FC148A: The Women's Liberation Movement (1920-)


It was the summer of 1977. While my wife was at work, I stayed at home with the baby, changed his diapers, fed him, played with him, got him to sleep, and straightened up the house. Of course, while I was at work, my wife filled in at home. Typically, whoever was at work, especially if it was an evening or night shift, got the car so we didn’t have to get the baby out of bed, thus leaving the other parent stuck at home without a car. We had a small house with mortgage payments and the usual assortment of other bills. Nothing remarkable. We were the typical American family of the so-called Baby Boomer generation. However, this particular night it came home to me how different we were as a generation.

It was a particularly hot & sweltering night, and our house, which was small anyway and had no air conditioning, was stifling. Therefore, in order to keep cool, I just wore a pair of shorts and the baby only had a diaper, which sometimes made things worse as a I carried a hot sweaty baby up against my equally hot and sweaty body.

A friend of mine from work came by on his motorcycle. However, he didn’t stay long, finding little of interest in hanging out and watching an eight-month old baby and his father sweat. I remember standing in the driveway, watching him leave on his motorcycle, that iconic symbol of freedom for the American male, and thinking, this isn’t how my ancestors looking down from forty centuries of history lived, being tied down to a baby and housework. What would they say if they could see me now? How would I explain myself to them? But, deep down inside, I knew the answer, and it boiled down to one word: justice. How could I expect another human being to work and pay half the bills and also do all the housework and childcare, just because that other human being was female? Taken on that level, it was just that simple. But forty centuries of history made it far from easy. However, in spite of that, I knew what was the right thing to do, and I was determined to do it.

Meanwhile, my wife was at work, also haunted by forty centuries of ancestors telling her that her place was at home with the baby. For many of us, that was America in the 1970s.

Introduction: the “Second Wave” of the Women’s Movement

People often think of the Women’s Movement as coming in two distinct waves with little happening in between: the Suffrage Movement (1848-1920) and the Women’s Liberation Movement starting in the late 1960s. While there is some truth in looking at the Women’s Movement as coming in waves, it is inaccurate to see the period from 1920 to 1966 as an empty lull for women. To the contrary, the period 1920 to 1966 saw women, who now had the vote, taking their cause in new directions to gain equality at home and in the workplace. One of their more prolonged efforts, starting in 1923, was to push for an equal rights amendment that, among other things, would eliminate sexual discrimination in the workplace and in the application of various laws. Unfortunately, in 1982, after nearly sixty years of efforts, passage of this amendment fell three states short of ratification.

Margaret Sanger and the fight for birth control rights

While women had the vote by 1920, it was still illegal even to disseminate information on birth control. The woman who led the fight to change this was Margaret Sanger. One of the defining events in her life was watching her mother die in childbirth. Later, as a social worker, she was constantly coming across young women aged and worn out by all the children they had given birth to and the poverty resulting from all those births. As a result, Margaret made it her life’s work to free women from such a fate, first by legalizing the spread of information on what birth control techniques were then available, and later working for the development of a safe and reliable birth control pill. In defiance of the law, she published numerous pamphlets on birth control (a term she coined), and opened the first birth control clinic in 1916. Five years later, she formed the American Birth Control League (ABCL) in an effort to gain support from the medical community and middle class so she could work through more mainstream channels. Finally, after years of hard work and multiple jail sentences for Margaret and other members, the ABCL got spreading birth control information through the mail legalized in1936. Six years later, the American Birth Control League would become Planned Parenthood

World War II, “housewife syndrome”, and renewed activism (1941-66)

The Second World War, even more than the first one, set momentous forces for change into motion. Its immediate impact was the need for women to fill the jobs left behind by the men gone to war. This brought millions of women into the workforce, giving them a sense of their own strength and worth, as depicted in the famous poster of Rosie the Riveter with the message “We can do it.” In 1943, women introduced the Equal Pay Act in the hopes of making the same wages as their male co-workers. It would take twenty years to get this bill passed.

As the war was winding down and the prospect loomed of millions of veterans coming back to their old jobs, government propaganda started preparing women to return to their pre-war roles as mothers and housewives. Although most women acquiesced in this expectation, a number found themselves attached to their increasingly independent status. Two decades later, they would be joined by millions of their daughters.

The post-war period saw Americans enjoying unprecedented prosperity as millions of couples got married, started families, and moved into their own houses in the suburbs. On the surface, it seemed middle class Americans were living in a dream come true. But for a growing number of these women I suburbia, that dream was becoming a nightmare. It even got a name: housewife syndrome. The basic problem was that they were not finding satisfaction and fulfillment with their supposedly idyllic suburban lives of doing housework, taking care of the kids, and making life as cozy as possible for their husbands. Adding to the problem was the fact that people didn’t talk about such private matters with other people. Therefore, each woman thought she was the only one suffering such feelings, thus compounding her misery with guilt for even feeling such things. Some women saw psychiatrists or got prescriptions for anti-depressants, feeling that they were mentally ill, which only made them feel even more inadequate. Others turned to alcohol, which also made matters worse. Fortunately, one woman started writing.

Her name was Betty Friedan. She was a typical housewife and mother who also wrote articles on how nice it was to be housewife and mother for women’s magazines (which, by the way were all run by men). She also had a nagging feeling that not all was right with her life. However, being a writer, she had the opportunity to go out and talk to other women, unlike most housewives who were suffering at home alone in quiet desperation. During a class reunion at the women’s college where she had graduated, she started getting the sense that other women were feeling frustrated and unfulfilled just as she was. Out of this and subsequent conversations and research came a book, The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, that alerted women that their malaise was not abnormal and unique, but actually something being felt by millions of other housewives like themselves. The Feminine Mystique would come to be the virtual call to arms of the Women’s Liberation movement, and Betty Friedan became one of the movement’s godmothers.

Other forces were at work as well. For one thing, Margaret Sanger’s crusade for developing and making available a safe, easy, and reliable form of birth control bore fruit when she and a researcher named Gregory “Goody” Pincus had developed the first oral contraceptive. In 1960 the FDA approved the use and distribution of the this oral contraceptive that, to a whole new generation of women whose lives it changed, would be known simply as The Pill. Secondly, the anti-war movement and counterculture created a reaction against the warrior ethic, opening the way to wider acceptance of gentler and more nurturing values associated with women. Also, there was the spirit of activism in the 1960s. Much like in the previous century, when women first got involved in various causes, such as abolition, to help other people, women in the 1960s took part in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. And just like in the previous century, they came to realize that their own issues constituted just as worthy a cause. Catalyzing this was their treatment as inferior partners in these social movements. Things came to a head with the Civil Rights Act (1964), which, among other things, banned sexual discrimination in the workplace. However, frustration over the federal government’s inadequate efforts to enforce this clause led in 1966 to the formation of a new organization: the National Organization of Women (NOW). The Women’s Liberation Movement was born.

The Women’s Liberation Movement (1966-92)

The first major public event of this new phase was a protest in 1968 against the Miss America Pageant for treating women as sexual objects. The protest took the form of an auction where women were sold as pieces of meat as in a cattle market. The legend is that women also burned their bras in protest. However, they couldn’t get a fire permit, so no bras went up in flames. Much like the early suffrage marches, this protest was met mostly with derision, especially, but not exclusively, by men. However, NOW’s street theater tactics got people’s attention and started working their way into their consciousness.

While mythical bra burnings may remain as people’s primary memories of the Women’s Liberation Movement, progress was made through the more pedantic avenues of the courts and Congress. Out of these efforts came an onrush of laws and legal decisions that dramatically improved women’s status and influence. In 1972, Title IX was passed, giving girls and women an equal number of opportunities to benefit from educational programs, including the right to play sports in schools. In 1973, in the Roe vs. Wade case the Supreme Court effectively made abortions safely and legally available to women, the main argument in favor of this being that women were getting illegal abortions outside the safe sanitary conditions of medical clinics, thus costing many of them their lives. Legalized abortion remains the single most controversial event coming out of the Women’s Liberation Movement.

In 1977, the National Coalition against Domestic Violence was formed. Many of its early efforts were to call to people’s attention the fact that domestic violence against women and children was much more widespread than most people realized, since previously such things were considered private matters, not to be discussed in public. Efforts to reduce domestic violence continue today.

Much of women’s progress came in the workplace. In 1978 Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, protecting women from losing their jobs because of pregnancy. Women were also breaking down barriers into various jobs previously considered men’s exclusive domains. In 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman to sit on the United States Supreme Court. Two years later, Sally Ride became America’s first woman astronaut. And the year 1992 would be called the “year of the woman” as a record number of women gained election to public office. However, in the midst of this there were setbacks, most notably the failure to get the Equal Rights Amendment ratified in 1982. And while women were making remarkable progress, there was a price to pay for these gains.

Trouble on the home front

Such rapid changes never come without putting stress on other parts of society and culture. In addition, altering traditional gender roles instilled by years of cultural conditioning inevitably would meet resistance from men. Not only did these changes threaten their privileged position in society, they also pressured men to act counter to what they had always been told was proper behavior. To most men and many women, such changes were unsettling, if not downright immoral. Therefore, the legal changes brought on by Women’s Liberation to the workplace and public life created stresses and strains for both men and women in their private lives at home.

For men, there was additional pressure based on the theories of behavioral psychology in the 1970s that cultural conditioning, not biology, causes most difference between men and women. This led to the common assumption that traditional male behavior, especially aggression, could be tamed and that men could be conditioned to be gentler and more nurturing like women. This pressure to change led to problems for men from two directions. At home, criticism of and pressure to change traditional “male” values created frustration and anger. At the same time, men faced peer pressure to maintain traditional “male” values and patterns of behavior. Failure to do that, they were told and conditioned to believe, implied they were something less than real men. For men, who were conditioned to keep their feelings bottled up inside, their inability or unwillingness to verbally express their feelings often led to expressing it in the only way they knew how: violence.

While it is true that domestic violence has always existed, until now such matters were kept in the home and not reported. However, middle class women’s greater sense of empowerment also allowed and encouraged them to talk about such matters in ways that had been stifled since the isolation of the nuclear family and suburbia effectively cut their lines of communication. Now, not only were they talking about these things in support groups in the private sector, they also were gaining the political influence to make such discussions matters of public concern. Thus, while there was increased domestic violence, it was being reported like never before. How much more domestic violence there is now compared to before is impossible to determine, but the extra stresses caused by the radical changes taking place (including rejection of traditional rules of etiquette that previously had partially protected women from violence) certainly added to the problem.

Women faced their own set of new problems. One stemmed largely from the fact that status was still defined in “male” terms of successful careers instead of such things as parenting. Therefore, women often felt they had to downplay their traditional “female” qualities in order to be accepted and successfully compete in the business world. To an extent, this was reflected in women’s fashions with pantsuits as women tried to look the part of business executives. (By the same token, men wore something called leisure suits, a fashion I can find no excuse for whatsoever). Just as there was an underlying assumption that men could be conditioned to be gentler and more nurturing, there was a corresponding assumption that women could fulfill both the “male” role in pursuing careers as well as the “female” roles as mothers. For many career women, this was a necessity if their husbands refused to take on the less glamorous domestic chores of cleaning house and changing diapers. Out of this emerged the stereotype of the “supermom”, the woman who could take on both a career and raising a family..

However, this led to another problem. Not only did many women feel overwhelmed by taking on the daunting workload of both having careers and being mothers, they also felt guilty either for not being at home with their children or having forsaken having children altogether so they could pursue careers. Just as men felt centuries of ancestors were looking down upon them with disapproval for their taking on domestic and child-raising duties, women felt similar disapproval from centuries of their own ancestors for not being at home taking care of the children.

Another problem stemmed from the inauguration of the birth control pill and the resulting “sexual revolution” that began in the 1960s. Before this, sex was supposed to be something that only occurred within the context of marriage. While the Kinsey reports showed that people didn’t always conform to this standard of behavior, it was much more common for women to “save themselves for marriage”, if for no other reason than from the fear of getting pregnant and suffering the stigma of being single mothers. The Pill largely removed these fears, but the Sexual Revolution came with a price, especially for women. For one thing, the idea of sex without emotional commitment, while appealing at first to many women, wasn’t as easily attainable as it may have sounded. Many women engaging in what at first was casual sex often found themselves falling in love with their partners. While many men also fell in love, it was more common for men to take undue advantage of the freedom afforded by sex without commitment and move from partner to partner. They might even challenge women with the charge that, if they were truly liberated women, they should prove it by having sex with them. Many women fell for this faulty logic and were badly hurt as a result. This was especially true if they got pregnant, because the Pill didn’t always work, especially if a woman forgot to take it. Therefore, by the time the baby arrived, the father was often long gone, leaving many women left broken-hearted and with children to support.

There were other types of fallout from the women’s movement. One was in education. Previously, women wanting careers had very few choices, mainly as nurses, secretaries, or teachers. Since all these were seen as “women’s work”, they tended to be very low paying jobs. For public schools this meant that a disproportionate number of the best and brightest of half the population were being channeled into teaching at bargain prices. However, schools lost many of their best teachers when better and higher paying career opportunities opened up for women. To save public education, taxes would have to be raised to make schools more competitive in the market place.

Problems also emerged as more families had both parents working full-time. Finding good quality day-care for small children was one problem, especially since this was, and largely remains, another area perceived as “women’s work resulting in low-paying wages. Older children would often come home from school to empty houses without any adult supervision. Such “latchkey” children, besides being at risk in terms of safety, were also more prone to get involved with drugs and crime.

Unfortunately, not all families stayed together. Along with more casual attitudes toward sex came more casual attitudes toward marriage and divorce. Therefore, either the fathers never married their children’s mothers or divorced them soon after getting married. Either way, millions of women were left to raise their kids as single parents. For them, working and raising a family single-handedly was not a choice. It was a reality they had to deal with by themselves. For those who got pregnant when they were young and inexperienced, this made it difficult, and in many cases impossible, to get an education to prepare them for a professional career. All that was left for them were low paying jobs that barely paid the bills, if that. The result was what became known as the “feminization of poverty”.

The “Third Wave” of the Women’s Movement (1992- )

Having gained more legal equality in the home and workplace, feminists have turned their focus to such matters as violence against women, sexual harassment, , and issues of race and class disparities among women in the West and across the globe. Some have even referred to this as the Third Wave of the Women’s Movement, since it reaches out to a broader range of women and deals with issues that are not as easily resolved through legislation. Rather, they deal with deeply ingrained cultural values that are just as difficult, if not more so, to tackle.