The Feminist Trailblazer: How Muriel Fox Used Public Relations to Change the World

On Mother's Day in 1980, Rollins alumna and National Organization for Women (NOW) cofounder Muriel Fox participated in a march for the Equal Rights Amendment in Chicago, Illinois.

[Editor's Note: This piece was created by Jared Meade on behalf of the Museum of Public Relations in honor of Women's History Month.]

With the power of public relations in their hands, practitioners can change the world.

It might appear like a lofty claim, but the reality is that PR practitioners have always been at the forefront of significant societal changes. These profound changes are now perceived as customary by those who have benefited from them.

One of those names is Muriel Fox, a feminist activist and public relations executive who helped give voice to a generation during the women's rights movement in the '60s, alongside the civil rights and anti-war movements. Muriel will share her story during the Museum of PR’s 8th Annual "PR Women Who Changed History" event on Thurs., March 14, at 6 p.m. ET. Dr. Caryn Medved from Baruch College will interview Muriel about her life and her perspective on the current state of women's rights. Read on to learn more about Muriel and her impact.

Early Life and Career

Muriel's journey began in 1928 in Newark, N.J., where she was born to M. Morris, a grocer, and Anne (Rubenstein) Fox, a housewife. Her path led her to Rollins College in Florida for two years before she transferred to Barnard College in 1948, driven by her desire to experience New York City. At Barnard, she honed her skills as a news editor for WKCR, Columbia University's radio station.

Muriel worked as an advertising copywriter for Sears Roebuck after completing college. She later joined Tom Jefferson & Associates in Miami, Florida, where she worked as a publicist. During her tenure, she led the Dade County re-election campaign of Sen. Claude Pepper and played a pivotal role in the successful election of Miami mayor William M. Wolfarth in 1949.

When Muriel applied for a writing position at Carl Byoir and Associates, one of the world’s largest public relations agencies at the time, it was a significant step towards advancing her career. She was immediately rejected and told, "Women aren't writers here. They're secretaries.” But Muriel persisted and was finally hired. She rose quickly through the male-dominated ranks, becoming one of only a few prominent women and the firm’s youngest vice president at 26. She eventually became an executive vice president at Byoir—earning the same position as the man who initially rejected her because she was a woman.

Muriel remained with the Byoir agency until she retired in 1985.

Feminist Activism

The seeds of Muriel's feminist activism were sown in her childhood while observing her mother. In an interview with Barnard's alumni magazine, she shared, “My mother never had the 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.”

In 1963, she met and invited feminist author Betty Friedan to speak to an organization for women in the media about her book, “The Feminine Mystique.” Three short years later, Friedan asked Fox to assist in launching the National Organization for Women (NOW). As co-founder and PR chair, Muriel issued NOW’s first press release announcing the organization's plans to work for “true equality for all women in America” and “a fully equal partnership of the sexes, as part of the worldwide revolution of human rights.”

The Museum of PR received Muriel's original copy of this release in 2014, which quickly became one of the most popular exhibits in the collection.

Although many feminist history enthusiasts may not recognize Muriel’s name, she was a driving force behind many of NOW’s significant battles. From writing the letter persuading President Lyndon Johnson to sign Executive Order 11246, which added “sex” to affirmative action, penning a letter for Friedan to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission asking for the prohibition of sex-segregated help wanted ads to organizing a strike at the Plaza Hotel’s Oak Room after she tried to have lunch there and was told women weren’t allowed.

Muriel believed that her work with NOW was important, but she chose to remain out of the public eye to protect her career and would recuse herself if any clients found themselves in a dispute with NOW. But she also wasn’t afraid for the two halves of her life to meet, if need be, as evident when she organized a meeting between NOW and Byoir client Sesame Street halting a planned boycott over the lack of female role models after Sesame Street agreed to make changes.

Muriel retired as NOW’s PR VP in 1969, but her commitment to the cause of women's rights was unwavering. She co-chaired a task force on Women's Goals alongside Oregon state Sen. Maurine Neuberger from 1965 to 68 for then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey. She was also the co-founder of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, the United States' first and longest-serving legal advocacy group for women. Furthermore, she co-founded the Women's Forum of New York and served as its second president. She chaired the board of Veteran Feminists of America, raised millions of dollars for feminist causes and traveled around the world to lecture on feminism. Additionally, she was a senior editor of the book "Feminists Who Changed America.”

Her Legacy

Today, at the age of 96, Muriel's legacy is not finished. Her contribution to the feminist movement and her commitment to women's rights continue to inspire and impact generations to come. Although some may not be aware of her groundbreaking work, they will never be able to deny having benefited from it.

Jared Meade is AVP, Meehan Business Advisers and Founder and Principal, Rayne Strategy Group. He writes this piece on behalf of the Museum of PR.