In 1950, Muriel Fox applied for a job with the world’s largest public relations firm, in New York. “We don’t hire women writers,” she was told. Months later, she got her foot in the door. In 1956, she became the youngest vice-president of Carl Byoir and Associates. Then she was told she couldn’t progress further because corporate chief executives “can’t relate to women.”
Fox joined the vanguard of the modern feminist movement, helping millions of women. Famously, she composed a letter that Betty Friedan, first president of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and author of The Feminine Mystique, sent to President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, helping persuade him to extend his federal affirmative action order mandating equal opportunities in employment to cover gender as well as race and religion.
In 1979, Fox became executive vice-president of Byoir. On Friday, celebrating the 50th anniversary of NOW, which she helped to set up, she had a message for second-wave feminist activists now reaching retirement age: “You’re not done.”
A group of veterans are starting a new grassroots movement, urging women in their 60s and 70s to return to frontline activism. They want baby boomers to bring their experience, resources and newfound spare time back to causes for which they once fought – especially those still unsecured, such as equal pay, childcare provision and reproductive rights.
They also aim to give a leg-up to young women who may be fluent in social media but less experienced in lobbying for legislation. “I hope the young people from the colleges and high schools are going to carry the torch,” Fox told the Guardian. “Our generation were the pioneers, we were confident in our abilities when we started this revolution in the 60s … and we have to keep on fighting, together.”
The new movement is the brainchild of Pam Ross, treasurer of Veteran Feminists of America, who was born the year Fox got that job at Byoir. In the 1970s, Ross joined the second wave of the women’s rights movement. She announced on Friday that she intends to name her founding group of leaders the Muriel Fox Committee.
Fox juggled protest and lobbying with the demands of her career: at 88, she is still an activist. Of course, one baby boomer who has declined to retire is Hillary Clinton, America’s first female presumptive presidential nominee from a leading party. “It seems very hopeful,” Fox said of Clinton’s candidacy.
She also reflected on 50 years of milestones towards equality. “The revolution really started with us and the founding of NOW,” she said. When Betty Friedan became the founding president of NOW, Fox became its PR director. She was later vice-president and chairwoman.
Friedan had been a household name since the publication of The Feminine Mystique, in 1963. An instant classic, the book identified a burgeoning anger over the assumption that white women were meant to be suburban housewives with children and a breadwinner husband. Friedan died in 2006, at the age of 85. Fox is one of the last founders of NOW still alive. She recalled their milestone letter to Johnson and the effect of his extending executive order 11246 to cover women. “It opened the pipeline for millions of women to get into the job market,” she said. “Did that take jobs from men? Well, it deprived them of affirmative action for white men, from then on they had to compete!”
She also battled for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to enforce Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which barred workplace bias against women. “They were just treating sex discrimination as frivolous,” she said. Classified job adverts that specified gender were another campaign target. “We liked to say we ‘de-sexegated’ help wanted ads. We fought very, very hard for that one. It was a big victory,” Fox said.
She mentioned Title IX from 1972, which barred sex discrimination in education. In 1974, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act allowed women to apply for their own credit cards. It took the supreme court to legalize abortion in the US, in Roe v Wade from 1973.
Now Fox is watching as conservative legislatures in many states effect stringent new restrictions on women’s access to abortion. A supreme court ruling in one of the most significant abortion rights cases in decades is expected on Monday. “It’s regrettable what the religious right is doing,” she said. “And they have been taken advantage of by the Republicans to support their own agenda. We just have to keep on fighting.”
But perhaps second-wave feminism’s most resounding defeat was the collapse of the long-awaited Equal Rights Amendment, designed to protect gender equality under the US constitution. It was passed by Congress in 1972 but, on the verge of victory, crumbled after failing to be ratified by enough states. It remains a holy grail for campaigners.