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At 25, NOW Faces a Changing Role

Leaders of women's-rights group say it's a time of retaining gains and fighting a backlash

IN the mid-1960s, "stewardesses" (as they were called then) had to quit once they married or reached a certain age. Women died from illegal abortions. There were no shelters for battered women.

That was the state of the union when the National Organization for Women (NOW) burst on the scene in 1966, the group that led the way to a transformation in women's lives in America.

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Tomorrow, NOW begins a week-long celebration of its 25th anniversary, including an appearance by Lily Tomlin, workshops on overcoming world sexism and violence against women, and sessions on building a global women's network. It's all happening at a time when some analysts say NOW's role is declining.

"We had an agenda of equality," said Betty Friedan, president of NOW until 1970. "We broke through most of the barriers of discrimination, fought in principled and effective ways to overcome sex discrimination," she said by phone.

"The truth is, we've really accomplished more than we ever dreamed of - and faster," says Muriel Fox, a founder and currently chairwoman of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. The 1960s and '70s were times of great changes: New laws prohibited sex discrimination in employment, education, credit, and public accommodations. Women are now sprinkled throughout government and business in high positions. Feminists also point to what they consider a major milestone: the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that lega lized abortion in the United States.

NOW was formed by a group of women at a Washington conference of state Commissions on the Status of Women. Irked by want-ad restrictions that limited women to "women jobs - despite federal laws prohibiting such sex discrimination - the women had proposed a resolution calling for enforcement of the legislation. They were turned down.

"The frustration of the women was enormous," recalls Gene Boyer, a founding member and vice president of NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. "Dorothy Haener said, 'What we need is an NAACP for women.

Twenty-eight women gathered in a hotel room formed a nonprofit civil-rights organization "to take action to bring women into full participation" in American society, plunking down $5 each as proof of their commitment.

TODAY, NOW leaders say it's a time of holding on to gains and fighting a backlash. They say they fear that the US Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade. The Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings and the William Kennedy Smith trial showed that the issues of sexual harassment and rape have not gone away.

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"These are critical issues at a critical junction," says Patricia Ireland, NOW's president. "We're moving from explosion to implosion - focusing our agenda on bread-and-butter issues and emerging issues we weren't even conscious of in those days." These include women's health, violence, sexual harassment, family leave, and pay equity.

Bad times bring new members. During the Clarence Thomas hearings in November, 9,000 new NOW members signed up, more than four times the usual rate.

With 270,000 members, NOW is the largest and most visible women's organization. But some observers say its power is waning, that it has lost some of its idealism. The group's plan to found a third political party is impractical, they say, and the recent report that Ms. Ireland (who is married) has a female lover seems to confirm the public's perception that the organization is more radical than mainstream.

Ireland acknowledges that NOW supports "civil rights for gays and lesbians," but refutes the notion that the group is not "in touch." She points to a CNN poll that found that 65 percent of women say NOW is a group that is in touch.

"The perception of many women's groups, perhaps unfairly, is that they've become institutionally hidebound or narrowly focused," says Harriett Woods, president of the National Women's Political Caucus, one of the many women's organization that have sprung up since NOW. "To the extent that NOW is perceived as having a more narrow agenda, that hurts the ability of all of us to mobilize the majority of women who need leadership."

"NOW changed my life," says Ms. Boyer, and "changed the lives of women who were in that initial cadre, whose lives had turned out entirely differently than they would have if they hadn't had NOW and the feminist vision."

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