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History of NOW

The National Organization for Women is the largest organization of feminist activists in the United States. NOW has 250,000 members and 600 chapters in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Since its founding in 1966, NOW's goal has been "to take action" to bring about equality for all women. Both the actions NOW takes and its take on the issues are often unorthodox, uncompromising and before their time.

NOW activists use both traditional and non-traditional means to push for social change. NOW activists do extensive electoral and lobbying work and bring lawsuits. They also organize mass marches, rallies, pickets, counter- demonstrations, non-violent civil disobedience and immediate, responsive "zap" actions. NOW re-instituted mass marches for women's rights in the face of conventional wisdom that marches were a technique that went out with the 1960s. A march in support of the Equal Rights Amendment drew more than 100,000 people to Washington, D.C. in 1978. NOW's March for Women's Lives drew 750,000 abortion rights supporters to Washington, D.C. in 1992, for the largest protest ever in the capital.

These ongoing efforts established NOW as a major force in the sweeping changes that put more women in political posts; increased educational, employment and business opportunities for women; and enacted tougher laws against violence, harassment and discrimination. NOW's official priorities are economic equality, including an amendment to the U.S. constitution that will guarantee equal rights for women; championing abortion rights, reproductive freedom and other women's health issues; opposing racism and opposing bigotry against lesbians and gays; and ending violence against women.

Women's Work

One of NOW's strongest concerns is gaining recognition of the value of women's work, both in the home and the paid labor market. NOW first popularized the slogan, "Every Mother is a Working Mother," and the phrase, "women who work outside the home." In the 1970s NOW's lobbying and pickets of local newspapers and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission forced newspapers to eliminate sex-segregated "Help Wanted" ads, opening up more diverse and high-paying jobs to women. NOW also pressed landmark lawsuits against sex discrimination in employment, winning millions in back pay for women. For example, in the 1969 case Weeks vs. Southern Bell attorney Sylvia Roberts, NOW's Southern Regional Director, woman a U.S. Fifth Circuit ruling that it was a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to bar women from jobs, such as switchman, that involved lifting more than 30 pounds. This landmark decision was the first case to apply Title VII to sex discrimination. NOW continues to expose and address both the "glass ceiling" professional women face and the dire situation of poor women in this country.

Equal Rights Amemdment

In order to pursue economic equality and other rights for women, NOW launched a nationwide campaign in the 1970s to pass an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution. As part of the campaign, NOW leaders distributed buttons reading "59 cents" to draw attention to the wage gap; the figure represented the amount women then earned on average for every dollar men earned. When the ERA was not ratified by the deadline Congress set, NOW succeeded in its campaign to extend the time limit for ratification by more than three years.

In the course of its high-profile ERA work, NOW became a huge network of more than 200,000 grassroots activists and began operating with multi-million dollar annual budgets. Leaders organized political action committees, NOW/PAC and NOW Equality PAC, that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for pro-ERA candidates.

Elected Feminists

Although NOW activists did not win their first campaign to secure a constitutional amendment, they established only the political structures and strategies that live on to this day. Most significantly, they began to focus less on trying to influence men in power and more on electing feminists to replace them. NOW's independent Elect Women for a Change campaign in the1992 elections sent an unprecedented number of feminist women and men to the U.S. Congress and state capitals.

NOW contends that, in addition to its strong get-out-the-vote efforts, the two major factors in winning those electoral victories were the threat to abortion rights and women's anger over the U.S. Senate's treatment of law professor Anita Hill and its confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. NOW's record-breaking abortion rights march kicked off its 1992 electoral work. Protests organized by NOW successfully demanded that the Senate Judiciary Committee reopen its 1991 confirmation hearings to hear Hill's testimony accusing Thomas of sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment

NOW's work on harassment and violence dates back to its earliest days. NOW activists organized the first Take Back The Night marches. They founded hot lines and shelters for battered women and lobbied for government funding of programs aimed at stopping violence against women, winning passage of new federal legislation in 1994. Sexual harassment was one of the key issues that motivated students across the country to form high school chapters of NOW in the early 1990s.


Since its founding in 1966, NOW has worked to oppose racism and support diversity. The late Rev. Pauli Murray, an African American woman and Episcopal minister, was a NOW founder who co-authored its Statement of Purpose. Aileen Hernandez became the second president of NOW in 1971 and two years later NOW established its first task force on women of color.

In 1980 NOW instituted an affirmative action program, which today means that women of racial and ethnic diversity make up one-third of the organization's national board and over 40% of staff. NOW has been a co-sponsor and organizer of three marches commemorating the 1963 civil rights march when the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his "I Have A Dream" speech. NOW works closely with other groups on civil rights, welfare rights, immigration reform, apartheid, migrant worker and tribal issues.

Abortion Rights

In 1967 NOW became the first national organization to call for the legalization of abortion and for the repeal of all abortion laws. Since then NOW has been fighting for full reproductive rights for all women, including poor women and young women. NOW won a pivotal U.S. Supreme Court victory in the 1994 case NOW v. Scheidler. The ruling affirmed NOW's right to use federal anti- racketeering laws against anti-abortion extremists who organize others to bomb and block clinics and to intimidate patients and health care providers. NOW's litigation and lobbying are part of Project Stand Up for Women, which has trained thousands of abortion rights supporters to serve as clinic defenders.

Lesbian Rights

In 1971 NOW became the first major national women's organization to support lesbian rights. It has been one of the organization's priority issues since 1975, and was the theme of national conferences in 1984 and 1988. Through the years, NOW activists have challenged anti-lesbian and gay laws and ballot initiatives in many states. Over 15 years ago, NOW gave strong support to a landmark 1979 case, Belmont v. Belmont, that defined lesbian partners as a nurturing family and awarded a lesbian mother custody of her two children. The plaintiff in that case, Rosemary Dempsey, is NOW's Action Vice-President.

NOW, Inc., was established on June 30, 1966 in Washington, D.C., by women attending the Third National Conference of the Commission on the Status of Women. Set up in 1961, the Commission reported in 1963 that despite having won the right to vote, women in the United States still were discriminated against in virtually every aspect of life. Among NOW's 28 founders was its first president, Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique (1963).

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