Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Felicia Kornbluh

Second Advisor

Katie Gough


The National Organization for Women is one of the largest organizations committed since its founding in 1966 to women’s equality with men and civil rights. Most works on the organization’s activism have focused on their activities during the 1960s and 1970s, a period that historians have labeled as the second “wave” of feminism, but what happened to NOW after the 1970s ended? What happened to feminism in the 1980s? The 1980s are frequently considered a period of conservative success, with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. This consideration of the decade presents a problem with the political history of the 1980s, as per the title of my work, which criticizes the old conception of the decade as the “age of Regan.” However, looking beneath this narrative is a richer history of the National Organization for Women and feminism in general, revealing a problem in the historiography: the “wave” metaphor. Though both criticisms of the 1980s and the “wave” metaphor are not new, it remains essential to challenge both. The “wave” story of the 1960s and 1970s marked the conclusion that it was in 1982, with the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment. However, I examine the immediate aftermath of the ERA failure and how NOW's leaders continued their work throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s to prove that feminism did not end in 1982. The “wave” metaphor has become a simplistic way to organize feminist history but continuing the use of the “wave” metaphor neglects groups of women who did not participate in the popular histories of these “waves.” It also says feminist activism was not happening during periods outside of the “wave” timeline.

In this thesis, I examine how the leaders of the National Organization for Women continued their activism throughout the 1980s by looking at the organization’s adjustments due to significant changes in national politics. I claim that three areas in particular show how the leaders of NOW made attempts to transform their organization during this period of significant change in the United States: first, their tactics and advocacy for racial equality; second, their approach to reproductive rights activism due to increasing health clinic violence; and finally, their involvement in electoral politics throughout the decade. The organization’s leaders also participated in international feminist work towards the latter half of the decade. Although I do not argue that their global activism during this time was as dramatic of a transformation as the other three areas, this work by NOW’s leaders bridges the gap between their work in the 1980s and the 1990s as the 1990s was when we see global feminist connections and movements take off. By examining the National Organization for Women’s leadership’s adjustments during the 1980s, my work shows how historians can uncover new histories of the 1980s beside the story of Ronald Reagan, as well as of American women in general who were working just as hard during eras that are not commonly considered as periods of feminist success.



Number of Pages

117 p.

Included in

History Commons