Dolores Alexander was with NOW during its early days, when national membership could be counted in the hundreds, not the half a million it has today. In marking her birthday on August 10, 1931, we must look into the past of the National Organization for Women. Most organizations must change if they wish to last for decades, but the pace of that change in the language, attitudes, and directions of founders can strike later audiences as naïve or insulting.
Dolores Alexander was born into an Italian Catholic family in Newark, New Jersey in 1931. Her feminist roots go back to those days, when, as a bright girl, she experienced sexism firsthand.
She earned a Bachelor of Arts in Language and Literature from City College of New York in 1961. During her senior year, Alexander worked a 10-month internship at the New York Times, the beginning of her journalism career. During her senior year, Alexander worked a 10-month internship at the New York Times, the beginning of her journalism career. However, she discovered that women were not hired for jobs at the Times after their internships. Alexander returned to Newark, where she worked her way up to bureau chief of the Newark Evening News (1961-1964). It was after proving herself that she moved up through the ranks to assistant women's editor at Newsday and became a feature writer for its weekend magazine until 1969.
Alexander had a feeling she might be a lesbian—but like many women of her time, she got married, though she did so after her bachelor’s degree and remained fairly independent through the short five years it lasted.
Alexander was working at Newsday when she found a press release about a new organization for feminist women. She interviewed Betty Friedan, who is credited with creating the name NOW.
NOW was founded at the Third National Conference of Commissions on the Status of Women from June 28-30, 1966. The group of 28 women who attended were frustrated by the structure of the meeting and the lack of direct action. Even today, reading NOW’s initial Statement of Purpose, we see an unapologetic feminist group promoting a liberal agenda for women’s equality through existing governmental and social institutions. While economic and racial inequalities are mentioned in that document, sex is only discussed as it relates to procreation and child care.
Alexander’s work with Newsday and her interview with Friedan opened the door to Alexander’s feminist activism. She first spoke with the women in the newsroom at Newsday and inspired every one of them to join the new organization. Next, she was chair of the Monitor Subcommittee of the National Task Force on Image of Women in Mass Media, part of NOW established in 1967. With others on the subcommittee, Alexander joined the project to gender-integrate want ads in newspapers; this is the reason today’s classified ads don’t advertise “Jobs for Men” and “Jobs for Women.” From 1967-1968, she helped establish the New York City chapter of NOW. In 1969, Alexander became the first executive director of NOW, as well as the editor of the newsletter NOW Acts.
By 1970, Alexander and several other prominent women from the East Coast were asked to leave their positions in NOW. Alexander believed there was a “lesbian purge” within the organization. However, it was through NOW that Alexander met out lesbians for the first time, working together on women’s causes, but seeing discomfort among some of the other members—and in particular, hostility from Freidan. While she did not yet identify as a lesbian, Alexander was accused of being one, and some of her work as executive director was handed over to others. Feeling targeted, she left NOW.
Leaving NOW was far from the end of Dolores Alexander’s feminist activism. She became involved with New York Radical Feminists and worked on their “speakouts,” public forums on issues.
In 1972, Alexander co-founded Mother Courage, a feminist restaurant, with Jill Ward, her lover and also a former member of NOW. Restaurants had offered the Suffragettes places to meet and plan, and they served the same purpose in the 1970s and beyond.
The restaurant became a place for feminists to learn from each other in a place where others could experience dining without patriarchal mores dominating. Alexander didn’t find the restaurant business to her liking and returned to part-time journalism after about three years of co-running Mother Courage. The restaurant was popular with feminists, the art crowd, and women dining alone, yet it closed in 1977 after co-founder Ward burned out (as did their relationship, though later they became best friends). [Alongside this paragraph please insert Mother Courage AP Photo with this “Associated Press Wirephoto, May 18, 1975” under it]
Alexander participated in other women’s rights conferences, but she may be best known as one of the founders of Women Against Pornography in 1978-79. This group was one of several participants in the culture wars beginning in the 1970s, an outgrowth of radical feminist consciousness-raising tenets applied to academic and social critiques and the protesting tactics of many groups until it declined and disappeared in 1997. Alexander, however, only stayed with Women Against Pornography until 1983, when she burned out on the stress of fundraising for a cause versus working for a living at Time. She remained a member of several lesbian and feminist groups over the years but became picky about what she’d directly aid. One of the rare organizations she embraced was the North Fork Women for Women Fund in Florida.
NOW has changed over the years and continues to change, embracing a far wider vision of equality than it did during Dolores Alexander’s tenure. In 1971, NOW expanded written policies to include lesbians and continued to take explicit stands for non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity over the years.
Alexander died in 2008, five years after the first legal gay marriage in the United States. She never remarried and seemed content to allow the younger generations to develop a new type of feminism and activism, often unknowingly building upon her and other Second Wave activists’ work.