National Organization for Women

The National Organization for Women (NOW) was established in 1966 to take action to bring about equality for all women. NOW’s actions have helped put women in political posts, increased educational, employment and business opportunities for women; and enacted tougher laws against violence, harassment and discrimination of women.

Written by Terri Campbell with some content from an earlier edition by 




The National Organization for Women (NOW) was established by a group of feminists who were dedicated to actively challenging sex discrimination in society. With 500,000 members and 550 chapters in all 50 states, NOW is the largest organization of feminist activists in the United States. Since its founding in 1966, NOW's goal has been "to take action" to bring about equality for all women. NOW’s original mission statement read: “The purpose of NOW is to take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men…” (National Organization for Women) (1).

NOW strives to: take action through intersectional grassroots activism to promote feminist ideals, lead societal change, eliminate discrimination, and to achieve and protect the equal rights of all women and girls in all aspects of social, political, and economic life. NOW achieves its goals through extensive electoral and lobbying work, organization of mass marches, rallies, pickets, non-violent civil disobedience and immediate, responsive “zap” actions. NOW's actions have helped to put more women in political posts; increased educational, employment and business opportunities for women; and enacted tougher laws against violence, harassment and discrimination of women (National Organization for Women) (2).

Historic Roots

In 1966, 28 women attending the Third National Conference of the Commission on the Status of Women established the National Organization for Women (NOW). The founders, frustrated the way the federal government wasn’t enforcing the new anti-discrimination laws, gathered in Betty Friedan’s hotel room one evening during the conference and began to form the new organization.  The organization’s purpose was this:  To take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, assuming all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men (National Organization of Women) (3).

NOW was formally launched in October of 1966 at a convention in Washington DC that attracted 300 people, men and women.  Friedan was elected president.  By the end of the twentieth century, NOW had grown into the one of the largest women’s advocate groups (St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture).

NOW-organized marches have drawn significant support:

  • A 1978 march supporting the Equal Rights Amendment drew more than 100,000 people.
  • The Marches for Women's Lives drew 600,000 supporters in 1989 and 750,000 in 1992.
  • In 1995, NOW organized a demonstration focusing on violence against women drawing more than 200,000 people.
  • In 1996, 30,000 gathered to Fight the Radical Right which united activists to support affirmative action; economic justice; abortion rights and reproductive freedom; civil rights for people of color; lesbian, gay and bisexual rights and efforts to end violence against women.  
  • In 2004, the March for Women's Lives became the largest mass action in U.S. history, bringing a record 1.15 million people to advocate for women's reproductive health options (National Organization for Women) (4).


Over the years, the National Organization for Women (NOW) has been instrumental in the progress of key issues in the women’s movement. NOW’s six core issues are:  reproductive rights and justice; ending violence against women; economic justice; LGBTQ rights; racial justice; and constitutional equality amendment (National Organization of Women) (5).

Some of NOW's most important work has been in the area of preventing sexual harassment and violence. NOW members organized the first “Take Back the Night” march, founded hotlines and shelters for battered women, lobbied for government funding of programs aimed at stopping violence against women and won the passage of a federal Violence Against Women Act in 1994.

In 1967, NOW was the first national organization to call for the legalization of abortion and for the repeal of all anti-abortion laws. To ensure women's access to reproductive health care, NOW's “Project Stand Up for Women” has trained members to use a three-pronged strategy including litigation, political pressure, and the direct defense of women's rights at medical clinics. In 1994, a U.S. Supreme Court case, NOW v. Scheidler, ruling affirmed NOW's right to use federal racketeering laws against anti-abortion extremists who organize campaigns of fear, force and violence to deny women their right to abortion.

One of NOW's strongest concerns is gaining recognition of women's work, both in the home and in the paid labor market. NOW first popularized the slogan, "Every Mother is a Working Mother" and the phrase, "women who work outside the home.” NOW pressed landmark lawsuits against sex discrimination in employment, winning millions in back pay for women. One case in 1969, Weeks v. Southern Bell, attorney Sylvia Roberts, NOW's Southern Regional Director, won a U.S. Fifth Circuit ruling that sex discrimination was a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. This landmark decision was the first to apply Title VII to sex discrimination (National Organization for Women) (6).

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

In addition to the important legal and political accomplishment of the National Organization for Women (NOW), it also has established the National Organization for Women Foundation (NOW Foundation) devoted to furthering women's rights through advocacy, education and litigation. Over the decades, the NOW Foundation has promoted many of its own programs as well as donated to others.

NOW Foundation established the annual “Love Your Body Day” —a national day of action to speak out against advertisements and images of women that are harmful, offensive, disrespectful and demeaning. The NOW Foundation offers “Love Your Body Day” event planning tips and suggestions. To help young girls with their body image, projects, activities and activism are offered starting at the middle school age.

In addition to its own programs, NOW donates money to external programs such as the “Girls Exploring Math and Science Program” in California. In 2003, NOW teamed-up with the American Association of People with Disabilities to co-host a national conference in entitled “Women with Disabilities & Allies Forum: Linking Arms for Equality & Justice for All” (National Organization for Women) (7).

Key Related Ideas

  • Feminism is the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men (Dictionary).
  • Constitutional Equality is equality in pay, job opportunities, political structure, social security and education will remain an elusive dream without guarantee of equality in the U.S. Constitution (National Organization for Women) (8).
  • LGBTQ Rights describes the fight against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity  in all areas, including employment, housing, public accommodations, health services, child custody and military policies (National Organization for Women) (8).
  • Reproductive Rights and Justice are terms which affirms that reproductive rights are issues of life and death for women.  NOW supports access to safe and legal abortion, to effective birth control and emergency contraception, to reproduce health services and education for all women (National Organization for Women) (8).

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Betty Friedan (1921-2006): Friedan broke new ground with her book, The Feminine Mystique (1963) that dispelled the myth that all women wanted to be homemakers.  In 1966, she helped found the National Organization for Women (NOW) and served as the first president (Encyclopedia of Women Social Reformers).
  • Aileen C. Hernandez (1926-2017): Hernandez served as the second president of the National Organization for Women (1970-1971) and has founded several black women’s organizations locally and nationally. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson appointed Hernandez as the only woman member of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She has won numerous national and local recognitions for her work in the civil rights and women’s rights movements and serves on the boards of many organizations dedicated to social and economic justice (Contemporary Black Biography).
  • Pauli Murray (1910 - 1985):  Murray co-founded the National Organization for Women in 1966 and served on the national board of the American Civil Liberties Union. As a black woman in the early to mid-twentieth century, she overcame Jim Crow laws and Jane Crow regulations to be the only woman in her law school class at Howard University. She employed the uses of non-violent tactics such as sit-ins and letter writing campaigns. Murray was also the first black woman Episcopal priest in the U.S. and the first black Attorney General in the State of California (National Organization of Women) (9).
  • Gloria Steinem (1934- ): In 1972, Steinem co-founded Ms. Magazine, the first magazine to offer a woman's viewpoint on political, social, cultural, religious and other issues. Over the years she has also helped organize the National Women's Political Caucus, the Women's Action Alliance, Coalition of Labor Union Women, Voters for Choice, and Women Against Pornography, established the Ms. Foundation for Women and became an advocate for the women's liberation movement. Some of Steinem’s publications include Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (1983); Revolution from Within (1993); and Moving Beyond Words (1995). (Gloria Steinem).

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • American Civil Liberty’s Union is a national non-profit organization that serves to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties of U.S. citizens. For almost 100 years, the American Civil Liberty’s Union  has worked to preserve America’s original civic values - the Constitution and the Bill of Rights including First Amendment rights, the right to equal protection under the law, the right to due process, and the right to privacy (ACLU).
  • Equal Rights Advocates. Since 1974, the mission of Equal Rights Advocates has been to protect and  expand economic and educational access and opportunities for women and girls through litigation and advocacy. Equal Rights Advocates works to assist women and girls throughout a life-long continuum; ensuring equality in their educational experience, combating sex discrimination in the workplace, and advocating for workplaces to be hospitable to working families (Equal Rights).
  • The Global Fund for Women. Founded in 1987, this organization is committed to equality, social justice, and women's human rights by making grants to support women's groups around the world. The Global Fund for Women stands for the right of every woman to live equally and free from discrimination, no matter her sexuality or identity (Global Fund for Women).
  • Ms. Foundation. Founded in 1973, the Ms. Foundation works to bring attention to challenges facing women, especially women of color and low-income women.  Ms. Foundation awards grants to entities which work on a broad range of issues including:  economic justice, ending gender-based violence and preventing child sexual abuse, and protecting women’s access to health care and reproductive rights (Ms Foundation).
  • Planned Parenthood. For 100 years, Planned Parenthood has promoted a commonsense approach to women’s health and well-being.  Planned Planned Parenthood operates more than 600 health centers nationwide providing high quality, affordable reproductive health care and sexual health information to women, men and young people (Planned Parenthood).


Reflection Question - In your daily life, what kinds of observations have you made about how women, or anyone in general, are treated differently because of their gender, race, sexual orientation or religion? 



  • Elizabeth Rholetter Purdy. "National Organization for Women (NOW)." In St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. Detroit: Gale, 2013. Encyclopedia of Popular Culture
  • “Friedan, Betty (Elizabeth Naomi Goldstein)”. (2001). In H. Rappaport, Encyclopedia of   Women Social Reformers, by Helen Rappoport, ABC-CLIO, 2001.  
  • “Hernandez, Aileen Clarke (Joan Oleck)”. (1997). Contemporary Black Biography, edited by Shirelle Phelps, vol. 13, Gale, 1997, pp. 87-91.

This paper was developed by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University in 2017. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

This paper was originally developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Grand Valley State University. It is offered by Learning To Give and Grand Valley State University.