Written by Martha Tyson
It seems impossible at times that NOW has been able to contribute, in only forty years, to so many of the changes for women in this country. When a handful of women were writing on paper napkins at a public table in 1966 I’m sure that they had no idea of how the organization they were planning would turn out. But it was a good time for change. The U.S. Conference on the Status of Women had been started under President Kennedy in 1963 and there was more communication between local groups and those of other states. Common goals were surfacing and there was much more media attention to women’s activities and ideas and there was even some money available! So they tried for more.
By the end of the first year this very small group, with Betty Friedan as its first president, had only about 300 members but it was already busy suing the airlines on behalf of the stewardesses who needed stable working conditions and guaranteed salaries and pensions and the privacy in their lives that other employees had. They were not allowed to marry and were dismissed at thirty-two. After this success,
Issue after issue was lobbied for in the courts; in the Congress; at protest pickets, and at the speaker’s podium.
We have always been aware that there have been great women’s groups in this country working for similar goals as we are and are still doing so. Some work for many issues as NOW does and others for one cause. There are many examples of this but the best known is the work done for winning the vote for women during the long kaleidoscopic suffrage years.
So what is NOW’s importance to the second wave of the Women’s Movement in the twentieth century? In my opinion, it brought a strong new spirit to the never ceasing effort to expose and better the situation of women. It took great risks when it entered the courts and the legislative halls, but with the growing support of women across the . country it helped to bring the reality of women’s problems to the front.
It introduced consciousness-raising, where small groups of members met to discuss their reasons for joining the organization and, sometimes, they discovered their reasons which evolved into a real understanding of our purposes and, maybe, something more of self. NOW also helped to stimulate the emergence of a huge field of feminist writing from the eighteenth century to the present.
But, in addition to all this activity, there was a need for an issue that would supply the motivation that would help a new organization to grow and to hold all the women’s groups together. The ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) supplied this. Women across the country recognized the need and, as discussion widened, they became aware of existing abuses, some psychological, and instances of discrimination in their own lives. A new urgency took over and a real awakening happened at the right time. Most of the ERA action took place from 1972 when Congress passed it and sent it out for the . states’ ratification and 1982 when its three year extension came to an end.
In the St. Louis area, as across the country, one of the most important issues we worked for in the seventies is reproductive rights. Today it is one of the most explosive political issues but then it was simply grassroots involvement. We marched in large groups when taunts and abusive gestures were standard. We wrote letters to the editor and to out legislators and made speeches.
Meanwhile, a few abortion clinics were set up in Missouri and the opponents set up their own clinics to try to change the minds of young women who needed an abortion. Picketers covered the sidewalks of the choice clinics and, eventually, resulted in great physical injury for some and one death. Treatment of women entering the building became more abusive and this led to the organization of a group of clinic escorts, which still exists, who protect the women as they entered. NARAL and Planned Parenthood are still working on these tactics and the huge task of trying to convince people that reproductive rights should still stay safe and legal. They need your help.
Domestic violence has always existed but it has not been brought forward as the important issue that it is until recent years. But it is not an area of abuse that Sf. Louis has ignored. A vigorous state coalition, of which NOW was a part, worked on the problem for years and in the early eighties it added its support to the Adult Abuse Remedies Bill for three years before it was passed in Missouri. It was one of the earlier national abuse bills and a good one that helped women to take the first steps in leaving a violent marriage. Tonight we are honoring Barb Bennett, a longtime NOW member, who has been active for many years for this issue. She is now executive director of Women’s Support and Community Services.
NOW has spent a great deal of time, effort and money on the above issues
Because of their great importance, but they are only part of the whole of its work and I am almost at the end of my allotted two pages. I haven’t mentioned the interest in women’s health that leads to our support of all helpful campaigns. Then there was NOW’s part in the famous AT&T settlement (which is a very long story) or its effect on the lives of those who worked for this enormous employer of women.
Or the informational picketing we did at a Mitsubishi dealership as part of a national Mother’s Day protest against the excessive abuse and sexual harassment in its plants as well as financial discrimination against female employees. We also had demonstration at a company who had spied on its women employees in the restrooms with a camera that sent pictures to management’s desks.
If you want more information there are scores of books and hundreds of articles in the libraries. Ms. magazine is still published, and if you like your information in great detail there are many boxes of papers in UMSL’s archives, which were donated by one active chapter!