Women's Strike for Equality

Jonathan Friedan, Betty Friedan’s middle child (and my third cousin), spent much of August 1970 fighting forest fires in Washington State.

When his backpack was stolen, the 17-year-old hitchhiked back to New York City. His mother divorced the year before and moved to an apartment on West 93rd Street. Jonathan happened to come home while she was in the final stage of planning a march down Fifth Avenue. “I had no idea what was going on,” he told me recently.

The previous spring, Friedan decided she wanted to mark Aug. 26, 1970, the 50th anniversary of the constitutional ratification of women’s right to vote, with a major event to show that the promise of equality had not been achieved. She floated the idea at the fourth annual meeting of the National Organization for Women, which she had helped found. Her audience cringed, fearful of a flop.

DON'T iron while the strike is hot," advised the slogan of the Women's Strike for Equality. No one knows how many shirts lay wrinkling in laundry baskets last week as thousands of women across the country turned out for the first big demonstration of the Women's Liberation movement. The strike, on the 50th anniversary of the proclamation of the women's suffrage amendment, drew small crowds by antiwar or civil rights standards, yet was easily the largest women's rights rally since the suffrage protests.

Barefoot and Pregnant. The day's crowds ranged in size from as many as 20,000 marchers on New York's Fifth Avenue to four women hurling eggs at a Pittsburgh radio station whose disk jockey had dared protesters to flaunt their liberation. In nearly half a dozen cities, women swept past headwaiters to "liberate" all-male bars and restaurants. At the Detroit Free Press, women staffers, angered because male reporters had two washrooms while they had only one, stormed one of the men's rooms, ousted its inhabitants and occupied it for the rest of the day.

The Women’s Strike for Equality was organized by the National Organization for Women (NOW) and its then-president Betty Friedan. At a NOW conference in March 1970, Betty Friedan called for the Strike for Equality, asking women to stop working for a day to draw attention to the prevalent problem of unequal pay for women’s work. She then headed the National Women’s Strike Coalition to organize the protest, which used “Don’t Iron While the Strike is Hot!” among other slogans.