Karen DeCrow dies at 76; former NOW president led push for ERA and pay equity

June 7

Karen DeCrow, president of the National Organization for Women during the transformative 1970s, when she championed the national movement for the Equal Rights Amendment and for greater opportunities for women and girls in sports, died June 6 at her home in Jamesville, N.Y., near Syracuse. She was 76.

Her death was announced by Rowena Malamud, president of the Greater Syracuse chapter of NOW. The cause was melanoma.

When Ms. DeCrow became president of NOW in 1974, she was named one of the country’s 200 most important leaders of the future by Time magazine. She was the third leader of the national women’s rights group and became the first to visit the White House, when Gerald R. Ford was president.

Ms. DeCrow, who began her career in journalism and publishing, became interested in feminist causes in the 1960s, when she learned that men at her company were paid more than women. The principle of equal pay for equal work — which remains an unresolved issue more than 40 years later — led Ms. DeCrow to join the newly formed National Organization for Women in 1967.

She later became a civil rights lawyer, focusing on pay equity and other issues, and published several influential books, including “The Young Woman’s Guide to Liberation” (1971), “Corporate Wives, Corporate Casualties” (1973) and “Sexist Justice” (1974).


NOW President Karen DeCrow shouts to a crowd during a NOW parade held in Philadelphia in 1975 kicking off the group’sr national convention there. (Bill Ingraham/Associated Press)

During her three-year tenure as NOW president, from 1974 to 1977, the women’s movement was near its height. There was growing recognition in the courts and the workplace for the rights of women, and the Equal Rights Amendment seemed well on its way toward passage.

Ms. DeCrow, who held the presidency without drawing a salary, led an effort to enforce Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which guaranteed equal opportunities in sports and education to girls and women.

“When I was in school there was no such thing as girls’ athletics,” Ms. DeCrow told the Syracuse Post-Standard in 2006. Today, Title IX has led to a proliferation of women’s participation in sports at every level.

She put pressure on the major television networks and NASA to hire and promote more women. She helped lead the “Take Back the Night” movement, which protested violence against women.

“Everyone laughed at us and made fun of us and ignored us,” Ms. DeCrow told the Christian Science Monitor in 2006, describing the women’s movement’s struggles at the time. “When it seemed we were making progress, they attacked us. It wasn’t like the doors were open: ‘Oh girls, come in. We’re so glad you’re calling attention to the fact that there are no women astronauts in the NASA program.’ We had barriers everywhere. But it was exciting.”

In 1972, both houses of Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment. Ms. DeCrow traveled across the country to rally support for what would have been the 27th Amendment, which stated 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.”

The approval of legislatures in three-quarters of the states — 38 of 50 — was required for the amendment to become enshrined in the Constitution. In January 1975, with only five more states needed to approve the ERA, Ms. DeCrow predicted that it would be ratified by April of that year.

But opposition from conservative groups, led by activist Phyllis Schlafly, slowed the ERA bandwagon. In 1977, Indiana became the 35th and last state to approve the ERA.

Most Southern states voted against the amendment, prompting Ms. DeCrow to criticize attitudes that she said were reminiscent of the “old South.” A 10-year time limit for ratification of the amendment expired in 1982.

During more than 80 debates on the lecture circuit, Ms. DeCrow opposed Schlafly on every substantive matter but developed a grudging respect for her longtime nemesis.

“Phyllis is smart, so it was fun to be on the program with her,” Ms. DeCrow told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2005. “I never found Phyllis to be unpleasant, unfriendly or uncooperative.”

In 1988, Ms. DeCrow helped found World Woman Watch, an international movement to promote female empowerment in countries where women’s rights were blocked by religion and male-dominated culture.

While attending an international conference in Moscow in 1975, she angered Soviet officials who wanted her to say “how wonderful it is for Soviet women.” Instead, she was asked to remove portions of a speech critical of Soviet treatment of women.

“These people not only don’t believe in the right to dissent, they don’t understand it,” Ms. DeCrow told the New York Times. “It’s more sexist than the United States, I’m telling you. It’s better in the U.S., where at least lip service is paid to the problem.”

Karen Lipschultz was born Dec. 18, 1937, in Chicago. Her father was a businessman and her mother had been a professional dancer.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1959 from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., she found it hard to find a job and reluctantly ended up as the fashion editor of Golf Digest magazine. She worked in journalism and publishing before enrolling in law school at Syracuse University, from which she graduated in 1972.

Ms. DeCrow always maintained that the women’s movement was not just for women and, in 1994, titled one of her books “Good Will Toward Men.”

She often appeared on television and contributed articles to many publications, from USA Today and The Washington Post to Vogue and Penthouse. She wrote a weekly newspaper column in Syracuse, was honored by the American Civil Liberties Union in 1985 and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2009.

She continued her legal work and writing on behalf of women’s rights until shortly before her death.

“I never encounter a female in her 20s who doesn’t plan on having a career,” Ms. DeCrow said in 2006. “That’s all thanks to the feminist movement.”

Her marriages to Alexander Kolben and Roger DeCrow ended in divorce. Survivors include a sister.

Ms. DeCrow sometimes reflected on the deeper understanding and changing perspective brought by age.

“As I grow older,” she wrote in the New York Times in 1988, “I become more and more of a Marxist — Groucho, that is. When you have lived two-thirds of your life, you know the value of a good joke.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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