As NOW turns 50, ‘battle goes on’

David Crary
Associated Press

New York — Fifty years ago, when a small group of activists founded the National Organization for Women, the immediate issue that motivated them was sex discrimination in employment. They were irate that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was refusing to ban “Help Wanted Male” and “Help Wanted Female” job advertising.

Typical were ads seeking a “well-groomed gal” for a job as a receptionist.

Flash forward to today: Women comprise close to 50 percent of enrollment in U.S. medical schools and law schools. One-third of federal judges are women, compared to just a handful in the 1960s. The U.S military is opening all combat jobs to women.

At NOW and elsewhere in the diverse ranks of the feminist movement, there’s deep pride in these changes, but also a consensus that the 50th anniversary — to be celebrated June 23 — is not an occasion to declare victory.

“The battle goes on,” said Eleanor Smeal, a former president of NOW who heads the Feminist Majority Foundation. “So many of the things we fought for have been achieved, but we still do not have full equality.”

Among the issues viewed as unfinished business: a wage gap that favors men over women, the persistent scourge of sexual assault and domestic violence, and the push in many states to reduce access to legal abortion.

Hillary Clinton will have a chance this fall to add the ultimate breakthrough by becoming the first woman elected president. NOW has eagerly endorsed her, while depicting her Republican rival, Donald Trump, as “a boorish, babbling bigot who disrespects women.”

Trump prides himself on an ability to draw large crowds to his rallies; for many years, that was a hallmark for NOW as well. An estimated 100,000 people turned out for a 1977 march in Washington in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which ultimately failed to garner support from enough states to win ratification. Far larger crowds assembled for abortion-rights marches in 1989 and 1992.

In subsequent years, there have been only a few mass mobilizations of feminists. NOW’s president, Terry O’Neill, says the drop-off in revenues and dues-paying membership resulted in part from a drop in engagement by activists who, after a 1992 Supreme Court ruling, perceived less of a threat to abortion rights.

According to a recent national survey by the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation, six in 10 women and one-third of men in the U.S. depict themselves as feminists — higher figures than in some polls a few years earlier. However, four in 10 respondents in the new poll viewed the feminist movement as “angry,” and a similar portion said it unfairly blames men for women’s challenges.