National Organization for Women

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The National Organization for Women is the largest feminist organization in the US. Organized in June 30, 1966 by members from the third National Conference of the Commission on the Status of Women, this organization is currently still active and

NOW logo.


In 1966, Betty Friedan, feminist activist and author of The Feminine Mystique (1963), met with Catherine Conroy, Mary Eastwood, Dorothy Haener, Inka O’Hanrahan, Rosalind Loring, and other women to begin planning to found an organization to fight sex discrimination. There were calls from the group of women to hold a national press conference and for Friedan to form an “NAACP for women,” but she rejected both of these ideas. Instead, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded from this group of women who wanted to fight back against sexism in the workplace and to put political pressure on members of the EEOC to force them to act on complaints filed for sex discrimination. Founding members and early planning by volunteers of the organization took influence from other civil rights organizations that were active during the time —the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Student Nonviolent/National Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).The tactics and organization strategies proved helpful in forming events of their own, but the experience gained by women involved in these organizations proved extremely beneficial for the group’s early success.[1]

Historical context

Much of the content in the collection discusses things going on in the state, but these are often connected to larger national issues and activism. Women who participated in these movements founded local chapters of NOW, which were themselves influenced by both local situations and the decisions of the national organization.

The decade following the end of WWII was a period of immense social change in the US. Many small towns were drastically changed by the social and political movements during this era. The Civil Rights Movement, an important precursor to the second wave feminist movement, challenged deep-seated institutionalized racism in many communities —particularly in the South. The Civil Rights Act, implemented in 1964, included one of the most consequential provisions: Title VII, a clause expanding protections for employment discrimination to include race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. To enforce the provisions under the act, President Kennedy created the President's Committee on Equal Opportunity, a precursor to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) established in 1965. Once established, the EEOC was designed to investigate complaints of discrimination from workers and levy punitive charges to ensure compliance. If an employer has been found to discriminate in hiring, promotion, firing, or paid leave, the worker may be entitled to monetary compensation.[2] For many Black Americans, women, Jews, and other individuals who faced injustice, the Civil Rights Act and the protection of the EEOC was a promising change they hoped to positively impact their lives.

For women, this was not the case. In theory, the EEOC was the strong arm of the government to promote equality and to enforce protections from discrimination by penalizing infringers. In practice, women found that institutional sexism was rampant within the Commission and the EEOC itself operated as a microcosm by ignoring complaints for sexual discrimination. After the Commission was founded, four of the five members serving on the commission viewed the protection for sex discrimination under Title VII was illegitimate and did not take up most complaints during this time. Media outlets and the members consistently brought up theoretical and nonsensical situations in which the EEOC would be required to find sex discrimination: men denied positions as Playboy Bunnies and sorority house mothers.

Representative Martha Griffiths, a Democratic politician from Michigan and one of the most ardent supporters of the clause prohibiting sex discrimination in Title VII with the activism of the National Woman’s Party, voiced her anger towards the EEOC’s “wholly negative attitude” and argued that the members were negligent in their duty to protect women against sex discrimination. Other women in the US were angered by the EEOC’s refusal to investigate sex discrimination but many women’s organizations refused to take political action against the organization, such as the League of Women Voters who viewed the issue as partisan.[3]

Statement of purpose

The purpose of NOW is to take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men.

  • eliminate discrimination and harassment in the workplace, schools, the justice system, and all other sectors of society;
  • secure abortion, birth control and reproductive rights for all women;
  • end all forms of violence against women;
  • eradicate racism, sexism, and homophobia;
  • promote equality and justice in our society.

NOW achieves its goals through direct mass actions (including marches, rallies, pickets, counter-demonstrations, non-violent civil disobedience) intensive lobbying, grassroots political organizing and litigation (including class-action lawsuits.)


As other studies have shown, inherent to NOW’s volunteer structure is the requirement of representation for NOW to persist. NOW’s intra-group dynamic of collaboration contributed to a semi-democratic decision making system, but the adherence to the national platform limited the organization’s ability to reach out to other groups or individuals. [4] Simply put, NOW has a relatively simple structure of national, state, and local offices, but these complex relations between them contribute to a situation

For social movement organizations, specifically in the case of NOW, the governance structure is a key indicator to analyzing the daily operations and overall success of chapters in these efforts. Setting a national leadership structure involves an affirmation by the body of volunteers of responsibilities including setting the tactical agenda and shaping the political platform by tabling or avoiding issues or actions that are deemed not beneficial to the organization at every level. The codification of group hierarchy

More importantly, after a leadership structure is defined, that structure is impervious to change. In fact, “organizational designs laid down early in an organization’s life cycle tend to persist relatively unaltered during subsequent periods when environments may change markedly."[5] Despite calls from local chapters to address different issues they viewed as important on the ground, many state offices were unable to relay these suggestions to the national office to change the organization's platform.

The top-down approach to NOW organization can be thought of as a double edged sword. While the group can make changes to include new issues in its platform through directives given from the top, it could limit the group’s ability to form coalitions on the local level. Throughout its history, the national office included a relatively wide range of issues to address in the organization's platform, but because of this leadership structure, the local chapters had their hands tied by this platform.


Members of the national board chose Schlesinger Library at Harvard for the collection of the organization's records in 1972. As of 2014, the archive contains over 300 linear feet of manuscripts and the number will increase when donations have been processed.[6]


  1. Barakso, Maryann. Governing NOW: Grassroots Activism in the National Organization for Women. pp. 21-25. Cornell University Press, 2004.
  2. "About the EEOC: Overview." U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Archived 16 Mar 2015.
  3. Harrison, Cynthia Ellen. On Account of Sex: The Politics of Women's Issues, 1945-1968. pp. 190-191 University of California Press, 1988.
  4. Barakso, “Governing NOW.” p. 8
  5. Barakso. "Governing NOW." p. 5
  6. "Records of the National Organization for Women." Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study: Harvard University Accessed 5 Sep. 2014