Feminist Trailblazer

Muriel Fox ’48 battled for equality on picket lines and in boardrooms alongside better-known icons of the women’s movement

By Jennifer Altmann

Fifty years ago, a few dozen women gathered in a basement in Washington, D.C., to make history: they convened the first meeting of the National Organization for Women. In a photo of that day in 1966, Muriel Fox ’48 is a few seats away from Betty Friedan, NOW’s president, befitting her role as Friedan’s chief lieutenant and the central part she would play in many of the most critical battles of the women’s rights movement.

When hundreds of women and men assembled this summer to celebrate NOW’s 50th anniversary, Fox was lauded for “having a remarkable vision of what was possible and the commitment to carry it out,” says NOW president Terry O’Neill, who presented her with the Woman of Vision Award. Fox, who is 88, looks back on those days with wonder. She recalls conversations with her lifelong friend Friedan, who died in 2006, in which “Betty and I used to say, ‘Did we ever dream it would happen so fast?’”

Fox grew up in Newark, N.J., the daughter of a grocer and a housewife: “My mother never had an opportunity to fulfill herself. She was a very unhappy person. In those days, half the population was required to take one occupation: housewife. She was terrible at it. I was determined I wasn’t going to live that life.”

Photograph by Dorothy Hong

 After two years at Rollins College in Florida, Fox transferred to Barnard because, she says, “I wanted the New York City experience.” She fed her interest in journalism by serving as news editor at WKCR, Columbia’s radio station.

 A few years after graduation, she applied for a job in the New York office of the public relations agency Carl Byoir and Associates and was told, “We don’t hire women writers.” She persisted, eventually landing a position, and at 26 became the firm’s youngest vice president and one of the few prominent women there. She recalls a photo from an executive retreat at that time — “It was 36 men and me.”

 In 1963, she invited Friedan to speak about her new book, The Feminine Mystique , to an organization for women in the media. A few years later, Friedan asked Fox to help launch NOW. Fox became operations director, orchestrating a publicity effort that introduced the modern women’s movement to the world.

 By then, Fox had married Shepard Aronson, an internist, and had two children. She juggled a demanding career requiring frequent travel with a passionate commitment to the women’s movement. “She put everything on the line—as a mother, a wife, and a professional,” says Penny Stoil, who runs a fundraising organization with which Fox worked. “She managed somehow to keep it all going.”

 Fox credits her happy 48-year marriage with empowering her to accomplish so much. Her husband, who died in 2003, was so supportive that he went to D.C. with her for NOW’s founding meeting, taking the children to a museum while she was busy. He was also chair of NOW’s New York chapter. “People used to ask him, ‘What’s a successful doctor like you doing in the women’s movement?’” Fox recalls. “He said, ‘I want my wife to make more money.’” 

Their daughter, Lisa Fontes, recalls icons such as Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug as fixtures at “the roaring battles in our living room” during meetings held there throughout her childhood. Her mother “always served as an example,” Fontes says. “I never doubted that individuals could help change the world.”

 Fox was a crucial force in many of NOW’s biggest battles. She wrote the letter that persuaded President Lyndon Johnson to sign Executive Order 11246, which added “sex” to affirmative action and opened up millions of corporate jobs to women. A letter she penned for Friedan to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission asked that sex-segregated help wanted ads be prohibited, leading to one of NOW’s early victories. “A lot of women can’t believe ads said, ‘help wanted male’ and ‘help wanted female,’” Fox says. “We picketed The New York Times . It was one of our bitterest fights.”

Fox also helped organize NOW’s strike at the Plaza Hotel’s Oak Room in 1969, during which women descended on the restaurant demanding service. They wore fur coats to “look as if we belonged,” says Fox, who had tried to have lunch there and was told they didn’t allow women.

She usually recused herself when clients of her firm became involved in disputes with NOW, but she jumped in to broker a compromise when NOW threatened a boycott over the lack of female role models on Sesame Street , which was a client of Fox’s firm. Sesame Street agreed to make changes, Fox recalls.

Though Fox was a major player in many of NOW’s seminal battles, she is not as well known as other feminists because she stayed out of the limelight to protect her career. “I stayed in the background,” she says. “I wrote a lot of letters that Betty signed.” Even as a behind-the-scenes player, Fox knew working with NOW could create situations that might put her job at risk, “but I thought I’d do it anyway because it was so important,” she says.

  She used her public relations skills to help bring companies around on women’s issues. “She was an ambassador to corporate America,” Stoil says. “She knew how to talk to them, and she was persuasive.”

Today, Fox remains as energetic as ever. She lives at the Kendal on Hudson retirement community near Tarrytown, N.Y., where she served on the residents council and started a ping pong club. She is chair of the board of Veteran Feminists of America, which documents the achievements of the women’s movement. And she has passed on her penchant for activism: a grandson is a member of his college’s women’s rights club and a granddaughter is a labor union organizer.

Looking back, Fox is awed by what the movement accomplished, not just its leaders but “the tens of thousands of women and men” who participated. “For thousands of years, women were the chattel of men, and in our lifetime that concept has changed in many societies,” Fox says. “We changed the world, and that’s very satisfying.” •

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