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Celebrating 50 years of N.O.W. —an interview with Muriel Fox

Magdalena Gómez, whose poem “Too Close to the Tree” appeared in HERS, interviews Muriel Fox, co-founder of N.O.W. This interview first appeared in afampointofview.com in April 2017.

In late October of 1966, Newark, NJ born Muriel Fox, co-founded the National Organization for Women (N.O.W). Born in 1928, Fox continues an extraordinarily active lifestyle as an activist, writer, public speaker, editor and ongoing leader of the N.O.W Legal Defense and Education Fund, now called Legal Momentum. Fox is also the current chair of Veteran Feminists of America. In the 1950’s she applied for a writing job at Carl Byoir and Associates, the largest public relations firm of that era, and was rejected due to gender bias. Fox was relentless, and by 1956 became Byoir’s youngest and only woman Vice President. By 1979, she was Executive Vice President and in 1976 had made the list of Business Weeks 100 Top Corporate Women as the “Top Ranking Woman in Public Relations.” Fox is also a narrator in the recent documentary, She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, by Nancy Dore and Nancy Kennedy, that among other things, speaks to the question regarding the inclusion of women of color and working poor women in the movement. It addresses some challenging truths, perhaps the main reason it took Dore and Kennedy twenty two years to get it funded. Muriel Fox was one of the leaders who inspired and implemented N.O.W. and encouraged Betty Friedan behind the scenes, working as the main publicist activating the launching of the movement.

This year marks the 50th anniversary since the founding of N.O.W. and very little media attention has been given to this momentous and historic moment. I thank Marjorie and Frederick Hurst for allowing me to honor Fox here as one of the great unsung heroines and founders of the women’s rights movement in the United States. A woman who fought as hard for women’s rights as she did for the rights of Black people. A woman who has raised a family of activists and who at the age of eighty-eight, is as fierce an advocate for the civil rights of all as she was when she was a young woman. Muriel Fox. Remember her name.

CAPTION: Muriel Fox, photographed at AOL offices, in New York, NY on Friday, March 15, 2013. (PHOTOGRAPH BY MARCUS YAM)

MG: Muriel, what inspired you to become an activist?

MF: There were wrongs that had to be righted. I was active in the racial civil rights movement, supporting organizations like C.O.R.E. and the Worker’s Defense League in Florida. The racial civil rights movement led to the women’s civil rights movement. It was personal for me; mostly because of my mother who was a very unhappy woman, and her life in many ways was wasted. She was a very intelligent woman; and very sad and angry. She had been assigned the job that was expected of her: to be a housewife. I 1hoped there would be another way for me and other women to live.

MG: You made history and changed the lives of countless women. How did you do it, juggling marriage, children and full time work?

MF: Yes, we did make history and we knew that it would happen when we founded N.O.W. in late October, 1966; we just didn’t think it would happen so fast. It was very difficult. I didn’t get enough sleep, I had no discretionary time to see friends or read a book. Everything was for my job, where I worked 50-60 hours a week, for the women’s movement or for my family. I tried to be loyal to all three and sometimes I skimped on my family; I still feel guilty about that. Time was a big oppressor. The same is true for women today – in part because we still don’t have good quality child care.

MG: Do you think that will change?

MF: The U.S. lags very far behind other developed nations in providing quality child care. This will make life better for everyone, not just women and children. Good quality child care is still a big goal for N.O.W. and for me.

MG: How did you and your cohort choose your target audience for N.O.W.?

MF: The truth is, we wanted to reach the government get the laws changed; we wanted to get the laws that were on the books enforced. The Equal Opportunity Commission was the agency that was supposed to enforce The Civil Rights Act. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. misused that name of his and made fun of women and there were jokes about Playboy Bunnies, and he treated civil rights for women as trivial. We knew that we had to change the mind of the entire American public as a pressure on the government. We wanted to reach and support all women. There were a lot of women who didn’t work outside the home who felt very threatened by us. At the beginning we were only talking about women who worked outside of the home. We realized that women who worked in the home worked very hard also without getting compensated.
I know there’s a lot of criticism, especially of Betty Friedan, for writing The Feminine Mystique. She was aiming it at well educated women, most of whom had husbands who made good money. We felt these women were wasting their college educations staying home. It was based on a Smith College alumni interview that Betty did. Those were the first people who inspired her book.

MG: So what about working class women and women of color who did not have the same privileges?

MF: When N.O.W. was founded, we always thought about working women. Our first lawsuit was in California on behalf of a woman factory worker who wanted to be a foreman. She had been told women could work overtime, but not be promoted. Friedan’s Statement of Purpose was very much built on all women and was very inspiring. She had help from Pauli Murray, a great Black woman poet who later became a lawyer and Episcopalian Priest. Pauli worked with Betty as her inspiration for founding N.O.W. and urged Betty to do it. I would not be surprised if Pauli was responsible for the statements in that document that made it clear that all civil rights are indivisible, and that we were not just working for the civil rights of women, but of all people, and would work beside civil rights activists in all fields.

MG: What would you say to a woman today who said to you that from the outside, the movement appeared to be a privileged white women’s movement?

MF: I would say that almost all social movements are led by people who have enough leisure and enough money, frankly, to be able to spend the time and effort, money and travel to make the revolution. However, people from all walks of life were involved. For example, in the Colgate-Palmolive case, where there were separate seniority lists for men and for women; we fought that case on behalf of factory workers. We ultimately won that lawsuit. The first lawsuit we worked on was brought by Velma Mengelkoch, who worked for and sued North American Aviation, based in California. It was one of the first sex discrimination complaints considered by the EEOC.

MG: Was attorney and N.O.W.’s second President, Eileen Hernandez involved in that case?

MF: At the time we started N.O.W. Eileen, who had been a labor leader, was a commissioner on the EEOC so we had to be careful how we worked with her or there would be a conflict of interest. When she became executive vice president, and then president, she certainly worked with us on working class issues.

MG: When Hernandez, a Black woman, became President of N.O.W. in 1970, was she as visible in the white male dominated mainstream media as Friedan?

MF: She was not as visible, because she had been a commissioner, which is not the same as writing a best-selling book that millions around the world read. She later became a consultant to Sears & Roebuck and other corporations, so I can’t say that she always worked on those issues.

MG: New York City was the epicenter of the movement, could that movement have happened anywhere else?

MF: Chicago had a lot of very active women and labor union women. And of course, Washington, D.C. had a very active chapter and a lot of the lawsuits were started in D.C. by a group of wonderful lawyers, some of whom had to be under deep cover to file the cases.The women in Detroit, the United Auto Workers, handled our printings and mailings at the beginning and we had a lot of help from the UAW. What New York had was Betty Friedan. She was the founder of N.O.W., she was the inspiration, and she was the strategist. As a human being she was a terrible pain in the neck. Very few people could praise her personal skills, but she was the leader, and I hope she will go down in history as the leader of the modern women’s movement.

MG: As the quiet power behind the movement, you’re being very humble regarding your rightful place in history.

MF: I wrote a lot of things that Betty signed. I had a job, so I had to be very discreet.

MG: If you had not had to work and raise your family, do you think it would have been you instead of Betty Friedan?

MF: Betty did it, so you just have to give her the credit. Even the people who really disliked her personally, we all say “Betty did it.” And then we had Gloria Steinem, who was just a saint.

MG: What do you think were your most successful attempts at including working class women and women of color in the visible movement? I emphasize visible, because there were so many unsung heroines working behind the scenes. Until very recently, you were one of them.

MF: We had women and men of color on our first board of directors. Among them were Anna Arnold Hedgeman who was a great and very famous leader of the Black Civil Rights Movement; Inéz Casiano; and many labor union people, many of whom were people of color, worked closely with us. Enlightened union leaders, like Walter Reuther were a big help to us. However, in the beginning it was the men who ran those unions who started the seniority lists that kept women from getting the good deals the men got. That began to change when we won the lawsuit against those separate lists. The labor unions still work beside us. In every one of our chapters there were people of color in leadership roles.

MG: In the early days of the movement, the nation was barely crawling out from under the horrors of Jim Crow. I imagine that made inclusivity a challenge in itself.

MF: Yes, it did. To be honest, we did our best to get people of color in the pictures we produced, as many as we could. At the beginning, frankly, we had a lot of successful, affluent white women. Also, Betty Friedan, in the first founding board of directors of N.O.W. went out to find people who were successful in government, labor, education, and business; maybe fewer in business – I was one of the few. In those days it was mostly the whites who were permitted to be successful.

MG: Was the movement able to mobilize with and for women who were extremely marginalized via abilities or incarceration, for example?

MF: I confess that they were not the focus of our activity at the beginning. We were thinking about jobs. And the truth is that the disabled were marginalized out of jobs. We should have thought more about the disabled and incarcerated. Our biggest concern was the gender issue regarding jobs.

MG: Was there much intersection between the Feminist movement and what was referred to then as the Gay Liberation Movement?

MF: Lesbians joined NOW in tremendous numbers and were very important. There was a strategic debate in the earliest days of NOW as to whether we should make lesbianism a feminist issue. At the beginning, a number of people, including Betty Friedan and a number of other leaders, felt that it was a separate issue, and that if we endorsed lesbian rights, that it might alienate the suburban housewives we were trying to reach. This was a bitter and heated strategic debate, that ultimately, lesbians won. The debate lasted maybe two years and in September, 1971(I remember it well because that was the N.O.W. conference where I became Board Chair) a resolution was passed that lesbianism is a feminist issue and it would from then on be a priority of N.O.W.

MG: That was a time when closet doors had been nailed shut and discrimination and homophobia had been normalized.

MF: Yes, and it was no secret that Betty Friedan had her own prejudices referring to lesbians as the “Lavender Menace.” But eventually, she evolved too. At a Veteran Feminists dinner honoring Kate Millet, Betty stood up and apologized to Kate for not supporting her when she was attacked for being a lesbian. So we all learned.

MG: I know the second wave of feminists are very active now, including yourself. Do you see a third wave of feminism happening today?

MF: I think we’re still in the second wave, fighting for a lot of rights that we don’t have yet. A lot of younger women have said for twenty years that they’re in the third wave, as they fight for child care, which N.O.W. fought for in the very beginning. N.O.W. got a wonderful childcare bill passed in 1970 and Richard Nixon vetoed it. Young people are very much interested in lifestyle issues and world feminism. I think that feminism is once again becoming a respected and valued word. Up until about three years ago it was considered the F word. Betty used to joke about young women who said they weren’t feminist, but wanted to be the CEO of IBM.

MG: Do you think younger women today know on whose shoulders they stand? Are they aware of the work and history that has opened the doors to the freedoms they now enjoy?

MF: There was a period when people thought feminism was old hat and we’d accomplished everything. Feminism is regaining popularity and the fact that we’re going to have a *woman president (*not a hint of doubt in Fox’s voice here) is going to make it sexy again. We don’t like to sound like we’re whining, but the truth of the matter is that people are too busy with their own needs and causes that they don’t think about what happened first. Thousands of people took on leadership and sacrificed their health, marriages, relationships, livelihood, to open those doors in little ways and big ways – in their colleges, towns, cities, their offices, their labor unions – and every one of them was a leader. That’s why the movement had been so successful so quickly. Our main goal now is to pass the torch. Next year in March we’re having a big conference at Duke University about how to inform and reach the next generation of leaders using new technologies. We’ve come a very long way in fifty years and we still have a very long way to go.

Learn more about Muriel Fox

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