Katherine Turk's The Women of NOW: How Feminists Built an Organization That Transformed America was published in 2023 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
The Liberals of NOW
Repeating Our Successes
The Lessons and Legacy of NOW
Looking Back, Moving Forward
Short Takes: Provocations on Public Feminism, an open-access feature of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, offers brief comments from prominent feminists about a book that has shaped popular conversations about feminist issues. Short Takes is part of the Feminist Public Intellectuals Project.
The Liberals of NOW
Scholars of sixties social movements have long favored activists who wore their radicalism on their sleeve. Take the Black freedom movement: histories of the militant Black Panther Party dwarf those of the legalistic National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Likewise, historians of second-wave feminism have lavished attention on the young radicals of women’s liberation rather than the middle-aged career women who founded the National Organization for Women (NOW). Histories of feminism often devote a few obligatory pages to the pragmatic women of NOW before plunging into lengthy and admiring accounts of women’s liberationists ripping it up and starting all over again.
Thankfully, scholars have begun to correct this historiographical lopsidedness. In her 2009 book, The Feminist Promise, Christine Stansell argued it was precisely those unapologetic insiders, liberal feminists, who advanced the feminist agenda. Sixties radicalism was transformative, but the groups that wrote those mind-blowing manifestos flamed out in no time. By contrast, NOW, which initially modeled itself on the NAACP, endured. By 1974, when most women’s liberation groups were defunct or faltering, the eight-year-old NOW counted 37,000 members and seven hundred local chapters in all fifty states. In the mid-1980s, amid a full-on backlash against feminism, NOW could boast of its 200,000 members.
Katherine Turk’s deeply researched and very readable The Women of NOW is the latest effort to give the feminists of NOW their due. Turk has chosen to write the organization’s history by interweaving the stories of three little-known leaders—Aileen Hernandez, NOW’s second president; Mary Jean Collins, president of its powerful Chicago chapter; and Patricia Hill Burnett, a Republican and advocate of global feminism. Hernandez was Jamaican-American, while Collins and Burnett were both white but from opposite ends of the economic spectrum. Turk has written a seamless narrative, which is no small thing. Her focus on these women enables her to write a distinctive history of NOW from deep inside it. Even with Betty Friedan largely sidelined from its pages, The Women of NOW features a surprising amount of hardball infighting.
Turk’s tight focus on this trio also has its downside, as it necessarily determines where her history can go. It makes her account of NOW’s involvement in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s sex discrimination lawsuit against Sears riveting, in part because it featured NOW-leader-turned-Sears-consultant Hernandez and NOW’s Collins on opposing sides. However, it does not provide her a way in to, say, NOW’s efforts to fight violence against women, which culminated in 1994’s Violence Against Women Act. This campaign has led some scholars to criticize feminists of many stripes for fortifying the carceral state in ways that advanced a neoliberal agenda.
This brings me to a second and related criticism: Turk has written a largely celebratory account of NOW. Yes, she dings the organization for its racially blinkered view of the world, but she emphasizes NOW’s pivotal role in transforming America. In her rendering, the women of NOW were pretty much from the start revolutionaries committed to organizing women to “end male supremacy.” This may describe how some NOW members evolved, but the organization’s founding statement put forward a much more measured aim: creating an “equal partnership of the sexes.”While I hesitate to call anything “revolutionary” these days, I agree that NOW became a transformative force of change.Click To Tweet
While I hesitate to call anything “revolutionary” these days, I agree that NOW became a transformative force of change. In fact, what makes NOW’s story so interesting is that it did so as a liberal organization. Curiously, Turk has no compunction about labeling other feminists “radical feminists,” “cultural feminists,” or “socialist feminists,” but she never calls the women of NOW what most of them were: liberal feminists. The closest she comes to explaining her decision is to say that the typical scholarly depiction of NOW as liberal is a mischaracterization, one that fails to acknowledge how deeply the organization changed. Turk’s rebranding of NOW positions it outside the ideologically riven world of the second wave, when it was in fact very much a part of it, alternately absorbing and resisting the views of those more explicitly “radical.”
Perhaps Turk sidesteps NOW’s liberalism because the “liberal” tag carries so much baggage that it would prejudice readers against NOW. Liberalism clearly is out of favor these days. In the past twenty years, the historiographical tide has turned against it, too, at least in studies of the twentieth century. Recent histories of the sixties often depict liberalism and conservatism as ideological bedfellows. In my view, Turk misses an opportunity to explore what NOW can tell us about American liberalism. In what ways does NOW confirm, complicate, or upend prevailing views of liberalism as fatally compromised, or worse? Yet it’s a measure of what Turk has achieved that her important study leaves one eager to learn more about NOW and to understand what its history might reveal about the elasticity and brittleness of American liberalism in the Long Sixties.
Alice Echols is professor of History and the Barbra Streisand Chair of Contemporary Gender Studies at the University of Southern California. She is the author of five books, including Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-75. She is currently writing a history of interracial and cross-racial collaborations in the Black freedom movement of the 1960s. She lives in Los Angeles.
Repeating Our Successes
The National Organization for Women (NOW) was the largest feminist group in America, and arguably the most influential. And yet the general public knows little about the organization’s history; even young feminists have received a kind of flattened, reductive story about the group, focused mostly on its shortcomings. That’s the problem Katherine Turk seeks to correct in her book The Women of NOW: How Feminists Built an Organization That Transformed America.
It's about time. The modern feminist movement, which began in earnest in the late 1960s, is now well into middle age, but its goals, its impact, and its very makeup remain hotly contested. Turk tells the story of NOW through three women who were leaders (although not founders) of the organization, and who illustrate the complex problem of creating a single organization that aims to represent more than half the population. There’s the wealthy former beauty queen turned disaffected housewife, the Midwestern girl from a working-class family who struggles to reconcile her Catholic faith with her lesbian identity, and the child of Jamaican immigrant parents turned high-achieving Howard-educated activist. All represent the push-pull within NOW, as well as the competing and at times conflicting demands and questions of the feminist movement itself: What do women – a large and diverse group – actually want and need? At what point does a big tent become a circus? How do race, class, and sexuality shape one’s experience of womanhood, and where do our own assumptions and biases get in our way of collective action? With such different needs and experiences, is it even possible to unite around a single feminist agenda?
The feminist movement today continues to grapple with these same issues. And we’ve seen some of the work of a previous generation of feminists undone, most notably with the end of the era of legal abortion in the United States – a right secured in large part by early feminist activists.
What we’ve also seen, unfortunately but perhaps predictably, is a kind of filial rejection, of younger feminists reacting to the shortcomings of older ones by flattening them into caricatures and emphasizing their failures, often to the exclusion of learning from their successes. Early in the book, Turk writes about teaching feminist history to undergraduates, and illustrating a time when a woman couldn’t get a credit card in her name, or would have to show she needed a certain number of stitches to see any recourse for domestic violence. And her students would ask, she writes, “who ended those injustices, and how did they accomplish it?” The answer they’re likely to find, she says, is woefully incomplete: “If you consult opinion pieces in mainstream news outlets that are supposedly sympathetic to feminist history, you learn that feminism in the 1970s was plagued by ‘cliqueiness and passive aggression disguised as politics,’ prone to ‘collapse,’ and ‘fatally privileged’ by its white middle-class participants who were, according to some younger feminists, ‘oblivious to race and class.’ Though there is truth in those criticisms, they fail to capture the full scope of the movement that was ‘second-wave feminism.’”
The story Turk tells indeed includes all of these criticisms. There were failures among some well-to-do white feminists to see race, class, and sexuality as part of one’s womanhood, not as distractions from some central definition of woman; there was infighting and passive-aggression and many feminist organizations more radical than NOW that dissolved because of structurelessness. But she also makes the case that branding the women of NOW as a group of sniping rich white ladies erases the contributions of so many NOW members and leaders who don’t fit that description and who fundamentally shaped the organization and its victories – and who, being human, also made their own mistakes.NOW was, somehow, both radical and moderate. The very idea undergirding it – an advocacy group for women – was a radical one. Its aims, though, were very much to use the master’s tools to chip away at the worst aspects of the master’s house.Click To Tweet
NOW was, somehow, both radical and moderate. The very idea undergirding it – an advocacy group for women – was a radical one. Its aims, though, were very much to use the master’s tools to chip away at the worst aspects of the master’s house. In its early days, it was brushed aside by the powerful. But as feminism grew into a raucous, cacophonous movement with many voices, many aims, and many different strategies, NOW eventually found itself “outflanked on the left,” Turk writes – which meant that “NOW and its concerns looked more reasonable.” Sometimes, the more moderate feminists and the radicals stood side-by-side in pursuit of the same goals; other times, they found themselves mired in conflict. But while these different ideas and ideals and tactics and rhetoric sometimes meant time and energy wasted on conflict, their more powerful result was a multifaceted movement that shifted the Overton window. Once upon a time, the very idea of gender equality sounded insane. With a feminist movement that included calls for things like political lesbianism and abolishing marriage, NOW demanding equal pay didn’t sound so threatening. It took all parts of the feminist ecosystem – the radical women and the women of NOW – to get things done.
As feminists today live in the middle of the largest anti-feminist legal backlash we’ve seen in our lives, it’s worth knowing the contours of our history – because while there are always mistakes to be left behind, there are also parts of it we certainly want to repeat. Among them: allowing for conflict and complication, and not flattening our stories down to a singular, dismissive narrative.
Jill Filipovic is a Brooklyn-based journalist, lawyer, and author of OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind and The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness. A weekly columnist for CNN and a 2019 New America Future of War fellow, she is also a former contributing opinion writer to the New York Times and a former columnist for the Guardian. She writes at jill.substack.com, hosts The Week in Women podcast, and holds writing workshops and retreats around the world.
The Lessons and Legacy of NOW
Rebecca Jo Plant
Katherine Turk’s The Women of NOW: How Feminists Built an Organization That Transformed America is an enormous accomplishment: a highly readable, indeed gripping account of “the largest and most expansive feminist organization” from its founding in 1966 through the early 1980s. To write a lively history of any organization—even one populated by such colorful figures as NOW activists—is a tall order, especially considering the sheer volume of relevant archival deposits throughout the country. But Turk faced a still more daunting challenge. Because NOW was so decentralized in its first decade, with state and local chapters that developed their own distinctive character and focused on a wide array of issues, there simply is no single narrative to uncover for this early period. Instead, the book’s overarching story is NOW’s transformation from a loosely federated, grassroots movement fueled almost entirely by volunteer labor into a more top-down, Washington-based interest group with a laser-like focus on the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).
NOW indisputably helped to reshape basic assumptions about the meaning of sexual difference and the role that it should play in structuring familial and social life. A world in which women constitute more than half the US’s medical and law students, for example, would have been all but inconceivable without its efforts. NOW was “singular in its foundational role, its flexible agenda and national reach,” Turk argues, making it “the site, not simply the backdrop, of much of the feminist struggle in our recent past.” But her assessment, often celebratory and always respectful, is not uncritical. She clearly believes that the organization took a wrong turn–a view expressed even more pointedly in her 2010 essay tracing NOW’s initial support for and ultimate retreat from a Chicago-centered campaign against employment discrimination at Sears. In 1975, newly elected leadership “began to alter NOW’s relationship with employers and government agencies and changed NOW’s tactics from militancy to accommodation,” a transformation so marked that by the mid-1980s, “NOW resembled its pre-1975 image in name only—not in priorities or tactics.” Becoming a more streamlined and centralized organization ultimately meant sidelining the concerns of working-class women, women of color, and lesbians.
Nuanced and multifaceted histories like this one do not provide political roadmaps for the future. But especially in our current moment, it is impossible to read this book without trying to discern applicable lessons. Turk anticipates as much when she writes that NOW’s “accomplishments as well as its shortcomings—offer lessons in how to challenge institutions, shift cultural norms, and foster solidarities.” But what are those lessons?
A key one is that NOW should never have put all its eggs in the ERA basket. It is easy to see how it happened, as what appeared a certain victory morphed into an excruciatingly drawn-out battle. And to be fair, scholars who observe that the amendment fell three states short of ratification minimize how agonizingly close the contest was: “if just seven state lawmakers” in those three states had voted yes, Turk reminds us, “the ERA would have been ratified.” Yet if one can understand the choices made and sympathize with those who led the fight, it still behooves us to consider the voices of dissent that were there from the beginning. African American women in particular well understood both the power and the insufficiency of constitutional amendments: after all, racial discrimination and disenfranchisement went unchecked for decades, despite the ratification of 14th, 15th, and 19th Amendments. Pauli Murray at first strongly opposed NOW’s 1967 decision to support an equal rights amendment. Worried about the effort it would take, she preferred to “unite civil rights and feminism under one constitutional banner” by relying on the 14th Amendment’s equal protection and due process clauses. Similarly, Aileen Hernandez warned in 1975 that women of color did not have “the luxury of a ‘single issue’ focus.”
Consider this admittedly provocative thought experiment. What if a grassroots campaign had pushed for a different constitutional amendment in the 1970s, one that both Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter supported: abolishing the electoral college? Or, failing that, what if activists had fought on the state-level to reform our “winner-take-all” system? Such a change would almost certainly have proven more effective at fostering and protecting feminist gains than the ERA. No George W. Bush, no Donald J. Trump, no extremist Supreme Court majority overturning Roe v. Wade. Granted, this is Monday-morning quarterbacking to an extreme degree: until Al Gore, no candidate since the 1880s who won the popular vote had failed to win the presidency. And in any case, how could one have mobilized feminist energies for a procedural change? But my larger point is this: feminist attempts to enshrine formal legal equality have often proven elusive or disappointing, whereas efforts to make society more inclusive and to democratize its governing institutions have often yielded real gains.When grassroots activism occurs in the context of a sprawling, big-tent movement—with room for many kinds of women and many visions of feminism—previously unimaginable change becomes possible.Click To Tweet
In closing, Turk reminds us that NOW still stands, should the next generation of feminists choose “to claim” it. But whether or not the organization can be reanimated remains unclear; many state and local chapters appear to be dormant. (One also wonders what to make of the fact that no one from the national office responded to Turk’s multiple requests for an interview.) Yet whatever form feminist activism assumes in the years to come, NOW’s history offers inspiration as well as cautionary tales. It shows the remarkable things that can happen when women are empowered to engage at the local level, knowing that they are part of something much bigger. To put it differently, when grassroots activism occurs in the context of a sprawling, big-tent movement—with room for many kinds of women and many visions of feminism—previously unimaginable change becomes possible.
Rebecca Jo Plant is a Professor of History at the University of California, San Diego, where she teaches U.S. women’s history and the history of the U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction. She is the author of Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood in Modern America (2010), and coauthor, with Frances M. Clarke, of the recently published Of Age: Boy Soldiers and Military Power in the Civil War Era (2023). She is also currently the editor of Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600 to 2000.
Looking Back, Moving Forward
The last time I experienced a feminist moment of crisis, I turned to the only safe haven I could imagine: the wisdom of those who had been there before. I sent emails, made Zoom calls, read books by the queer women, the poor women, the women of color who had battled to belong in the second wave of feminism. But how did you do it? I kept insisting on asking the unanswerable question. How do we transform this movement and make it more whole?
Katherine Turk asks a similar question in The Women of NOW, a history of the women’s organization whose name is synonymous with the second wave—and her interrogation comes at a critical time for feminists. Decades of gains, for women and for other folks living at the intersections of oppression, are being rolled back. The far right is relentlessly attacking our rights to exist, to claim freedom, to live the lives we have imagined and designed.
So much of this feels unprecedented. And yet, in some ways, we’ve been here before. When Turk’s telling of NOW’s story begins, abortion is illegal. Women have little to no economic freedom or safety. Sex discrimination at work and in education is open and unabashed. Misogyny, racism, and homophobia are rampant.
Turk asserts that she wants to avoid painting NOW with broad strokes, or insisting “that feminism in the 1970s was plagued by ‘clique-iness and passive aggressive politics’ ... prone to ‘collapse,’ ‘fatally privileged,’ …’oblivious to race and class.’” She eschews a singular focus, following instead a handful of women who rose to prominence within NOW’s first three decades—queer and straight, rich and middle-class, Black and white, debutantes and the daughters of immigrants.
The Women of NOW showcases some of the organization’s major breakthroughs: the legalization of abortion, the successful litigation of sex discrimination employment cases, and boycotts against sexist companies. We see NOW’s membership skyrocket and we watch a women’s organization take hold across the country for the first time, with some cities populated by various chapters working on different projects. What NOW did demonstrate, in spades, is how much of a difference we can make when we come together—and how easy it can be to “make the patriarchy quake.”What NOW did demonstrate, in spades, is how much of a difference we can make when we come together—and how easy it can be to “make the patriarchy quake.” Click To Tweet
But throughout Turk’s book, women also miss critical opportunities to show up for each other. They err on the side of what is “pragmatic,” “practical,” “mainstream”—falling back into a narrow view of what is possible instead of daring to expand their feminist imaginations. They sacrifice powerful visions of a feminist future for imagined political expediency.
But they also keep forging ahead. They go back to the drawing board. The women who stay in NOW form new committees, reinvent their fundraising strategies, change their focus, elect new leaders. The women who break ties form new organizations, fill gaps in the movement, struggle to create change from inside government and corporate entities. And despite conflict and protracted internal strife, they all continue to find themselves entangled, over and over, on the front lines of the next moving target of the feminist movement.
NOW was the first organized group dedicated to women’s rights, purporting to speak on behalf of all women; in hindsight, the most powerful lesson learned from its history might be how impossible a mission that was. Turk, at one point, refers to the organization as an “unstable coalition” that could “bend without breaking”—which, given how bent out of shape it has become at different times, is nothing short of a miracle. Sixty years later, it still stands, albeit in an entirely different political landscape and in the midst of an absolutely transformed feminist movement. And over a half-century later, what we need is to continue bending, finding flexible ways forward, without breaking apart, burning out, or giving up.
Turk’s book reminded me that despite our internal struggles in feminist spaces, despite the roadblocks we face in achieving our collective liberation, our movement renews. It regenerates. And that’s because we labor to make it more complete, more whole, and more powerful—together.
Carmen Rios is a feminist superstar. Her pieces on queerness, gender, race, and class have been published by BuzzFeed, Bust, CityLab, Dame, ElixHer, Everyday Feminism, Feministing, Feminist Formations, GirlBoss, GrokNation, MEL, Mic, the National Women’s History Museum, Signs, and the Women’s Media Center, and she is a consulting digital editor at Ms. magazine and the former community director and feminism editor for Autostraddle. Carmen also produced and hosted Bitch Media's Popaganda podcast and was coproducer and cohost of The Bossy Show, with Jill Gutowitz. Her work has been covered by outlets including NPR, CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Vox, Good Morning America, and Jezebel. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr.
Thanks to Signs for soliciting this forum and to Alice Echols, Jill Filipovic, Rebecca Jo Plant, and Carmen Rios. I am grateful to these thinkers for highlighting the dynamics of feminist movement building that animate The Women of NOW. I appreciate this opportunity to respond.
Echols posits that I should have framed NOW members as “liberal feminists”—I disagree. The 1966 Statement of Purpose emphasized relatively narrow goals but did not capture the aims of even NOW’s next generation. Still, fifty years of scholarship has tended to assert a rigid divide between liberal and radical feminists, with NOW anchoring the liberal side. This binary imposes an order that can obscure how real people understood and sought to change their world. Among NOW members were those with radical, socialist, racial justice, moderate, and even conservative commitments, and they did not check their politics at the meeting room door. Far from separating NOW from its “ideologically riven world,” The Women of NOW analyzes how those struggles unfolded among diverse women in the same organization. There were fierce debates: not only about issues and strategy, but about whether to accept, alter, or reject “mainstream” society.Through trial and error, NOW sought to determine what women on the whole might “actually want and need” and whether their sex could ever unite behind one agenda.Click To Tweet
Filipovic foregrounds the ambition at NOW’s core: establishing an organization that could represent more than half of all people. Through trial and error, NOW sought to determine what women on the whole might “actually want and need” and whether their sex could ever unite behind one agenda. Throngs of ordinary women used NOW as their vehicle to form new identities and bond with each other through their collective experiences. The Women of NOW’s three protagonists, as well as many other figures in the book, demonstrate that NOW members were not stereotypical “sniping rich white ladies” but complex and fallible people. Their organization endured many challenges and often came up short. Still, its efforts, which were “both radical and moderate,” profoundly shaped American feminism.
Plant recounts the book’s analysis of NOW’s shift from loose network to top-down organization and the “voices of dissent” that were always present. NOW’s mid-1970s centralization and focus on the ERA forged the most significant turning point in its history. These changes lasted. NOW, and perhaps even our own feminist landscape, would look different if those leaders had chosen otherwise. As Plant points out, NOW’s ERA campaign represents one of numerous feminist pushes for “formal legal equality” that “prove[d] elusive or disappointing.” Attempts to shift cultural norms and open governance structures have fared better. The Women of NOW confirms Plant’s point that local activism embedded in an inclusive movement has “room for many kinds of women and many visions of feminism.”
NOW’s founding moment bears some resemblance to our own, notes Rios. She spotlights the lessons The Women of NOW offers to feminists today. The book reveals how much women can accomplish when they come together and how difficult sustaining that kind of activism can be. Often in NOW’s history, women simply did not “show up for each other”; at other times, they retreated “into a narrow view of what [was] possible.” Different decisions then might have yielded a more favorable context today. The movement moves on. But to move forward, it must “continue bending, finding flexible ways forward, without breaking apart, burning out, or giving up.” I agree with Rios that many of the struggles NOW weathered in its heyday are with us still, and that “despite the roadblocks we face in achieving our collective liberation, our movement renews. It regenerates.”
At a time when our rights are under attack, recovering our feminist past—in all its complexity—can illuminate new paths forward. Once again, I thank the four respondents for their reflections on my pursuit of both goals.
Katherine Turk is Associate Professor of History and Adjunct Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her books include Equality on Trial: Gender and Rights in the Modern American Workplace (2016), which won the Mary Nickliss Prize in U.S. Women’s and/or Gender History from the Organization of American Historians, and The Women of NOW: How Feminists Built an Organization that Transformed America (2023).