National Organization for Women at 40

Rally participant Sue Straus holds a National Organization for Women sign

Rally participant Sue Straus holds a National Organization for Women sign during a Women's Day march and rally March 8, 2006 in downtown Chicago. Tim Boyle/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Tim Boyle/Getty Images

The National Organization for Women (NOW) held its first meeting in the fall of 1966, when the world was a very different place.

The organization began in Washington, D.C. Delegates to a conference of state commissions on the status of women hit a roadblock when they tried to push the government to enforce discrimination laws.

Cynthia Harrison, a professor of history and women's studies at George Washington University, says the women were stymied by government organizers.

"They concluded, quite sensibly, that they needed to form organization that wasn't sponsored by the government, so that they would have a completely free hand," Harrison says. "It was at this convention that this group of women sat down at a table. Betty Freidan famously wrote the letters NOW on a napkin, and they formed the National Organization for Women."

As grassroots chapters took hold, national leaders — many of them academics, journalists and members of the clergy — started pressing for equal opportunities for women.

NOW worked to pass the Equal Rights Amendment to the constitution. Congress passed the amendment, but it failed to win ratification in the 38 states needed.

Over its 40-year history, NOW took up other issues including lesbian rights, domestic violence, educational disparities, abortion rights and poverty.

The gains women have made since NOW was formed are a testament to its achievements. But the sense that women today have the kind of opportunities that NOW fought for has also meant that the organization doesn't have the sense of urgency, or influence, it once did.

In a recent conversation with students in a women's studies class at George Washington University, most in the class of 50 agreed that the work of the women's movement continues. They name some of the same issues that galvanized NOW's founders 40 years ago: equality in the workplace, political representation, domestic violence. But only one student was an active member of the National Organization for Women.

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