As a young editor in the mid-1960s, Karen DeCrow paid $5 in dues to join a fledgling group called the National Organization for Women (NOW). It was a simple act ("I didn't even get a membership card," she recalls), but it marked the beginning of a lifelong commitment to working for women's equality.
This weekend that commitment will take her to Albany, N.Y., where she and more than 800 other members will observe a milestone: NOW's 40th anniversary. Amid balloons and confetti, partygoers will watch a video tracing the group's history. They will also honor founders and past presidents, among them Ms. DeCrow.
"It will be a gala celebration of how we changed the country and the world for women, for children, and definitely for men," says an exuberant DeCrow.
Although NOW puts its membership at 500,000 and counts 550 chapters, the anniversary comes at a time when the group is far less visible than it was in the heady 1970s and 1980s. That is leading both self-described "old-timers" of DeCrow's generation and younger activists to find new ways to work for equality. Leaders note that a growing conservatism in the courts and challenges to reproductive rights are drawing new members.
"I see renewed energy around the country," says Kim Gandy, NOW's president. "There's an increased sense that women need to get involved personally and put themselves on the line to make change, that they can't sit back and say, 'Let Jane do it.' "
Early seeds of change were planted 40 years ago this month when a small band of women gathered at the Washington Hilton seeking ways to enforce a federal law outlawing sex discrimination at work. Betty Friedan, author of "The Feminine Mystique," scribbled three letters – NOW – on a napkin, and an organization was born.
At the time, airline stewardesses, as they were then called, typically lost their jobs when they married, got pregnant, or reached the advanced age of 32. Some waitresses were forbidden to work at night. Women in Utah could not be hired if a job required them to lift more than 15 pounds. Employment ads were segregated by gender.
"Sometimes when I teach or talk to students about the women's movement, I tell them that when I started work, newspaper ads identified jobs as 'Help wanted – male' and 'Help wanted – female,' " says Judy Goldsmith, a former NOW president. "They say, 'Oh, come on.' They don't want to believe it. It's so Neanderthal."
DeCrow remembers other unenlightened attitudes in those early days. "Everyone laughed at us and made fun of us and ignored us. When it seemed we were making progress, they attacked us. It wasn't like the doors were open: 'Oh girls, come in. We're so glad you're calling attention to the fact that there are no women astronauts in the NASA program.' We had barriers everywhere. But it was exciting. People would come from all over the world to meet with us. We could pick our targets, because everything was a target."
Today discrimination is more subtle and the targets are less obvious, she says. "The issues have matured. We don't have to fight to get women into law school anymore, but overwhelmingly the partners in major firms are still men. Getting into medical school is not an issue. However, at the top there are still problems."
Other issues on NOW's broad-based agenda include violence against women, abortion rights, and legalizing same-sex marriage.
And then there is the family. "One of the wonderful things that has happened is a much greater acceptance and encouragement of men's involvement in child-rearing," Ms. Goldsmith says. "It's taken some of the pressure off men to be the great provider and the rock that everyone leans on."
Yet DeCrow still includes the family on her agenda, saying, "We need a sense that children are a shared responsibility for mothers and fathers. We haven't gotten there yet, although the young fathers of today certainly do a lot more than their dads and grandfathers did."
When Ms. Gandy joined NOW 33 years ago, the most active members were homemakers and students. She describes them as "women of extraordinary intelligence and commitment who hadn't had the opportunity to use those skills in law or medicine or engineering or other professions. They threw their energy into building the movement." Many devoted 30 or 40 hours a week to the work.
That kind of commitment is now rare, Gandy says. Today's membership is mostly made up of women whose work and family obligations leave them little spare time. Activists also have a choice of organizations they can join.
"It used to be just us and NOW," says Clare Giesen, executive director of the National Women's Political Caucus in Washington, formed five years after NOW. "Now there are any number of groups that are addressing niche issues for women – legal issues, family issues." She cites the National Women's Law Center and the National Research Center for Women and Families.
As NOW's leaders look ahead, they are searching for ways to attract the next generation. Its Young Feminist Task Force, co-chaired by Erin Matson of Minneapolis, includes a dozen members between ages 15 and 29. They advise the national board on issues of concern to young women. This weekend's national conference includes workshops on teen dating violence, music and feminism, and fashion and feminism.
"We are a different generation," Ms. Matson says, "We're much less focused on bylaws and structure and the nuts and bolts of how organizations work. We're figuring out how we work together in a new way, side by side with the people we owe so much of our lives to."
Both generations are keenly aware of the work yet to be done. Women hold only 15 percent of seats in Congress and 14 percent of seats on Fortune 500 boards. On average, they still earn less than men.
"This is not a time for complacency," Goldsmith says.
Some younger women regard this as a transitional time for organizations like NOW.
"I do think NOW still serves a purpose in Washington-based organizing and lobbying," says Jessica Valenti, editor of the website feministing.com. "But younger feminists are exploring new ways of organizing and doing their activism. Hopefully NOW will come along with us."
In the past, she says, activists looked to "large feminist icons" such as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan. "Now young women are becoming their own leaders. We don't necessarily need one or two or three feminist icons to show us the way. We're already doing this work." That includes forming grass-roots organizations, magazines, and blogs.
Referring to unfinished work, she says, "It's easy to talk about abortion rights and pay equity, which are obviously important. But poverty is also huge, and child-care is huge, and having to deal with this ridiculous backlash that says, 'Women don't want to work – they want to have lots of babies.' "
In addition, Ms. Valenti says, women must continue to be active in the wider political arena, bringing activism "to electoral politics and to their daily lives."
Jean Kilbourne, a visiting research scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women, also sees a need for groups like NOW. "I wish I could say it were no longer necessary, but there are still a lot of issues left to be discussed and resolved," she says. "It's important to remember that these gains are relatively new and not set in stone. We have to be vigilant."
Lillian Ciarrochi, a past president of NOW's Philadelphia chapter, imagines a scenario that would be anything but complacent if those gains are ever threatened. "I think there'll be a revolution. They'll do anything to not lose those rights."
From the beginning, men have served on NOW's board of directors in addition to being members. Robert Seidenberg of Fayetteville, N.Y., is widely considered to be the first male member of the national organization. As a psychiatrist, he became aware of "social and interpersonal" challenges that kept women down. "That propelled me to see what I could do in making things a little better." Describing himself as "very hopeful and very encouraged," he adds, "I see things I never thought were possible."
Dr. Seidenberg offers a radical proposal to honor the woman who wrote those three letters, NOW, on a napkin 40 years ago.
"We don't have any national holiday for a woman in this country yet," he says. "Betty Friedan should be the one. She was not perfect. She was controversial. But the basic thing she did should not be forgotten. She changed America for the better with the liberation of women."
As Gandy prepares for Saturday's celebration, she reflects on progress.
"Perhaps the greatest changes we've accomplished in the last 40 years are that we've changed hearts and minds, we've changed laws and won lawsuits," she says. "Feminism today is what I hoped it would be 30 years ago. It's my daughters, who are 10 and 13, not just believing they can do anything, but absolutely knowing they can. Unfortunately we haven't come quite that far, but it's so important that our daughters expect equality, because they will demand it when it's not there."
1966 Twenty-eight women and men at the Third National Conference of the Commission on the Status of Women establish the National Organization for Women (NOW) to bring women "into full participation in the mainstream of American society...." Betty Friedan, author of "The Feminine Mystique," is elected president.
1967 With 1,035 members, NOW declares support for the repeal of all antiabortion laws and passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.
1970 NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund is formally incorporated in Washington to advance the legal rights of women and girls.
1971 At NOW's fifth annual conference, a resolution passes acknowledging the "oppression of lesbians as a legitimate concern of feminism."
• NOW and other feminist organizations join to form the National Women's Political Caucus, a nonpartisan coalition of women in politics.
1973 NOW's Task Force on Rape begins a campaign to redefine it as a crime of violence against women and to change some rape laws and how rape trials are conducted.
• NOW's efforts help win the first sex-discrimination complaint against a university: Johnson v. U. of Pittsburgh.
• NOW begins a campaign to enforce Title IX, passed in 1972, which established equal educational opportunities for girls and boys.
• After a five-year campaign by NOW, a US Supreme Court ruling prohibits sex-segregated employment advertisements.
1978 NOW organizes a 100,000-person march in Washington to support the Equal Rights Amendment. (Four years later, Congress narrowly defeats passage of the ERA, despite broad support for it.)
1986 US Supreme Court passes a ruling (Bazemore et al. v. Friday et al) that ultimately encourages more pay-equity cases. In another decision, the high court affirms that sexual harassment on the job is a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
1989 Marches for Women's Lives draws 600,000 reproductive-rights supporters to Washington; in 1992, the number grows to 750,000.
1991 Despite Anita Hill's allegations of sexual harassment against him, Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas is confirmed by the full Senate, 52 to 48. NOW reports a spike of 13,000 new members late that year.
1992 State Farm Insurance Company agrees to pay $157 million to 814 women who were denied jobs as agents in the biggest sex-discrimination settlement in US history.
1993 President Bill Clinton appoints five women to his cabinet, the most ever in US history.
2004 March for Women's Lives draws a record 1.15 million to Washington to advocate for women's reproductive health options.
2006 NOW celebrates its 40th anniversary with 500,000 members and 550 chapters in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
– Compiled by Kendra Nordin