The National Organization for Women was established in June 1966 at a time when the developed capitalist countries were still basking in the astonishing postwar economic expansion Marglin and Schor dubbed the "Golden Age".(1) The boom had been felt the world over, albeit to various degrees. In the richest nations, it was accompanied by formidable technological and industrial developments, fueled the increase of international trade, brought employment to near-full, opened friendly gates to immigration and changed the social sphere drastically. The peasantry suffered devastating blows, the working class shrunk and massive higher education of the population had to be undertaken to fit the sophisticated jobs the new economy generated. Drawn from the "farm and the kitchen" (2), millions went to swell the ranks of the "reserve army", as the now unfashionable Marx had labeled the contracting or expanding working force regulated by the capitalist engine. Newly inflated student groups soon grew wings they would briefly flutter in the late sixties and women faced drastic readjustments of their role, specifically middle-class married women who were, for the most part, mothers.
In 1940, working married women living with a spouse represented about 14 percent (3) of all US women. Belonging to the less fortunate classes, they had gone to work after the Second World War out of financial necessity and because recent laws, in the West, had ended child labor. Louise Tilly and Joan W. Scott explained it best when they wrote that "in the past, children had worked so that their mothers could remain at home fulfilling domestic and reproductive responsibilities. Now when families needed additional income, mothers worked instead of children" (4).
But in order to bring middle-class educated married women to leave the comforts of their lives for the rigidities of the workplace, something other than financial enticement had to be found. Ideologies of a narcissistic sort evolved, reflected in Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique, an often manipulative book usually credited with the launching of the latest phase of the American feminist movement. Posing as the bored suburban housewife she never was, Friedan dissected and demonized, cruelly at times, the perhaps humdrum but mostly decent and not-so-loathsome lives of countless married women.
By 1970, the percentage of working married mothers had doubled in the U.S., reaching more than 50 percent in 1980 (3) while young women also reached over 50 percent of all students (3). In Communist Eastern Europe, practically all the women had been incorporated in the workforce, 90 percent of them (3) in indifference to the millions who dreamed of staying home to raise their families. It was therefore against the backdrop of the mass integration of women into the educational and employment fields that a renewed surge of feminism took place in the 60's, as did the subsequent creation of the National Organization for Women.
In 1966, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was the government body responsible for the enforcement of new laws against sex discrimination recently introduced in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Initially drafted to protect African-Americans from racial bias, it was under the control of President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat. Reportedly frustrated by the failure of the agency to remedy women's grievances, a coalition of middle-class women decided to form their own civil rights organization, modeled after the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The organization was NOW and it's first president was Betty Friedan. The "NOW Statement of Purpose", a charter or constitution-like document, outlined the raison d'être of the group.
Most of the Statement focuses on the points discussed above: work, motherhood, education, in a somewhat repetitive way, resembling more a fundraising union pamphlet than a civil rights declaration. Statistics are used without frame of reference and outside of national economic context; proclamations about human nature reflect surprising naiveté given the abundance of tested knowledge at disposal, obviously carried over from already dated socialist propaganda. The idea that women were "human beings" had long been claimed by activists here and abroad and from an intellectual and historical point of view, the charter paled next to the sophisticated work 19th century American feminists had produced such as the very remarkable and very moving 1876 Declaration of Rights. Yet, in spite of the overall mediocrity of the piece, several points were, and remain, ground-breaking, lifting the organization notches above the seemingly intractable bureaucratization women's groups jell into.
The points were three. One acknowledged the indivisibility of the law under the Constitution , an implied recognition that those in opposition were entitled to similar rights, not just in words, and that the differences between having rights and exercising them had been understood. The second stated the resolve to cross over political lines to enforce the first, no small decision in view of the restrictions imposed by the two-party political system. The third and most important warned that the new group would not only stand up to the most powerful office in the land to bring about the other two if needed, in continuation of the precedent set by the National Woman's Party, but that it would sanction at the polls the public servants who scorned women and their rights.
While certainly self-evident in the male world of politics, the Three Points were of a revolutionary sort in the world of women who had not yet shown they could organize themselves in a politically independent manner, even though some were under the illusion that they had. The points therefore implied an understanding of the democratic machinery, suggested a novel ability for high-level strategy and signaled a maturing of the women's movement, the evolution political establishments had been dreading since suffrage, particularly those of the Left. It was a formidable departure from the endless circle of petitions, demands, complaints and recitations of ills, and a de facto act of emancipation.
The inspiring promises were not the unrealistic strivings of a few idealists. After years of struggle, practical tools were now at the disposal of women, guaranteed by the Constitution. The right to vote for the candidate of one's choice, the freedom of speech, association, assembly and unlimited fundraising mixed with a relative freedom of the press were powerful and effective weapons not yet available in such combined form in other democracies. Long gone were the Woodrow Wilson days another Democrat when Alice Paul and her National Woman's Party colleagues were tortured for peacefully parading their Right-to-Vote banners at the doors of the White House in exercise of their very constitutional rights. In addition, the NOW Three Points reflected the collective independent spirit of American Womanhood and that of a nation founded on the rejection of authority. In wowing to vigorously defend and advance the civil rights of over half of the population, NOW had placed itself outside of the narrow world of special interest, a truly nonpartisan organization aware of the hard choices this would entail, a source of pride and inspiration for so many women, regardless of their individual beliefs.
It all came crashing down at the first test of resolve thirty some years later when a president would you believe a Democrat obstructed justice and perjured himself in a simple Title VII Sex Discrimination case filed by a government worker named Paula Jones, and embarked on a lengthy orchestrated campaign of lies to the people, the Congress and the court in order to escape the law. At this moment of national tragedy but of greatest triumph for women, Betty Friedan, NOW and the rest of the feminist class, obediently hopped in the caravan of the boisterous presidential liars who proudly, cynically and enthusiastically confused public opinion to manipulate it better to the side of the abuser. Gone were the NOW resounding pledges of yesteryears, the pretense of political independence, the trumpeting of civil rights beliefs. Vociferous and relentless chasers of Republican misdeeds, organized and unorganized feminism had now become the vociferous and relentless defenders of Democratic crimes, showing no hesitation in assaulting the civil rights of women in the process.
At this point, Dulles NOW broke away from the main body in disgusted rebellion; sadly, the only Democrat feminists to do so.
Mr. Clinton did not escape the law. He became the first elected American president to be impeached for transgressing sex discrimination rules. As the propagandist dust settles, 49 percent of Americans today agree that the decision to impeach was the "right thing to do" and 47 percent believe he should have been convicted and thus removed . Their number is growing every day.
Marie-Jose Ragab is the Dulles NOW President and former NOW International Director. She has been active in the organization since 1986.
(1) Stephen A. Marglin and Juliet B. Schor "The Golden Age of Capitalism" Clarendon paperbacks 1991. (2) Marglin and Schor p.29
(3) Eric Hobsbawm "The Age of Extremes" Pantheon Books 1994 p.310/311/315
(4) Louise A. Tilly and Joan W. Scott "Women Work and Family" Routledge London 1987 p.219