12: The Women's Rights Movement
Beginning in the mid-1800s, American women became involved in social reform movements in greater numbers than ever before. They participated in the struggle to abolish slavery, the battle to outlaw alcohol (known as the temperance movement), the effort to ban child labor, and several other missions. Many women became very passionate about these movements, devoting a great deal of time and effort to them. To their disappointment, however, they found that their roles in reform organizations were quite restricted, just as in general society. Women were limited to behind-the-scenes activities, prevented from voting or public speaking at organizational meetings.
Some women accepted their status, but many others rebelled against it. More and more women came to realize that, in order to be effective social reformers, they would first need to acquire legal rights as women. In 1848 a group of women organized the Seneca Falls Convention in New York. It was the nation's first gathering devoted to the rights of women. Thus, the women's rights movement was born. In its early years, the movement's primary goal was obtaining women's suffrage, or the right to vote.
A little more than one hundred years later, history repeated itself. During the 1960s, many Americans became intensely involved in various social reform movements, dedicated to the idea of achieving social change. The civil rights movement, begun in the mid-1950s, was making significant progress in the struggle for equal rights for African Americans. The New Left, a radical movement for political and social change comprised primarily of college students, promoted a set of values that were dramatically different from those of older generations. The antiwar movement, also attracting large numbers on college campuses, expressed outrage over U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
To their frustration, women found, just as female activists had a century earlier, that the men in these social reform movements were Page 374 | Top of Articlereluctant to give women any substantial power. Like the male activists, women were willing to devote themselves, sometimes at great personal risk, to their cause. However, they were often relegated to low-level positions within their organizations. Reflecting the power structure of the larger society, activist organizations generally placed men in positions of leadership and decision-making. Many women concluded that they needed to concentrate on the fight for their own equality. Once again, a women's rights movement was formed.
The women's rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s sought significant improvements in women's legal, economic, and political rights. The changes brought about by the women's rights movement, also known as the women's liberation movement, have affected nearly every aspect of women's lives, including education, marriage, reproduction, work, and health.
The first wave: The movement for women's suffrage
The Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 launched a seventy-two year campaign for women's suffrage and other legal rights. The movement's early leaders, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) and Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906), did not live to see women obtain voting rights, but they did preside over other victories. One of the goals of the women's rights movement was to persuade state lawmakers to change property laws. According to these laws, married women had very few rights. Everything they had belonged to their husbands, including any money or property inherited from their families or money they had earned themselves. Women could only divorce their husbands in cases of extreme abuse or neglect. And when divorce did occur, women had no legal right to guardianship of their children. In 1860, after intensive campaigning, the leaders of the women's rights movement saw the passage of the Married Women's Property Act in New York. This significant legislation gave married women a number of rights, including the ability to own, buy, and sell property. Over the next few decades, many other states passed similar laws.
Within their lifetimes, Stanton and Anthony witnessed changing attitudes toward the abilities and roles of women. They saw a dramatic increase in the number of women obtaining a high school, and even college, education. They also observed a rise in the number of women joining the workforce. However, it was their successors—including such notable leaders as Alice Paul (1885–1977), Carrie Chapman Catt (1859–1947), and Harriot Stanton Blatch (1856–1940), daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton—who would help realize the ultimate goal: the right to vote. The fight was long and often bitter, and victory required a combination of strategies. At long last, Congress approved the Nineteenth Amendment, granting women full voting rights. The amendment was ratified by the required number of states and became law in 1920.
Leaders of the women's suffrage movement thought that earning the right to vote would lead to dramatic changes for women, for society, and for politics, but change came slowly and in small increments. For example, women did not vote in numbers equal to that of men until the 1950s. Although activists in the women's movement felt sure that women would use their vote to bring about radical social change, it turned out that most women were reluctant to depart from the mainstream and often voted in line with their husbands.
After the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, some of the suffrage leaders considered that battle to be over and concentrated their efforts on other social issues. Alice Paul, however, viewed the right to vote not as the end of the struggle but as a necessary first step toward gender equality. She urged her followers to join her in supporting the passage of a new federal amendment: an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Paul recognized that many laws treated women differently from men, presuming women to be weaker than and intellectually inferior to men. With the equal rights amendment, which she wrote in 1921, Paul set out to change Page 377 | Top of Articlethose laws. She strongly believed that men and women should be treated equally under the law. Paul first submitted the ERA to Congress in 1923. The amendment was considered in every session of Congress for decades afterward, but it took a major push from the second wave of the women's movement, that of the 1960s and 1970s, before the ERA earned significant congressional backing.
The Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression
During the 1920s, often characterized as the Roaring Twenties or the Jazz Age, the social restrictions on women loosened a bit. This change resulted from a variety of factors, including the newfound right to vote. In addition, the experience of working outside the home or, for some, going to college gave women a greater sense of freedom and higher expectations. Many Americans experienced increased prosperity in the 1920s, and many others had the illusion of prosperity as the practice of buying goods on credit became widespread. Companies manufactured cars, household appliances, and other consumer goods at a rapid rate. Advances in technology meant that more and more people had radios and telephones, devices that helped to open up their worlds.
Furthermore, 1920 marked the beginning of the Prohibition era, a thirteen-year period when it was illegal to make, sell, or transport alcoholic beverages. In a sort of national rebellion, this law was widely ignored by ordinarily law-abiding citizens. Whereas the pre-Prohibition saloons had been frequented primarily by men, the speakeasies (illegal bars that could only be entered by uttering a secret password) attracted crowds of men and women from all walks of life. The nation was swept by a passion for social dancing, and many people spent their free time at ballrooms and dance halls doing the Charleston or the Lindy. In earlier decades, the notion of women dancing, drinking, or smoking in public would have been shocking to most Americans, but during the 1920s such behavior became far more commonplace.
These trends were accompanied by changes in fashion. Women's clothing became less restrictive and was made of lighter materials. Hem lengths shortened, as did women's hair, with a short bob becoming the new fad. Cosmetics styles changed as well, with women wearing more, and more dramatic, makeup, including white face powder, black eyeliner, and bold red lipstick. These trends are all represented in the popular 1920sera image of the flapper, a young woman ready for dancing in a silky, Page 378
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below-the-knee-length dress and high heels. For the more adventurous women, another popular style of that period was dressing in men's clothing.
Despite the increased freedoms and relaxed social behavior of the 1920s, however, real political and social equality continued to elude women. When the Great Depression (1929–41) began at the close of the decade, the severe economic downturn put an end to many of the social developments of the 1920s. The millions of people who struggled with poverty and unemployment during the 1930s had little time and no money to spend on recreation and fashion.
The election of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) brought a glimmer of hope to desperate citizens who Page 379 | Top of Articlehad been struggling to survive for more than three years of the Depression. Roosevelt created the New Deal, a series of laws intended to provide relief to the hungry, jobs to the unemployed, and stability to the troubled economy. Roosevelt also advanced the cause of women's rights, in large part due to the urgings of his wife, the humanitarian and social reformer Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962). Eleanor Roosevelt persuaded her husband to appoint women to high-ranking government positions. President Roosevelt agreed, naming a number of women to federal positions. He appointed Frances Perkins (c. 1880–1965) as his Secretary of Labor in 1933; she was the first woman to serve as a presidential cabinet member. Roosevelt also named African American educator Mary McLeod Bethune (1875–1955) as director of the Negro affairs division of the National Youth Administration.
Changing roles during WWII
While Roosevelt's New Deal had a positive impact on the economy and on morale, it wasn't until World War II (1939–45) that the U.S. economy became robust once again. When the United States entered the war in 1941, numerous businesses began manufacturing products to support the war effort, from soldier's uniforms to fighter planes to ammunition. With demand for these products so high and millions of men off fighting the war in Europe and the South Pacific, the Depression-era problem of high unemployment turned into the wartime issue of labor shortages.
Encouraged by the government to do their patriotic duty, and in many cases compelled by economic need and the desire for independence, women joined the workforce in record numbers. Several million women obtained industrial jobs that had traditionally been held by men, working in factories, in steel and lumber mills, on railroads, and in shipyards. These workers were known as "Rosies," after "Rosie the Riveter," a strong, determined woman appearing on government posters urging women to perform jobs necessary for the war effort. Millions of women also worked during the war as volunteers, donating their time to the Red Cross and other organizations.
Thousands of American women supported the war effort by volunteering to serve with the armed forces, both at home and overseas. Many enlisted in the armed forces as nurses, and a number of women signed up to be part of the organization known as the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). These women, known as WAACs, held a wide variety of Page 380 | Top of Articlejobs previously filled by men, thereby freeing up those men for combat positions so that, in theory, the war could end sooner. Some WAACs worked in jobs typically thought of as women's tasks, including typing and filing. But many others worked as radio operators, map analysts, and technicians repairing military equipment.
Although the WAAC started out as a sort of companion organization to the U.S. Army, by the summer of 1943 Congress had voted to make these women part of the regular army. They wore army uniforms, achieved army ranks, and earned army benefits and pay. The organization then became known as the Women's Army Corps, or WAC. The U.S. Navy established the organization known as Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), and the U.S. Marine Corps and Coast Guard created similar groups.
Women's participation in the military was a controversial subject on the home front. Many people admired the courage and independence of the women who enlisted, but others objected strongly. They believed that women should not be involved in military operations at all. Perhaps the most groundbreaking and controversial example of women joining the war effort was a program of the Army Air Corps known as Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). These women, experienced pilots before the war, volunteered to fly military planes for non-combat purposes between 1942 and 1944. They studied alongside male pilots, learning how to fly the planes as well as studying such subjects as physics, engineering, and navigation.
The WASP flew planes from factories to military bases, or from one base to another. They also performed such tasks as training other pilots and towing targets behind a plane so anti-aircraft weapons (weapons designed to shoot enemy planes out of the sky) could be tested. More than 1,000 women served as pilots in the WASP and flew a total of approximately 60 million miles. During the war, WASP flew every type of U.S. military plane, including the B-29 Superfortress and experimental jet fighters. Although the female pilots were highly praised by some, including the Army Air Corps commander, others in the military were not as supportive. Some male pilots had difficulty accepting that women could fly as well as men.
When World War II ended in September 1945, life changed abruptly and dramatically for all involved. Soldiers who had seen unimaginable horrors returned home, hoping somehow to resume ordinary life. The women who had worked in factories on the homefront or in military Page 381
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support roles overseas had held positions of importance, responsibility, and, in some cases, danger. Many of them earned money for the first time in their lives, and they alone decided how that money was spent. After the war, they were expected to return to their traditional female roles as wives, mothers, and daughters, taking care of the household and the men in their lives.
Many women working in industrial jobs during the war wanted to keep their jobs, and in some cases they did. A number of "Rosies," however, left their jobs because their families expected them to do so. Others left because their employers fired them to make room for the men returning home. Some continued to work in industrial jobs but had to accept pay Page 382 | Top of Articlecuts and demotions, with the higher salaries and positions reserved for male workers. Although many citizens approved of women doing their part to help the war effort during the war years, as soon as the fighting stopped, reaction to women holding traditionally male jobs changed.
In her book Women's Rights: Changing Attitudes, 1900–2000, Kaye Stearman wrote: "During the war, images such as 'Rosie the Riveter' promoted women as strong, capable, and patriotic workers; now [after the war] the public perception of these women workers altered, and they were portrayed as unfeminine and unnatural." Men returned home from war to find their wives changed. Their wives had become more independent and confident because of their wartime experiences. Many men disliked the change. Women who had been told during the war that it was their patriotic duty to go to work were now being pressured to leave their jobs and go back to the way things were. For many women, their wartime experiences had introduced them to a new world, and they found it difficult to readjust to their "normal" lives afterward.
The 1950s: Realizing the American Dream
After the upheaval of wartime, which had been preceded by many years of the Great Depression, American society entered a conservative period. It was an era when comfort and stability seemed more attractive than social reform and upheaval. At a time when the nation was gripped by an intense fear that the communist-controlled Soviet Union sought world domination, anyone promoting radical change risked being labeled a communist. Communism is a political system whereby a dictatorial government controls the economy with the intention of eliminating class distinctions and private property. During the period known as the Cold War (1945–91), communism, and particularly that of the Soviet Union, Page 384 | Top of Articlewas seen as a dangerous threat to the American way of life. During the postwar years, the social climate in the United States promoted conformity, or alignment with social standards, far more than activism.
During the 1950s, a great number of Americans focused on settling down and raising a family. It was a prosperous time, and jobs were plentiful. New suburbs, residential areas located near a city, were built at a rapid rate. It became the dream of many middle-class Americans to buy a house in the suburbs, own one or two cars, and have a few children. Before marriage, it was acceptable for young women to work in certain professions. However, once they were married, which society expected women to do, it was assumed that the working women would quit their jobs to become homemakers and mothers.
A massive industry arose dedicated to helping women become good homemakers, teaching them how to keep house and selling them equipment and products to assist in that task. Society sent a strong message to women that they should find supreme satisfaction in cleaning, cooking, doing laundry, and raising children. In spite of such messages, millions of married women entered the workforce during the 1950s, either because they longed for the independence and stimulation of working outside the home or because maintaining the middle-class lifestyle required the wife's income as well as that of the husband.
For the millions of women who worked, job prospects were extremely limited. Even highly educated women were denied good jobs in business or government service because employers felt that women would not perform adequately or simply did not belong in such professions. Certain professions, including nursing, retail sales, teaching young children, and secretarial work, were considered women's jobs. Most women found it nearly impossible to break into traditionally male fields. Even the job notices, or want ads, in newspapers were divided into "male" and "female" jobs. Uneducated women and people of color were even more limited in their choices, restricted in many cases to working as a maid or in some other domestic position.
French philosopher and writer Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986) explored society's longstanding oppression of women in her influential book, The Second Sex, which was published in France in 949 and in the United States in 1953. In this work, she contended that throughout history, man has been put forth as the ideal and the norm, while woman is considered the "Other," a secondary creature that should aspire to being more like man. Beauvoir urged women to find meaningful Page 385
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careers and not to define themselves in relation to other people, such as husbands and children. With The Second Sex, Beauvoir introduced to many American women the principles of feminism, the theory that women should have economic, political, and social rights equal to those of men.
The Feminine Mystique
During the late 1950s, a writer and mother named Betty Friedan (1921–2006) sent a questionnaire to hundreds of women who had graduated, as Friedan had, from Smith College fifteen years earlier. She asked open-ended questions about the women's lives since graduation. The surprising responses she received led her to dig deeper, spending years interviewing women and conducting research. Friedan realized that many middle-class, college-educated women were suffering from a vague, undefined dissatisfaction, what Friedan termed "the problem that has no name."
These women had experienced the intellectual and social stimulation of a university education, but rather than apply that knowledge to a job, many had opted to leave a career behind in favor of marriage and children. For much of their lives, these women had heard the message—from the media, politicians, doctors, and the rest of society—that their ultimate fulfillment would come from being a wife and mother. And yet, many of these women felt that something was missing from their lives, and each felt alone in her feelings. Their husbands developed careers, made important decisions, and earned money. The women, however, were told that their place was in the home and that their pursuit of a career would be selfish and would result in the neglect of their children. Many women turned to psychiatrists for help with their anxiety, and prescriptions for tranquilizers such as Valium soared among suburban women.
Friedan turned her research into a magazine article, but when several magazines refused to publish the story, she expanded her work into a book. Released in 1963, The Feminine Mystique explored society's image of the ideal woman and the resulting depression many women experienced when they failed to live up to that ideal. Friedan urged women to look beyond society's stereotyped female role and discover their true desires.
The Feminine Mystique quickly became a controversial best-seller, with millions of copies sold. By giving a name to a formerly nameless problem, and by making women realize they were far from alone in their anxiety and restlessness, The Feminine Mystique laid the groundwork for an emerging women's movement. Betty Friedan became a nationally recognized spokesperson for women, particularly middle-class women, who began to voice their demand to be treated on equal terms with men.
An emerging movement
Women's rights advocates cheered the election of President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63), hoping that his speeches urging activism and reform in the United States would bring positive developments for women. Although Kennedy's support of women's rights fell short of what feminists had hoped, he did take important early steps in the struggle for equality. In 1961 Kennedy established the President's Commission on the Status of Women. The group explored the barriers to equality for women, including sex discrimination in the workplace. As Page 387
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explained in A Century of Women, "it was the first time in American history that the role of women became part of our national agenda."
The commission supported a bill, initially proposed in 1945 by an organization called the Women's Bureau, that would require women to receive equal pay for equal work. The Equal Pay Act became law in June Page 388
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1963, though activists found that the law did not give the broad protection that they had hoped to receive. For example, women in jobs at the low end of the pay scale, including domestic workers (such as maids) and farm workers, as well as women at the highest end, including executives and professionals, were exempt from the equal pay law.
Kennedy's commission also gave rise to a high-level federal agency called the Inter-Departmental Committee on the Status of Women. Smaller chapters of this agency formed at the state level all across the nation, and beginning in 1964, these state chapters met annually in Washington, D.C. Such annual meetings of women's rights activists from many different states led to the creation of a widespread, informal feminist network that formed the foundation of the growing women's rights movement.
The most significant legislative victory for women in the mid-1960s was the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, best known as a landmark Page 389 | Top of Articlelegislation for the African American civil rights movement. This law made racial segregation illegal, and, in the section known as Title VII, it also outlawed discrimination based on gender. During a heated debate in Congress prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act, an elderly southern congressman named Howard W. Smith (1883–1976) proposed adding "sex" to the bill's language describing the banning of discrimination based on "race, color, and religion." Smith was not a proponent of civil rights for blacks and women. Instead, he believed that outlawing discrimination against women would make the bill seem so absurd that it would effectively kill the legislation.
As he expected, Smith's proposal was greeted with laughter. Congresswoman Martha Griffiths (1919–2003), however, silenced her peers by stating that their laughter was proof of women's status as second-class citizens. Griffiths went on to point out that the congressmen were advocating discrimination against their wives, daughters, and sisters if they did not vote to add the ban on sex discrimination to Title VII. To the surprise of many, the change to Title VII passed along with the entire Civil Rights Act. The bill was signed into law in 1964 by Kennedy's successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973; served 1963–69). Although the passage of the Civil Rights Act did not eliminate sex discrimination, it did, for the first time, give women the backing of the law when they chose to fight against unfair treatment.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 also established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), an agency that would investigate complaints about illegal employment discrimination. To the intense frustration of women's rights supporters, claims made to the EEOC regarding sex discrimination in the workplace were largely ignored. Many employers refused to adhere to the new law, forcing women to either accept discrimination or take their cases to the courts, a lengthy and costly procedure. Women met with strong resistance on the part of employers, the courts, and lawmakers when they challenged sex discrimination, but such resistance did not crush the desire for equality. Rather, it served to ignite the emerging women's movement, providing a cause for women to rally around.
Alienated from the civil rights movement
In addition to the government-sponsored commissions studying women's roles and the legislation offering the promise but not the reality of equality, another significant factor led to a number of women
becoming involved in the feminist movement. During the early 1960s, many young people-black and white, male and female-became deeply involved in civil rights activism in the South. They engaged in voter registration drives, direct action such as marches and sit-ins, and political lobbying. This was done in an attempt to end racial discrimination and bring justice to African Americans in the South. To their dismay, women participating in the civil rights movement found that they were the victims of blatant discrimination and exploitation by the male leaders. Women were told to attend marches rather than plan them, to prepare the food for a meeting rather than conduct it, and to distribute protest literature rather than write it.
At a 1964 meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced "snick"), two white women, Mary King and Casey Hayden, anonymously submitted a paper describing the widespread problem of discrimination against women within the organization. The men of SNCC criticized and ridiculed the paper, but gradually King and Hayden found that many women in civil rights organizations felt the same way they did. Eventually many women from SNCC and numerous other organizations decided to devote themselves to the quest for women's rights instead. The decision to leave the civil rights organizations came primarily from white women. Numerous black women felt that their primary battle was against racism, not sexism, and they believed it would be disloyal to black men to side with the white women.
The second wave begins
During the summer of 1966, at the annual meeting of the State Commissions on the Status of Women, a group of women's rights activists reached the limit of their tolerance for government-affiliated feminist organizations. They had been thwarted in their attempts to compel the EEOC to enforce Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and they felt that President Johnson's administration had done little to support their cause. Tired of waiting for the government to deliver equality, they decided to form an independent national organization that would take immediate steps to achieve their goals. Their impatience was reflected in the abbreviated form of the new organization's name. Suggested by Betty Friedan, the group was called NOW, or the National Organization for Women. Many historians mark the formation of NOW as the formal beginning of the women's rights movement, or as the continuation of the movement that had retreated from view when Page 392
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women earned the right to vote in 1920. The women's rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s has often been referred to as the second wave of the struggle for gender equality. (The first wave is said to be the fight for women's suffrage in the late 1800s and early 1900s.)
A few months after the formation of NOW, in October 1966, Friedan became the president of the organization, which had several Page 393 | Top of Articlehundred members, including men, and was rapidly growing. NOW aimed to change discriminatory laws and to give women equal opportunities to jobs and education. The organization sought to get more women elected to office and placed in influential, high-profile jobs.
Within its first year of existence, NOW took on a number of high-profile battles and achieved results. The organization offered its support to a long-running case brought to the EEOC by airline flight attendants. Most airlines had a policy of firing female flight attendants when they got married or reached the age of thirty-two. Male flight attendants faced no such restrictions. By 1968, airlines had ended this policy.
At the end of 1966, NOW addressed the issue of separate want ads for men and women. They pressured the EEOC to force newspapers to abolish this practice, and at the same time they staged a protest in front of the offices of the New York Times. The Times and other New York papers soon stopped separating the want ads. By 1968 the EEOC had ordered other papers to comply (though many papers ignored the EEOC ruling until a 1973 Supreme Court decision banned the practice of sex-segregated job notices). NOW also persuaded President Johnson to issue an executive order in October 1967 forbidding sex discrimination in the federal government and in any companies that contracted with the federal government.
Divisions in the movement
For its first year, NOW was the most unified and visible aspect of the fledgling women's movement. But by the end of 1967, in spite of NOW's early success, divisions in the movement became apparent. New groups began to form, some more conservative than NOW and some more radical. Although most women's rights activists supported equality in the workplace and education as well as tax deductions for working parents and federally funded day care centers, they could not agree on two key points. The NOW leadership proposed placing pressure on Congress to support the long-dormant Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), but some members who were active in labor unions felt they could not back the ERA because their unions did not. The other controversial point concerned the right of women to control their own bodies, namely to have access to legal contraception, or birth control, and to legal abortions, or the medical termination of pregnancy.
Some of the more conservative members of NOW left in early 1968 to join a new group, the Women's Equity Action League. This Page 394 | Top of Articleorganization supported many of the same principles as NOW, but its members favored a less confrontational approach to abortion laws, preferring to reform the existing laws rather than reverse them altogether. Abortion proved to be one of the most controversial elements of the feminist agenda, a battle that would be waged for decades to come. Many women's rights activists felt that abortion should be legal, giving women the option to choose whether or when to have children. Opponents labeled the procedure a murderous one, claiming that life begins at conception and the destruction of a fetus at any point is equal to ending a human life. Supporters of abortion rights countered that, regardless of the opposition of some to the procedure, each woman should be guaranteed the right to choose what happens to her body. Women's rights activists have described their position as pro-choice, rather than pro-abortion.
At the other end of the political spectrum, a number of women left NOW by the end of 1968 in favor of more radical organizations. A number of women activists viewed NOW as a mainstream, middle-class, white organization, too conservative to really change society. Because so many women's rights activists were concerned with democratic, widespread participation, many activists rejected hierarchical, or leader-oriented, national organizations and downplayed the importance of individual leaders. These women suggested that NOW alter its organizational structure, rotating positions of leadership and decision making. When that suggestion was rejected, some women left the ranks of NOW and joined smaller, locally based organizations. Such organizations were part of a new branch of the women's rights movement made up of grassroots organizations that favored an approach quite different from those of the large national groups.
The women's liberation movement
The numerous small grassroots organizations formed a part of the women's movement distinct from the larger organizations, a branch that came to be known as the women's liberation movement. Implying a more radical agenda, the word "liberation" suggests that women had been oppressed by men for thousands of years, and that freedom from that oppression was a more pressing need than simply achieving equality.
While the national organizations lobbied Congress, brought lawsuits, and petitioned businesses to achieve practical goals, the women's liberation movement focused on revolutionizing women's perceptions of Page 395 | Top of Articlethemselves and men's perceptions of women. Such a focus gave rise to the expression "the personal is political," which suggests that any subject related to a woman's liberation could now be considered a political issue. Activists in the women's liberation movement concentrated on issues that the mainstream women's movement did not address, such as society's standards of beauty. They criticized the way the media portrayed an unrealistic and overly feminine ideal which most women could never achieve. They also sought control over their sexual and reproductive rights and addressed violence against women, including rape and domestic abuse. Members of the movement also ridiculed the notion that women should find complete fulfillment in housework and child-rearing.
The women's liberation movement attracted many of those who had been formerly active in the civil rights movement. Although their civil rights activism was limited in many ways by the men leading the organizations, women did learn key tactics and techniques that proved beneficial to their own movement. They helped the women's movement learn successful strategies such as marches, demonstrations, and pickets. Women's liberation activists also developed some new approaches, including speak-outs and consciousness-raising sessions. Speak-outs were designed to give women the opportunity to discuss life-altering experiences, such as rape, abortion, or domestic violence, in a public setting. This activity gave voice to people who had been made to feel ashamed or alone because of the life-altering event. Consciousness-raising involved gatherings of women who discussed their personal experiences in an attempt to reach a new understanding of their roles in society and their oppression by men. Such sessions allowed women to see that others shared their problems, promoting a sense of sisterhood and empowerment. Consciousness-raising led to the establishment of women-only community centers, bookstores, and coffeehouses.
The women's liberation movement engaged in colorful, dramatic demonstrations to call attention to their cause. They staged street theater presentations, poetry readings, and folk-song performances. In September 1968, the New York Radical Women, an early women's liberation organization, conducted a day-long protest of the Miss America Beauty Pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey. As explained by Kathleen C. Berkeley in The Women's Liberation Movement in America, the activists objected to the pageant's promotion of "American women as sex objects enslaved by a narrow image of beauty perpetuated by the fashion and cosmetics industries."
During the protest, the activists handed out literature, carried signs explaining their position, and tried to persuade passersby to join the movement. They also staged a mock ceremony in which they cast off symbols of the oppression of women, throwing into a trash bin such objects as makeup, bras, curlers, girdles, and copies of homemaker magazines such as Ladies' Home Journal. The media covered that ceremony extensively, giving rise to the widespread, though inaccurate, image of women's rights activists as "bra burners."
Despite attempts by opponents and the media to make the women's liberation movement look ridiculous, the activists changed the way people thought about American society, introducing new ideas and new terminology. These terms included: "sexism," which is discrimination based on sex; "male chauvinism," which is when a man expresses his belief that men are superior to women; and "gender," which refers to a person's sex but also suggests the traits traditionally associated with that sex. One way liberation activists conveyed their theories was through locally Page 397 | Top of Articleproduced newsletters and, occasionally, in articles appearing in regional or national magazines.
In 1972 journalist and political activist Gloria Steinem (1934–) established Ms. Magazine, a national publication dedicated to feminist issues. A well-known women's rights activist before the magazine began, Steinem became a major spokesperson for the movement during her editorship of the hugely successful Ms. During the early 1970s, millions of women also bought a number of books written about the movement, including Robin Morgan's anthology of feminist writings called Sisterhood Is Powerful, Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for a Feminist Revolution, and Kate Millett's Sexual Politics.
The Equal Rights Amendment
Women's rights activists of various political leanings worked together to plan a massive event during the summer of 1970. August 26 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the women's suffrage amendment. On that day women's groups held marches and demonstrations in towns all across the nation. The media gave significant coverage to the event, attracting the notice of millions of citizens who had not previously realized the magnitude of the movement. The events of the day were designed to highlight three top issues for feminists: equality in jobs and education, the repeal of abortion laws, and improvements in child care.
In addition to the issues addressed at the August 26 event, the women's movement had become particularly focused on passage of the ERA. The ERA specified that gender should not be a factor in a person's legal rights, and, if the amendment were to be ratified, it would invalidate state, local, and even federal laws that discriminated against women. Under pressure from women's rights activists, the U.S. Congress started hearings about the ERA in the spring of 1970. After two years of intensive lobbying by women's rights activists and millions of letters sent by pro-ERA constituents, Congress voted overwhelmingly in favor of the amendment, sending it to the states for ratification in the spring of 1972. By the end of 1972, twenty-two states had ratified the proposed amendment. That number went up to thirty by the end of 1973. To become an amendment, the ERA needed ratification by at least thirty-eight states, a goal that seemed within reach.
A powerful anti-ERA movement had arisen, however, that would slow down and eventually halt ratification. Opponents claimed the ERA would remove certain legal protections for women, including exemption Page 398
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from the military draft as well as alimony and child support. Socially conservative opponents declared that the passage of the ERA would mean the end of traditional values and the corruption of womanhood and the family unit. Such views were promoted by conservative Republican Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the STOP ERA organization. Schlafly mounted an aggressive state-by-state campaign to prevent ratification of Page 399 | Top of Articlethe ERA, and STOP ERA was ultimately successful. When the extended deadline for ratification rolled around in the summer of 1982, the pro-ERA forces had fallen short of ratification by three-quarters of the states. The defeat of the ERA came about partly due to a politically conservative trend in the United States, as represented by the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan (1911–2004; served 1981–89) to the presidency. The ERA loss also signaled the decline of the women's rights movement.
Impact of the movement on sexuality and reproductive rights
Despite the failure of the women's movement to achieve one of its primary goals, the passage of the ERA, the movement overall accomplished a great deal. For many women activists, control over their bodies was a central issue of the movement. Women wanted to be free to explore and control their sexuality, without being judged by society. A large part of control in this arena involved having access to contraception, or birth control methods. The birth control pill, an oral contraceptive, was the first woman-controlled birth control method developed. It gave women an unprecedented amount of control over their reproductive lives. The pill was approved for sale in the United States in 1960 and was taken by millions of women by the middle of that decade.
Contraceptives had been illegal for many years, and it wasn't until 1965 that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the last remaining law, in Connecticut, prohibiting them. Even in places where contraception was legal, it was only available to married people. In 1972 it became legal for unmarried people to practice birth control. The women's movement made significant inroads in the wider acceptance of women's contraceptive rights.
Feminists also demanded access to safe and legal abortions. Abortions were legal in some states, but even in those states women faced many restrictions, including high cost. In places where abortion was illegal, the procedure was still fairly common: approximately one million abortions were performed each year in the United States during the mid-1960s. Illegal abortions were sometimes performed by doctors but quite often by minimally trained people capitalizing on women's desperation. Hospitals treated thousands of women suffering from abortion-related ailments annually, with up to one thousand women dying each year from botched abortions.
Some feminist organizations, in the years when abortion was still illegal, offered referral services to women seeking abortions. Mainstream organizations worked to change state laws to make the procedure legal, arguing that abortion was a decision to be made by a woman and her doctor, not by lawmakers. Ruling on two cases in 1973, Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion. The ruling left open the possibility of restricting a woman's right to choose abortion, and numerous subsequent cases have placed limitations on that right. The ongoing struggle to preserve reproductive rights has remained at the forefront of women's rights organizations, just as the attempt to overturn abortion rights has remained a passionate concern of opponents.
Impact on health care
Feminist groups worked to enact changes in the male-dominated medical profession to make doctors more aware of health issues unique to women. They also pressured doctors to treat women with dignity and respect. Women's groups brought about dramatic changes in the handling of pregnancy, which some doctors classified as a disease requiring treatment, and childbirth. Whereas the baby's father had formerly been kept out of the delivery room and the woman had often been made unconscious during delivery, feminists pioneered the principles of natural, drug-free childbirth with the presence of the father or another person acting as labor coach. Women's groups also established women's health clinics, offering a variety of services, including free pregnancy tests, physical exams, and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases.
Impact on violence against women
The women's rights movement raised awareness about such crimes as rape, domestic violence, and sexual harassment. Feminists contended that rape was a crime of violence, not sex, an attitude that helped refocus the blame on the attacker and not the victim. In many rape prosecutions, the defense attorney would discuss the victim's style of dress and sexual history, implying that a provocatively dressed woman had been partly to blame for being attacked. Women's legal organizations worked to change the rules of evidence to prevent such information from being revealed during a case. These groups also lobbied state lawmakers to acknowledge that rape could be committed within a marriage. Many state laws reflected a belief that there was no such thing as a husband raping his wife. Feminist organizations gave rise to rape crisis centers in Page 401 | Top of Articlemany communities and on college campuses, giving women a place to go to learn about prevention of rape or to get help in dealing with the trauma of an attack.
The women's movement also raised public awareness of the widespread problem of domestic violence, a crime usually committed by a man against his wife or girlfriend. Many victims were deeply ashamed of being beaten by their male partners and refused to report the crime to police. Such refusals fueled the notion that domestic abuse was uncommon and restricted to the poor. Women's rights groups helped publicize the extent of the problem, established shelters for battered women, and lobbied for legislation making it easier to prosecute men for abuse. They also pushed for police training, helping law enforcement officers recognize and deal with domestic abuse.
Impact on education
The efforts of the women's rights movement to achieve equality in the area of education resulted in widespread changes. Feminist organizations called attention to inequities in teacher salaries and promotions, pointing out that women teachers earned far less than men and received fewer promotions. In addition, qualified women were often denied admission to professional programs such as law school or medical school, and women had a harder time than men securing financial assistance for education. Educational institutions had remained exempt from the Equal Pay Act and from the Title VII provision of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but women activists pressured Congress to amend the laws, forcing schools to comply with the earlier legislation. Although some loopholes remained and some universities won the right to use quotas to limit the admission of women, many practices discriminating against women in education were eliminated.
One of the most substantial developments achieved by the women's movement was the passage of the Higher Education Act, particularly the amendment known as Title IX, in 1972. Title IX forbids sex discrimination at any school receiving federal funding, and it ended the exemption of schools from the Equal Pay Act. In effect, Title IX compels schools receiving federal dollars to provide equal resources for girls' and women's sports. Even after the passage of the law, women's organizations had to continue lobbying for years to secure guidelines and put the new rules into effect. Although complete gender equality in school and university sports has yet to be achieved, the gains in the last quarter of the twentieth Page 402 | Top of Articlecentury were significant. A study of the first twenty-five years after Title IX, conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, showed that the percentage of women college athletes more than doubled between 1972 and 1995, going from 15 percent to 37 percent. In addition, female athletes represented only 7.5 percent of the total of high school athletes in 1971, and 39 percent of the total in 1996.
Feminists further contributed to educational equality by establishing women's studies and feminism as legitimate areas of scholarship at American colleges and universities. According to The Women's Liberation Movement in America, in 1969 Cornell University established the first women's studies class granting students academic credit. By the end of the 1970s, there were some 30,000 women-focused courses and more than 300 degree programs in women's studies. Women's groups also targeted the curricula of elementary and secondary schools, influencing changes to textbooks that place greater emphasis on the accomplishments of women and place less emphasis on the traditional female roles of wife and mother.
Impact on the workplace
Several court cases brought by women's legal defense organizations during the late 1960s had been victorious in combating job discrimination, but little true progress had been made. A number of state laws gave companies excuses to justify discrimination through what was known as protective labor legislation, laws supposedly designed to protect women. Such laws allowed companies to specify height and weight requirements for certain physically demanding jobs, or to prevent women from taking "unsafe" jobs that involved overtime or working at night. With the August 1969 case known as Weeks v. Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Company, the court ruled that the provisions of Title VII in the 1964 Civil Rights Act held more weight than state protective laws. Southern Bell was forced to hire Lorena Weeks for the job she had pursued, though the company refused to comply until after a number of high-profile rallies organized by NOW in the spring of 1971 had occurred.
Due to tireless lobbying, numerous lawsuits, and campaigns to raise public awareness, feminist organizations succeeded in opening up opportunities for women in several high-power fields and in traditionally male occupations. The first female generals were appointed during the 1970s, as well as the first female FBI agent. There were vast increases in the Page 403
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number of women who went to law school and medical school and who earned their doctorates. Increases in the number of women earning such advanced degrees naturally led to the increased presence of women in professional fields. Women became far more visible in journalism and entertainment, with television shows and movies focusing on strong female characters for the first time during the 1970s. One of the fields most visibly affected by the women's movement was politics and government. A number of powerful female politicians were elected to Congress during the 1970s, including Pat Schroeder, Elizabeth Holtzman, and Barbara Jordan.
Feminist groups also made it easier for mothers to work outside the home by pushing for employer-supported daycare, improvements in early childhood education, and benefits such as flexible work hours and maternity leave.
Criticisms of the women's movement
A social reform movement as wide-ranging in its goals and membership as the women's rights movement is bound to experience internal conflict and criticism. Perhaps the most common complaint of the mainstream movement was that it was dominated by white, straight, middle- or upper-class women.
Many African American women felt alienated from the movement. They considered race, not gender, to be the root of their oppression. A number of black women did turn to the women's movement after feeling the sting of sex discrimination from men in the civil rights movement, though many continued to feel that their concerns were not addressed by the white leadership.
Working-class women also felt excluded from the women's movement. They were especially unable to relate to the complaints of middle-class homemakers who felt trapped by their suburban lives. Driven by a greater economic necessity to find suitable jobs, working-class women focused less on female oppression by men and more on such practical matters as eliminating sex discrimination in the workplace.
Significant criticism of the mainstream women's rights movement came from lesbians. Especially during the early years of the movement, lesbians were not always welcome. Betty Friedan did not want lesbians to be visible members of NOW or the movement as a whole, and she worked to eliminate lesbians from the NOW leadership in 1970. (She later changed her position.) Friedan and others worried that high-profile lesbian activists would prove too controversial and would weaken the effectiveness of the women's movement. In its later years, the women's movement became far more open to lesbian members and focused on issues of concern to lesbians. Yet many gay women found that the smaller, more radical groups of the women's liberation movement provided a more comfortable home for their activism.
The women's rights movement was only a few years old when a backlash began to form. Many people, particularly men, were threatened by the changes proposed by the movement. Some men feared the movement would change their wives from passive homemakers to angry, aggressive activists. Opponents of the movement warned that women's rights would defeminize women and destroy the American family. Because the women's movement sought to de-emphasize appearance and urged Page 405 | Top of Articlewomen to be more "natural," many people who opposed the movement described activists (rudely referred to as "women's libbers") as masculine, ugly, poorly dressed women.
Considerable opposition to the movement came from politically conservative quarters, an opposition that grew stronger and stronger throughout the 1970s. The 1980 election of President Reagan signaled that the more liberal social attitudes of the late 1960s and 1970s had been overpowered by a shift toward conservativism.
The future of a women's rights movement
The organized women's rights movement weakened considerably in the late 1970s, but many prominent organizations and individual activists continue to advance women's issues and make them part of the national agenda. Many of the victories of the women's movement have begun to erode or were never fully realized, requiring ongoing vigilance by feminist leaders. Activists have continued the struggle to protect reproductive rights, to secure equal pay for equal work, and to end sexist hiring practices. With anti-feminist messages coming from various conservative organizations, women's rights activists continue to have battles to wage.
For More Information
Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. New York City: Knopf, 1953.
Berkeley, Kathleen C. The Women's Liberation Movement in America. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Covey, Alan, ed. A Century of Women. Atlanta: TBS Books, 1994.
Gaughen, Shasta, ed. Women's Rights. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2003.
Harlan, Judith. Feminism: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1998.
Stearman, Kaye. Women's Rights: Changing Attitudes, 1900–2000. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 2000.
"Living the Legacy: The Women's Rights Movement, 1848–1998." National Women's History Project. http://www.legacy98.org/ (accessed on May 29, 2006).
"Title IX: Twenty-five Years of Progress." U.S. Department of Education. http://www.ed.gov/pubs/TitleIX/index.html (accessed on May 29, 2006.)
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2587100024