Earlier this month, amid relatively little media fanfare, the National Organization for Women celebrated its 40th anniversary. This date comes in an era when women's issues have receded from the political spotlight, eclipsed by more urgent issues such as terrorism and the war in Iraq, and when the question has become: Is NOW's feminism still relevant?
We have (excuse the cliché) come a long way since 1966, when the women's organization was launched by a few determined feminists including Betty Friedan, the recently deceased author of "The Feminine Mystique." Back then, work outside the home was still seen, for women, mostly as something to do before you got married; discrimination against women in the workplace was widespread and widely accepted; and women at high levels of politics were unusual and were often subject to blatantly sexist ridicule.
NOW's 1966 statement of purpose declared: "The purpose of NOW is to take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all the privileges and responsibilities thereof… NOW is dedicated to the proposition that women first and foremost are human beings, who… must have the chance to develop their fullest human potential."
Today, this proposition would seem unremarkable even to most Americans who eschew the "feminist" label, and society has made tremendous strides toward achieving NOW's goals.
But is NOW, 40 years later, still committed to its proclaimed ideals?
The feminists of 1966 were interested in justice for all, not simply more benefits for women. Among other things, they were highly critical of the notion that breadwinning should be the man's sole or primary burden and that a married woman should be automatically entitled to financial support from her husband during marriage or after divorce. In more recent times, however, NOW and its state chapters have tended in almost knee-jerk fashion to side with women in the debates over divorce, often advocating higher and more long-term spousal support.
While paying lip service to the idea of equal parenting, NOW has steadfastly opposed efforts to broaden the rights of divorced fathers. With the exception of a few chapters, it has staunchly opposed such proposals as joint custody and mediation instead of litigation. Ten years ago, NOW issued an "Action Alert against fathers' rights," which accused divorced men who seek a role in their children's lives of abusing power "in the same fashion as do batterers." The top resolution adopted at its 1999 national conference was another call to arms against the fathers' rights movement, asserting that "women lose custody of their children, despite being good mothers, despite a lack of involvement of the father with the children, and regardless of a history of being the primary caregiver." (This has undoubtedly happened in some cases, but to this day it is still far more frequently fathers who experience such injustice.)
NOW depicts the fathers' rights movement as driven by "patriarchal ideology." Yet some fathers' rights activists are themselves dedicated feminists—including Karen DeCrow, an attorney who was the president of NOW from 1974 to 1977.
NOW's failed commitment to true equality is evident in a number of other areas. Its 1966 statement of purpose rightly lamented the lack of equal educational opportunities for girls and young women, noting the declining proportion of young women in higher and professional education and the lack of attention given female high school dropouts. Today, it's mostly boys and young men who are on the short end of educational inequality—as high school and college dropouts and the "missing persons" on college campuses. Yet NOW has nothing to say on this issue.
While NOW has done important work in spearheading legislation to combat domestic violence and aid victims, it has also helped perpetuate a gender-biased, one-sided view of the problem in which men are virtually always the abusers and women virtually always the victims—despite abundant research suggesting a far more complex picture.
NOW's 1966 statement declared that women must seek equality "not in pleas for special privilege, nor in enmity toward men, who are also victims of the current half-equality between the sexes—but in an active, self-respecting partnership with men." Sadly, many of the organization's policies and practices have betrayed this principle.
Feminism is still needed in 2006, at a time when social conservatism is on the rise and when many conservative women's groups that claim to offer an alternative to the women's movement promote retrograde and limiting notions of gender roles. But what's needed is a call for equality, not special privilege or enmity toward men. NOW's feminism is not its foremothers' feminism, and that's too bad.