NEW YORK – 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 – which was celebrated Thursday – 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.
It was different back in 1966. NOW’s founding was a pivotal moment in the rebuilding of a vibrant U.S. feminist movement 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 NOW’s co-founders 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. It vowed “to break through the silken curtain of prejudice and discrimination against women” in every field of importance in American society.
Fifty years later, only patches of that silken curtain remain, and Hillary Clinton hopes to add the ultimate breakthrough by becoming the first woman elected president. NOW has eagerly endorsed her.
For many years, NOW drew large crowds to rallies. An estimated 100,000 people turned out for a 1977 march in Washington in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment; 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.
Some younger feminists question NOW’s 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.” 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.
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 at 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.”
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 of 10 women and one-third of men in the U.S. depict themselves as feminists. However, four in 10 respondents 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.’ ”
In some respects, the United States lags behind other 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.
While efforts proceed to support women in unglamorous professions – waitresses and home health aides, for example – 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 in a new book, “We Were Feminists Once.”
She worries that feminism is becoming a feel-good 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.”
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