The Women of NOW: How Feminists Built an Organization That Transformed America

Image of The Women of NOW: How Feminists Built an Organization That Transformed America
Release Date: 
August 14, 2023
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by: 

“for all its limitations NOW has transformed thinking on feminism and sexism in America.”

In this extensive review of the National Organization of Women (NOW) founded in Washington in 1966, Katherine Turk approaches her self-appointed task through the biographies of three of NOW’s less well-known members. Most people with even passing knowledge of the organization will associate it with the name, Betty Friedan, author of the best-selling and still influential, The Feminine Mystique (1963) and Turk pays due attention to all of Friedan’s strengths and weaknesses (among the latter her characterization of lesbians as “the Lavender Menace”), and her undoubted influence on the shape of NOW.

However, her chosen lenses are Aileen Hernandez “Brooklyn-born daughter of Jamaican immigrants” with a background in organizing textile workers, and membership of the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) the federal agency created to act as workplace watchdog. Hernandez saw racism and sexism as very much intertwined and considered that these (and other) discriminations and prejudices needed to be addressed by and through all societal institutions. Of the three women chosen, Hernandez springs best to life on the page with her sophisticated understanding of the complexities to be addressed and her clear sense of the limitations of vast volunteer organizations such as NOW, not to mention trenchant wit.

The second person who acts as a vehicle for Turk’s observations on NOW is Patricia Hill Burnett, “winner of the 1942 Miss Michigan pageant, wife of a wealthy Detroit business-man, a mother of four and a talented artist.” Friedan’s analysis of the “feminine mystique” spoke very clearly to wife and mother Burnett who led NOW’s attempts at international outreach as well as founding its Michigan chapter.

The third of the Turk’s chosen is the rather younger Mary Jean Collins, from a poor Irish and Catholic Wisconsin background who was a committed grassroots and workplace women’s rights organizer. Collins was instrumental in setting up NOW chapters all over the Midwest and helped to steer one of its most important anticorporation campaigns.

By the selection of such a diverse trio of critical participants, Turk is able, on the whole successfully, to analyze and explain the triumphs and failures of NOW, as well as its unfinished business.

Some of the most vivid illustrations of the importance of NOW despite its shortcomings are provided by Turk’s enumeration of the common constraints on American women’s lives before the woman’s movement properly began. Rape and sexual abuse were rarely prosecuted: in some States police had to personally witness the abuse before charging the offender. “Others applied a ‘stitch rule’ punishing an abuser only when his spouses’ wounds took more than a set number of stitches.” United Airlines offered an executive flight only to male travelers, though they were naturally waited upon by young attractive women. Classified advertisements for jobs clearly distinguished between male and female jobs and benefits. A woman could not apply for a credit card, and so on and so forth.

NOW set itself the impossible task of being all things to all women and while class, color, and sexual preference were variously addressed at different times and places it was often accused of being biased toward its white, professional roots. NOW took no corporate or government funds, and for many years did not pay any of its officers; it relied upon membership dues and personal donations; its dedication to volunteerism was often characterized as detrimental to professionalism. There was tension always between the power of the national office (often seen as reinforcing male types of organization), and the proliferating local chapters nationwide who considered themselves better able to cope with specific local needs and concerns. Indeed, these days single-issue localized groups have largely taken over from the multi-issue, national mass-movement approach that NOW aimed for.

Overall, Turk’s chosen biographical mode is very effective and does not at all detract from her analysis of broader theoretical and structural concerns. Though it would have been helpful for readers not steeped in American feminism to have some focussed appendices on key issues debated such as Title VII, and the ERA as well as a very complete list of acronyms.

However, she demonstrates rather convincingly that for all its limitations NOW has transformed thinking on feminism and sexism in America. “As NOW revealed in its heyday, determining whether women have anything in common is less important than what they can achieve when they behave as though they do, shouldering the hard work of collaboration.”

And of course NOW could do little about those women who did not want equality with men considering that this would undermine their rights to special consideration and protection!