From Bra-Burners to Bureaucracy: The Evolution of Second-Wave Feminism through NOW Newsletters
By Alexandria Baker
In recent years, the feminist movement has made something of a comeback. While still the cause of narrowed eyes in some parts of the country, it seems the majority of American women now identify at least somewhat with the movement. This is evidenced by the overwhelming success of the Women’s March on Washington—a nationally syndicated march of solidarity in which women (and feminists of all gender identities) protested the day after President Trump’s inauguration. The march, while still problematic in some aspects, was highly representative of third-wave feminism. Women of color, queer women, and the full spectrum of gender identities were represented in the planning and implementation of the march. While third-wave feminism is more inclusive than its roots in second-wave feminism, it is precisely because of the groundbreaking protests and organization of second-wave feminists that we are able to openly march as part of the feminist movement today. Second-wave feminism defined the 1970’s, although its history reaches back to the radical bra-burning era of the late 1960’s. The National Organization for Women (NOW), a feminist group founded in 1966, helped to legitimize what was then perceived as a radical movement. The research question this paper addresses is as follows: how did NOW’s use of newsletters legitimize second-wave feminism? I propose that through the use of local chapters that were accessible to women across the country, and the publishing of a regular newsletter that provided individual members with a sense of the organization’s ultimate purpose, NOW created a streamlined national agenda and was able to legitimize second-wave feminism for new members.
Historical Context and Literature Review
To begin with, it is important to have a working definition of second-wave feminism. While third-wave feminism is marked by theories of intersectionality and a greater awareness of feminine perspectives beyond white, straight, middle-class women, second-wave feminism still had great strides to make in that arena. Feminist scholar Diane S. Pollard wrote, “second-wave feminism, in its emphasis on gender, obscured the intersectionalities of race, gender and other aspects of identity that affect our lived experiences” (Biklen, Marshall, & Pollard, 2008). Because of this, second-wave feminism was not always accessible to women of color, and it particularly did not appeal to help women in poverty. NOW members struggled with this in particular. The organization passed repeated resolutions to advocate for impoverished women, but very little was actually done in this regard (Chappell, 2002).
“Second-wave feminism, in its emphasis on gender, obscured the intersectionalities of race, gender and other aspects of identity that affect our lived experiences.” -Diane S. Pollard
However, second-wave feminism did deliver some tangible results. Some key concepts developed in the era, as noted by Biklen are: “Equal pay for equal work; Affirmative action; Title IX; The politics of housework; The glass ceiling; Men’s only clubs; The concept of gender privilege; Domestic Workers Unite; Date rape; Roe v. Wade; and ‘The personal is political’” (Biklen et al., 2008). While these notions are widely accepted today, and in fact form the basis of most progressive feminist work, at the time in the 1970’s, these were radical challenges to the status quo. This may have to do with the association of second-wave feminism and the public protests of the “bra-burners” (Kreydatus, 2008). The feminist movement was not respected by the public at the time, as it was largely seen as an emotional protest, rather than a controlled social movement. In 1968, feminists protested the beauty standards of the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City by symbolically burning (or in this case, discarding) their bras and other articles of clothing women were expected to wear at the time (Kreydatus, 2008). It was a rallying cry against the objectification of women as sexual objects, since the Miss America pageant was largely managed and judged by men. While this was seen as an outright rejection of traditional feminine roles, Kreydatus illustrates that “In order to liberate women, radical feminists believed that social, cultural, economic, and political structures would all have to be reshaped to acknowledge female power and admit female voices” (Kreydatus, 2008). In this case, by physically discarding feminine beauty products, feminists were demanding to be viewed as whole beings, with intellect and motivations beyond simply being pleasing to the male gaze.
Protests like the bra burning may have formed the public vision of second-wave feminism, but it was the more methodical approach of organizations like NOW and the League of Women Voters that paved the way for systemic national reform for women’s rights. Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, recognized the need for just such a national organization, and co-founded NOW in 1966, with a vision of progressing women’s rights on a large scale (Parry, 2010). When NOW was initially founded, Katherine Turk noted that it “was devised with local and national components that would ideally work in tandem” (Turk, 2010). NOW’s power structure was fairly decentralized, focusing mostly on grassroots activism through local chapters instead of following a strong national agenda (Turk, 2010). It was the decentralized structure that empowered many individual members within the organization. Since the local chapters could prioritize the issues that they were most concerned with at a regional level, many women in the organization probably felt a greater sense of impact in the work they were doing.
However, it was this chapter-driven agenda setting that became a problem when NOW wanted to focus on particular national issues. Turk writes, “NOW‘s wide parameters for chapter activities helped attract many diverse women to the organization, but they also created great variation among chapters. By the mid-1970s, many NOW members felt that such a structure had rendered their growing organization politically ineffective” (Turk, 2010). It became impossible for NOW to create a cohesive political agenda at a national scale when their many chapters had unique issues they were working on at a local level. The mid-1970’s marked a distinct shift in NOW’s organization, with the consolidation of national policy-setting powers at the highest levels of the organization (Turk, 2010). This made it easier for NOW to cohesively campaign for particular issues at the national level, although it did somewhat alienate members of the local chapters, who were recruited with the promise of being able to affect change in their immediate communities.
One of the ways NOW communicated which issues were important, both locally and nationally, was through the use of newsletters. Many chapters had regular newsletters that summarized the national achievements and issues NOW was involved with. These newsletters also highlighted local events and politics that were relevant to the region. The organization published a member magazine, titled Do it NOW which explained “that attracting new members required reaching women in their homes, communities, and places of business and interesting them in particular issues” (Turk, 2010). An easy way to do this was to publish newsletters to inform members of the chapter’s activities. Second-wave feminism was not as “oratorical” as the first wave, meaning that chapter leaders had to share information with their members in other ways (Stokes, 2005). Aside from the regularly published newsletters, “groups frequently relied on informal connections such as leaflets, position papers, pamphlets, posters, songs, T-shirts, and buttons” (Stokes, 2005). It was these common objects and easy–to–handle papers that reached women in all aspects of their lives, as suggested by Do it NOW. Women could be as public or private in their support of the feminist movement as they needed to be, considering that second-wave feminism was still perceived as fairly radical through the early 1970s. The newsletters had the added benefit of often being published anonymously, or with only first names (Stokes, 2005). This allowed women to create content for other members to enjoy and interact with, while still maintaining a level of distance (at least publicly) from the movement.
“Groups frequently relied on informal connections such as leaflets, position papers, pamphlets, posters, songs, T-shirts, and buttons.” -A. Q. Stokes
Given the nature of the newsletter that will be studied in this project, I will be using a qualitative approach to the text. To view the newsletter being referenced, please turn to the appendices. The newsletter being examined is the Women’s Newsletter, published for the Whatcom County chapter of NOW in May 1974. The use of a single newsletter is justified because this newsletter is representative of most publications from the Whatcom County chapter for the time period. The newsletter was published monthly, with many contributors, both in terms of writing articles and physically working to publish the paper.
The time period for this newsletter is important to take into consideration, since NOW underwent significant structural changes in 1975 to broaden the reach of the organization. In 1974, NOW was still mostly reliant on the work done regionally by the chapters, and the Whatcom County chapter is no exception to that. This particular newsletter features several events at the local level that members could get involved in, but it also included articles that dealt with wide-reaching national issues.
The overall methodology for this project is simple. I conducted a qualitative textual analysis, based on several categories. First and foremost, the content of the newsletter was examined, and its overarching ideologies and messages extrapolated. Secondly, the layout and imagery used in the newsletter was taken into account. Then, the conclusions drawn from this exercise will be synthesized into cohesive findings on how this particular newsletter legitimized second-wave feminism in Whatcom County, and encouraged members to join the movement.
There are some potential limitations with this approach. The use of a single issue of the newsletter—while it is a representative sample of the newsletter series—may lack some of the nuance that could be gleaned from multiple issues over time. Additionally, using a qualitative approach means that the findings are somewhat subjective. The analysis has not been coded to trace particular themes for a quantitative, objective result. Despite these limitations, I have carefully analyzed the newsletter, beginning with the ideological messages present in the articles.
At first glance, the newsletter may seem to be a fairly innocuous collection of eclectic materials and opinions. However, all the articles featured in the newsletter, in their own way, are subtly (or not-so-subtly) pushing for its readers to accept the ideals of feminism. This newsletter was published at the height of NOW’s local chapters’ activism, and this becomes apparent in the content after further analysis.
The front page (Figure 1) orients the reader to the agenda of NOW at a national level. It lays out procedural changes in one article, and provides contact information for national leaders of the organization. It states “Task forces have been formed at the national level to monitor current events; to collect information from all areas of the country; and to disseminate information and suggestions for action to the local chapters” (Brown, McConchie, & Hurley et al., 1974). This helps to legitimize NOW as an organization with concrete goals and the infrastructure to reach them. It’s professional, and advocates for feminism in an almost bureaucratic way. This idea was likely a precursor to the further changes NOW would undergo when it centralized its power structure. Even before that political shift, “NOW nationalized and homogenized itself becoming a more streamlined organization, and narrowing its agenda in the process” (Turk, 2010). This move makes sense, as a highly organized newsletter with a message published about the national proceedings of NOW builds credibility with the reader that it is a mainstream organization. The use of the national message on the front page of the newsletter interpolates the reader into a larger feminist narrative.
The second page featured articles about local events (Figure 2)—like a women’s fair and a women’s talent bank—that reassure the reader that even though NOW may be a national organization, it’s still accessible at the local level. Activities were organized nearby in Bellingham, with a variety of ways to be involved. For newcomers, these articles provide them with easy local ways to get involved. For members with a little more experience, sitting on local boards and commissions provided a way to actively implement feminist policies at the regional level in Bellingham. The article states “The Women’s Talent Bank gathers the names and resumes of women to submit for appointment to civic boards and commissions which make decisions affecting every aspect of community life” (Brown, McConchie, & Hurley et al., 1974). By providing this information in the newsletter, the Whatcom County chapter gave its members reassurance that they could be involved in productive ways. Sitting on a council is a far cry from burning a bra in a fit of feminist rage, and it was probably much less intimidating to women who had recently joined the movement.
The second page of the newsletter also mentioned the work of the League of Women Voters, and expressed support for their proceedings. Readers of this article would be made part of the larger network of feminist groups in the area. Once again, it made second-wave feminism a professional, respectable movement by connecting multiple organizations together with coordinated efforts.
The third page of the newsletter (Figure 3) featured the longest, and most controversial piece about the opinion of the Catholic Church on abortions. It urged readers to recognize the inconsistencies of the church’s doctrine, and provided them with a simple list of facts they could present to various congressmen through letters. While this article seems closer in tone to the determined protesters of the late 1960’s, the fact that it referenced a published author and provided readers with a calm plan of action legitimized the feminist agenda of the piece. Despite the apparent zeal of the author, the article remained respectful when addressing the congressmen, and did not call for a large-scale protest, but rather an organized letter-writing campaign by the chapter’s members. The article urged the readers to “Make your letters objective and unemotional” (Brown, McConchie, & Hurley et al., 1974). It was a coordinated movement, utilizing shrewdness and logic over feminist outrage at the issue. For the casual reader, even though the content may be controversial, the call to action is simple and doesn’t incriminate those who participate. This fact alone may have been enough to persuade some readers to write to the congressmen. It is a step up from the previous page, with the reader having escalated from a participant in local affairs to a full-fledged activist on an issue of national relevance.
Finally, the last page included contact information for the group. After reading the whole newsletter, which opened with a professional update on NOW proceedings, moved to local events the reader might attend, and closed with a call to action on an important nationwide issue, the reader was presented with the information necessary to formally become part of the group. The organization of the letter presented a logical evolution of the reader’s interaction with the group. This progressed from simple curiosity about the group, to partaking in local activities, to finally acting in favor of the feminist agenda. Then, after the reader had been fully indoctrinated into feminist activities, the newsletter presented an opening for the reader to formally join the organization.
When looking at the physical layout of the newsletter, a few other things stand out as well. The first thing to note is that NOW’s logo on the top left of the first page, while prominently placed, is secondary to the title Women’s Newsletter. This was a political move, as women who were wary of the feminist movement at large may have been more likely to pick up what they thought was an unaffiliated women’s pamphlet, as opposed to an official document linking them to NOW.
The use of the Venus symbol in the O of “Women’s” clearly denoted a female-centric newsletter. The hand-lettering further illustrated a move away from a tightly scripted organization, and gave a local, grassroots feel to the newsletter. The juxtaposition between the alternative lettering and the professional content of the first page helped to bring in readers from all backgrounds.
Additionally, while the last article may have been longer than the others, it was still a very short read, with plenty of blank space around the title and easily readable contact information at the bottom. The length of the articles is important to note here, since readers who were not already part of the movement would be unlikely to read all the way through a long-winded article about issues they were not involved in. By keeping the articles to a few paragraphs each, the newsletter was able to cover multiple subjects of interest to the chapter, and keep readers engaged through it all. Most of the articles were only a half or quarter-page, making it easy for the eye to follow the information. Additionally, the shorter articles at the beginning lent more prominence to the abortion piece on the third page because of its length alone. The reader naturally sensed it was more important since it was placed on a page by itself. Designing the newsletter in this way kept new readers engaged long enough for them to get to the most important information at the back of the newsletter.
The last page of the newsletter (Figure 4) featured a prominent, hand-drawn and hand-lettered image of a highly stylized flower, with the phrase “Sisterhood is blooming/springtime will never be the same.” This image spoke especially to the grassroots, local activism that NOW depended on before changing its structure. Simply by the fact that the image was not a printed logo, it pulled in readers who may have felt hesitant about joining a formal feminist affiliation. It projected a tone of neighborhood women banding together for the betterment of their community. Participation was voluntary, with projects that directly affected the region, as opposed to the large-scale agendas being set at the national level for the group. Unfortunately, this emphasis on local activism was lost the next year when “a political struggle within NOW elevated a new group of leaders who prioritized ideological and procedural unity, directing NOW resources away from grassroots-driven activism and toward efforts to add an equal rights amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution” (Turk, 2010). Although the homegrown approachability of NOW may have been lost, the streamlining of the organization at a national level did help to further professionalize second-wave feminism. National agenda setting made it easier for NOW to create legitimate changes for the feminist movement overall.
The feminist movement is of vital importance to all people today. Third-wave feminism tries to incorporate multiple perspectives and utilizes the intersectional theories that may have been lacking in the second wave. However, it was only because of the prolonged protests and organized efforts of second-wave feminists that the movement has reached where it is today. Second-wave feminists had to struggle against a society that was far more sexist, and far less understanding of their struggles than it is today. Feminist organizations like the National Organization for Women created organized agendas that targeted strategic issues for the betterment of all women. By creating a monthly newsletter, local NOW chapters could legitimize their work to new members, and keep current members up to date on national and local issues of feminism. These newsletters created a sense of a larger community network of feminists, provided pertinent information on local programming, and instituted a strategic call to action on issues of the most importance for the feminist movement.