Feminism's 1970s Flagship Faded From View — But In 2017 It's Back With A Vengeance

Had the technology existed, August 26, 1970, would have been a big day on Instagram. Masses of women were marching down Fifth Avenue in New York City — Black women, white women, Latina women, Asian women — tromping step-in-step through the streets with their arms linked at the elbows. They were old and young and everything in between; they were wives and singles and mothers. They were carrying protest signs, big poster boards featuring clever phrases like "REPENT, MALE CHAUVINISTS" and "EVE WAS FRAMED" or the simple, ubiquitous "WOMEN UNITE." One woman stopped marching and stood outside a peep show in Times Square with a placard demanding that a statue of Susan B. Anthony be erected on that spot at the corner of Broadway and 46th. Men on the sidewalk yelled "bra-less traitors!" and other abuse at the women passing by. But they didn’t care. They just kept on marching.
The Women’s Equality Strike, as the march was called, was put on by the newly-formed National Organization for Women (NOW) to honor the 50th anniversary of women winning the right to vote — and to demand that progress for women’s rights continue moving forward. The plan was for protesters to assemble at 5:30 p.m., a couple blocks north of where Trump Tower would be erected a decade later. The flier for the event also served as an advertisement for the liberties NOW was demanding: free abortion, equal opportunities in work and education, and free community-based childcare.
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When the march ended NOW founder and acting president Betty Friedan ascended the stage as the crowds, which reportedly numbered in the tens of thousands, went wild. “This is not a bedroom war,” she boomed. “This is a political movement.” Later, Friedan would tell The New York Times that women’s lib was about to become the biggest force for social and political change of the 1970s. Sister marches had successfully launched all over America, from San Francisco and Los Angeles to Boston, Washington, D.C. and dozens of other cities. It was a phenomenon that marked a new beginning — for women, of course, but also for NOW to become feminism’s shiny new flagship.
That was half a century ago. We no longer live in the same world that Friedan was fighting. We have laws against discrimination in the workplace; laws affirming equal access to education and the right to participate in sports. We have Roe vs. Wade, which guarantees women the right to have an abortion (though with many caveats). Our culture has changed from a place where feminists are reviled to one where public figures who don’t personally identify with the word are considered regressive — it just means women are equal to men, after all.
Much of that progress can be traced back to NOW pushing the ball forward — growing a grassroots network of activists, pushing an equality-driven legislative and social agenda, starting in the ‘60s ever since. But we’ve hit a wall. A misogynist tweets from the White House. The dominating political party is not only hellbent on denying women family planning choices but also on cutting off millions of Americans’ access to healthcare; nor can we count on Democrats to stand firmly for reproductive rights anymore. Forget free childcare: The United States lags behind the rest of the developed world on maternity policy, as well as family leave. The wage gap persists. Access to abortion is crumbling, one state at a time. We are still protesting this shit, with no end in sight.
Not long after that first big march down Fifth Avenue commemorating the 19th Amendment, August 26 was officially dubbed Women’s Equality Day. But true equality still hangs in the balance. We need a feminist front line as much as we ever have. The question is: How will the National Organization for Women — the beacon institution of women’s liberation, with a wide-reaching grassroots network and experience up the wazoo; one of the most recognizable symbols of female might; the sisterhood legacy that launched a thousand marches — re-emerge as the sexism-fighting, activist-awakening power organization for a new generation?
While the Women’s March rose up seemingly overnight as the bellwether of activism in the aftermath of the 2016 election, a subtler revolution has been showing up at the doors of NOW. New York state and NYC chapter president Sonia Ossorio says she has been nothing short of stunned at the shift. “Before the election, on an average basis, we would have 50 new members a month,” says Ossorio. Since the election, that’s gone up to 500 new members a month. It’s a real call to action for us.”
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According to figures provided by NOW, in 2017 there are more than 100,000 NOW members worldwide, and 251 chapters, across 47 states, in America; since Trump won the election, NOW has fielded requests to establish 127 new groups, compared to only four total the year before. The resistance is climbing toward critical mass. Indiana alone started four new chapters this year. West Virginia, Missouri, Kansas — states that went red in 2016 — and New Hampshire all lacked a statewide NOW leadership in 2016; in 2017, they are on the road the having state chapters and a presence in their respective capitals.
“We’re not the policy shop, or the research arm, or the organization with the big legal team that’s taking on a lot of clients,” Ossorio says on a hot afternoon in August, seated in NOW New York City's headquarters. “First and foremost, our job is to bring people together.”
NOW began as — and still mainly is — a grassroots organization staffed mostly by volunteers. In late June, 1966, the Third National Conference of Commissions on the Status of Women convened in swampy Washington, D.C. The makeup was, overwhelmingly and predictably, male, and seemingly unconcerned with correcting that imbalance. One evening, Friedan called an unofficial assembly in her hotel room, where she pulled out a paper napkin on which she had written exactly three letters: N O W. It stood for National Organization for Women. The next day, the founding group gathered at a luncheon and put their money where their acronym was: A $5 bill was slapped on the table by a feminist named Catherine Conroy, who told the others to pony up.
But as this legendary original group grew, eventually the organization reached a point in its lifespan that the infrastructure needed to pace with the activism. Today, the NYC chapter is trying to set a structural precedent for the rest of the country, Ossorio says. “We have a staff. We have a budget. We have institutional knowledge. The back end of the business is as important as the front end, and you have to have all that in place in order to put on the programming."
Though NOW has a national office in Washington, its formidable strength lays in its vast network of locally-run chapters. Each has its own leadership, bylaws, local issues, and feminist flavors, but all are unified by NOW’s overarching mission of equality for women. Local roots allow for far-flung chapters to focus on issues specifically impacting their own communities, which ladder up to grander organizational goals. As with most things, the local element receives less attention than what’s happening on the national stage, but it’s where the power to impact change truly lies. “It’s the members who are engaging with their own communities who are accomplishing a lot of the day to day work,” says Ossorio.
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The drawback of a widespread network of diverse women across a wide range of geography is that it doesn’t galvanize the same spotlight as a larger-looming platform like Planned Parenthood; nor is NOW set up to compete with the wide-scale digital reach of the Women’s March. Ultimately, that impacts growth in membership, which in turn affects revenue: For the last several years, NOW has only averaged about $3 million in donations. As membership grows, that figure will go up. But the fact is: You can’t run a non-profit on the power of grassroots activism and unpaid volunteerism. Money makes the world go ‘round in this realm, too.
While NOW members engage in on-the-ground advocacy like protests and community events, perhaps the most important substance of their activities is spreading knowledge about how to get things done: how to pass a law, how to challenge proposed legislation and combat defunding measures. It’s a lot like civics class but in a way that’s actually applicable. NOW also sees itself as a megaphone for other, smaller, less resourced organizations.
NOW members pay annual dues — between $35 to $45 per year, though it varies depending on state of residence — or one can elect to join as a lifetime member for a one-time amount of $1,000: membership includes both local and national status. Dues, along with rebates paid to local chapters by the national office from member renewals, comprise the operating budget, in tandem with charitable contributions.
But the thing about NOW membership is that support lives and dies by whatever is happening in culture at the time. In times of stability and progressivism, engagement declines because people feel comfortable and become complacent; when things get dire and fears are piqued, interest comes flooding back.
In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, when NOW was pushing to get the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) ratified in the senate, membership surged around the effort; when support for the ERA fell three states short and it failed, membership fell off. Numbers peaked again a decade later, between 1988 and 1991, when the Supreme Court was close to overturning Roe v. Wade. Activism increased and then declined, along with fears, when Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992. According to a representative for NOW, memberships increased during the Anita Hill hearings; and then again in the mid ‘90s when Newt Gingrich released the “Contract With America” plan, which plotted out conservatives’ intentions for the United States going forward.
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The latest NOW surge is happening, well, now. It has meant scaling up fast, making sure monthly events and trainings can accommodate 10 times as many people as was needed this time last year. In New York state, Ossorio has been on a town hall tour, holding meetups with women who are trying to plug into activist communities in the wake of renewed threats to women’s rights posed by the Trump administration, collecting stories to present before Congress to help protect key programs from being defunded. It’s an exciting time, she notes, but the stakes are as high as they’ve ever been.
“We spend so much time and resources defensively on reproductive rights that we’re not able to push forward on all these other issues, which is maddening,” Ossorio says, speaking about the battles women must be prepared to fight on many fronts.
“I certainly hope that the renewed interest, and the new interest as well from young women who hadn’t been as civically engaged or interested in politics, will be the silver lining down the road,” she adds. “It’s heartbreaking that young Americans aren’t getting better than this. They deserve a shot.”
A thing you hear a lot from today's young feminists is "representation matters." And that couldn't be any more true than in NOW's case. This new generation of feminists will only embrace an organization that is also fighting for trans rights, for poor people’s rights, for black people’s rights. Not just black women, but black people. Not just transgender women, but transgender people. That’s a part of the feminist movement,” says Debbie Stoller, editor-in-chief of BUST, the feminist magazine she co-founded back in 1993. “If you have an organization that’s just representing political action, and you don’t see also that organization coming out about transgender and other issues, there’s no way they can lead this generation. It’s just not going to happen.”
According to the 15 women I spoke to for this story, she may be right. These are young people who consider themselves feminists. Many of them attended a Women’s March in January and pointed to that newly-formed group as the leadership of the modern-day movement; others referenced Planned Parenthood, Elizabeth Warren, Black Lives Matter, She Should Run, Emma Watson, Malala Yousafzai, Zendaya as the front line of the fight in 2017. Some of these women had never even heard of NOW — or, if they had, didn’t see the legacy institution represented at the march or playing a part in their activism at all. Others pointed out that while they were familiar with NOW, they weren’t exactly sure what its mission or objectives are.
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So does NOW have a marketing problem? Jennifer Baumgardner, Third Wave icon, writer, and former executive editor and publisher of the Feminist Press, puts it like this: “Planned Parenthood is way more important than it’s ever been, and that might get to leadership: Cecile Richards is a real power player in a way that no one at the head of NOW has ever been, at least for a long time. There have been really cool people at NOW. But they just aren’t on that level.”
It doesn’t help that NOW has long held the reputation for being made up of older white women: In the years since it began, there has only been one woman of color at the helm of the national arm — Aileen Hernandez was president for a little less than a year, between 1970 and 1971.
“There were opportunities for NOW to shift gears in a radical way toward young leadership that wasn’t white, and it just kept on happening,” Baumgardner says. The most recent missed opportunity arrived in 2009, when 33-year-old Latifa Lyles ran for the presidential role — an election that was documented down to the last devastating detail in Susan Faludi’s controversy-stirring essay “American Elektra.”
Lyles, a career organizer who had served as NOW’s vice president for four years under Kim Gandy, ran on a platform of innovation and revitalization. “A lot of young people don’t identify with traditional organizations,” she said during a recent phone call with Refinery29. “In order to embrace a community that’s out there, you have to relate to them at various levels of feminist discovery” — bureaucratic speak for NOW needing to get with the Digital Age program.
As vice president, Lyles had worked on NOW initiatives from gay marriage to wage inequality, and she was ready to lead NOW into a new era: “It seemed like there were a lot of ways we could have taken off, gone deeper with some of the relationships with other women’s organizations and communities. There’s always an opportunity to build bridges and solidify coalitions, working with women of color, immigrant women, and there a lot of younger women who are engaged in the organizations, with communities of color, with poor women.” Current NOW president Terry O’Neill ultimately beat Lyles by a mere eight votes.
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Diversity isn’t the only public perception curve that NOW has to climb, either. It also has to contend with the sticky wicket of where they fit in the larger landscape of women’s rights institutions, some of which were founded by former NOW members during the last century and have cast a long shadow into the new one. It’s back to the “what does NOW do?” question. And while the answer to that is, in short order, “how much time do you have?”, sometimes a narrower mission captures more attention.
“Planned Parenthood and NARAL don’t claim to represent feminism,” says Stoller (even though, in a world where feminism has been largely defined by supporting reproductive rights, they sort of do by default). “They’re out there for a particular reason: to maintain abortion rights.” Which is, of course, part of what NOW does. But with so many other items on the docket, the messaging can get muddy. Add to that fact that NOW lacks the social following of a newly vogue organization like the Women’s March, and the proposition for why someone should contribute their time, energy, and money to NOW instead of countless other options can be tough. After all: There are only so many hours a day.
There is another thing NOW is up against when it comes to existing in 2017: the ins-and-outs of feminism itself. How Stoller explains it: “Feminism wants to be people united on women’s equality. But not everyone agrees on what that entails, what that includes, or even what that means.”
Deborah Watkins is a prime example of how that can play out. When she was a little girl growing up in Texas in the 1970s, she had a big brother who was her very favorite person in the whole wide world. A self-described tomboy who loved running around outside and playing football, she was angry that her school didn’t allow girls on the team. These were the thoughts — ones about what was fair, for girls and boys — that cycled around Watkins’ young mind. “I kind of looked at everything through this gender equality perspective,” she explains.
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After Watkins graduated from college in 1991, she joined a local NOW chapter in Tarrant County, Texas. “To me, NOW represented equality,” explains Watkins, who quickly fell into the volunteer life. Her can-do attitude put her in the vice president seat; when the president had to bow out for personal reasons, Watkins got a de facto promotion. “You have to understand: A lot of these local chapters, it’s like 20 or 30 ladies trying to get things done,” Watkins told me on the phone recently. “Somebody’s gotta be president. It’s really just a role within a small group of people who are trying to accomplish something.”
She remembers working on a NOW partnership with the Clothesline Project: The goal was to raise awareness for domestic violence against women, and the means was inviting women and children to decorate shirts that reflect the way domestic violence had touched their lives. Watkins helped pull the project together alongside other NOW members in Tarrant County.
But she had another idea. “I wanted to invite some men who had been abused by their wives or their girlfriends,” Watkins says. Other NOW members dissuaded her, saying that it might be a better idea to incorporate statistics about male victims in the informational notecards that would be handed out during an upcoming event at the local mall. “They felt like I was being intrusive, bringing up the subject of male victims,” she remembers. “They weren’t being mean about it. But it was almost like, ‘I get what you’re trying to do, Deborah. But we’re here to talk about women.”
Watkins internalized that moment, coming to realize that maybe she wasn’t in the right place. She remembers a squabble after she’d been president for about a year and a half, when, in the midst of a meeting, the vice president burst out and asked whose side she was on. “I’m on the side of equality,” Watkins recalls responding. It wasn’t long after that she left NOW.
“An ‘equality feminist,’ I called myself. It just faded away,” she says, sounding sad. In the time since, she’s become the treasurer for the National Coalition for Men, a nonprofit educational association whose website describes its goals as raising awareness about the way sex discrimination affects men and boys, and which has been called a men’s rights group by left-leaning media.
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“NOW is the major organization that is protecting abortion rights — that’s one of my top three issues where I’m always going to want to help,” says Watkins. “But it just got to the point where they were sick of me. I don’t blame them. They were just like: This is about women.”
Watkins isn’t the only notable ‘90s NOW defector: Tammy Bruce, the former NOW lifer and Los Angeles chapter president, left the organization allegedly due to disagreements about its progressive agenda. Now a firebrand media personality, Bruce went on to pen a book, The New Thought Police, and became a persona non grata for many of her former comrades. As did former NOW national president Karen DeCrow, whose view that divorced parents of children should share joint physical and legal custody tainted her feminist reputation back in the 1970s.
“Maybe feminism devolved into being about abortion and rape because those are two things that everybody can agree on: that rape is bad and rapists need to be held accountable,” Stoller says. We’re sitting in a breezy courtyard, talking about the fault lines that have split open the feminist landscape and keep cropping up. “Because what else can you get everybody on the same page about?”
January 21, 2017, was a big day on Instagram. The women had gathered to march. They came from all over America to Washington, D.C., wearing hand-knit pink pussy hats on an eerily warm Saturday. They also marched across the country and in protests worldwide, from Arkansas to Antarctica. There were women of all backgrounds, ethnicities, races, and identities: They were mothers, daughters, granddaughters, and little babies. They were single. They were friends. They were married, some to men, some to each other. They were trans and non-binary and more. This time the fathers, brothers, and sons came, too. No one was called a bra-less traitor.
They were carrying signs, posters featuring clever phrases like “PUSSY GRABS BACK” and “GRAB ‘EM BY THE PATRIARCHY” and “I’LL SEE YOU NICE WHITE LADIES AT THE NEXT #BLACKLIVESMATTER MARCH RIGHT?” One little girl held a torn panel of cardboard that read “I CAN BE PRESIDENT” in black marker. Later that weekend, the new team installed in the White House would claim the inauguration the day before had drawn crowds outnumbering the Women’s March. But the women didn’t care. They knew better. They had been there, marching.
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“I’m sure if you talked to 100 people at the Women’s March, you would have gotten a 100 different senses on what was important about it,” Baumgardner says. “But it’s kind of always been that way. We keep having the same fights. Maybe that’s okay, though. Maybe part of the energy of sifting through what you personally believe is having these arguments with other feminists.”
NOW was present in Washington that day, as both an official partner of the Women’s March itself and in the sense that its members showed up. NYC NOW chartered busses that brought down 600 people from Manhattan. Yet it is notable that NOW — the feminist institution that has launched a thousand marches, which has a half century of experience under its belt doing exactly that — was not one of the two premier partners: those were Planned Parenthood and the National Resources Defense Council. NOW may be currently accruing a wave of new recruits. But at the protest, their presence was little more than a blip.
“I think NOW is the product of an era,” Baumgardner says. “It hasn’t moved into the Digital Age in a meaningful way. It’s not where things are.”
Evidence of that may be NOW's resurrection of efforts around the Equal Rights Amendment, which has been frozen for more than 30 years and isn’t tailored to the definitions of equality we seek today. “No one can make a good case that anything substantial would change,” Baumgardner says. “It would be really hard to find a serious politician who can breathe life into it.”
NOW’s Ossorio sees things differently. “Unfinished business has left a hole in a lot of people’s hearts. When you have white nationalists talking about how the 19th amendment is not necessary and they’d like to see it gone, it fuels people’s interest in the ERA for the first time. And it’s really important to have wins: The ERA is both real and symbolic.”
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Lyles, the former vice president of NOW’s national office, has her own take on where the feminist movement will go from here. “There has been a surge in feminist activism that doesn’t necessarily need to subscribe to a ‘one organization, one voice model’,” she says. “It’s not the culture, or the moment, we live in anymore.”
Maybe not. But the moment we live in is looking for a hero: one that can sustain the fight for equality, who knows how to bring people together and agitate politically, one who is fiercely feminist and up to the challenge. Maybe Lyles is right and a single leader — like NOW was when it began — is no longer a viable solution. More likely, it’s grassroots activism, a network of community-based outposts, married under an arching vision to move everyone toward a more equal tomorrow, that will most capably unify the next generation on the road to change.
The irony is: that’s what NOW has always done, and what it’s doing today. It might not be out there leading the parade anymore. But NOW has been working in the ranks all along. “WOMEN UNITE” said the signs of 1970. It’s what we needed then. We need it now, too.
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