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Katherine Turk on NOW’s Lesser-Known Feminists

Katherine Turk on NOW’s Lesser-Known Feminists

Richard Aldous

Click here to access the podcast transcript. Please note: Transcripts of podcasts are generated automatically by AI and corrected manually by the team, and errors may exist.

Richard Aldous (RA): Bookstack with Richard Aldous, the books and ideas podcast brought to you by Coming up on the show today, Katherine Turk, associate professor of history at UNC at Chapel Hill and author of the new book, The Women of NOW, How Feminists Built an Organization.

Katherine Turk (KT): Richard, thanks so much for inviting me. It's a pleasure to be with you.

RA: And congratulations on the new book. So who were the women of NOW?

KT: Oh, great question. There were so many women of NOW and I should of course mention that NOW is still here. So there are currently many women and also men of NOW. Um, but I, you kNOW, I chose that title in concert with my editor because we wanted to really emphasize that while NOW was and is an organization, and those organizational structures are really key to the organization's, um, successes and its longevity, really the book is about the women who built the organization and what it meant to them and how they brought many different visions of feminism. To this open ended organization and built their movement through it. So that's the kind of non answer to your question that there were so many different women and also men.

RA: And as you say, there are so many women, but actually in your book, you focus particularly on three of them, and they're very contrasting characters, bringing out different aspects of this organization and broader movement. So tell us about the three.

KT: Sure. So, you know, histories of NOW typically focus on the founding generation. So the 49 women, but also men who set up this organization in 1966. And I was really interested in, of course, telling the story of those. Folks and giving them credit for all that they did, but I wanted to look at how the idea of NOW actually work, how the next generation of NOW members really put this idea of a feminism that could be all for all women and their male allies into practice.

So I chose three, as you mentioned, very different women, each of whom was mentored by one of the organization's founders, but who embodied much different. Potential path for this open ended feminist organization. Those three women are Eileen Fernandez, who was Jamaican American African American graduate of Howard University, a labor organizer before she was tapped to be one of the first five commissioners on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1965, and she was NOW’s second president, uh, elected in 1970 and served one term, but remained part of the organization for almost another decade and really sought to bring the concerns, the specific concerns and issues that mattered to women of color to the center of NOW's agenda. 

Uh, the second protagonist that I focused on, a woman named Patricia Hill Burnett, who was from Detroit, Michigan. She was a former beauty queen, Miss Michigan, 1942, and an active Republican. She was a portrait painter, uh, but mostly a, a wife and mother, and was a feminine mystique, along with many of her friends in the mid 1960s, and sort of had a feminist awakening, as well as a political awakening, around the age of 50. So, she worked through NOW, to, um, bring her feminism and her Republican Party commitment sort of closer together and try to keep NOW nonpartisan. 

And my third protagonist, a little bit younger than the other two, her name is Mary Jean Collins. She's a working class Catholic from Milwaukee, who was deeply impacted both by that city's civil rights movement, but also by the feminist nuns who were a part of her life that she grew up and then taught her in college. And she was really concerned that NOW be attentive to the issues that mattered to working class women and sought to focus NOW's power, uh, against some of the most notorious. Um, corporations in American life, so really working on employment rights campaigns, um, but much different ideas about what feminism should be, how it should be structured, , whose, , concerns it should prioritize, whether it should be sort of diffuse and freewheeling and sprouting up from the grassroots or more concentrated, trying to organize women's power against specific groups, enemies. And, um, I think some of those questions are still really as important as they were. They're still as important now as they were back then. Those questions that we think about in terms of building a social movement. 

RA: Yeah, although it's interesting you, you say in the introduction, uh, that, uh, in teaching this, sometimes your own students are baffled by some of the issues that, uh these women would have faced for example, one, uh, illustration that you give is with Hernandez when she was at Howard, uh, and going into a, I think it was a political science class, and the instructor, uh, singling her out and saying, well, you know, unless you're prepared to do all the work, you should probably leave right now because really, you should be in the home economics class.

KT: Yeah. Um, you know, I, when I teach about this movement, I find that students are often surprised by a couple of things. And one of those things is that there was so much sexism and misogyny, of course, intertwined with racism and homophobia. Not that those problems don't still exist, but, um, the book opens with a kind of snapshot of just how pervasive and, um, mundane those problems were everywhere in American life.

And for my students, who are, you know, younger than I am, but this is their grandparents, maybe their great grandparents, who fought these battles in the 1960s and 70s. But this didn't happen. So long ago, and they often learn the movement, it's to the extent that they know about it in terms of, um, kind of an individual figures.

So Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, Betty Friedan, of course, um, iconic leaders in their own rights. And we need to study them and understand them. But what I try to convey to my students and what the book also argued is that it was the women, the everyday women, the masses of ordinary women whose names are not that you know, not really known to history, but who decided to do the hard work in their communities and then at the state and national levels to work together.

And it was through experiences, much like the one you just described, Eileen Hernandez and her political science class at Howard, um, that women, the women that, that, that founded NOW and joined NOW in the years I write about, uh, had had enough experiences like that over the course of their lifetime that they realized it was really time to try to tackle these, this problem of sexism.

And that the way that they needed to do that was actually certainly to fight as individuals, but, um, more powerful would be to come together and try to build a solid class out of women that could wield the kind of power that the civil rights movement had, that the labor movement had, student movement had.

Um, this, this mid sixties moment at the time of people coming together across broad identity based categories and the, the women's movement of those years was no different.

RA: Yeah, and you, you don't exactly come out and say that everything that's been written on this previously is wrong, but you're definitely trying to steer the debate and the scholarship in a different direction. That one of the ways that we often think of these women, uh, is a, as, as, um, professionals, as middle, upper middle class intellectuals, uh, very much based around New York, arguing with each other all the time. You're kind of trying to get us back to a more grassroots understanding of this movement and, and how it impacted society. 

KT: Absolutely. And, you know, not that there wasn't fighting, not that there weren't strong, uh, disagreements and debates. The book certainly captures, uh, as much of that as I could find in the archives, but I do think there's a kind of subtle sexism in some of the literature on this period that implies that, You kNOW, the 1960s were a time when other groups could kind of get together, but that when women really tried to work together, you kNOW, in the late 60s, but into the 1970s, they just couldn't get along.

They just couldn't get anything done. Their ideas were just too, too distinct, too clashing. And another way that the movement is often thesauricized is in terms of liberal feminists and radical feminists. Um, this book kind of tries to dismantle those categories or at least challenge them because in that framework NOW is typically sort of anchored as the liberal group and certainly NOW pursued a lot of liberal kinds of change and access to power and equal access to jobs and educational opportunities and credit and all of these things.

But I think many of the women in NOW had a much more ambitious, but also pragmatic vision of what feminism could be. And it was rooted in their personal lives. And it was not just about kind of accessing power in a sort of moderate getting a seat at the table way. So the book reasons from these women and their lives and their politics to show that, um, feminism was an, is an incredibly ambitious movement that encompasses a lot of different people.

And. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that they didn't share one vision and they couldn't always agree because the scale of what they were trying to accomplish is so monumental and women are as different from each other as any two people who live in our wildly diverse nation are. So of course they had different ideas, but the book also captures accurately all the different ways that they figured it out.

All of the collaborations, all of the hard work of trying to forge consensus and They were quite successful in that, even as they struggled at other times.

RA: Yeah, I suppose that, I mean, the popular way of thinking about that comes through that television series, Mrs. America, that shows the divides in the movement as they combat Phyllis Shafley and so on, played wonderfully by Cate Blanchett. Um, I, I mean, first of all, what did you make of that? 'cause it seems to be the opposite of what you are trying to convey in the book, but, but secondly, it does actually get to the root of something, doesn't it?

Because it's always seen as a massive failure of the movement, uh, that the Equal Rights Amendment ultimately fails.

KT: Yeah. Well, let me, um, take those questions one at a time and just let me kNOW if I, if I neglect one. I, I love that the series, Mrs. America, I love the aesthetic. You kNOW, it came out at a, at a moment early in the pandemic when we were all at home and desperate to escape into a story. Thank Um, but, you kNOW, I think it's, it's, it definitely deserves some criticism, uh, at least, , perhaps some of these criticisms are sort of inevitable to trying to narrativize a complex movement.

Um, certainly that series, if all you knew about feminism in the 1970s was that, from that series, I think you would come away with a couple of really important misconceptions. Uh, the first being that, quote unquote, second wave feminism was not a mass movement, but was a kind of ideological conflict between strong individuals.

And...certainly, again, there were, there were ideological conflicts, but each of the kind of avatars of, um, different strands of feminism and anti feminism in that series represented hundreds of thousands, if not millions of women and men who had that perspective. And so I think when, when you're looking at the movement in terms of just what individual leaders thought or did and their personalities, you miss what actually made the movement work.

And the second piece, um, you know, that series does focus so strongly on Phyllis Schlafly, and she's an intriguing character. She deserves much more scrutiny and study, but I also think it really downplayed what was the real power behind anti feminism. Um, there were, there are conservative women, there were conservative women, there were women who opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, but there were also a lot of really well resourced corporate interests and, um, conservative political interests that wanted to see the ERA fail, and I thought that that series, um, sort of boiled feminism and anti feminism down to two sets of ideas, and while of course that's not untrue, it's not the whole story. Uh, but yes, I mean the book talks a lot about the Equal Rights Amendment and how the rise of anti feminist women is quite A challenge for NOW, if not an existential one, because NOW's very premise was that there could be a feminism or even an organization that that could forge an agenda for all women, and that all women would want to be part of.

And Phyllis Schlafly and anti feminist women, they kind of rise to power on the backs of NOW, in tension with NOW. And I think you could argue that there would have been no Phyllis Schlafly without NOW, right? This sort of new archetype of the fearless, outspoken, political women.

Schlafly is organizing local chapters around the country and sort of coordinating nationally in the way that mirrored what NOW was doing, and defining herself and her movement. We're against NOW saying, no, women don't want equality. Equality is not the kind of benign next step in the broader human rights revolution that we're all on together.

It's dangerous. And because NOW's mission was so open ended and they really, they accomplished as much as they did, I think, because they, in part, because they believe that this could work and it did work to some extent, but it couldn't accommodate. Women who share the same gender as the leaders of NOW, but who define themselves and their politics completely against NOW's basic premise that equality was good for all women and all women could agree that, you know, they should want to control their reproduction and their health and their body.

This is another issue that For, for NOW in these years, this seems like a no-brainer. Of course, all women would want this. And that's the other piece of, uh, what Schlafly is, um, is about. And again, it's the ERA's momentum in the mid seventies, early to mid seventies. And it's the Roe vs. Wade opinion, which comes down in 1973, which really, um, starts to galvanize anti-feminist women and NOW really has a hard time, um, understanding them or taking them seriously, I think, until it's, it's, it's kind of too late.

RA: Yeah, it's one of the reasons that, uh, Bernadette is one of the really interesting characters in the book, because she is a Republican. You do show, as the book goes along, how the movement does kind of become more politicized, it does move more to the left, , and becomes more centralized, actually, and loses that grassroots feeling.

Uh, and it seems the more disconnected it becomes from the grassroots, The more the kind of the political, the sharply political side of the, of the movement comes to the fore, and it becomes essentially movement of the left rather than a broad movement that perhaps it had been earlier. 

KT: That's exactly right. So, um, you konw, NOW, NOW, in the late 1970s, has much more money, has a much more streamlined operation. It has many, many more members. But the book really argues that NOW's most productive years were earlier in the decade, in the early 1970s, when the organization did not have a lot of money.

It did not have, the officers at the national level did not have tight control, or even, um, a lot of understanding of what was always happening at the chapters. But the magic of NOW was that any 10 people in any community or town or city or college campus could put in their 10 bucks a piece, form a NOW chapter, and work on any issue that they chose, anything they thought, you kNOW, should count as a feminist issue or even a women's issue.

And NOW's agenda at that point was so open ended, so expansive. They just kept letting the chapters incubate these ideas, work on these issues however they thought, and adding new issue oriented task forces at the national level to accommodate all of these issues. So NOW has upwards of three dozen national task forces by the mid 1970s, but that's right around the time when the Equal Rights Amendment's momentum is really slowing down.

It's passed both houses of Congress by 1972 and is on its way to being ratified in the required 38 states, that it needs to be added to the Constitution when, uh, some of those states that are left on the board are harder to win. Where feminists are less organized and also anti-feminist women start making a lot of momentum and their arguments about.

ERA as bad for women starts to catch on in conservative and even more mainstream and moderate circles. And so NOW leaders at that point, find themselves at a kind of a crossroads where they could sort of let the ERA go, let it play out as it's going to play out, keep the ERA as one of NOW's many priorities and one of many issues it's working on, or to focus their resources, focus their, people, their agenda on this one issue, and they start to redefine the ERA as what one of the leaders calls the bottom line issue for the feminist movement. The one goal that will make all of their issues easier to win. And in some ways that was true, but not everyone working in NOW, uh, working through NOW.

Saw equal legal rights as the end goal for their feminism, but as part of the strategy to build out the ERA campaign to, um, to raise the money that they need to really make that campaign as effective and efficient as possible NOW begins raising money in new ways that centralize its, um, its agenda and, um, privileged certain kinds of members as donors over others.

And, the book argues that the fight for the ERA completely changed the character of the National Organization for Women, and that that change has proved permanent.

RA: Yeah, it's interesting as well, because there is a paradox at the heart of the broader story. On the one hand, there's absolutely no doubt that the position of women in society has proved immeasurably since the period where you start in the, in the 1960s. For example, uh, I don't know how many professors of history there were at UNC, uh, in, in the 1960s. It would be interesting to know. 

KT: Very few women.

RA: Exactly. So very few women in every area of, of public life. And you start the book in, uh, 1974. We've had the ERA, uh, we've had Roe v. Wade that I think, uh, comes the year before. Uh, and yet, you know, the ERA fails, and here we are NOW after the Dobbs decision, where, uh, Roe v.Wade has been struck down by the Supreme Court, and both of those things happen. Primarily through, um, organization, through grassroots organization, uh, which proves to be very successful, uh, politically, mobilizing opinion, political opinion, playing the political game. So, so what, what do you make of that paradox? Essentially , the right seems to have played the game better when it comes to their political objectives. 

KT: That's so interesting. You know , I think one of the, one of NOW's, perhaps this is ironic, but one of NOW's great successes has been to help transform American society so dramatically that I think it's hard, it can be hard for women who didn't live through The years of NOW's most transformative struggle to understand why such an organization was ever necessary.

And the conclusion of the book argues that NOW, NOW's feminism as it evolved proved much more successful in opening doors for the most elite women to, to rise, to enter, um, you know, the elite status, the elite strata of, Academia of politics of corporate life of, um, you name it sports. And yet, um, that the rising inequality among women, I think, has made NOW's basic premise of an organization that really could speak for all women as, um, I mean, it's an even more radical idea NOW than it was when NOW's founders devoted so much time and energy And resources to setting up this organization almost 60 years ago. I would also say, the ERA did come very close to passing just a few state lawmakers and a handful of states had voted differently. You know, we would have had it NOW for the past several decades. Um, but it's true that historically that women's grassroots rooted efforts, when they were devoted to many different causes, and were sort of open and capacious enough for women to express and advance their own notions of feminism, notions of how to make their lives better through it, have, have, those efforts have proved more resilient, and I think oftentimes more successful.

The ERA became, for NOW, an issue where when, when NOW put all of its eggs in the basket, so to speak, of ratifying the ERA, when it failed in 1982, it failed to ratify then, that was a real problem for an organization that had, whose identity was so bound up in passing that amendment, that had raised so much money with the promise that NOW's efforts would get it across the finish line, whereas NOW, a decade earlier, was focused on so many different things, using so many different tactics, I think losing any one of those agenda items at that point would not have been such an existential crisis. So perhaps there is a paradox that changing public opinion and lobbying the Supreme Court and lobbying for Supreme Court, um, nominations, requires an incredibly focused effort and passing a constitutional amendment probably requires an even more focused effort to get something like that done.

And yet, um, it's also true that the flip side, the downside of that kind of effort is that it leaves a lot of other issues kind of on the table, unaddressed. And so, the sections of the book on the ERA really argue that perhaps such a focused effort was necessary. Even though it wasn't enough, it got them closer to ratifying this amendment than they would have been without it, certainly, without that effort.

And yet, there was a real, there were real drawbacks to that strategy that the book also examines.

RA: I wonder as well that a lot of feminists recently have found themselves in the middle of debates around trans issues. What do you make of those debates and how do you see them fitting into the historical context of the things that you've been working on with the women's movement? 

KT: So I looked for trans people in NOW's Archive, and I worked in NOW's Archive for a very long time. Um, NOW's Archive gets a little bit thinner in the 1990s when trans people were sort of generally more out and visible. So, so I did not find any out trans people in NOW in the 1960s, 70s, 80s, the period that my book really examines.

Um, certainly I would be surprised if they weren't there, but they were not out and open as, um, as they might feel more comfortable being NOW, but I would say more generally NOW was at its most productive, it was at its most effective when the organization was not drawing bright lines around who counted as a woman and who didn't.

Or maybe more, um, the way that debate would have been expressed in the 1970s would have been, you know, whose priorities are more important than, um, than other people's. Um, perhaps a kind of corollary would be NOW's engagement with, uh, with the politics of lesbian rights and lesbian members in the organization who were there from the very beginning, although, uh, most were not that comfortable being fully out, even in feminist circles, but as they started to come out in their lives and in their feminist organization in the late, later 1960s and early 70s, there were some in NOW who were quite, um, concerned about that, who argued that, um, what they called sexual politics or bedroom politics would, um, would overtake the rest of the movement, it would delegitimize the entire movement before they really got a chance to accomplish anything.

Uh, and there were some women who made that claim publicly from within NOW and some who left NOW, um, over the presence of lesbian members. But the majority of members, once they realized that they already knew lesbians through NOW, um, were, were, were, were open and understanding and, and curious and understood, even the most conservative protagonist in my book, Patricia Hill Burnett, journals about this, that she realizes that we can't be divided. Women need to stand together, and we have all different, um, priorities, we have different, um, family structures, we have different desires and different identities, but if we're going to accomplish this, this revolution that we're envisioning, we can't be excluding certain people, I mean NOW could have done much more and the book is quite clear about this to be inclusive to be actively inclusive to lesbians to women of color to working class women, but, but certainly the majority of members of NOW understood that they had to have an open organization that they welcomed.

Pretty much anyone, until anti feminists came along and said, no, we, we define ourselves against you, and then that was a problem. But, , I think one lesson that you, could take away is just how important it is to let women express themselves and tell you who they are and tell you what their priorities are, and when the organization is flexible and expansive enough to accommodate all of those, all of the varieties of women who exist, and all of the different priorities that they have, there is strength in that flexibility, and there is, endurance in that flexibility that is really powerful.

RA: The book is The Women of NOW, How Feminists Built an Organization that Transformed America. It's written by my guest, Katherine Turk, and it's published by FSG. But for now, Katie, congratulations again, and thanks for joining us on Bookstack.

KT: Thank you so much, Richard. Wonderful to be with you.

RA: So that's it from us this week. Don't forget to check our website, AmericanPurpose. com, and to leave us a review on your podcast app. The show is produced by Laura Silverman, and this is me, Richard Aldous, saying thanks for listening.