Posts Tagged ‘The Civil Rights Act


hotel rooms and coctail napkins: the beginnings of revolution

Betty Friedan (front) marches for women's rights

The book club is reading When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present , by Gail Collins.

It was 1966. The Civil Rights Act had been signed into law a couple of years earlier, and women were included (Howard Smith, who thought no one would vote for the bill if it included women, added them). It seemed like a major battle had been won, EXCEPT that no one was enforcing the laws, and women who tried to stand up for themselves were being laughed and fired. Below is an excerpt  that I loved from When Everything Changed explaining what happened next:

*** In the summer of 1966 at a conference of state commissions on the status of women, delegates, guests and lookers-on arrived in Washington steaming about the way the new law against job discrimination was – or rather was not – being enforced.  [Betty] Friedan ran into Pauli Murray, and they agreed to invite “whomever we met who seemed interested in organizing women for action” to a strategy session that night.

The meeting, in Friedan’s hotel room, is now famous as a turning point of the womens movement, but certainly no one at the time would have imagined she was taking part in a legendary event. It was crowded, the conversation disjointed and testy, and the women, who had spent a long day in nylons and girdles, must have been tired and a little uncomfortable. The radical forces called for “an NAACP for women” that would identify discrimination and fight it in the courts and in the legislatures. The moderates suggested proposing a resolution calling for the enforcement of the Civil Rights Act ban on sex discrimination in employment. Others just wanted to send a telegram to whoever was chairing  the meeting the next day. At one point in the long, heated discussion, Friedan irately demanded that everyone leave and, when no one did, locked herself in the bathroom. The meeting went on anyway; Friedan eventually emerged and a resolution was drafted. The next day it was introduced and then promptly ruled out of order.

During the conference lunch, while various member of the Johnson administration gave utterly forgettable speeches, Friedan and a dozen or so other women seated at the front tables were buzzing among themselves, making a mini-spectacle as they talked, dashed notes on napkins, and passed them back and forth. They were creating on the spot, a version of that long awaited “NAACP for women” They called it NOW, the National Organization for Women, and agreed to ante up $5 dollars each to get the ball rolling. As word of what was going on spread around the room – it would have been hard for the conferees to miss the fact that something was up – Friedan remembered that “those five dollars bills kept coming at us, one from Eleanor Roosevelt’s granddaughter, Anna. ***