The Women of NOW
The historian Katherine Turk used the Schlesinger’s extensive NOW holdings to research her new book about the history of the feminist organization and the women who made it run.
It had been a long day at the third annual gathering of the State Commissions on the Status of Women on June, 29 1966, and Betty Friedan’s hotel room was buzzing. The suite was crammed with attendees, many of whom simply wanted to socialize. But Friedan, an outspoken activist and author of The Feminine Mystique, the landmark text that many argue helped jump-start Second Wave feminism, had other ideas. For months, Friedan—along with the activist and lawyer Pauli Murray and others—had been planning a new organization for women, and they needed help.
The debate that ensued, writes the historian Katherine Turk, quickly turned chaotic. In the end, Friedan brought the fraught gathering to a close by locking herself in the bathroom. But it was hardly the end of the discussion or of Friedan and Murray’s master plan. The very next day, some of the women from that charged evening created the National Organization for Women, or NOW, a new group dedicated to women’s equality, with Friedan as its first president.
So begins Turk’s book The Women of NOW: How Feminists Built an Organization that Transformed America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023), a look at the long history of NOW through the stories of those who gave it life—stories that pepper the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America’s extensive NOW holdings.
In 1972, NOW made the Schlesinger the home for its official records. Today, the Library’s growing collection includes close to six decades of unique material. The archive consists of hundreds of boxes featuring manuscripts, letters, photographs, slides, microfilm, audio and videotapes, meeting minutes, newsletters, and more.
The Schlesinger also holds the papers of Friedan and her NOW cofounder Pauli Murray, along with other NOW founders, several NOW chapters, the records of NOW’s Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the records of the Tully-Crenshaw Feminist Oral History Project, a collection of interviews conducted in the 1990s by and with former NOW members.
Turk was well familiar with the Schlesinger, having spent time at the Library studying NOW for her senior college thesis in 2004 and later for her graduate school research. For her new project, the Library would again become a key resource as she sought to augment the NOW canon with a comprehensive history.
“I realized scholars had tended to write about NOW in bits and pieces because it's huge and complex, with 50-plus years of history,” she said. “I had always wanted to read a synthetic account of this organization, and since one didn’t exist yet, I decided to try and write it.”
Turk, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, arrived at Harvard in 2018 for her Radcliffe fellowship with a straightforward narrative in mind. “I thought, ‘I’ll just go to the Schlesinger, take a couple of weeks, start with the earliest NOW material, and end with the most recent,” she recalled. Then she tried copying the Library’s main NOW index onto a whiteboard in her office.
“It only took a couple of days to realize my approach would never result in a book that anyone would find coherent, and that I would never be able to finish in my lifetime, because there’s just so much material.”
Instead, the author began rethinking her narrative arc, poring over records, listening to recordings and reflecting on lesser-known voices and existing NOW scholarship.
Most authors have tended to either “freeze NOW in the founding moment” or focus on specific chapters or particular campaigns, said Turk. Those writing more broadly about the history of feminism give NOW credit, she added, but often quickly pivot to other, more radical groups, ignoring NOW’s continued relevance. To capture the organization’s broad history and influence in a compelling and relatable way, Turk opted for a human focus, one powered by those who had committed so much time and energy to making NOW a reality.
“For me, the heart of NOW is the people who made it and continue to make it run,” said the author. “I wanted to ground the book in women’s lives and tell the story of what brought them to NOW and what kept them there.” She also chose not to focus too much on NOW’s founders to avoid “narrowing the story.”
Turk proves the story of NOW—one filled with strong characters, courageous accomplishments, and bitter conflict—is anything but narrow. From its earliest days, tensions emerged as members tried to frame NOW’s core identity and direction, and to truly understand what it meant to have an organization that could represent all women. As the organization grew, its members clashed over whether to shift to a centralized structure that focused its fundraising and advocacy efforts on a select number of goals or remain a grassroots-driven organization that put local priorities first.
Some of those local priorities come to life in the Library’s large assortment of NOW newsletters collected from state and local chapters over more than 40 years. “Through these newsletters, you see people in California working with women prisoners, to women in Arizona thinking about how to connect with the labor movement,” said Jenny Gotwals, Radcliffe’s Johanna-Maria Fraenkel Curator for Gender and Society, who helped Turk with her research.
To better understand the internal conflicts that plagued NOW, scholars can simply listen to the women who lived through them. In a 1992 recording from the Tully-Crenshaw archive, Mary Jean Tully, the former director of NOW’s Legal Defense and Education Fund, says growing tensions came to a head during NOW’s Philadelphia conference in 1975, where members sparred over competing agendas and officer elections, among other issues. Tully remembers exploding afterward, telling her friends “I never want to see those people again, as long as I live.”
But those contentious debates also yielded results, said Turk. “NOW members accomplished so much in spite of those fights around NOW’s core strategy and goals, and maybe also because of them, because women did come to see each other’s perspectives.”
It was at the Schlesinger where the lives of three women with different perspectives came into clearer focus for Turk, along with her narrative. “I wanted a diverse group of women. I wanted women who left a lot of paperwork and evidence behind,” she said. “And I wanted women who each had a distinct vision for what NOW’s feminism for all women could be.” Through their eyes, the historian charts NOW’s successes and failures, its growing pains, its grand aspirations, and its effort to put into practice the lofty idea of a single group that could stand for all women.
Mary Jean Collins hailed from Wisconsin and was deeply committed to equal employment opportunities. Her working-class roots, Midwest upbringing, and Catholic background were contrary to “what a lot of people assume NOW was,” said Turk. But her determination exemplified the kind of commitment common among many NOW members.
Collins’s Schlesinger papers document her time as NOW’s Midwest director, logging thousands of miles on the road to establish NOW chapters across the region. With a budget of only $100, she spent her own money on gas and food and slept on couches instead of paying for hotels. She loved traveling, meeting people from all walks of life, hearing about their problems and about how NOW could help solve them, said Turk. “In Mary Jean’s papers, I really saw in vivid detail that mutual exchange—and just how DIY and grassroots NOW was.”
Aileen Hernandez is well-known to many scholars and historians for her civil rights work and for being the first woman to serve on the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission that was created by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although her official records are held at Smith College, her name is mentioned throughout the Schlesinger’s NOW archive. Turk’s focus on Hernandez, NOW’s president in 1970–1971, highlights the role women of color played in trying to reframe NOW’s reputation as a group that mainly catered to upper-class, white women.
“She was a labor organizer and someone who worked for almost a decade to both make NOW more inviting for women of color and to work with the white women in NOW, many of whom didn't really understand that they needed to do more than just say, ‘everyone is welcome,’” said Turk. “Hernandez knew that if they wanted to meaningfully engage with women of color, NOW had to be a racial-justice organization just as much as a gender-justice organization. And for much of its history, most folks in NOW didn’t really grasp that.”
Patricia Hill Burnett, a onetime beauty queen, was an older, wealthy Republican who stood in contrast to the typical younger and liberal-leaning NOW members. But she was no less committed. “She worked to bridge the causes of Republican politics and feminism,” said Turk, who came to know Burnett through the Schlesinger’s Tully-Crenshaw project.
Raised by a mother who was determined to have her daughter marry well, Burnett obliged, but was soon heartbroken when her husband sent her to live with her mother during her pregnancy. “That, I think, is what made me finally wake up to the fact that life is certainly no bed of roses,” says Burnett in an August 1991 recording, “and that men are the ones that really run the world.”
Later, she describes being “put down and put upon” by men and calling Friedan in 1969 to inquire about starting a branch of NOW in her area. On the phone, Friedan conferred on her “the power to be the convener of the entire state of Michigan.” Burnett was hooked: from that moment, she says, Friedan “entered my heart and never left.”
But while the book is built around three central characters, “it’s never only about them,” said Turk. Many others “played key roles in making this organization work, and sometimes those other women were in tension and in conflict with the protagonists I write about.”
One of those women is Murray, a Black attorney and civil rights and labor activist who became a cofounder of NOW in her mid 50s partly due to her dissatisfaction with the civil rights movement, which often failed to put its women leaders “in the spotlight,” said Turk. Murray initially urged NOW to delay endorsing the ERA, a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution to guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex, when that provision came up for a vote at NOW’s 1967 conference. While the majority of NOW members supported endorsing the ERA, Murray instead urged more careful study, arguing that the 14th Amendment might be a better tool for pursuing gender-based equal rights claims in court.
“She was concerned that pursuing a constitutional amendment would be difficult, costly and divisive. And even if it could be achieved, it might yield the most benefit to white, middle-class women for whom legal inequality was the only barrier to equal competition with men,” said Turk. “Murray was focused on women of color and working-class women, who would need more than strict legal equality if they were to have fairness or justice.”
Murray left NOW in 1967 in the wake of that conflict. But her papers at the Schlesinger tell a more complete story of her departure—and her return. In many histories of NOW, Murray’s exit is “freighted with symbolic weight about what NOW meant for women of color,” said Turk. But despite leaving, Murray was not done with NOW. In the Schlesinger archives, Turk was surprised to find Murray returned a few years later to become an active member of NOW’s Boston chapter and a supporter of its effort to pass the ERA. Murray ultimately left in 1979, frustrated by the election of all white officers for five national NOW positions, but Turk thinks her longevity with the organization helps paint a nuanced picture.
“There certainly were racial tensions, and many women of color did leave NOW. But the idea that women of color all defected is contradicted by the evidence,” said Turk. “Instead, over the decades, successive generations of women of color came to NOW and demanded that the organization stand for all women and put their specific priorities not at the end of a laundry list but at the center of the organization. So it’s a more dynamic and complicated story.”
Turning to the future, Turk thinks NOW’s successes during the 1960s and ’70s can serve as an important blueprint for those trying to protect abortion access in the wake of the 2022 Supreme Court ruling that ended the constitutional right to an abortion.
“The brilliance of NOW in the early ’70s was that it did so many different things at once, and it plugged so many different people into common causes and allowed them to pursue those causes in ways that made sense for their local community or their state,” said Turk. “An organization like that would be very well suited to today, when an abortion-rights strategy in a blue state is going to look much different than that of a purple or red state.”
Looking back, Turk considers her first visit to Radcliffe’s famous library in the winter of 2004 a pivotal moment in her life. Without that trip, she said, “I might have chosen a different path.”
Her work with the archives has inspired others at Harvard along similar paths. Jordan Villegas-Verrone ’20, one of Turk’s undergraduate research assistants, said the author’s approach helped inform his history PhD work at Columbia University. Villegas-Verrone, who is exploring the Young Women’s Christian Association through the stories of Mexican American teenagers involved with the organization during the Great Depression, said working with Turk on her book “made it possible for me to even conceive of doing a project of this scale for my own dissertation.”
And Turk’s work at the Schlesinger isn’t done. Her next project, coauthored with the historian Sarah Milov, is a biography of Karen Silkwood, the chemical technician who died mysteriously in 1974 after raising concerns about health and safety practices at the nuclear facility where she worked, informed by the Library’s NOW holdings. After Silkwood’s labor union dropped her case, NOW stepped in, said Turk, keeping her name in the media “and steering a major campaign to pursue justice for Silkwood.”
Colleen Walsh is a freelance writer.