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Episode 131: The Women of NOW with Historian Katherine Turk

November 15, 2023 | Kristen Chavez

Katherine TurkHistorian Katherine Turk (FFP ’21) discusses her new book, The Women of NOW: How Feminists Built an Organization that Transformed America (The Macmillan Group). She shares the history of the National Organization for Women, and the three leaders who helped shape the organization.




Kristen Chavez: Welcome to the Institute, a podcast in the lives and works of Fellows and friends of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I’m your host, Kristen Chavez. Today I’m speaking with historian Katherine Turk, an associate professor in the history department and adjunct associate professor in the Women’s and Gender Studies Department.

Her research focuses on women, gender and sexuality; law, labor and social movements; and the modern United States. These themes are present both in the courses that she teaches and her publications. Her first book, Equality on Trial: Gender and Rights in the Modern American Workplace, examines how sex equality law remade the world of work, eroding some inequalities and affirming others. Her most recent book, The Women of NOW: How Feminists Built an Organization that Transformed America, is the subject of our discussion today.

In spring 2021, Turk was a Hyde Fellow in the IAH’s Faculty Fellowship Program, where she continued her research on the National Organization for Women, which became this book. She was also the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Stipend in 2017, and the Schwab Academic Excellence Award in 2002. In 2023, she also received the Tanner Award for Excellence in undergraduate teaching at UNC.

Welcome to the podcast.

Katherine Turk: Thank you so much, Kristen. It’s a pleasure to be here with you.

KC: I’m glad to have you. You share this in the prologue of your book, but can you talk about how you first learned about the National Organization for Women and why you wanted to research it further?

KT: Yes, I do couch the opening of this book in terms of my personal encounters with the organization, which I hope readers will find enticing, and it will pique their curiosity. I first came across NOW, about 20 years ago as an undergraduate in search of a topic for my honors thesis at Northwestern University. I was broadly interested in American history, women’s history, the histories of activism, and the history of Chicago, which is my hometown, and also the city where I was in college. My advisor at the time pointed me to the archives of the local chapter of the National Organization for Women, as an important but generally overlooked local group that historians might be able to say much more about if they dug in.

KT: So I started to do that. I began to examine NOW’s records in the Chicago area, as well as the records of other groups that were working around feminist issues at this time. And I learned a lot about grassroots strategies to advance women’s rights in this heyday of feminism — that was the 1970s. And I was especially focused on their work around labor and workplace rights, which was a key focus of the Chicago chapter of NOW. This was a really vital era in the efforts to get federal authorities to enforce new sex equality laws, but also to have those laws enforced strongly with, with a robust definition of what discrimination was, and in pursuit of equity.

KT: I was also preparing to enter the workforce myself, a college senior. And so I was interested in questions about work, broadly aware that things were better for working women than they had been when my mother and certainly my grandmother entered the workforce, but certainly had a general sense that there was more to be done. So I was interested in how women in the past had thought about workplace rights and how they had creatively approached their efforts to strengthen them. The more that I learned about NOW the more fascinated I became, because I saw women like me, women who were in college or recent college graduates, women from ordinary backgrounds, women from the same town where I grew up, women from nearby who saw problems around them and took practical approaches to solving them. And I found it really inspiring. And I got to meet some of them too, which was a lot of fun and really moving.

KC: That’s great. It really resonated on a personal level, so early on. That’s awesome. Your book focuses on three women, Aileen Hernandez, Mary Jean Collins, and Patricia Hill Burnett. Can you briefly share a little bit about each and why you decided to focus on them rather than other members or other leaders of NOW?

KT: Definitely. Let me back into that question a little bit. So my earliest research about NOW, which formed the basis of my college thesis, I ended up folding into my graduate school dissertation, which was a study that became a book about creative approaches to workplace rights starting in the 1960s all the way up to the present, and NOWS was part of that book too. But as I worked on this question, and worked on this big project, I realized that what I really wanted to be able to do was to consult a history of NOW, that there was a general sense among historians that this was a really important organization that even for women who dissented from NOW and formed other groups, or they were not active in the feminist movement in the 1970s at all, that NOW was nonetheless, a prominent institution on the feminist landscape.

KT: But no one had done the work of telling NOW’s history. Scholars instead, would dip into pieces of it, they would study individual chapters, or compare a couple of chapters, or write biographies of the leaders. We know a lot about Betty Friedan, for example, some of the founders and leaders of NOW. But what I really wanted was to be able to read the history of the organization. And since that book didn’t exist, I thought, well, I’ll just write it myself.

So that’s what I set out to do. And my first book was headed to press in the early 2010s. So I headed to the archive, in the Boston area. NOW’s records are all over the country, but their main repository is at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University. And just thought, Well, I’ll start from the beginning and look at the records from the founding and move forward. And even in that several weeks-long research trip, I started to understand that that would be a project that would take many lifetimes to accomplish and might not result in a book anyone would want to read — a kind of encyclopedic history of this 50 year old organization that is incredibly complex with millions of members from start to finish.

KT: And so as I thought about how to capture the story of NOW and what it meant in different moments to different people, and distill that story into an account that would be readable and would mean something to people reading it today, I thought, ‘well, what if I focus on people?’ Because the organization is comprised of structures. But really, NOW was, and still is, its people. And so I was interested in finding protagonists who personified the potential of NOW who had different ideas about what an organization with an incredibly flexible and loose blueprint when it was formed in 1966, as a vehicle that could advance the interests of all women. While women are not all the same as we know, and they have lots of different ideas about what’s best for women and what feminism could be. And so I identified these three women that you mentioned, who had different ideas about what NOW would be, but who nonetheless dedicated their lives to it and decided that they were going to work together.

KT: I also chose women, these three, this trio, who were mentored by the founding generation. So the mostly middle-aged, mostly middle class, mostly white women, and a few men — there were 49 of them and that founding moment. And those women have achieved, they have received more attention from scholars. So I was interested in the second generation, the women who came right after them, who were active in the group from the late 60s until the mid 1980s, because they were the ones who tested whether the idea of an organization representing all women’s interests could work. And I wanted to choose three different women who had very disparate identities and backgrounds, and they brought really different expectations for what this feminist organization should be. I also chose three women who are less known to history than they should be to symbolize the range of ordinary women who took part.

KT: So the three protagonists that the book really hangs on are Aileen Hernandez, who was the daughter of Jamaican immigrants. She was a civil rights and labor activist. And she was one of the first five commissioners on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency that still exists to police workplace rights and an end to try to erode workplace discrimination. She was NOW’s second president, and she really tried to push the organization to be more inclusive and welcoming, especially to women of color but also to lesbians.

Looking through the archive and trying to think who would complement Hernandez but brought a different view to the organization. I came across a woman named Patricia Hill Burnett, who was a Republican. She was a former beauty queen. She was Miss Michigan. And she was also a talented portrait artist and a socialite in Detroit, who had a pretty conventional elite white life and a family with four kids until she reached about 50 years old and decided that she was going to reject much of the respectability politics that shaped her life and the deeply gendered role that she had in her family and her community. And she was going to step out of her comfort zone and become a feminist activist and she also becomes quite deeply involved in the Republican Party.

KT: And my third protagonist is a bit younger than the other two. Her name is Mary Jean Collins. She was the working class — well she is — she came from a working class background in Milwaukee. She’s deeply Catholic and went to a small women’s college in Milwaukee run by progressive nuns called Alverno College. She came out of the civil rights movement in Milwaukee and had deep ties to the labor movement and did much of her activism in NOW from Chicago, where she was deeply focused on workplace issues. So this unlikely trio were not personal friends, although they were part of NOW in the same years. They were comrades in the movement. And along with millions of other women and their male allies, they did the work of making the movement work. They strategized, they debated, they compromised. They did the hard work of working together. And one of the arguments of the book is that the movement achieved as much as it did, although of course, there’s an unfinished agenda to still focus on. Because so many differently situated women decided that they had to work together to apply pressure on the male-dominated structures of American life together, and from many angles at once. But focusing on these, these three protagonists also reveals the inherent tensions in the movement and the challenge of trying to work together across really different feminist visions at a moment when this organization, especially in the late 1970s was quite open ended, in that you could bring pretty much any feminist concern to it, and pursue that concern through NOW. And sometimes all of those concerns are those issues, worked together in harmony, and other times they were in conflict. And so the book traces some of that action as well.

KC: Wow. Yeah. Because I think it’s also important to recognize that women are not a monolith. And I think that’s something that comes up I think, even today, in terms of how are people voting? How are people responding to X, Y, or Z? And so I think that’s a very important look at it. So how did you navigate and explore those ideas of the social movements, organizations, and those individuals and how they all kind of intersect within that?

KT: Yeah, this is another innovation of the book to study the feminism of the 1970s through individuals and organizations, and then put it in the broader historical context. Because of course, organizations are essential to social movements, but these organizations are comprised of individuals who have, who are uniquely situated who have their own perspectives and intersecting identities. And so my book puts these three pieces together, these individuals, organizations, and social movements, examining how really different people decided that they needed to work together to build the same organization to advance this social movement that they were all committed to, even if they had really different ideas about what the endpoint of a feminist revolution would be.

KT: And here’s just one example, an example that’s been in the news recently, the Equal Rights Amendment, which was a longtime goal of many feminists, and it passes both houses of Congress in 1972. And then the next step is to get it ratified in the states. The ERA is — from 1967 on, the ERA is a priority of NOW. But different women have different ideas about why it’s needed and what it would accomplish, and where it fits in a feminist agenda. So some members of NOW, I’m thinking of in terms of my three protagonists: Patricia Hill Burnett, the Republican, sees the Equal Rights Amendment as perfectly aligned with her commitment to individual rights and to non-discrimination, to being treated and having her daughters treated the same as a man would be treated and sees the ERA as a very important goal both practically and symbolically as she wants to sort of shore up her elite status.

But another protagonist in the book, Aileen Hernandez, who is African American, well, she supports the ERA, she believes in it, but she’s always reminding the other women in the movement, that it’s just one piece of many, many things that need to be done. And for women of color, and for working class women, and for lesbians, pure equal treatment to men just complete — non-distinction between the sexes written into law is not enough to create meaningful equality for the vast majority of women. So while she believes in the ERA and she works for it, she is very critical in the late 1970s when the leaders of NOW increasingly focused the organization on pursuing that goal above all else. And she actually breaks from NOW in 1979, when she starts to see mounting evidence that most of the white women in the organization are really just prioritizing the ERA and they’re not as committed to the broad spectrum of feminist concerns, which for Aileen Hernandez includes welfare rights, housing rights, labor rights. And she sees all of them as of a piece and doesn’t see any as more important than the others, you have to have it all.

KC: I do want to talk more about the research process of your book. But along those same lines, you do note that NOW was a driving force behind second wave feminism. Can you describe what you mean by that? And how might that compare it to today or the evolution of the theory of feminism?

KT: Sure. So second, wave feminism is a concept that scholars today, if they use it, they use it with an asterisk because while this concept held meaning at the time that that has the notion that feminism’s history can be mapped onto waves and peaks and valleys. There’s been a lot of scholarship in the past decade or two, to show that the wave metaphor leads to some inaccurate conclusions about women’s activism. But certainly a lot changed for women legally, culturally, politically, between the mid 1960s and the early 1980s. And America has been utterly transformed by that movement.

So, the book argues that now was a center and important center of the movement. And the women who built it came out of labor unions, and they came out of the Civil Rights Movement, and they came from colleges and universities, and they came out of public service in government. And one thing that they shared was the commitment to building an enduring institution that would have members who would pay dues that would have local chapters were any 10 women or men or anyone could each pay $5 or $10 — the dues rate changed — and they would be a chapter and they could work on any feminist issue they chose. And so they would benefit from that loose, grassroots creativity, and be able to work on issues in their communities or any issues they wanted, but also benefit from the connection to the national organization.

KT: And in NOW’s most — in what I would define as NOW’s most fruitful years, the late 60s to the early 1970s — the organization had something like three dozen national task forces. So you could incubate an idea in your chapter, bring it to the national organization, turn that into a task force, and then share all of your work and your ideas with a national organization who could then disseminate it to other chapters. So it was a loosely coordinated and freewheeling time, when NOW was working on pretty much any feminist issue, you could you could think of.

KT: There were always dissenters from NOW, there were and there were always… What NOW was always contested, in that there were many, many, many examples of women who brought – and men – who brought to NOW their specific concerns, wanted that concern to be at the center of what NOW was, and for a long time, that center was contested. And so there’s, there were many women of color who, who left, who did not see their concerns reflected with the seriousness of purpose that they believe that they deserved. And lesbians fought for a long time to have their issues treated seriously by the national organization and placed at the center of the organization’s agenda.

KT: But one thing that surprised me in doing the research for this book was just how enduring the organization has been as a center for different groups of women and men to demand inclusion. And that over the decades, you see many multiple generations of women of color, of lesbians, of other women from more marginalized with more marginalized identities coming to NOW and demanding inclusion and reforming the organization, which is still here. So the organization has its history, is full of moments when it was not as inclusive as we might have wanted to have been, but NOW is has also reformed itself over the years and it remains as a vehicle for feminism in this challenging moment that we’re in.

KT: So NOW as a driving force. I mean, it’s hard I think now for those of us who think about feminism, to imagine NOW as radical or as fledgling because it over the almost 60 years that NOW has existed, it seems so permanent. It’s such a fixture of the feminist landscape. But when NOW was formed in 1966, the idea that there could be an organization that would appeal to and advocate for all women and their male allies, was quite radical. And NOW what was out front quite early on is as early as 1967, demanding constitutional equality, and an end to all abortion restrictions. So NOW held down a center that other groups could, could splinter off from, could work together with in tandem and intention. Radical feminist groups define themselves against NOW, sometimes in quite productive ways. Because there were radical, more radical groups in the late 60s and early 70s making demands that too many seemed quite extreme, which created space where some of the stuff that NOW was asking for could seem more mainstream.

KC: Yeah, because I think it’s it’s having that count, you know, that centrality, that counterpoint. And then how are other people responding, as you said, some dissenters within are questioning whether those concerns are being addressed? And so how can it be applied in different ways?

KT: The National Black Feminist Organization emerges beside NOW in the early 70s. And some of its founders are folks who have descended from NOW saying that, you know, this organization is not as inclusive as we would like it to be, we need to focus on the specific issues that we see as the most important. But the NBFO and NOW do work together in collaborative ways. And those women, the women in the NBFO do, some of them are patient with the white women in NOW and continue to educate them and remind them that feminism, if it’s going to be for all women, it needs to be inclusive.

KC: Absolutely. So what was the research process of this book like?

KT: Exhaustive and creative. I really wanted the book to work on four different levels at once. And actually five levels if you count the broader context. So it works on the level of individuals. I look deeply at the lives of the three women who are at the center of the book, as well as the lives of the women around them. NOW worked at the local level. So I take you through the protagonists eyes, through their local chapters, and how they built them in San Francisco, Chicago, and Detroit, which are the three cities where the protagonists were doing their work. NOW was national, so I follow the women into their national leadership in the organization. And NOW was also international. There was a brief moment, in the early 70s, when NOW had an international program, which it kind of goes away by the end of the decade, although there NOW is international in interesting ways by the 1990s.

KT: So the book works on those four levels at once, I had to have a sense of the organization itself, its structure, how it worked, how its mechanisms changed over the years, as well as its leaders to convey a sense of sort of what it was at any given time. But the details of these women’s lives are also critical to the story because experiences in their personal lives brought them to feminist activism in surprising ways, I would say for all three of the protagonists of the book. And then that activism, changed their lives and completely reset their perspectives. And so of course, I also wanted to put them in context to explain what their lives were like, what it was like to be each of them, to exist in America from each of their perspectives, their specific race and class and gender perspectives from the mid 20th century up to the present. So I read diaries, letters, local newspapers, national newspapers, meeting minutes, and oral history interviews. I also conducted my own interviews to really give the reader a sense of what it was like to be there. But I also wanted to build up the perspectives and incorporate the perspectives of the people around them. So I did a lot of reading and sleuthing to find the right sources.

KC: I feel like history does involve a lot of sleuthing, right?

KT: You have to really enjoy the sleuthing if you want to be a professional historian, but fortunately, I do.

KC: That’s great. What are some historical misconceptions about NOW. And you kind of touched on this a little bit, but what were some things that surprised you while researching and writing the book?

KT: So one dominant metaphor of quote unquote “second wave feminism,” is that feminists were generally either radical or liberal and liberal feminists accepted the institutions that structure American life basically as they are. They just want a seat at the table. They just want a chance to compete, an equal chance to be part of the full spectrum of American life.

By contrast, radical feminists are defined as wanting to strip American society kind of down to the studs and start again. So one way that NOW is positioned in historical literature is as the anchor of liberal feminism, albeit with other groups, especially self-described radical groups, positioned against NOW, sort of in tension with NOW. And what I found when I started looking in the archive and trying to understand what now was, who was part of NOW, with an open mind, I saw that while NOW certainly took some positions that we might consider liberal, it was not only that, and that NOW was many things at once. That NOW was a site of feminist action and conflict and debate. It was not a static thing that other groups were just constantly railing against. And I’ll say that much of what NOW called for, in its 1966 statement of purpose, its sort of founding document, from egalitarian marriages, to subsidize childcare, to a society that affirms the rights and recognizes the humanity of women of all identities, much of that remains to be achieved.

KT: Some scholars have understood now by freezing it in time in its founding moment, as a group of relatively well to do mostly middle class, mostly white women dedicated to incremental change. And I should mention that NOW was never that, that some of its founders were quite radical in their politics and outlook. Labor leaders like Min Matheson, or attorney and civil rights activist Pauli Murray, who hails from right here in Orange County.

So NOW was always contested. But it also changed dramatically over the years and historical accounts that freeze it at its founding moment when it called for equal workplace rights and the ERA and abortion rights, which were radical demands at the time. It had an open-ended mission advocating for all women, however diverse women defined that. And it was also porous, that when other social movement groups folded. Radical groups, most of them didn’t last for years and years. Many of those members came to NOW because NOW was visible. NOW was something you could do for yourself. If there wasn’t a Chapter, you could form it, and you could steer that chapter to work on whatever issues you and your friends and allies found important. So NOW was never just one thing. It was a living, changing thing. And each successive feminist generation has found value in its enduring structures, and its federated arrangement with these independent local chapters rooted in communities that were loosely coordinated at a national level.

KT: And I guess one more point I would make about misconceptions has to do with identity. And specifically NOW is often remembered as a middle class, white women’s organization: middle class, white straight women’s organization. And scholars who have written about NOW’s history have focused a lot on the fights and the departures and there were many. There were bitter fights about how to integrate the concerns of women of color and lesbians. And my book certainly recounts those. I don’t shy away from talking about, you know, the many moments when women who had marginalized identities did not feel fully welcome in NOW and they decided to leave, or they stayed and tried to reform the organization. But certainly, the book makes the point that successive generations of diverse women have come to NOW, have believed in or have been committed to the idea that women are going to have to work together across their differences, if they want to beat back male supremacy and make American life more fair. And in fact, that’s how they achieved many of the rights we now take for granted, many of the rights which we now see threatened or slipping away. And so the book, it does both of these things at once it. It spotlights how difficult this work was, and but also how necessary it was.

KC: Yeah, I think with your note about it, both its early history and that snapshot of time, but then its open ended mission. I like the way that you’re you framed that. It really does show how it resonates today and how a lot of that work and that not just the history of it, but its evolution.

Your Faculty Fellowship focused on this research, of course. Can you talk about your experience in the program?

KT: Yes, I had a wonderful experience. We were all online at that time. This was the spring of 2021, as you mentioned, so really in the thick of some of the worst moments of the pandemic. So it was, of course, wonderful to be relieved from my teaching duties. Although I do love our students, and I miss them when I’m not teaching. It was great to have a semester to just focus on my work.

KT: But I was so delighted that the Fellowship offered this community. So we were, as I mentioned, online meeting on zoom on Wednesday afternoons, led by the wonderful American studies professor Tim Marr. So we didn’t have the the lunches I’ve heard so much about. So I’m hoping to be back in the Faculty Fellowship Program someday to enjoy those lunches. But it was a feast of intellectual life, such a supportive conversation that I looked forward to each week, it was so valuable to read the work and receive feedback from scholars across the university. And many of my fellow Fellows’ comments and ideas and insights, I integrated into the manuscript, which helped make it much stronger. So because we were online, you see everybody in their little box on the screen. But  it’s been such a pleasure to encounter my fellow Fellows in real life. We just saw Claudia Yaghoobi in the lobby as we were coming up to record this podcast and I think that’s the first time I’ve seen her in person. So it’s really fun,  it feels like a second discovery, a second moment of discovery, where the first moment was meeting everyone and talking about our work and our research process and what was on our minds, and having those intimate connections. And then to see them in person on campus as things have opened back up and we’re all here, teaching and studying has just been wonderful. So I’m really delighted that the Institute is here. And it’s really doing a lot to create community on our campus and contribute to the intellectual life.

KC: I really do love hearing about how that community is born. And just running into folks, you know, across campus. And so I think that’s definitely a hope of the Institute too, and kind of keeping those connections going, and that community growing.

KT: What’s also was fun to see and surprising to see the connections across our work. I’m always excited to see who is in the next years, two groups of Faculty Fellows. And the Institute always does a great job of choosing scholars from across the university from all different ranks, who are working on very different projects. And yet, through our conversations in the semester, when I was a Faculty Fellow here, I it became clear that there were so many connections that wouldn’t have been obvious from just a brief glance at the titles of our project. But through conversation we, I think, helped each other see just different ways we could, we could strengthen our own projects, but also help each other with that work. So yeah, it’s a wonderful program. And glad it’s here.

KC: Yeah. So as we wrap up for our final question, it’s something that we ask all of our guests, what is a book that has changed your life. And I can broaden that to include any creative piece or anything that speaks to you in that way.

KT: Well, I’m happy to mention a book. The first book that comes to mind is by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign historian Leslie Regan, whose 1996 book, titled When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine and Law in the United States 1867 to 1973. I first it encountered as an undergraduate, and it just blew my mind the research that she did in terms of ordinary women’s lives and medical practices. And as a fellow legal historian, I was amazed to see the different levels at which the law worked. The book starts in 1867, when abortion was illegal across the United States and spans the full century until the Roe v. Wade opinion, made abortion a constitutional right or asserted that abortion was a constitutional right in 1973.

And the book takes such care with individual women and their lives and reveals how important our rights are and what people do when they don’t have their rights protected. And it’s a cautionary tale and it’s also an inspiration and I believe it was just reissued. It’s a classic by now, but everyone should read it who’s interested in those questions.

KC: Is there anything else that you’d like to mention or talk about before we, before we sign off?

KT: I don’t think so. This was a great interview. Thank you so much for talking with me today.

KC: Of course. Thank you so much for sharing and we’re glad to have you back.

KC: Thank you for listening to the institute podcast, listen to other and upcoming episodes by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, SoundCloud, and wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. Visit our website, to find past episodes and transcripts. You can also learn more about our upcoming events, programs, grants and leadership opportunities for UNC-Chapel Hill faculty and read stories that feature our arts and humanities fellows. Thank you for joining us.


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