Betty Friedan and the Birth of the National Organization for Women

It was a cold day in Manhattan in 1969, and Patricia Burnett was wearing her fur. She had looked up Betty Friedan’s home address, and had made the trip to New York from Detroit, where the former beauty queen was a housewife and an occasional volunteer in local Republican politics. Inspired by Friedan’s 1963 best-seller, “The Feminine Mystique,” and by Friedan’s new feminist activist group, the National Organization for Women, or NOW, Burnett had formed a local chapter, and hosted a gathering at the Scarab Club to recruit her friends, the genteel women of Detroit’s white élite. She had expected it to be a harder sell. Burnett emphasized to the assembled group of mostly rich men’s wives that NOW was moderate and respectable, and would “take pains not to appear threatening in order to protect members from their husbands’ and friends’ disapproval,” Katherine Turk writes in “The Women of NOW: How Feminists Built an Organization That Transformed America” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), her new history of the group. But Burnett had been surprised at the women’s openness to feminist politics; they were especially moved by NOW’s call for abortion rights. Nearly all of them had joined NOW on the spot, and pitched in a total of a hundred and twenty dollars for their membership fees. Burnett was in New York to hand over the money—and to meet Friedan, her hero.

The woman who answered the door looked Burnett up and down. She called upstairs, “Betty, you won’t believe this. Here’s this woman down here in a chinchilla hat and muff, who says she’s a lifelong Republican.” Hearing this, Friedan ran down, and “yanked” Burnett inside.

Unbeknownst to Burnett, a lifelong Republican in a chinchilla hat was exactly the sort of NOW member that Friedan was looking for. In Rachel Shteir’s new biography, “Betty Friedan: Magnificent Disrupter” (Yale), it becomes clear why. Friedan’s vision was always to make NOW, and feminism more broadly, as nonthreatening as possible to the American mainstream. But the American mainstream, in Friedan’s imagination, was a very narrow, specific group. “Friedan saw herself as the protector of the marginalized,” Shteir writes, “by which she meant mothers, wives, and Midwesterners.” By 1969, Friedan was already afraid that this mass of women would be turned off by feminism’s reputation for bra-burning radicalism. “I kept moving to figure out new ways of bringing back the women the others were alienating,” she later recalled. Someone like Burnett could be her perfect poster child: a demure, respectable, and extremely feminine feminist.

Burnett had arrived at an especially convenient moment. Friedan’s apartment was crowded with journalists, cameras, and lights. Friedan was about to hold a TV news conference with other women in the movement, including Beulah Sanders, a Black leader of the National Welfare Rights Organization, and a white teen-age member of the radical feminist group Redstockings, “in a ragged t-shirt and jeans, defiantly nursing her baby,” as Burnett later recalled. “You’re going to fill this group out perfectly,” Friedan told her, and shoved her in front of the cameras. Friedan later said that she made sure Burnett said “she was a Republican and had been ‘Miss Michigan’ in front of the press,” Turk writes. A journalist asked the three women if they really thought they had anything in common. Each of them answered yes.

Turk’s book is nominally a group biography, following three somewhat unexpected NOW leaders: Burnett; Aileen Hernandez, the Brooklyn-born daughter of Jamaican immigrants, who worked in labor and civil-rights activism before becoming NOW’s second president; and Mary Jean Collins, a union leader from a working-class Catholic background, who led NOW’s formidable Chicago chapter, and discovered her lesbian identity in the process. But Turk’s true subject is NOW’s early years. Her account reveals a uniquely ambitious political organization, one that achieved remarkable successes while struggling with divergent feminist visions, competing egos, and insufficient funds. Throughout the book, Friedan is a major presence, alternately inspiring her comrades with her vivid political vision and frustrating them with her demanding and indomitable personality. For her part, Shteir is rigorously fair to Friedan. And yet it is clear that she was difficult to like.

To those with even a passing familiarity with the women’s movement of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, this will likely not come as a surprise. Sixty years after the publication of “The Feminine Mystique” and seventeen years after Friedan’s death, it is still impossible to mention her name without eliciting strong responses—most of them negative. And yet Shteir and Turk show that Friedan, for all her considerable flaws, was one of those characters whom history responds to, someone who shapes public opinion through the force of her personality. She had the kind of insatiable insecurity that makes talented people both very driven and very draining.

By the time Burnett knocked on Friedan’s door, in 1969, NOW, which had begun three years earlier with barely two dozen women, had emerged as a serious, accomplished, multi-issue organization, with outsized influence considering its relatively small membership. Anyone could join NOW; to start a new chapter, all you needed was ten interested people willing to shell out the membership fee, then under ten dollars per year. Local chapters developed their own tactics and priorities; NOW was nationally recognized but customizable for women on the ground. Under Friedan’s leadership, the group organized the spontaneously forming local chapters, like Burnett’s, under a national umbrella, and established a wide-ranging agenda. Among the objectives were securing the enforcement of anti-discrimination law; gaining subsidized child care, abortion rights, and public-accommodations protections; and passing the Equal Rights Amendment. NOW was able to bring about changes large and small—to hiring policies, to credit-granting rules, to laws—that improved the lives of American women. Through these first years, Friedan was NOW’s public face.

The group was born out of frustration. “The Feminine Mystique” had ignited a national awakening of dissatisfied housewives, but discontent had been simmering for decades. Radical feminism would emerge in the late sixties, as a reaction to the social movements of the New Left, but a more technocratic, moderate feminism was already beginning to surface among women lawyers, labor-union activists, and political insiders in the early part of the decade. The intellectual center of this group was Pauli Murray, a Black legal theorist who was the architect of some of the most consequential litigation of the civil-rights era. After years of fighting for civil rights for African Americans, Murray had begun to see the inferior social and legal status of women as a related emergency.

A ban on sex discrimination in employment had been incorporated into the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the government agency that had been established to enforce workplace equality, pointedly refused to acknowledge the sex-discrimination clause. Men in Washington were calling it the Bunny Law, joking that, if a ban on sex discrimination in employment were actually enforced, men would have to act as Bunnies at the Playboy Club. But, if Washington insiders felt that women’s workplace-equality claims were laughably illegitimate on their face, that wasn’t the mood in the American workforce. Nearly a third of the complaints received by the agency in its first year pertained to sex discrimination. For the most part, the commissioners were simply ignoring them.

“I just forgot everything I learned in there.”

Cartoon by Lila Ash

In 1966, Friedan, by then a national celebrity, went to Washington to attend a national conference for women in politics. She was not impressed. On a visit to the White House, she listened as President Johnson welcomed the conference-goers by addressing “the distinguished and very attractive delegates.” It was as if the President “figuratively patted our heads,” Friedan later remembered.

For some time, Friedan had resisted the pleas she’d been receiving from Murray and others to lead a proposed new organization, which some activists had begun to call the “N.A.A.C.P. for women.” Friedan, with an unusual degree of self-awareness, had been initially skeptical that she had the temperament to lead it. But at the time there was no other feminist with either her national profile or her political credibility. If Betty didn’t do it, it wasn’t going to happen. Her experience at the conference convinced Friedan that the federal government would not act on women’s rights on its own. It needed external pressure.

The night after the White House visit, Friedan invited several conference attendees to an informal meeting in her suite at the Washington Hilton, where the conference was being held. Those women brought along others; in all, about twenty women were crammed into the room. Retellings of the meeting use varying euphemisms to convey the fact that many in attendance were drunk. A number of the women had just returned from a boozy reception at the State Department. “Everybody was feeling rather good by this time” was how Catherine Conroy, a union leader, put it, because their State Department hosts had been “very generous with the liquor.” At Friedan’s meeting, the women kept drinking, filling paper cups with alcohol from the suite’s minibar.

Murray spoke first, clutching a yellow legal pad. They had gathered the women here for a purpose, she said. She proposed “an independent national civil rights organization for women” with “enough political power to compel government agencies to take seriously the problems of discrimination because of sex.”

The proposal did not go over as well as Murray and Friedan had hoped. Some women thought they could still effect change from within existing structures. Others were miffed at what they perceived as Murray and Friedan’s presumptuousness. A woman named Nancy Knaak spoke up: “Do you think we really need another women’s organization?” At this, the room exploded into shouting. Friedan’s voice rose above the din. “Who in the hell invited you?” she yelled at Knaak. “Get out! Get out!” she continued. “This is my room and my liquor.” Knaak refused to leave; Friedan locked herself in the bathroom. Thus, amid a drunken fight, the National Organization for Women came into the world. “Women,” Friedan would later write of the scene. “What can you expect?”

Friedan presided over NOW from 1966 to 1970, and immediately shaped the organization in her own image. At a 1967 conference formalizing NOW’s agenda, Friedan made sure that endorsements of both the E.R.A. and abortion rights sailed through. The abortion provision alienated Catholic and anti-abortion women, who walked out when the pro-choice resolution was passed. Support for the E.R.A. alienated women from the labor unions, many of which opposed the amendment—they walked out, too. The objections did not seem to bother Friedan, who, at least on some matters, was willing to sacrifice popularity for principle.

During her tenure, she steered NOW through a series of successful efforts to change labor law. It got the E.E.O.C. to hold public hearings on sex-segregated help-wanted ads; it got President Johnson to sign an executive order banning sex discrimination by federal contractors; and it won legal victories striking down discriminatory labor laws, which had long excluded women from higher-pay and higher-status work under the pretext of “protection.” In 1968, NOW threatened Colgate-Palmolive, the household-products company, with a boycott when it and its union refused to rescind a company policy that closed off higher-pay, higher-status jobs to women. The New York chapter showed up outside the company’s Manhattan headquarters and held a “flush in,” symbolically flushing the company’s products down a real toilet, complete with legs on either side.

These ambitious demands and theatrical demonstrations would today mark a militant group, one willing to break taboos and offend sensibilities. But Friedan strove to keep the group approachable, moderate, and respectable. When two radical leaders of NOW’s New York chapter wanted to provide public support to Valerie Solanas after she was arrested for shooting Andy Warhol, Friedan roundly objected, and engineered their exit from the group.

Friedan’s personality is often faulted for the failures of feminism’s second wave, but what might have been more detrimental in the short term was her policy priorities. “Friedan wanted NOW to put women on an equal footing with men,” Turk writes, “and she especially focused on relatively elite women who were shut out of male-dominated spaces.”

Among other things, this focus on the élite kept NOW disproportionately white: about ninety per cent of NOW’s members in this era were white, according to Turk, and these women “generally viewed racial justice struggles as laudable but distinct.” Nonwhite founders, like Murray, tended to drift from the organization after its first years. Efforts to recruit more members of color were complicated by a federal policy that said that employees could complain about discrimination on the basis of race or sex, but not both—a state of affairs that made it harder for groups like NOW, with their focus on lawsuits and lobbying, to be of much help to women of color. Black women who did work with NOW were often highly credentialled policy professionals, like Turk’s subject Aileen Hernandez, a onetime E.E.O.C. commissioner. Several of these women spoke candidly about NOW’s narrow focus. “All women have problems to work on together,” said Nancy Randolph, a dean of the University of Alabama’s social-work school, and the NOW Tuscaloosa chapter’s only Black member. Still, she said, “Every time I’m at a NOW meeting, I think of all the blacks who are at home taking care of the members’ children.”

Meanwhile, sexual politics were becoming a problem. When, in the late sixties, the emergent radical-feminist movement began to advance a critique of heterosexuality, Friedan found the focus on sexuality both crude and a bit naïve. “Young women only need a little more experience to understand that the gut issues of this revolution involve employment and education . . . not sexual fantasy,” she wrote in a memo. More important, in Friedan’s mind, the growing prominence of lesbians calling for recognition threatened to scare away the middle-class moderates whose support she so craved. In 1969, when NOW organized its first Congress to Unite Women, Friedan made sure that a lesbian group was kept off the list of sponsors. But the radicals made their presence known anyway. At the conference, a woman cut off another woman’s long hair onstage, as a symbol of liberation from femininity. Friedan was peeved. She described the haircutting as “a hysterical episode.”

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