In 1870, renowned founder and leader of the women’s suffrage movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, delivered her famous “Our Girls” speech before the students and faculty of Miami University. Her brother in law, Robert Brewster Stanton, was a renowned abolitionist, President of the University, and earned less per anum than his sister in law did from a single speaking engagement at a small liberal arts college in southwest Ohio. By the end of WWII, the momentum that had produced the Nineteenth Amendment allowing women access to the franchise had died away. The post-war boom and the pervasiveness of companionate marriages had relegated women back into the private sphere. In 1963 Betty Friedan published her bestseller The Feminine Mystique, which, although problematic in today’s terms, shocked the American public by arguing that a woman did not find fulfillment and satisfaction purely in the home. A year later the Civil Rights act, which protected against employee discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion and nation of origin reinvigorated the women’s movement and produced a second wave of feminist activism. All of America had seen the images on television—the abuse of black bodies, the fog of tear gas against the Birmingham skyline. Three dead boys unearthed in a construction site and dubbed the “Mississippi Three.” Civil injustice blared out of every screen and radio wire. If African Americans in the Jim Crow South could make strides toward political and social liberation from the constraints of the past, certainly so could women.
The National Organization for Women was founded in Washington, D.C. in 1966 at the Third National Conference of Commissions on the Status of Women. Their purpose was to reinforce Title VII of the hard-won Civil Rights Act. The suffragettes of the 19th and 20th centuries had fought largely for access to the franchise, although they were also involved in various social welfare causes. Second wave feminism was concerned not only with preserving the accomplishments of the past, but in taking strides toward the elimination of the sexist language, the wage gap, the policing of women’s bodies and domestic and interpersonal violence, and most of all the passing of legislation. Their ultimate goal was the creation of laws that promoted and protected the rights of women in the work place, at the ballot box and within their personal lives. These hopes would culminate in one major piece of legislation, the Equal Rights Amendment Act.
Before long, regional and local chapters of the National Organization for Women were springing up across the country. The first local NOW chapter was chartered in Hamilton, Ohio in 1973 as Butler County NOW. It began as a consciousness-raising group for a few women interested in learning more about the larger women’s movement. Butler County NOW quickly grew into an accomplished and active chapter. They formed the first battered women’s shelter in the state of Ohio, now an affiliate of the Hamilton YWCA, promoted local women business owners, pressured local media outlets for coverage of women’s issues, established the first rape crisis hotline and counseling center in Butler County, and participated in national NOW conferences.
According to Joanne McQueen, founding member of both the Butler County and Miami-Oxford NOW chapters, living and operating in small-town Ohio did not diffuse their ties to their parent organization, National NOW, or to the women’s movement as a whole. “I felt like I was part of the women’s movement in this country, a national women’s movement, and I was doing my part through Butler County NOW.” They were a part of the momentum of the nation as well as a welcome disruption. “It was happening all over the country, and it was being covered by the media so also we had power…I remember thinking, i don’t know if I was contacting a newspaper or a radio station, but all I had to say was my name and that i was from Butler County NOW and boy they paid attention. I think they were afraid, afraid that we might boycott them or pick at them, or write letters to the editor about them, but we had power for a while as all these changes were being made in the country.”
In 1979 the University tentatively introduced the first Women’s Studies program, in keeping with other major universities across the country. Students formed women’s interest groups mirroring the goals and structure of organizations like NOW, the most active of which was the Association of Women Students, known as F-Word in its current manifestation. However, Oxford students still lacked access to Butler County NOW. The university did not provide public transport between Oxford and Fairfield or Hamilton, leaving students with no way to engage with the larger local or national feminist community. The University also lacked rape crisis referral or counseling services for students. Doctors at McCullough-Hyde Memorial Hospital in Oxford had never been instructed in how to properly administer a rape kit. Economic downturn and the closure of the local General Electric plant had resulted in Butler County having the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in Ohio. Something had to be done.
Two of the original members from the Butler County chapter, local business owner Joanne McQueen and Dr. Kathy McMahon-Klosterman, professor of educational psychology at Miami University, recognized the opportunity to open an Oxford chapter. They had already embraced the challenge of establishing one chapter and used their administrative skill and experience to charter a second. According to McMahon-Klosterman, “We knew what we wanted to do. The rest was just agenda setting.” The first meeting of the Miami-Oxford NOW was held early in 1979 in the basement of the Campus Ministry Building. The goals and values of the new chapter were in keeping those of Butler County and National NOW organizations. However, as an affiliate of the university, Miami-Oxford NOW members were tasked with addressing both larger, theoretical issues of women’s equality as well as serving the needs of the student body.