval of a resolution on sexual violence passed during the 1974 Southern Regional NOW conference held in Memphis.

NOW lobbied for sexual freedom. The members of NOW believed that all women regardless of race or sexuality had the right to express themselves freely. Part of this issue was certain birth control methods including abortion. They paid close attention to issues limiting reproductive choice, including abortion. The members of NOW were known for being pro-choice. They believed that abortion was a tool that not only allowed for women to freely express themselves sexually but also protect themselves from the effects of being a victim of rape. However, birth control and abortion had not always been available to women. They did this by appealing to the Supreme Court and boycotting pharmaceutical companies. NOW members had “discussed the possibility of boycotting the company that produces RU 486 if it continues to balk at the selling of the abortion pill in the United States.”[9]  Boycotts such as this showed the world just how serious the women in America were about having the right to choose what was done to their bodies. Women were becoming sexually liberated, but to become truly free from the old patriarchal society, women also needed financially independence, the security of a fair wage, equality in the workplaces free from harassment and threat of retaliation.    

 During NOW’s national conference in 1973, held in Houston, Texas, the 2nd item on the agenda titled Revolution: Tomorrow is NOW was economic equality which was broken down in sub points A-O. NOW saw how extremely important financial freedom was to women. This was reiterated a year later in the papers from the1974 Southern Regional Conference held in Memphis in resolution 7[10]. This was addressing the fact that women held the lowest paying position and normally were the first to be fired or laid off. Both nationally and locally NOW advocated for paid equality.

Advocates today are still working on the same issues from the 1970s prevalent in the United States. Issues such as equal pay for women is one of the platforms that Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton is using, as well as actresses from television and the silver screen. Also recently, the untested rape kits that sat in the Memphis police department show a lack of importance of sexual assaults. These are issues that are still being debated in 2016 that were being first brought into the national spotlight by NOW in 1966. Even though the battles for the equality of women are still being waged locally and nationally, progress has been made, but the war is not over.  

Works Cited

Primary Sources

“Ama and Now for Abortion Pill”. 1990. “Ama and Now for Abortion Pill”. Off Our Backs 20. 

Hustala, Judy. Resolution #7. Southern Regional NOW Conference. October 20, 1974. Memphis Chapter. Mississippi Valley Collection, Memphis State University, National Organization for Women, Memphis Chapter. MSS 66. Box #1 of 5. Available at Mcwherter Library, Special Collections.

Revolution: Tomorrow is NOW Pre-Conference Manual of Policies and Resolutions. Massachusetts. 1973. National Organization for Women, Memphis Chapter. Mississippi Valley Collection, Memphis State University, National Organization for Women, Memphis Chapter. MSS 66. Box #1 of 5. Available at Mcwherter Library, Special Collections.

“Tactics”, National Organization for Women, Memphis Chapter. Mississippi Valley Collection, Memphis State University, National Organization for Women, Memphis Chapter. MSS 66. Box #1 of 5. Available at Mcwherter Library, Special Collections.

Secondary Sources

Gilmore, Stephanie. 2003. "The Dynamics of Second-Wave Feminist Activism in Memphis, 1971-1982: Rethinking the Liberal/Radical Divide." NWSA Journal (2003):94-117.

Wayne, Tiffany K., and Lois W. Banner. 2014. Women's Rights in the United States: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Issues, Events, and People. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO, 2014.

 

 

[1]Tiffany K. Wayne, and Lois W. Banner. 2014. Women's Rights in the United States: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Issues, Events, and People. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Stephanie Gilmore."The Dynamics of Second-Wave Feminist Activism in Memphis, 1971-1982: Rethinking the Liberal/Radical Divide." NWSA Journal, 2003. 94.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Tactics”, National Organization for Women, Memphis Chapter. Mississippi Valley Collection, Memphis State University, National Organization for Women, Memphis Chapter. MSS 66. Box #1 of 5.

[6] Revolution: Tomorrow is NOW Pre-Conference manual of policies and resolutions. Massachusetts. 1973. National Organization for Women, Memphis Chapter. Mississippi Valley Collection, Memphis State University, National Organization for Women, Memphis Chapter. MSS 66. Box #1 of 5.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Hustala, Judy. Resolution #7. Southern Regional NOW Conference. October 20, 1974. Memphis Chapter. Mississippi Valley Collection, Memphis State University, National Organization for Women, Memphis Chapter. MSS 66. Box #1 of 5.

[9] “Ama and Now for Abortion Pill”. 1990. Off Our Backs 20. 

[10] Judy Hustala. Resolution #7. Southern Regional NOW Conference. October 20, 1974. Memphis.

Creator

Denise Nichols, Jere Norville, Will Ruffin

Contributor

Denise Nichols, Jere Norville, Will Ruffin

Rights

Digital Image © 2016, University of Memphis Libraries Preservation and Special Collections Department. All rights reserved.

Items in the Activism Collection

Tactics
This is a primary source used by the National Organization for Women in the Memphis Chapter. This document outlines tactics that will benefit the organization. It entails what tactics to use as well as what tactics should not be used. It states that…

Letter from First Presbyterian Church
This image is of a letter contributes to the certain challenges that the National Organization of Women and lesbians faced in their efforts to spread awareness of sexuality and lesbian rights. In that was sent from the Memphis First Presbyterian…

Betty Friedan
This is a photograph taken of Betty Friedan on March 23, 1970. She is displaying equality for women buttons at the organizations national convention in Chicago. This photograph was taken in the last year of Friedan’s presidency for the National…

Statement of Purpose
This document is the Statement of Purpose for the National Organization for Women. This document was drafted by Betty Friedan, the first president of the National Organization for Women. The purpose of this document is to outline the reason behind…

The Future is NOW
The 1973 National Conference itinerary entitled The Future is NOW. Is a 23 page document that the origination printed to address the most important issues challenging the progress of the rights of women in the United States. These issues include…

Resolution from 1974 Southern Regional NOW Conference
The document entitled Resolutions from the 1974 Southern Regional NOW Conference which was held in Memphis, Tennessee in October. The same concerns and issues that was being discussed national was also being advocated at the local level. Though the…