Our First Ten Years

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Approaching our 50th Anniversary - we take a moment to take a look at our first ten years as reported in the NOW National Times in June of 1981.  What unfolds is inspiring - making it clear that Legal Momentum - until 2004 known as NOW LDEF - has been a pioneer organization - fighting for and paving the way for so many of today's gender equality rights.  

We filed our incorporation on March 16, 1970 becoming the nation's first legal defense and education fund for women.  NOW's Legal Vice President, Faith Seidenberg, served as our first President.

FROM NOW Salutes LEGAL MOMENTUM (NOW LEDF) | national NOW times | june 1981 

1968 to 1971 | Legal Strategies Develop

a loose "network" among the then few female attorneys around the country

Among NOW's founders were several lawyers who were seriously developing litigation strategies for sex discrimination cases. Marguerite Rawalt, one of the original thirty founders of NOW and a highly respected government lawyer, had been active in pro­fessional legal organizations and developed over the years a loose "network" among the then few female attorneys around the country. Some, like Sylvia Roberts, of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, heard about the founding of NOW and joined immediately. At that time, any attorney who joined NOW was quickly recruited to serve on its Legal Committee.

starting with sex discrimation cases

Rawait monitored the then dozen or so pending sex discrimination cases. One after another failed in the lower courts. Even with the passage of Title VII, the equal employment section of the Civil Rights Act, women were being denied jobs under state "protective" labor laws. In 1967, Lorena Weeks, a low­ paid telephone operator, lost her law suit challenging the "male only jobs" in the Southern Bell Telephone Company. A similar case was being litigated on behalf of blue collar factory workers employed with Colgate Palmolive. Roberts was recruited by Rawait to appeal the Weeks case to the full Fifth Circuit.        ·


The theory behind this litigation strategy in the late sixties was that if just one case could succeed in striking down protective labor laws, a momentum would build to remove other state provisions banning women from currently "Male Only" jobs. At the time, by law, most jobs were sex segregated. Men's jobs always paid more money, provided better benefits and offered higher seniority than women's jobs at the bottom of the ladder. 

the strategy was working

Roberts took the case without charging fees and won. By the mid-1970's state protective labor laws were found unconstitutional. The strategy was working. Through their experiences on the Weeks case both Roberts and Rawait knew that more was needed than a loose network of female lawyers. Existing civil rights organizations were not interested in broadening their focus to include sex discrimination cases. Further, the U.S. Department of Justice repeatedly re­fused to handle women's rights cases, although Title VII expressly included provisions which prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex.


"Sylvia Roberts is best known for her successful defense of Lorena Weeks in her case against Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Company…Roberts won the case on appeal in 1969… the case marked an important early legal victory… in the fight against gender-based workplace discrimination."


Sylvia Roberts President Legal Momentum (NOW LDEF) 1972

source | PAPERS OF pioneerng feminist attorney sylvia roberts | SYLVIA ROBERTS AND NOW FOUNDERS | newcomb archives Tulane university

1971 to 1974 | The Early Years

We had no staff, no offices, just a telephone answering machine in Washington, D.C. We could only file amicus briefs that our volunteer attorney could prepare

"We fondly believed that once we created the LDEF money would pour in," remembers Betty Friedan. Unfortunately, this was not the case. "The fund was poor, very poor," noted Gene Boyer, our treasurer and later president in our early years. "We had no staff, no offices, just a telephone answering machine in Washington, D.C. We could only file amicus briefs that our volunteer attorney could prepare."

SYLVIA ROBERTS BECOMES PRESIDENT | Foundations were not ready to support groups that were aiming at such sweeping changes in the system 

Litigation seemed most urgent and education projects a luxury. At the time there were very few lawyers who were willing to take sex discrimination cases or who had expertise in the area of women's rights. And it did not take long for our board to find out that foundations and corporations rarely funded new organizations that were challenging sexist policies of major institutions. Sex discrimination was being practiced by the very people from whom we sought funding. Foundations were not ready to support groups that were aiming at such sweeping changes in the system. In 1972, Sylvia Roberts became our President, a post she held for two years. Under Roberts, litigation became our cornerstone. "We creatively used our meager resources to bring sex discrimination cases. The NOW chapters would bring forward potential litigation, and we would try to help," Roberts remembers.

The Fund looked for cases and issues which would help the greatest numbeR of women 

Over the next several years corporations, universities, financial institutions, cities and states were being challenged by us for their blatant discriminatory policies. Although our financial resources were extremely limited, small allotments were made to help support women's right cases. But more important than the money, we provided expertise and strategies for eliminating sex discrimination. Under Robert's leadership, we forged into new areas for women's rights. We looked for cases and issues which would help the greatest number of women including mandatory pregnancy leave policies. 

We took bold steps where other groups rarely ventured.

Ending discriminatory hiring practices, separate male and female seniority lists, and segregated job assignments; ensure medical payments for abortion; bring to a stop television license challenges and sex segregated help wanted ads in newspapers; ensure a woman's right to use her own (birth) name; ensure property rights and the rights of homemakers to military retirement benefits; protect lesbian mothers in custody cases and the rights of women regardless of sexual preference - all just a few of the areas on which we chose to focus our energies and expert background. We took bold steps where other groups rarely ventured. Abortion, lesbian rights, and most recently the military registration case, are just a few of the "controversial" issues we had considered.  We stood and still stand for the rights of all women. Time and again our Board of Directors reaffirmed their commitment to women of all faces, creeds, religions and lifestyles.

Education and litigation were used to balance each other

Roberts and our Board of Directors also recognized the importance of their ''education'' strategies. ''Education and litigation were used to balance each othar," Roberts noted in an interview, "We were in a position of having to tell the American people that discrimation is unfair, it's not the American way." We felt it necessary to develop projects on education," Roberts added.

MIDGE KOVACS' Hire Him. He's Got Great Legs | The fight with ad council | A Breakthrough for Women's Rights Ads: Acceptance as Public Service Messages

A national public service ad campaign Hire Him. He's Got Great Legs was developed by New York NOW member Midge Kovacs for us in 1973. By all accounts these PSA's were a tremendous success. The New York Daily News headline called the campaign "A Breakthrough for Women's Rights Ads: Acceptance as Public Service Messages." It took two years for Kovacs to finally get the National Ad Council to approve the campaign as public service. In 1971, the Ad Council withheld its recommendation of the campaign on the grounds that our parent NOW was a political organization. Without Ad Council ap­proval, PSA campaigns were rarely successful or used by local stations. Kovacs countered the turndown from the Council with a scathing article in Advertising Age in which she outlined the problems we had in getting the approval of the Ad Council. In Ad Age, Kovacs documented unanswered letters, formal presentations to the Council, and behind the scene negotiations. Magically, after the negative publicity in Ad Age, the Advertising Council approved the campaign.  Through this campaign, which pro­moted woman power as "much too good to waste" we joined the ranks of Smokey the Bear and the Red Cross by finally cracking free public service time on radio and television. The ads were run by more than 100 television stations in forty states, as well as by national print journals, magazines and newspapers. Another PSA campaign was to be repeated nearly a decade later through the efforts of Jane Trahey, one of our board  members.   Trehey conceptualized a harder hitting campaign aimed at the economic issues inherent in the fight for equality. PSA's newly famous slogan. "He calls it Fun, she calls it Harassment," just started being used by major media in the early 1980's.



Our "Legal Defense and Education Fund (has) exerted pressure against discriminatory institutions from both the inside and the outside. (It has) monitored and persuaded from the outside. At the same time, our major litigation projects strove to win policy making roles for women within the Inner Circles that shape our society." We remain "committed to pressing from both directions until equality for women becomes a reality in America. Certainly feminist groups must con­tinue to criticize and yes, attack­ sexism from an independent position outside the system. However feminists must achieve power on the inside as well, for us to create a non-sexist society in this country. "


Mary Jean Tully President Legal Momentum (NOW LDEF) 1975 

source | NOW Salutes LEGAL MOMENTUM (NOW LEDF)| national NOW times | june 1981 | national organization for women image

1974 to 1977 | The Stabilizing Years

The President's gavel transferS From Sylvia Roberts to Mary Jean Tully

The President's gavel was transferred from Sylvia Roberts to Mary Jean Tully in 1974. Tully lived in the New York area and had a firm commitment to establishing financial stability for our organization. She opened the first permanent NYC offices which were donated by the Avon Corporation. Working as a full-time volunteer Tully focused her energies on fundraising, working to identify reasons why foundations and corporations would not give money to our work. What she found was that women's projects in general were not funded by philanthropic groups. Tully was one of the first to stand up publicly and challenge these sexist practices. In a New York Times op-ed piece, Tully critized the predominantly "white male establishment" composition of the Filer Commission (a group studying private philanthropy) for faillng to represent the diversity of contemporary American society. Throughout her presidency, Tully pressed for a share of foundation and corporate dollars for feminist organizations.

funding diversity important for "insulating" our organization and its ability to be action oriented

During this period,  we began using direct mall as a source of income with modest success. And slowly, over the course of the next several years, we began building a base of support which included an impressive and diversified list of corporations, foundations, large donors and individual contributions. This diversity has proved important for "insulating" our organization and its ability to be action oriented, while not dependent upon any one source of funding.

Title IX prohibiting discrimination in educational institutions receiving federal money would require feminists to monitor and pressure to ensure progress.

Monitoring the recently passed Title IX of the Education Amendments - which prohibited discrimination in educational institutions receiving federal money we anticipated that the government's enforcement efforts would be ineffective and that feminists needed to monitor and pressure HEW to ensure progress. Tully and our Board recognized the potential advancements for all women if barriers to equal education opportunities were removed. Our leaders decided to put full resources and volunteer energies toward foundation funding of such an education project. After long meetings and negotiations, the Ford Foundation provided initial support for the Title IX monitoring program. In July 1974, the Project on Equal Education Rights (PEER) opened offices in Washington, D.C., with full-time staffer Holly Knox serving as Project Director after having chaired the HEW Task Force on the impact of the Office of Education Program on Women. Knox knew the extent to which females faced discrimination in education and how school systems were resisting the changes that provided equal opportunities. It took HEW two years before it published a draft of proposed rules on Implementation of Title IX.

our PEER program led the way for women's rights in education for nearly a decade.

PEER led the way for women's rights in education for nearly a decade.  Foundation support has increased considerably and the project's paid staff increased to ten. Under the Reagan Administration, PEER saw its role as being more important than ever. With the demise of the Department of Education, tracking federal dollars under block grants would be nearly impossible, and the possibility always existed that Title IX could be eliminated given the "deregulation" fever in Washington at that time. PEER made plans to move more aggressively to the state level as it had done in its Michigan Title IX project. The goal was to remain the national voice for equality in education. To accomplish that, PEER continued to move to the grassroots,and made use of NOWs chapter structure key to maintaining the gains of the past decade. In addition to PEER's contribution to promoting equal education, the Project had the hoped for effect of building a track record for our future funding.

reform in the broadcasting industry - the media project and the courts -  judical education project

In 1979, Kathy Bonk, Chair of NOWs Media Reform Committee ap­proached us about possible funding sources for the Media Reform Committee activities. For nearly ten years, the Committee had been establishing contacts, negotiating agreements, filing complaints within the broadcasting industry. NOW had a proven record in its achievements in media reform, especially in the areas of employment and programming. The results were encouraging. So to bolster the media reform work done by NOW we launched the Media Project program under Bonk's direction - turning efforts that had been underfunded, reactive and somewhat limited, into a systematic program focused on the mass media, especially the broadcasting industry. The Media Project used staff skllls and grassroots expertise in supporting ERA Ratification effort with the three-year partial funding grant we provided supplemented by special project funds. In many ways, the Media Project is a good example of the benefits to be gained by interrelationships among National NOW, National NOW Committees, local NOW chapters and our organization. 1980, Norma Wlkler signed on as director of a new Judicial Education Project (NJEP). She developed courses and materials to help judges educate themselves on current realities concerning women, combating traditions as a reminder that even the Inner Sanctums of the courtroom can be improved by education in feminist principles.

Project Development Evolves

Just as our lawyers were developing litigation strategies, so were the activists and fundraisers tooking to build projects around femi­nist issues.  Occasionally, NOWs Task Force Chairs would approach us for grants. For example, Tish Sommers who chaired the NOW Older Women's Task Force in 1973, came to us with ideas for projects which would support and retrain older women for jobs. She hoped to develop a community-oriented project with a blue collar orientation especially for homemakers affected by divorce, separation or widowhood. With a small grant to cover printing and postage, Sommers developed and tested her ideas, and Sommel's term "displaced homemaker" was introduced lo U.S. policymakers. Sommers went on to form the Alliance for Displaced Home­makers which passed a major piece of legislation, The Displaced Homemakers bill, to CETA funding. At the same time, Tully and our Board were planning projects which would focus on a particular area of industry. They felt that we needed a project on which to build a track record with funders and the outside world. It was during one of our 1974 Board meeting that the idea was first proposed for a project on women and girls in education.

"Throughout the development and implementation of our programs and projects, we are ever mindful that there are groups of women - the poor, the elderly, the disabled, the members or racial, ethnic and sexual minorities - who suffer multiple forms of discrimination and for whom we are not yet doing enough. They deserve, and will get, our special attention". 


Gene Boyer President Legal Momentum (NOW LDEF) 1975 

source | NOW Salutes LEGAL MOMENTUM (NOW LEDF) | national NOW times | june 1981 | national organization for women image

The Equal Rights Amendment

We decided we would do anything within our power legally, including paying additional taxes, to support the ERA ratification

In Spring of 1977, Mary Jean Tully raised with our Board the possibility of becoming active in the ERA ratification efforts. It was an unprecedented discussion. Through 1975, ERA ratification seemed imminent. Thirty-four states had ratified in the first three years of the state ratification drive, but in 1976 and1977, only Indiana passed the ERA. In April 1977, Eleanor Smeal, NOW's newly elected President, laid out several options for us, including research on Illinois' 3/5th rule change and a possibility for extending the time for ERA ratification. We decided we would do anything within our power legally, including paying additional taxes, to support the ERA ratification drive. This was a bold step for a tax deductible group, but we recognized that we could provide legal expertise and support to NOW, at a time when coalitions were splintering and some groups were opposed to extending the time limitation for ERA. Ever since 1977, we have been active on the ERA campaign. At Betty Friedan's urging, we set up EPEA, the Emergency Project for Equal Rights. Managed by Laurie Goldstein, EPEA coordinated and eflectively used the talents of entertainers, writers, artists, and other news makers who are committed to ERA ratification. During the extension drive, Goldstein organized Students for ERA, Wives and Daughters for ERA, and other constituency groups. EPEA was a full time project based in NewYork City serving as support to the direct lobbying efforts of NOW's ERA Ratification Campaign. In our Legal Dopartment, we commenced an education and litigation project to develop principles of sex equality in state law. Focusing on the 16 states that had state equal rights provisions in their own constitutions, the ERA Impact Project created a national information clearinghouse on state ERA litigation. ERA Impact Project implemented national education the myths and stereotypes that often lead to sex discriminatory court de­cisions. This project was been widely praised by feminist lawyers and provided outreach, conducted pilot litigation, and developed state ERA litigation strategy. The ERA Impact Project was a cooperative undertaking of our organization and the Women's Law Project in Philadelphia.

1978 to 1981 | Thriving

We made a breakthrough with foundations, PEER gave us a track record, and we were ready to expand

Gene Boyer served as our President from 1978 to 1979. A founder of NOW, she had also served as its Treasurer and Finance Vice-President before joining our Board and serving as our Treasurer. Her major contribution to the presidency was administrative development, and she built upon the foundation laid by Mary Jean Tully and the seven years of hard volunteer work of our founding Board members. "I wanted to see us make the shift from a volunteer run organization to a staff-based, fully funded viable operation," Boyer explained. "We made a breakthrough with foundations, PEER gave us a track record, and we were ready to expand". 

but steady increases in staff and budget would create a healthy and stable environment

Direct mail solicitation was profitable in 1977, and, with a more reliable financial base, the Board decided to take the risk of a full time staff. Stephanie Clohesy was hired as Executive Director and Phyllis Segal as Legal Director. Both knew that the existing resources would last perhaps six to ten months. They would either expand the horizons or go back to the volunteer run organization of the early70's. It was under the team headed by Clohesy and Segal that a full time, New York based staff of 25 was built. New and continuing friends gave generously to us in 1978. The loyal support made it possible for us to survive the new budgetary staff commitments while expanding in other areas. Boyer carefully monitored the growth and expansion. Her more than ten years of budget experience in NOW had taught her that too rapid growth could kill the organization, but steady increases in staff and budget would create a healthy and stable environment. "I went from Wisconsin (her home state) to New York 27 times in 1978. I wanted to make sure the transition moved smoothly," Boyer recalled. The "funding" strategies were working. By 1979, the list of foundations supporting our organization had doubled several times while the list of corporate donors was modest but growing.


"It is not merely a happy coincidence that social needs identified by the Legal Momentum (NOW LDEF) have often moved soon after to center stage in America's consciousness. We consider it part of our mandate to seek out and study ominous problems on the social horizon, and then help set into motion solutions with the brainpower and the energies needed to solve those problems"


Muriel Fox President Legal Momentum (NOW LDEF) 1981

PHOTO FROM NOW Salutes LEGAL MOMENTUM (NOW LEDF) | national NOW times | june 1981 
Muriel Fox Takes Leadership Reins | equal opportunity for women can be an invaluable boon to our society doubling the pool of talented leaders 

In late 1978, Muriel Fox agreed to "do the work" and serve as our President. Fox had been active in the area of women's rights for decades. In 1966, Muriel Fox stopped Betty Friedan after a speech on The Feminine Mystique to say that if Betty ever started an NAACP for women, she would help with the publicity. Fox was one of the few women at the top in the public relations profes­sions and was considered one of the best. At the time, Fox told Friedan she would"consult" for free but someone else would have to do the work. As anyone in our organization at that time knew, there was never "anyone else to do the work" and Muriel Fox has been working ever since. Our funding base needed to expand if we were to survive growing attacks from the far right and limited government funding. Fox sought to add more names to the growing list of contributors through the enlightened self-interest approach. Perhaps more than any other President, Muriel Fox helped "establishment" leaders in business and government understand that equal opportunity for women can be an invaluable boon to our society as a whole because females double the pool of talented leaders and energetic workers available to solve our societal problems.

On November 19, 1979 we organized the widely praised forum National Assembly on the Future of The Family 

1979 was to be the White House Year of the Family, but the Carter Administration was having organizational and structural problems which delayed their Family Conferences. Under Fox, we forged ahead to focus public attention on the needs of the changing family. On November 19, 1979, we organized the National Assembly on the Future of The Family. The Board did not share the frequentiy voiced opinion that American families were in a state of hopeless collapse. Rather, we sought to offer new hope through constuctive ideas and action through the Assembly. Leading thinkers and doers from govenment, education, the professions, business, religion, and a broad spec­trum of public service activists met to share their insights and to identify new concepts that woutd help our society derive the fullest benefits from the new realities of family life. Betty Friedan had been working on several theories which she was putting to print, first in a major article in the New York Times, and later in a new book on the next phase of the women's movement. The list of participants included many of the top philosophers and activists concerned with women's rights. Friedan, Alvin Toffler and Isaac Asminov gave keynote speeches. Eleanor Smeal, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Elizabeth Holtzman, John Cowles, Bess Myerson, Nancy Friday, Joyce Miller, Ben Spock, Herman Badillo, Jessie Bernard, Carol Bellamy and Martha Keyes were only a few of the more than 2,000 participants. The widely praised forum developed workable concepts for the social agendas of many American institutions - including the 1980 White House Conference on Families.

social needs identified by Legal Momentum (NOW LDEF) have often moved soon after to center stage in America's consciousness

Even before the Family Assembly took place, our staff began work on still another closely related project for 1980-81, "New Leadership ln the Public Interest." Through a high level roundtable in October 1980, publication of two major research papers, and a conference of 400 leaders of public interest organizations in March 1981, this year-long project offered creative solutions to help resolve America's leadership crisis.  "It is not merely a happy coincidence that social needs identified by the Legal Momentum (NOW LDEF) have often moved soon after to center stage in America's consciousness. We consider it part of our mandate to seek out and study ominous problems on the social horizon, and than help set into motion solutions with the brainpower and the energies needed to solve those problems" stressed Fox.  Fox noted in our 1979 annual report,  "we recognize that our goals on behalf of women and families cannot be achieved unless strong and responsive leadership is generated at all levels of our society. We also believe that women and minorities can help provide much-needed leadership and that certain leadership techniques developed by the feminist movement can be especially productive in our complex culture of the 1980's and later decades."

Our hard fought gains are fragile at best.  The decades ahead will be more important than the past if we are to survive as a movement.

Our story never really ends. In ten years, our organization has grown from a budget of $4,000 to over $2 million today. Betty Friedan, the woman who brought us together, sat on our board for many years helping us with her vision and insight. As new leaders emerge, new projects and ideas keep us at the forefront of the struggle for equality. The decades ahead will not be easy for women. Our hard fought gains are fragile at best.  The decades ahead will be more important than the past if we are to survive as a movement. The dedication and spirit of the women and men who founded our organization lives on and to them we give a ten year and now a fifty year salute.