Home Node

Philadelphia N.O.W Motivates Women to Fight for Equality

By Gina Reitenauer, Intern from Syracuse University, and Nina Kegelman, C. Dallett Hemphill Undergraduate Intern of the McNeil Center for Early American History

In 1966, a group of feminists established the National Organization for Women (N.O.W.) in order “to take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men.” By the late 1960s, the Women’s Liberation Movement had spread across the country to cities such as Philadelphia, which became a seminal spot for feminist activism.

On January 11, 1968, Ernesta Ballard and former N.O.W. president Wilma Scott Heide founded the N.O.W. Philadelphia Chapter. Their primary objectives included adding the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Pennsylvania Constitution, repealing Pennsylvania’s abortion ban, and eradicating sex discrimination. Two organizational slogans captured the chapter’s aspirations of ERA ratification and securing reproductive rights: “We won’t be satisfied until the ERA’s ratified” and “Keep your laws off our bodies.” Philadelphia N.O.W. also spurred the creation of systems and networks that would support and empower women in the community.

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s “National Organization for Women: Philadelphia Chapter Records” documents the chapter’s activities between 1968-1977 through photographs, newsletters, articles, correspondence, posters, and pamphlets.

Philadelphia N.O.W. sent the largest delegation to the ERA ratification march in Washington D.C. in July 1978, and assisted other chapters in local ratification. A brochure about the benefits of the ERA states that ratification would “Declare women full persons under the law.” While the ERA was never ratified, HSP’s collection highlights N.O.W.’s impressive and persuasive efforts.

Posters in HSP’s collection show N.O.W.’s fight to remove limitations on abortion and hold rapists accountable. Proclaiming “Our bodies, our lives, our right to decide!” and “Sisters Unite, Disarm Rapists!”, these posters demonstrate the organization’s commitment to gender equality by promoting women’s physical agency. Records show that the chapter created a full network of support by providing mental health counseling, divorce referral forms, and listing sexual assault crisis lines. 

Philadelphia N.O.W. increased access to childcare, education, employment opportunities, and support systems that enabled women to engage with their community as men did. One of the local organization’s most impressive achievements, ensuring the official preclusion of job listings separated by gender in Philadelphia newspapers, came in 1973. The N.O.W. Newsletter advertised “underground childcare services” for working mothers and promoted groups like the Society of Women Engineers that positioned women to gain work experience and mentoring.

Women protest outside Sears over employment issues (no date).

The chapter was unafraid to call out companies and individuals who criticized or obstructed their feminist goals by putting them on a “Not Now List.” They also hosted “The Barefoot and Pregnant Award,” an ironic means of “honoring” someone who deliberately thwarted women’s rights. Remarks from a Barefoot and Pregnant Award Ceremony are in HSP’s collection. These tongue-in-cheek style designations perhaps prefigured the ways women confront sexism today, often taking to Twitter in order to belittle perpetrators of sexual assault or harassment.

By encouraging women to take matters into their own hands, stand up to sexism, and engage politically, NOW has played a significant role advancing legal and societal changes in favor of women’s rights. However, many of the same issues—poverty, lack of healthcare and childcare, sexual assault and harassment, threats to reproductive rights and LGBTQ rights, and negative media representation—that appear in the Philadelphia Chapter records still affect women today. Recently, worldwide women’s marches, political participation in record numbers, artistic activism, and increased intersectionality all combat gender discrimination, giving more attention to factors such as race, class, sexuality, and ability.

As we revisit the Women’s Liberation Movement during the 50th anniversary of 1968—its pivotal year—HSP’s collection of N.O.W. Philadelphia Chapter records provides interesting insight into the history feminism in the United States and the evolving debates on the subject of women’s rights.


Toll, Jean Barth and Mildred S. Gillam, ed. Invisible Philadelphia: Community through Voluntary Organizations. Philadelphia: Atwater Kent Museum, 1995.

National Organization for Women. Philadelphia Chapter Records (Collection 2054), The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.


John Wanamaker’s Summer Camp

From early August through Labor Day weekend, Philadelphians abandon the sweltering city and head for the beaches. 
This tradition stretches back to the middle of the 19th century when developers connected Philadelphia to the coastline via rail. Hotel operators marketed the health benefits of escaping the congestion of the city to the region’s growing middle class. As beach recreation grew in popularity, more resorts opened. Even church groups followed suit, purchasing plots of land near the shore to serve as retreats for their congregants. 
One such plot of land attracted the attention of wealthy Philadelphia businessman John Wanamaker. In 1899, the department store mogul purchased 13 acres at Island Heights in New Jersey, a resort area founded by Methodists. He designated the property as the location of Camp Wanamaker, a summer camp for the boys and girls who worked at his stores.
John Wanamaker with George W. Stull, Wanamaker's store General Superintendent
The camp was a spinoff of the John Wanamaker Commercial Institute, an educational initiative founded by Wanamaker that trained his employees in a variety of school subjects ranging from writing to arithmetic. According to Wanamaker, the idea for the institute emerged from his reflection on “the full and sacred obligations of employer and employee.” 
Camp attendees swimming 
While providing young employees with the opportunity to see the ocean, Camp Wanamaker also served as an extension of Wanamaker’s particular social and educational vision. Campers marched in unison, slept in military tents, were expected to keep their quarters spotless, trained in rifle exercises, and attended mandatory religious instruction. The camp was as much a bootcamp as it was a summer getaway.
Camp attendees playing in a concert band
Wanamaker sympathized with his workers and contributed to their enrichment more than the average Gilded Age tycoon. His motivation for creating the institution and camp, however, was not purely public-spirited. Wanamaker was vehemently anti-union, and the military-style indoctrination of young employees helped preempt labor organizing by providing them with a group identity and access to recreational activities.
 Competition trophies in front of one of the camp’s military style tents
Signature Image: 

Explore Philly app on smartphone

Explore the the African-American struggle for freedom and equality through a mobile-friendly walking tour developed by Philadelphia high school students.


Subscribe to Historical Society of Pennsylvania RSS