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Now Ms.

The Women of NOW: How Feminists Built an Organization That Transformed America, Katherine Turk, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, pp. 448, $32.00

50 Years of Ms., ed. Katherine Spillar, Knopf, pp. 544, $50.00


The acronym “T.E.R.F.”—trans-exclusionary radical feminist—is variously a slur or a badge of pride, depending on your views. And Britain, where I live, has for some years been known as “T.E.R.F. Island.” On my side of the pond, gender-critical feminists have racked up a series of political victories, but their American sisters seem, by contrast, few and fragmented. This has long puzzled me. Why are so many British feminists critical of gender ideology, while their American counterparts seem monolithically in favor? Two recently published books, offering complementary histories of American second-wave feminism from the sexual revolution to the present, shed light on this strange phenomenon.

The first book, 50 Years of Ms., is a “Greatest Hits” anthology culled from the venerable feminist print quarterly Ms. magazine, selected and with commentary by Katherine Spillar and the editors of Ms. It contains some five hundred-odd pages of impassioned feminist writing, interspersed with color plates, correspondence, and brief histories of important moments in the movement. The second book is Katherine Turk’s Women of NOW: How Feminists Built an Organization That Transformed America, a detailed and gripping institutional history of the National Organization for Women. Together, the two books explain why American second-wave feminism took an institutional and ideological form profoundly inimical to a realist, embodied understanding of women’s interests. And in addition to providing an origin story for America’s lack of T.E.R.F.ism, this account also gives an etiology of the modern American culture war: one that should invite questions from anyone who values freedom about the relationship between state power and the pursuit of formal equality.

It is common, especially among conservatives, to seek to explain feminism in terms of ideologies. But the women’s movement was also an effect of material changes. If the Industrial Revolution drove the first wave of feminism, then general prosperity after World War II, the growth of the “knowledge economy,” and newly legal access to birth control technologies midwifed the second. Birth control in particular promised to flatten the most irreducible difference of all between the sexes: pregnancy. The result was that in the Sixties and Seventies oral contraceptives were instrumental in enabling a massive increase in the number of American women in academia and the labor force. In this new world, much that had been settled appeared open to challenge.

There is much in Ms. to challenge the clichéd claim that everything was rosy until those hairy-legged man-haters showed up. (I dare anyone to read Nawal El Saadawi’s account of experiencing female genital mutilation as a child and still insist that sex-based oppression of women is always and everywhere a misandrist paranoia.) The articles and correspondence from the early period of Ms. reflect a new sense of both grievance and hope, characterized by what the magazine’s co-founder Jane O’Reilly in 1972 called “click!” moments: the sudden realization of a sexed asymmetry that no longer seemed to serve any obvious purpose save the subordination of women.

Early second-wavers were committed to the American ideal of universal equality. Matters of race, class, poverty, and geopolitics jostle for room with the micropolitics of housework, toys, and pronouns. Johnnie Tillmon wrote in 1972 about life as a woman of color in receipt of government welfare; the Marxist race activist Angela Davis wrote in 1975 about Joan Little, the incarcerated woman who killed a prison guard when he attempted to rape her. Lois Gould imagines—prophetically, as it turns out—raising a child without sexed pronouns. Throughout, from Davis’s totalizing vision of Marxist revolution to Janell Hobson’s grappling with the feminist import of Beyoncé, American feminism’s relation to equality, and to the market, recurs as a central ambivalence.

And second-wave feminism emerged in America alongside—and, in important ways, as a byproduct of—the struggle for racial equality. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 granted workplace protections on the basis of sex, though, ironically, it was proposed by segregationists, who found the idea of sex equality so absurd they assumed it would kill the bill. It did not; instead, it gave teeth to the emerging feminist movement. Women soon noticed the gap between what Title VII promised in theory and what women experienced in practice. The new body set up to enforce the Civil Rights Act, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, was based in the established civil rights playbook: in 1966 the attorney Dollie Lowther Robinson called for “an N.A.A.C.P. for women.”

American second-wave feminism was thus bound up from its beginnings in state-backed mandates for equality and was subject to, and skeptical of, market forces. The two essays in Ms. that demonstrate this most clearly are Barbara Ehrenreich’s and Annette Fuentes’ investigation from 1981 into the global exploitation of women in manufacturing and Gloria Steinem’s account from 1990 of her travails selling advertising space for Ms. before the magazine went ad-free. Is the business world on the side of women or not?

The short answer is that it depends on which women. For behind all the clicks, and all the determination to use the institutional might of the American state to level the asymmetries they represented, lurks a complicating factor: sex dimorphism. Turk documents the internal contests within N.O.W. over whether—or how far—embodied sex should be institutionally defended, or institutionally minimized: a question that often fractured along class lines. After Title VII passed, some members of the women’s bureaus in the Department of Labor feared that strict equality would not help but harm working-class women, especially those in physically arduous occupations. This was nothing new: feminists advocating for manual laborers had historically shared those concerns. In Muller v. Oregon, a landmark Supreme Court case from 1908, the first-wave feminist Florence Kelley employed the attorney Louis Brandeis to advocate for laws setting a cap on women’s working hours. He argued that women’s distinct physiology meant that equality would in practice be “more disastrous to the health of women than of men.” But in Turk’s history we see that after Title VII, feminist advocates in America’s burgeoning knowledge economy often found themselves taking the opposite position, promoting formal equality as being in women’s interests—which made more sense when representing middle-class women’s equal right to participate in office jobs than when dealing with working-class women’s often more physically demanding working conditions.

This sometimes led to bizarre reversals of sex-specific protections of which their feminist forebears might have approved. In 1968 N.O.W. represented female workers who took on Colgate-Palmolive at an Indiana factory, where company policy excluded women from working in roles that required them to lift more than thirty-five pounds. Betty Friedan, N.O.W.’s president, threatened Colgate with a nationwide boycott, and the New York chapter held a public “flush in” where they dumped Colgate products into a toilet while chanting, “Colgate is a sex offender!”

Inevitably, then, a recurring theme in Turk’s account is the combined sincerity and inadequacy of N.O.W.’s effort to represent all women: an effort that often ended up favoring the worldview of its leadership. And this elite short-sightedness was compounded, again, by America’s struggles with race. At the risk of stating the obvious, the cumulative legacy of slavery and Jim Crow has made race and class in America exceptionally difficult to disaggregate. This distinctively American conflation means the material bases of working-class women’s political interests—such as poverty, housing, working conditions, and sex-specific physical needs—are everywhere bound up with the painful, emotive, but less concrete dimension of race.

Thus race often ends up serving as a proxy for social class. While this elision is often accurate in many ways, it also enables those relatively unaffected by either race or class issues to pay lip service to inclusivity by focusing on race and at the same time glossing over the many ways class affects poorer people of all races. For N.O.W., this blind spot was compounded by class-inflected differences with regard to sex that have split feminists since the days of Florence Kelley. And this in turn legitimized N.O.W.’s defining crusade—the Equal Rights Amendment. The fallout from this fateful choice is the origin story of both America’s culture war and of American feminism’s inhospitable view of sex realism.

At its inception in 1966, N.O.W. was both elite and radically pluralist in its objectives. Its founders saw themselves as forming a revolutionary vanguard, setting out, as Turk puts it, “to establish N.O.W. as an ‘elite cadre’ of prominent figures in the fields of education, labor, government, and business.” N.O.W.’s initial structure had only minimal central leadership, with chapters free to self-start and to pursue whichever feminist causes moved their members. But as N.O.W. grew in influence, its campaigns increasingly focused on the two issues that seemed most universal: abortion rights and the campaign for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Originally proposed in 1923 by the first-wave feminists, the E.R.A. was placed before state legislatures in 1972 with a seven-year deadline to attain the necessary number of ratifications.

To those who hoped that these totemic causes could unite all women, N.O.W.’s founding pluralism had looked more like incoherence. But even abortion access, presented throughout the Ms. anthology as unequivocally a feminist issue, was in these early days by no means universally seen that way. These tensions were visible from the earliest proposals to center the E.R.A. in N.O.W.’s activism. Turk quotes the N.O.W. Chicago leader Mary Collins on the 1967 conference: “They voted E.R.A. up and labor walked out. They voted abortion up and Ohio walked out. I wondered if there would be anybody left by the time we got done.”

And if support for abortion alienated religious and more conservative feminists, the single-minded pursuit of E.R.A. ratification also excluded many other women. While the E.R.A. had a great deal of appeal, Turk writes, “women who were not white, straight, and middle class were less likely to see it as a singular priority.” One minority activist, for example, said the push for the E.R.A. was “symbolic more than anything else.” In her view there was simply too much else to do—including making N.O.W., which she called a “racist” and “classist” organization, welcoming to women of color.

As these former allies increasingly fell away to form their own feminist groups, the E.R.A. campaign shifted power away from local chapters to the central office and fundraising away from the grassroots toward direct mail campaigns. Over time, as Turk writes, N.O.W. “came to measure success in funds raised, petitions signed, lawmakers met, doors knocked, marchers in the streets, ads bought, and states ratified.” By 1987, N.O.W.’s structure had congealed into its current form: “centralized leadership with an expensive headquarters in the capital, local chapters with the autonomy to pursue their own projects but little influence to reshape the national organization, and an insider-outsider strategy of lobbying and confronting political officials.”

Like its endorsement of abortion, N.O.W.’s “insider-outsider strategy” enlisted feminism on one side of a political battle. You would not know it from the Ms. anthology, but Turk’s book shows how in the early 1970s, women’s equality had broadly bipartisan support. As N.O.W. grew in influence, though, and coalesced around abortion and the E.R.A., Phyllis Schlafly’s campaign against the E.R.A. mobilized conservatives in opposition—even as N.O.W. became ever closer with, and more willing to endorse, leading figures in the Democratic Party. By 1980, two hundred of the three thousand four hundred delegates at New York’s D.N.C. conference were N.O.W. members, who successfully campaigned for planks in the party platform favoring abortion and the E.R.A. Meanwhile, what Turk describes as a “grassroots alliance between religious and political conservatives” that started “with specific issues such as opposition to the E.R.A.” had become “a durable coalition with clout and a wide agenda.”

Thus, in the battle waged by N.O.W. to ratify the E.R.A., we can see the first formation of battle lines in the bitter culture war that rages throughout America to this day: a war that now mobilizes people with competing moral worldviews and involves huge matrices of money, power, and political allegiance. N.O.W. led the way for not just a new political worldview but also its characteristic means of exercising power: a non-profit staffed by professionalized activists, at some distance from grassroots accountability. Specific allegiances formed during this period, on one side the Democratic–feminist symbiosis and on the other the anti-feminist religious-conservative opposition to the identification, each with a web of political influence and financial backing. And it is here that we can discern the governing polarity that makes any divergence from feminist commitment to formal equality so politically unthinkable.

Whether pursued through technological control of fertility or pregnancy or through a host of further biomedical interventions aimed at eliminating essential differences between the sexes, since the 1960s the founding American ideal of equality has, by degrees, come to be identified with a policy program focused on sameness enforced by state fiat. This is underwritten—especially in the case of sex differences—by now well-established bureaucracies of equality, with their own institutional momentum, and by technologies that aspire to eradicate any and all embodied asymmetries. This is the attitude that N.O.W. first helped to entrench. Its worldview enveloped the Democratic Party, while the “intersectional” breakaway feminisms that fell out of the movement during the E.R.A. campaign have since made their peace with it, better to colonize the matrices of money, power, and moral authority. The resulting political vision is summarized in the title of Gloria Steinem’s response in Ms. to the Dobbs ruling in 2022: “Abortion Is Essential To Democracy.” In Steinem’s brand of feminism, without abortion, there can be no sameness, and without sameness there can be no equal political access. Without such access, there can be no democracy.

Against this, the central premise of gender-critical feminism, among its often left-leaning advocates, is that the sexes are sometimes not the same, in ways that are important to defending women’s interests. Such arguments stand in open challenge to biomedical and technocratic projects of formal equality. They also serve as a rebuke to a movement whose funding, leadership, and institutional structure were all forged in the pursuit of such equality. Unlike in Britain, in America that origin story grew over time to be inextricable from party politics, and hence to be conscripted in one side of an intractable culture war. Challenges to the feminism of universal sameness can only be read as enemy maneuvers.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd and the author of Feminism Against Progress (Regnery, 2023).