At 25, NOW Faces a Changing Role Leaders of Women's-Rights Group Say It's a Time of Retaining Gains and Fighting a Backlash

Article excerpt

IN the mid-1960s, "stewardesses" (as they were called then) had to quit once they married or reached a certain age. Women died from illegal abortions. There were no shelters for battered women.

That was the state of the union when the National Organization for Women (NOW) burst on the scene in 1966, the group that led the way to a transformation in women's lives in America.

Tomorrow, NOW begins a week-long celebration of its 25th anniversary, including an appearance by Lily Tomlin, workshops on overcoming world sexism and violence against women, and sessions on building a global women's network. It's all happening at a time when some analysts say NOW's role is declining.

"We had an agenda of equality," said Betty Friedan, president of NOW until 1970. "We broke through most of the barriers of discrimination, fought in principled and effective ways to overcome sex discrimination," she said by phone.

"The truth is, we've really accomplished more than we ever dreamed of - and faster," says Muriel Fox, a founder and currently chairwoman of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. The 1960s and '70s were times of great changes: New laws prohibited sex discrimination in employment, education, credit, and public accommodations. Women are now sprinkled throughout government and business in high positions. Feminists also point to what they consider a major milestone: the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in the United States.

NOW was formed by a group of women at a Washington conference of state Commissions on the Status of Women. Irked by want-ad restrictions that limited women to "women jobs - despite federal laws prohibiting such sex discrimination - the women had proposed a resolution calling for enforcement of the legislation. They were turned down.

"The frustration of the women was enormous," recalls Gene Boyer, a founding member and vice president of NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. "Dorothy Haener said, 'What we need is an NAACP for women.

Twenty-eight women gathered in a hotel room formed a nonprofit civil-rights organization "to take action to bring women into full participation" in American society, plunking down $5 each as proof of their commitment. …

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