For 50 years, Philly's NOW chapter has fought for gender equality | Philly History

Receiving the City of Philadelphia’s proclamation of August 26, 1974 as “Women’s Rights Day,” photograph (1974), National Organization for Women, Philadelphia Chapter records.

One of the most pivotal years in modern U.S. history occurred half a century ago.

1968 was tumultuous: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated; haunting images from Vietnam — along with Walter Cronkite’s legendary reporting — cast doubt on the legitimacy of the Vietnam War as U.S. soldiers continued to perish in the conflict. Despite the bleak political environment and ever-present specter of violence, activists of all stripes continued to fight for a positive vision of society. In Philadelphia, a chapter of the National Organization for Women began to take shape in 1968 thanks to the efforts of local feminists.

Camera icon The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Women picketing Sears stores, photographs (circa 1968), National Organization for Women, Philadelphia Chapter records.

Organizers founded NOW two years earlier in Washington. Prominent activists including Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, gathered to form an organization “dedicated to the proposition that women, first and foremost, are human beings, who, like all other people in our society, must have the chance to develop their fullest human potential.” 
NOW provided an important vehicle for feminist activists during the late 1960s. Even though scores of progressive groups were active during the period, many — including prominent organizations such as Students for a Democratic Society — excluded women from leadership roles and failed to integrate issues relating to women’s rights into their agendas.

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With the establishment of NOW, women had a nationally active organization agitating for gender parity.

Having served as founding members of NOW’s national body, two famous Pennsylvanian activists played a major role in establishing the group’s Philadelphia chapter: Ernesta Drinker Ballard and Wilma Scott Heide. Ballard served as the executive director of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society for nearly two decades and oversaw the rise of the Philadelphia Flower Show as an internationally recognized event. No less accomplished, Heide was a trained nurse and gifted educator. During her tenure at Pennsylvania State University from 1957 to 1967, she became the university’s director of nursing education.

From its start in the late 1960s, Philadelphia’s NOW chapter pursued a variety of political, economic, and social objectives. The organization fought for Pennsylvania’s ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. (The proposed amendment reemerged in the public spotlight this year following its ratification by the state of Illinois in May.) NOW members supported female political candidates and sought to end discriminatory practices in Philadelphia’s city government. Organizers fought for government-funded child care, challenged negative stereotypes of women in the media, and sought to end separate job listings for men and women in the city’s newspapers.

Camera icon Historical Society of Pennsylvania
Attendees of a local NOW convention, photograph (undated), National Organization for Women, Philadelphia Chapter records.

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The chapter enjoyed success in its early years. Pennsylvania ratified the Equal Rights Amendment in September 1972, becoming the 21st state to do so.

Over the years, NOW has experienced its share of difficulties. A rift between radical and more conservative members in the mid-1970s ushered in a period of disorganization. Despite such conflicts, the organization has endured. The Philadelphia chapter continues to advocate for women’s rights to this day.

Patrick Glennon is a communications officer at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. pglennon@hsp.org