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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

You've heard a lot over the last couple of weeks about the strides women have made in public office. Democrat Nancy Pelosi will soon be the first female speaker of the House in U.S. history. Alabama just elected the state's first woman chief justice. Some say these achievements are the natural progression of decades of work opening up opportunities for women, opportunities that were unheard of four decades ago when the National Organization for Women started.

Ms. KIM GANDY (President, National Organization for Women): Well, certainly in 1966, we were really just trying to get into the game.

ELLIOTT: Kim Gandy is president of NOW.

Ms. GANDY: Women had a very hard time getting into college and especially law school, medical school. You look at some very prominent women, who coming out of law school at the top of their class couldn't even get a job as a lawyer. Sandra Day O'Connor, for example, the only job she could get - having graduated near the top of her class from Stanford law - was as a legal secretary.

ELLIOTT: Gandy became active in NOW as a young college graduate in 1973, when she landed her first job in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She soon discovered that under the state's head and master law, her husband owned her paycheck.

Ms. GANDY: Give the husband management of the wife's income and in fact of all of the jointly owned assets. Well, I didn't quite know what to make of it. But I very quickly after that saw something on television about this group that was working to get rid of the head and master law, and it was the National Organization for Women.

ELLIOTT: We're going to look back over 40 years of the National Organization for Women and find out what young people think of the women's movement today.

NOW started in 1966 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.

Professor CYNTHIA HARRISON (George Washington University): And so they concluded, quite sensibly, that they needed to form an organization that wasn't sponsored by the government, so that they would have a completely free hand. And it was at this convention that this group of women sat down at the table. Betty Friedan famously wrote the letters N-O-W on a napkin and they formed the National Organization for Women.

ELLIOTT: Word spread, Harrison says, and chapters started popping up in cities and small towns around the country.

Prof. HARRISON: They were flooded with requests. The office at that time was a carton full of folders on Betty Friedan's dining room table. And they were getting requests from all over the country saying, where is my NOW chapter? And what they did, they would write back to the people and say, you are now the convener of the NOW chapter in your area.

ELLIOTT: As the grassroots chapters took hold, national leaders - many of them academics, journalists and members of the clergy, started pressing for equal opportunities for women. Harrison says NOW quickly got the attention of the Nixon White House.

Prof. HARRISON: And in August of 1969, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was an adviser to the president, sent him a four-page memorandum saying that he is predicting - he says I will predict that female equality will be a major cultural, political force of the 1970s. And he says the essential fact is that we have educated women for equality in America but have not really given it to them.

And he compares these developing - some developing countries, India and Ceylon. And he says look at the ease with which these countries have accepted female heads of state. Consider how odd the idea of a lady president would be to us. I repeat: male dominance is so deeply a part of American life that males don't even notice it. This is a subject ripe for creative political leadership and initiative.

So there is, indeed, a sense that these are women to be reckoned with.

Ms. GLORIA STEINEM (Activist): This is no simple reform. It really is a revolution.

ELLIOTT: Feminist leader Gloria Steinem speaking in 1971.

Ms. STEINEM: We are talking about a society in which there will be no roles other than those chosen or those earned.

ELLIOTT: NOW sought to bring about that society by amending the Constitution to guarantee equal rights. Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment, but the ERA failed to win ratification in the 38 states needed.

Over it's 40-year history, NOW took up other issues, including lesbian rights, domestic violence, educational disparities, abortion rights, and poverty. Historian Cynthia Harrison says its biggest contribution was changing social norms.

Prof. HARRISON: Before the women's movement arises, if you think back 40 years, you see that the work of the world was premised on the notion that men were going to do one set of things, and women were going to do another set of things. We no longer think that way. We appreciate the fact that both men and women can occupy virtually any position - female speaker of the House, female secretary of state.

These are changes that, you know, in the past would have been, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, you know, who can even imagine a lady president? We plainly are not having any problems now imagining a lady president. So that is an enormous shift.

ELLIOTT: But that shift, that sense that women now 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. It doesn't get as much media attention either, according to Susan Douglas, a professor of communications studies at the University of Michigan. She says the perception is the fight is over.

Professor SUSAN DOUGLAS (University of Michigan): We do live in what's been called the post-feminist era. And because women allegedly equal now, women can sit back and relax and don't have to fight the same old fights. Now, we know that that's not true, but I think that's a very widespread perception in the culture. And NOW is still very active in promoting legislation, but I don't know whether young women today connect to NOW in the way that maybe my generation of young women did.

Unidentified Woman: Okay, guys. Let's get going. I just want to make an announcement...

ELLIOTT: To find out what the younger generation thinks, we sat in on this women's studies class at George Washington University.

Unidentified Woman: Well, let's begin. You've read about the women's rights movement in the 1850s and the way in which the movement unfolded. Who can tell me...

ELLIOTT: The students are learning about the pioneers of the early women's movement, but they have very strong views on what feminism is today. Twenty-one-year-old Lindsey Edwards is from Rochester, New York.

Ms. LINDSEY EDWARDS (Student): My favorite phrase right now is I'm not a feminist, but...

So many women speak out about women's issues, but they are afraid of the label of feminism today, because it has such a negative connotation in certain groups.

ELLIOTT: Twenty-year-old Laura Wedig(ph)of Milwaukee agrees.

Ms. LAURA WEDIG (Student): I guess the best word that you could call it is a buzzkill. I remember I was at like a party earlier this year and this guy came up and was kind of flirting with me. And he asked me, well, what are you majoring in? And I said I'm History and Women's Studies. And he all of a sudden stopped smiling and said, I'm going to go get a beer and he never came back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WEDIG: I think like - I think a lot of feminists and women's studies majors, we all kind of like deal with that and everything. And I'm never embarrassed to call myself a feminist. And I guess if some people find that a buzzkill, well, they can go get another beer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ELLIOTT: Why do you think it is that the label feminist has become negative in society?

Ms. WEDIG: I think a big part of it is tied into a lot of homophobia that we have in society, that a lot of people assume that you're a lesbian who doesn't shave her legs and hates men. And really, I mean, there are feminists who are lesbians. There are feminists who are heterosexual. There are feminists who don't shave their legs. There are feminists who do. And really, I think that the problem is, is that people have a very clear-cut stereotype of like what like a feminist or what women's studies branch is all about.

Ms. CATHERINE MEDICI (Student): Hi, my name is Catherine Medici. I'm from Elkhorn, Nebraska and I'm 20 years old. And I think the main problem with being a feminist is related to not wanting to continue the traditional gender roles. Like the woman is not going to ever cook, and she's never going to clean, and she doesn't want to take care of the children. I think people are scared of that, especially where I'm from because it's a very traditional society. And I think saying I'm in a women's studies class, it does get me some looks.

ELLIOTT: Most of the students in this class of 50 agree that there are issues to be tackled by a women's movement today. And 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 here is an active member of the National Organization for Women.

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