By the time the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year, many Americans had already opened their wallets to protest. In the approximately 24 hours after the Court’s opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization leaked early, the Democratic fundraising platform ActBlue raised $12 million, and Reproductive Freedom for All’s donations increased by 1,400 percent. According to one researcher, more than 300 crowdfunded GoFundMe campaigns drew in nearly $3.2 million in the seven months between the Dobbs leak and the 2022 midterm elections, and that’s just a small measure of the overall amount that flooded the cause.
Abortion-rights groups certainly need financial support. But the history of the National Organization for Women, second-wave feminism’s largest and most expansive membership group, reveals that when people engage with feminism primarily through their donations, the cause can suffer. Starting in the mid-1970s, NOW’s embrace of the then-novel fundraising technique of direct mail “change[d] the nature of” the organization, the longtime NOW leader Mary Jean Collins told me; the strategy ballooned NOW’s budget, but it also centralized power and narrowed the group’s focus, undermining the influence and involvement of ordinary members. The group’s size and clout have since declined, and American feminism has been diminished for it.
NOW was created in 1966 as “a kind of NAACP for women, a Civil Rights for Women organization,” in the words of Betty Friedan. She and four dozen other co-founders were relative social elites who drew up a national agenda focused on legal change, but the group’s first leaders also created paths for local chapters to form. Ten people in a city or town could pay $10 apiece, elect their own officers, and then pursue any goal they deemed a women’s issue. “We’re the only place in Omaha where a woman who has some gripes can come,” a Nebraska chapter president told The New York Times in 1976. As members discussed those “gripes” and took local action, they fused deep bonds that inspired trust and sacrifice.
Some chapters were small, and others were hundreds strong, but each fostered their members’ diverse visions. “If somebody could think of it, NOW was going to try to do it, whatever it was,” Collins told me. For example, Pittsburgh-area members challenged sex-segregated job advertisements in newspapers, leading to a 1973 Supreme Court decision that allowed such ads to be banned; Syracuse NOW picketed local bars and restaurants that prohibited “unescorted” women, in a campaign that helped change local codes and many state laws; and NOW chapters in Washington, D.C., and Seattle won legal protections for lesbians and child-custody rights for lesbian mothers, respectively.
Those members turned their hometown concerns into national priorities. By 1975, NOW’s 60,000 members had built more than 30 organization-wide task forces on issues including reproductive rights, media reform, women’s role in religion, the arts, labor unions, and sports, and the specific concerns of women of color. NOW’s leaders embraced this spectrum of priorities, kept dues low to encourage broad involvement, and spurned government and corporate grants to protect the group’s independence. NOW belonged to its members, and membership meant participation.
Despite its successes, the group faced two challenges. The first was internal to the organization. Even as NOW pursued higher wages and more respect for women’s labor, the organization itself was broke. The officers scraped together funds to pay for modest office support, but it was not nearly enough. Mostly, NOW relied on its own members to volunteer as leaders and clerical workers, and those volunteers struggled to keep up. “It is no secret how bad our national housekeeping is,” Friedan explained during NOW’s convention in 1968, when she was the group’s president. The more NOW’s membership grew, the more “housekeeping” it needed, and the less it could pay. And volunteering for NOW deprived women of time to earn real wages. “Here I am, after ten years working for feminism,” the New York chapter president Jacqui Ceballos wrote in 1979, “still living off my husband!”
NOW’s second challenge emerged in the early 1970s: anti-feminist women, a newly politicized force that mimicked NOW in its participatory grassroots organizing. These women were inflamed by the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and by the Equal Rights Amendment’s advances. The amendment, which would guarantee equal rights to all citizens regardless of sex, had soared through both houses of Congress by 1972 and seemed to be speeding toward ratification. But the efforts of anti-feminists and their corporate allies, especially insurance companies that lobbied against the ERA, slowed that momentum: In 1972, 22 states ratified the amendment, followed by eight in 1973, and just three in 1974.
In response, NOW decided to make a determined push to get the amendment ratified, and out of this campaign, a new organizational model emerged. Declaring a “state of emergency on the ERA,” NOW’s national board promised to direct “almost all the organization’s resources” to that campaign. In order to fund a lobbying, protesting, and canvassing operation, members would have to raise much more money than sporadic dues income could provide.
A cutting-edge fundraising strategy, developed by the far right, offered a solution. In the previous decade, the conservative strategist Richard Viguerie had wanted to counter what he viewed as a liberal bias in the media and in both political parties by reaching voters directly in their homes. He collected and sorted public information about supporters of conservative candidates, then sold that information to political campaigns and advocacy groups. Armed with curated lists of names and addresses, conservative interests could pinpoint allied populations and send solicitations directly by mail. These materials were generally designed to enrage and motivate, laying out a high-stakes problem that the recipient could help solve through a specific action or, more often, a donation. Viguerie raised a ton of money, earning his clients upwards of $35 million in 1980 alone.
Other interest groups, including those on the left, such as the United Negro College Fund and Amnesty International, took notice. NOW, too, embraced the strategy, hiring Roger Craver, a direct-mail specialist who worked with liberals. From 1973 to mid-1975, the group sent 565,000 pieces of mail about the ERA. In 1973, NOW netted just under $49,000 in general income, largely from dues, but it raised nearly triple that amount from direct mail—$139,000—for its separate ERA Emergency Fund. Direct mail also helped increase the group’s membership from 50,000 to 80,000 in 1977 alone; the following year, those solicitations netted $650,000. This fundraising permitted NOW to not only lead a massive ERA campaign, but also to establish and staff a new national office in Washington and pay its first salaried officers.
This new funding structure also shifted the balance of power inside the organization. The solicitations asked readers to give money, join NOW, or both. Those who opted to join typically became “at large” members with no local-chapter connection. According to NOW’s financial reporting at the time, those who chose to donate tended to make bigger contributions than local-chapter members but were less involved, creating a new type of nonparticipatory member who wrote an annual check but had little contact with the organization. Before direct mail, most members had paid dues to their chapter, which remitted a fraction of those funds to national leaders. Direct mail reversed this arrangement; although the chapters were still taking in dues from local members, the headquarters had much more money.
The ERA focus also shifted NOW’s priorities, subordinating more local concerns and other previously coequal goals such as securing equal rights for lesbians and ensuring that women of color felt welcome and represented in NOW. Those less privileged women could not “afford the luxury of a single issue focus,” wrote Aileen Hernandez, who had been NOW’s second president, in the late 1970s. She and others left NOW in 1979 when the national conference elected an officer corps of five straight white women. Some NOW members believed that direct mail homogenized the group’s composition by targeting the select population—typically white and middle-class—whose names filled the lists leaders bought from allied groups.
Over time, NOW changed from a grassroots-driven, modestly funded collective dedicated to many goals into a top-down, streamlined system that raised and spent money: “a million dollar corporation,” as the longtime member Del Martin later recalled in an interview. NOW was arguably the ERA’s most prominent advocate in the late 1970s—years when about 80 percent of Americans supported the amendment—and thus an obvious vehicle for those supporters’ donations. The group raised $1.3 million each month from December 1981 to May 1982; the Democratic Party raised approximately $2.5 million in 1982. “We are literally mailing millions of pieces of mail, phoning thousands of individuals, printing millions of pieces of ERA information, but we must do more,” the NOW president Eleanor Smeal said at the group’s 1981 national conference. As she’d anticipated, this massive effort was not enough to overcome conservative resistance. The ERA’s extended deadline arrived in June 1982 with the measure still three states short of ratification.
NOW’s ERA campaign revealed a key flaw in the group’s direct-mail approach: It yoked the organization’s credibility and funding structure to a single goal. When the group failed to achieve that goal, NOW’s leaders struggled to shed the ERA campaign’s focus and tactics. “We had people calling NOW headquarters saying, ‘I want to join ERA,’” Judy Goldsmith, Smeal’s successor, recalled in 1985. “That’s what they thought we were.” In a newly hostile political climate, NOW had a costly national office to maintain. The leaders kept asking for ERA funds through direct mail even when the ERA’s prospects in Congress dimmed, until Goldsmith became uncomfortable with the solicitations. Her successors started them up again, however. “To get the ERA moving in Congress,” wrote the NOW president Molly Yard in a late-1980s fundraising letter, “I’m asking that you give serious consideration to doubling the size of the contribution you normally make.”
As time went on, NOW supporters continued to write checks to signal their feminist commitment, but the local chapters declined. The organization drew in huge sums, organized massive protests, and gave people the feeling that they were driving a social movement. But that energy generally did not translate into sustained, locally rooted power. “I think feminism is more significant than getting on a bus and marching on Washington,” a NOW member told a newspaper in 1987. “We need to talk about day care in my hometown.”
The changes to NOW’s structure resembled those in other activist organizations during that period. Since the mid-19th century, American public life had featured cross-class membership groups anchored in local communities that could shape national policy, as the sociologist Theda Skocpol has found. Such associations—including fraternal orders, religious networks, and civic groups—began to lose members starting in the mid-20th century. Their successors tended to establish their authority by building a media presence more than a membership base. They employed lobbyists, researchers, and full-time fundraisers. These organizations offered donors the feeling of participation without necessarily incorporating their ideas or encouraging deep commitment.
Direct mail increased NOW’s budget and membership by ending an approach that “was going to keep us little,” as the California NOW activist Toni Carabillo put it. But the strategy did not enable long-term growth. NOW membership rose to 300,000 in the early 1990s, then fell by about 10 percent each year from 1992 to 2000. Today, NOW claims about 100,000 “members and supporters,” who vary in their levels of direct involvement. Some local NOW chapters are still active, but the group commands less prominence on the national political scene, as many other feminist organizations have risen up alongside it.
NOW’s experience with direct mail reveals the costs of donation-driven activism. No matter those gifts’ aggregate scale or their givers’ good intentions, authorizing a credit-card payment is not driving a movement. Those payments can be inconsistent, for one thing. Last year’s flood of donations to abortion funds was receding by Dobbs’s first anniversary. “My worry is this sense of complacency and people thinking, ‘Oh, abortion funds got it,’” Oriaku Njoku, the executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, told The Chronicle of Philanthropy in June. Many of those funds, which are generally administered by overtaxed volunteers, are struggling to keep pace with rising needs.
Organizations should aim to solicit donations without sacrificing their character—for example, encouraging fundraising that’s led at the grassroots level, rather than from the top; limiting direct mail, which can overly narrow a group’s focus; and pursuing supporters’ participation as much as their money. When people have groups that sustain their engagement by nurturing their creativity, they are more inclined to keep building movements through flush times and lean ones. Today, feminist causes need money, but they also need their supporters’ ideas and effort.