Fifty years ago, when a small group of activists founded the National Organization for Women, the immediate issue that motivated them was sex discrimination in employment. They were irate that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was refusing to ban “Help Wanted Male” and “Help Wanted Female” job advertising.
Typical were ads seeking a “well-groomed gal” for a job as a receptionist.
Flash forward to today: Women comprise close to 50 percent of enrollment in U.S. medical schools and law schools. One-third of federal judges are women, compared to just a handful in the 1960s. The U.S military is opening all combat jobs to women.
At NOW and elsewhere in the diverse ranks of the feminist movement, there’s deep pride in these changes, but also a consensus that the 50th anniversary — to be celebrated June 23 — is not an occasion to declare victory.
“The battle goes on,” said Eleanor Smeal, a former president of NOW who heads the Feminist Majority Foundation. “So many of the things we fought for have been achieved, but we still do not have full equality.”
Among the issues viewed as unfinished business: a wage gap that favors men over women, the persistent scourge of sexual assault and domestic violence, and the push in many states to reduce access to legal abortion.
Once virtually alone as a national, multi-issue feminist group, NOW shares the activist stage today with a multitude of other players — ranging from youthful online organizers to groups focused on specific issues such as abortion rights, campus rape and workplace equity. NOW’s membership and revenues are down from its peak years, and some younger feminists wonder if it is losing some relevance.
The situation was very different back in 1966. NOW’s founding was a pivotal moment in the rebuilding of a vibrant feminist movement in the U.S. after a period of relative dormancy in the 1940s and ‘50s.
“The momentum of the feminist movement that won suffrage and expanded women’s rights in the early 20th century had waned,” says NOW in its own history. “A negative media blitz proclaimed the death of feminism and celebrated the happy, suburban housewife.”
The so-called “second wave” of U.S. feminism gained momentum in part because of “The Feminine Mystique,” Betty Friedan’s 1963 book that gave a voice to women frustrated by the gender inequities of the status quo. Friedan was among the co-founders of NOW and was chosen as its first president at an organizing conference in October 1966.
She also wrote the Statement of Purpose adopted by NOW at that conference.
“The time has come for a new movement toward true equality for all women in America, and toward a fully equal partnership of the sexes,” the statement says. It vowed “to break through the silken curtain of prejudice and discrimination against women in government, industry, the professions, the churches, the political parties, the judiciary, the labor unions, in education, science, medicine, law, religion and every other field of importance in American society.”
Fifty years later, only patches of that silken curtain remain, and Hillary Clinton will have a chance this fall to add the ultimate breakthrough by becoming the first woman elected president. NOW has eagerly endorsed her, while depicting her Republican rival, Donald Trump, as “a boorish, babbling bigot who disrespects women.”
Trump prides himself on an ability to draw large crowds to his rallies; for many years, that was a hallmark for NOW as well. An estimated 100,000 people turned out for a 1977 march in Washington in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which ultimately failed to garner support from enough states to win ratification. Far larger crowds assembled for abortion-rights marches in 1989 and 1992.
In subsequent years, there have been only a few mass mobilizations of feminists. NOW’s president, Terry O’Neill, says the drop-off in revenues and dues-paying membership resulted in part from a drop in engagement by activists who, after a 1992 Supreme Court ruling, perceived less of a threat to abortion rights.
O’Neill declined to provide financial details, but said NOW’s national headquarters in Washington is down to a staff of 11, about a third of the size 25 years ago.
Another iconic feminist institution, Ms. magazine, also faces financial challenges.
“It’s nip and tuck, but we manage to always find the resources,” said Kathy Spillar, executive editor of Ms. since 2006. She said the magazine, a nonprofit, gets by with revenue from donors, special events and advertisements.
Ms. is only slightly younger than NOW, first appearing in 1971 as an insert in New York magazine, and publishing its first stand-alone issue in January 1972. Today it publishes quarterly but has a Facebook site and online blog that have attracted millions.
In their early years, NOW and Ms. were among a small handful of national entities with a broad mission of empowering women and girls.
“Now there are so many organizations, you can’t count them,” Spillar observed, saying they work well together.
While younger feminists appreciate NOW’s legacy, some also question its tactical skills and its demographics.
O’Neill, a 63-year-old white woman, says NOW would like to further diversify its membership, but acknowledged that its activist base is largely middle class or upper middle class. Racial diversity “is a continuing issue,” O’Neill said, citing NOW’s outreach to black sororities at U.S. colleges and its calls to tackle the racial wage gap as well as the gender wage gap.
Jamia Wilson, an African-American feminist writer in New York, said NOW and other long-established women’s groups “paved the way for many of us to be able to realize our visions and do our activist work.”
However, Wilson, 35, said these groups should make “bold moves” to recruit more women of color into leadership positions and work more closely with marginalized communities, such as transgender women and women who served time behind bars.
Generational rifts have surfaced in the presidential campaign, as many young women backed Bernie Sanders in the Democratic race rather than Clinton. When renowned feminist Gloria Steinem suggested that Sanders’ young female supporters were doing so in order to meet young men, there was enough outrage to prompt an apology from Steinem.
Jessica Valenti, a New York-based author who founded the popular blog Feministing in 2004, said younger feminists, acting individually or in small groups, have become adept on online organizing and activism.
“That doesn’t mean the big national organizations are unnecessary,” said Valenti, 37. “I would love to see them continue to get funding and do work, but my hope is that they take cues from younger organizers and that their work evolves with us.”
One example of online activism is UltraViolet, an advocacy group that uses the internet to mobilize rapid responses to public comments or actions that it views as sexist. Since its founding in 2012, its campaigns have helped build public pressure that contributed to the resignation of an Alabama-based federal judge accused of beating his wife, pressured Netflix to expand paid parental leave, and recently mounted a petition drive seeking the ouster of a judge who sentenced a former Stanford University swimmer to six months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman.
“We want to change the calculus that it pays to ignore or harm women,” said UltraViolet’s co-founder, Nita Chaudhary. “We exist to create a cost for sexism.”
Chaudhary doesn’t view UltraViolet as a rival to larger, older groups such as NOW.
“We create space for other groups that are better resourced to step into the cause,” she said.
It’s never been easy to quantify America’s feminist movement — many women consider themselves feminists to a degree yet don’t share some core beliefs of militant activists.
According to a recent national survey by the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation, six in 10 women and one-third of men in the U.S. depict themselves as feminists _ higher figures than in some polls a few years earlier. However, four in 10 respondents in the new poll viewed the feminist movement as “angry,” and a similar portion said it unfairly blames men for women’s challenges.
Among the critics of contemporary feminism is Christina Hoff Sommers, a former philosophy professor who is a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
In an interview, Sommers hailed NOW’s original mission statement as “an inspiring document” with goals that have mostly been achieved.
“It seems the more things improve for women, the more aggrieved many feminists become,” Sommer said. “There’s never a time when they say, ‘We’ve done it. It’s time to celebrate.””
Sommers said there’s still a pressing need for women’s-rights activism in many foreign countries, a need that American feminists could help address.
Spillar, who has expanded Ms. magazine’s international coverage, said U.S. women would have more influence abroad if they gained more clout at home.
“If we had half the seats in Congress, think how much more of a voice we could be,” she said.
In some respects, the United States lags behind many nations on women’s issues. According to a U.N. report, it is one of only three countries worldwide _along with Oman and Papua New Guinea — without a nationwide policy of paid maternity leave. Only a handful of U.S. states have mandated paid family leave.
Ellen Bravo, a Milwaukee-based activist who advocates on behalf of working women, contends that the dearth of family-friendly policies in the U.S. is rooted in the undervaluation of women and the work that they perform.
“In the past, the mindset was that there were always women ready to take up the caregiving tasks at home — and they would continue to do it for free,” Bravo said. “The mindset is still there, even though the facts on the ground have changed.”
Now, she says, many activist groups are campaigning simultaneously to curtail workplace inequality for women and expand the potential for men to handle more caregiving duties at home.
One workplace advocacy group, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, has found that raising gender-related issues bolstered its efforts to get a higher minimum wage for restaurant workers who rely primarily on tips.
Though the group’s 18,000 members include men, about two-thirds of them are women. Saru Jayaraman, the group’s co-founder and co-director, said the wage campaign gained momentum after activists sought to demonstrate that workers dependent on tips were subjected to disproportionately high levels of sexual harassment.
“Suddenly we were the new wave of feminism and gender justice,” said Jayaraman. “It allowed us to get more support.”
While efforts proceed to support women in unglamorous workplaces, there’s also been a popularization of feminism at the other end of the social spectrum. Among the pop culture icons embracing the term are Beyonce, Taylor Swift and even the Muppets’ Miss Piggy.
Andi Zeisler, co-founder and editorial director of Bitch Media, warily analyzes this phenomenon — which she calls “marketplace feminism” — in a new book, We Were Feminists Once.
She worries that feminism is becoming a feel-good buzzword as the struggle for gender equality shifts “from a collective goal to a consumer brand.”
“The problem is — the problem has always been — that feminism is not fun,” Zeisler writes. “It’s complex and hard and it pisses people off. It’s serious because it is about people demanding that their humanity be recognized as valuable.”