NEW YORK -- It was Christmas Eve, 1966. Betty Crocker was on the wane, and Betty Friedan, on the rise, was spending the day in a federal courthouse making demands on behalf of women flight attendants and being interrogated on the membership of the National Organization for Women.
The flight attendant case was one for the textbooks, and Friedan and her sisters-in-spirit -- who formed NOW 25 years ago this month -- latched onto it with zeal. At issue was the airlines' practice of hiring nubile women, having them pass out peanuts and smile like those on the "fly me" commercials, then forcing them to resign when they hit 30.
Two years before, the Civil Rights Act had prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex as well as race. But until the flight attendant case, the act's sex-discrimination clause had not been taken seriously.
During the Christmas Eve hearing, lawyers from the airlines demanded that Friedan hand over NOW's secret membership list. She refused. For the rest of the hearing Friedan wondered why the airlines seemed to be going to such lengths to prevent a sex-discrimination finding.
It was not until after she left the courthouse -- the case having been resolved in favor of the flight attendants -- that it dawned on her, Friedan later wrote. By forcing their employees to resign at a young age, the companies were saving a bundle on raises, pensions and Social Security contributions. Sex discrimination was a big business indeed.
With that salvo, the new members of NOW, who had thought that their war for equality would be fought against the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which they blamed for not pressing sex-discrimination cases, took up arms against the economic interests of corporate America as well.
This weekend -- 25 years after 28 women crammed into Friedan's Washington ho
tel room and decided to form an "NAACP for women" -- NOW will hold a national conference here. The organization is also sponsoring a rally tomorrow to protest the Supreme Court ruling that prohibits doctors in clinics that receive federal funding from discussing abortion with their patients.
More than 3,000 members are expected to come to the conference to discuss such things as the recent abortion rulings; whether to form a political party for women, minorities and the labor class; and how to rebuild the membership of some chapters.