National Organization for Women

NOW is an American activist organization (founded 1966) that promotes equal rights for women.

The National Organization for Women was established by a small group of feminists who were dedicated to actively challenging sex discrimination in all areas of American society but particularly in employment. The organization is composed of both men and women, and in the late 20th century it had some 250,000 members.

Among the issues that NOW addresses by means of lobbying and litigation are child care, pregnancy leave, and abortion and pension rights. Its major concern during the 1970s was passage of a national Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution; the amendment failed to gain ratification in 1982. NOW has also campaigned for such issues as passage of state equal rights amendments and comparable-worth legislation (equal pay for work of comparable value) and has met with greater success on the state level.

Women's Liberation Movement

The women's liberation movement - also called Feminist Movement - is a social movement that seeks equal rights for women, giving them equal status with men and freedom to decide their own careers and life patterns.

Concern for women's rights dates from the Enlightenment, when the liberal, egalitarian, and reformist ideals of that period began to be extended from the bourgeoisie, peasants, and urban labourers to women as well.

The period's nascent ideas concerning women's rights were fully set forth in Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in England in 1792, which challenged the idea that women exist only to please men and proposed that women receive the same opportunities as men in education, work, and politics.

In the 19th century, however, the awareness of women's need for equality with men crystallized in the movement to obtain woman suffrage, rather than in any fundamental or far-reaching reevaluation of women's social status, roles, and their place in the economy.

In the later 19th century a few women began to work in the professions, and women as a whole achieved the right to vote in the first half of the 20th century, but there were still distinct limits on women's participation in the workplace, as well as a set of prevailing notions that tended to confine women to their traditional roles as wives, mothers, and homemakers.

Meanwhile, the economic conditions underlying women's inferior (or at least dependent) status were changing as women had fewer children and as household appliances freed them from many of the labour-intensive chores formerly associated with housekeeping.

The growth of the service sector in the Western world's economies in the decades following World War II also helped create new types of jobs that could be done as well by women as by men.

All these factors made growing numbers of women aware that society's traditional notions of them had failed to change as rapidly as women's actual living conditions had. In addition, the Civil Rights Movement in the United States during the 1960s inspired women to try to obtain better conditions for themselves through similar campaigns of mass agitation and social criticism.

A milestone in the rise of modern feminism was Simone de Beauvoir's book Le Deuxieme Sexe (1949; The Second Sex), which became a worldwide best-seller and raised feminist consciousness by appealing to the idea that liberation for women was liberation for men too.

Another major work was The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963 by Betty Friedan, an American. She attacked deadening domesticity--the conditioning of women to accept passive roles and depend on male dominance.

In 1966 Friedan and other feminists founded the National Organization for Women. Other women's organizations for equal rights proliferated in the United States and in western Europe immediately thereafter.

These organizations sought to overturn laws and practices that enforced the inferior status of women by discrimination in such matters as contract and property rights, employment and pay issues, and management of earnings and in matters related to sex and childbearing (i.e., contraception and abortion).

More broadly, the growing feminist movement sought to change society's prevailing stereotypes of women as relatively weak, passive, and dependent individuals who are less rational and more emotional than men.

Feminism sought to achieve greater freedom for women to work and to remain economically and psychologically independent of men if they chose.

Feminists criticized society's prevailing emphasis on women as objects of sexual desire and sought to broaden both women's self-awareness and their opportunities to the point of equality with men.

Another of feminism's aims was to advance women's participation in political decision-making and all areas of public life.

Feminists in western developed countries have agitated against mass-media presentations of women that seemed biased, stereotypical, or discriminatory.

In parts of Africa, feminists' goals may be more basic--such as removal of the bride-price. In the Muslim Middle East, they may seek relaxation of the dress code and the code of seclusion.

In many countries they may decry the wife's need to get her husband's permission to sign a contract or bring a lawsuit.

For information on the political, educational, and economic status of women in various countries, see the Table.