How to Structure a War Against Abortion Restrictions
Lessons from the history of NOW, with Professor Katherine Turk
As abortion access shrinks in many states while expanding in others — and with House Republicans now led by an anti-abortion zealot — I thought we should dig into the history of the National Organization for Women, aka NOW.
In The Women of NOW, Professor Katherine Turk chronicles how the organization transformed American life. Turk is an Associate Professor of History and Adjunct Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In our conversation, she charts NOW’s legacy and where the organization might’ve gone off course, with lessons for anyone concerned about women’s rights and abortion access today.
A condensed transcript edited for clarity is below. You can also listen to the audio of our conversation, which includes further discussion of Betty Friedan, Phyllis Schlafly, NOW’s battle against Sears, and more:
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Ben: Professor Turk, thank you so much for being here.
KT: Thanks, Ben. I'm delighted to join.
Ben: Today I’d like to trace the formation of NOW, some of the group’s transformational successes, and where the organization maybe went off course.
To begin, can you set the scene for us in terms of gender dynamics?
KT: Absolutely. Before the mid-1960s, American life was riven with sexism, misogyny, racism, and homophobia.
The workforce was highly segregated, structured by the logic that women and men were inherently different. The roles set aside for men, especially white men, tended to have union protections, offer a good wage that could support a family, and be the kind of jobs that would expand into careers — whereas the jobs set aside for women tended to be in the service sector, low paid, and not provide a ladder into any kind of personal independence.
That's just one example, and when we talk about women as a group, we need to acknowledge that there's no common woman's experience. But many women, across their differences, were frustrated by how hard it was to carve out a fulfilling life.
Ben: Within that context, how did NOW first come to be? I remember that at one point in the origin story, Betty Friedan locked herself in a bathroom.
KT: Ha, yes.
Zooming out, President John F. Kennedy promised several high-profile women supporters that if he were elected, he’d initiate a national commission to study the problems that women were facing. States formed parallel commissions and, in 1966, they met for a conference at the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, and a few other women, like the attorney and activist Pauli Murray, went into the conference wanting to form a new organization. They saw how federal officials still weren’t taking women's rights seriously, and they knew the main goal of the conference was to socialize and share ideas, rather than act on them.
On the penultimate day of the conference, Friedan, who was very well-known at that point, invited a small group of women to her hotel room. A lot of them were a few drinks in after a long day. Suddenly, Friedan and her allies sprung on them the idea of a civil rights group representing all women. Some of the representatives in the room were sympathetic; others, who thought they were just coming to an after-party, were skeptical.
Ben: To be fair, if I showed up to a party after a long day and it turned out to be an organizing meeting, I’d also be a little peeved — before then maybe getting on board.
KT: And that’s kind of what happened. Friedan got so frustrated with the pushback that she locked herself in the bathroom. Eventually, she emerged, and the next day, NOW’s soon-to-be 49 founders charted the organization and collected the first dues.
Ben: “From then on,” you write, “women would draft their own blueprints for change, then work to make them real.”
What was NOW’s initial approach?
KT: At first, NOW’s founders were mostly dedicated to a relatively narrow agenda focused on legal change. They were concerned about equal opportunities in the workplace and education, as well as access to child care. They took incredibly progressive positions, endorsing the Equal Rights Amendment and full abortion rights for all Americans in 1967.
Very quickly, they also set up local chapters: any ten people in any town, city, or college campus could each pay ten dollars to be members of NOW and establish a local chapter. Then, they could work on pretty much any issue that they deemed a women's or feminist issue. The group’s advocacy marked a sea change in how women sought to influence politics.
Maybe most notably, in August 1970, NOW organized a nationwide protest called the Women's Strike for Equality. Demonstrations took place in more than 40 cities in the U.S. and overseas. In Washington, D.C., federally employed women protested outside of the Pentagon. Across town, Black Power advocates, working with the local teachers union, talked about how feminized labor was devalued and disrespected. And in another part of town, prison abolitionists argued that incarcerated people needed to be freed.
In short, the organization’s early structure was flexible and encompassed a variety of viewpoints (against the wishes of Friedan, who stepped down as president in 1970 and worried about alienating more moderate Americans). After the strike, which was at the time the largest demonstration on behalf of women in U.S. history, the media began engaging much more seriously with the issues that feminists were raising.
Ben: As you argue, mainstream awareness of the very idea of gender equality can be traced to NOW’s influence during this period.
Can you explain how NOW began to organize around labor rights, and how divides among its members began to show?
KT: Well, ambition was baked into the premise that there could be an organization advocating on behalf of all women. It was a radical idea, and I think it perhaps downplayed just how different women were and are. Take for example NOW’s campaign against Sears, one of the nation's largest employers of women.
Sears treated women poorly, both as workers and as shoppers. At a time before people had credit cards attached to banks, you would have a credit card with a store. Indicatively, Sears’ credit department identified married female customers as “Mrs.” followed by their husbands’ full names, essentially preventing women from creating their own economic identities.
Ben: That certainly helps explain why Sears had millions of customers named Mrs. Upyorze.
KT: Ha! Yes, it does. Sears was very, very retrograde.