Karen DeCrow, president of the National Organization for Women, shouts to a crowd during a NOW parade held in Philadelphia, Oct. 25, 1975.
Bill Ingraham/AP

Karen DeCrow, former NOW president, dies at 76

Karen DeCrow, a former president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), who litigated sex discrimination cases and fought for women’s equal access to college sports, died Friday at age 76. 

DeCrow’s initial interest in women’s liberation was practical: She found out while working in publishing in the 1960s that she was making less money than her male counterparts. “I wasn’t a feminist,” DeCrow told The New York Times in 1975. “I just wanted more money.”

“I wasn’t a feminist. I just wanted more money.”
Karen DeCrow in 1975

But by 1968, she was suing bars and taverns for refusing to let in “unescorted women.” She also became the first woman to run for mayor of Syracuse.

Though NOW is generally associated with a more establishment, reformist approach to feminism, DeCrow successfully became its president in 1974 with the slogan “Out of the mainstream, into the revolution.” By then, she had already written a book called “The Young Woman’s Guide to Liberation: Alternatives to a Half-Life While the Choice is Still Yours,” and she would go on to write several more.

DeCrow’s leadership of NOW was consumed by the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, which held that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” It was passed by both houses of Congress, but was never ratified by enough states to become a constitutional amendment, thanks to a ferocious opposition campaign.

“Being a feminist means you are against sexism, not against sex.”
Karen DeCrow
Opponents of the ERA warned that it would strengthen abortion rights (including federal funding of the procedure), eliminate gender-specific bathrooms, bring women into military combat, and allow gays and lesbians to marry and adopt. Chief among those opponents was Phyllis Schlafly, whom DeCrow personally debated over 80 times.

In 1986, DeCrow took a stand in the fierce intra-feminist argument about pornography – by writing an article in Penthouse. “Being a feminist means you are against sexism, not against sex,” she wrote. 

In 2009, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.