Feminism and the Sexual Revolution

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9 Feminism and the Sexual Revolution

The women's movement of the 1960s was actually a revival, often called the second wave, of an earlier movement for women's rights that resulted in women's universal suffrage, or voting rights throughout the country, with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment on August 26, 1920. But the momentum of the earlier women's movement dwindled as the political, social, and economic hardships of the Great Depression (1929–41) and World War II (1939–45) came to dominate life in America. The stability and prosperity of the postwar years enabled long-standing social problems to gain more attention. By the late 1960s many women joined together to create the second wave of the women's movement in order to push for more equality in their lives. In part inspired by the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s, which drew attention to gaining rights for African Americans, women advocated for equal rights under the law and in the workplace and also for the liberation of women from stifling stereotypes in domestic and other cultural situations.

Some women's concerns about legal and workplace discrimination could be traced back to World War II, which had brought with it increased employment opportunities for women. By creating a campaign to get women to take traditionally male jobs, the U.S. government enticed women to join the war effort; a famous example of the campaign was the Rosie the Riveter poster, which read: "We can do it." As men went off to war, women by the thousands dropped their children off with family or at the newly created federal child-care facilities and spent their days as policewomen, firefighters, and factory workers, among other things. By doing "man's work," women enjoyed the increased responsibility and higher pay offered in these traditionally male positions. When veterans returned after the war, however, women were forced out of those jobs that had historically been reserved for men. The federal government closed the federal childcare facilities and encouraged women to return home, even though a 1944 Women's Bureau study reported that 80 percent of working women would have liked to keep their wartime positions. While many women returned to lives as homemakers, devoting themselves full time to being wives and giving birth to a generation of children known as "the baby boomers," those who remained in the workforce saw their employment opportunities limited to less well paying jobs historically reserved for females, such as secretarial or teaching positions. Professionally trained women who remained in traditionally male positions earned less than their male co-workers. By the 1960s, women began to pressure employers and the government for equal treatment and pay.

The social stigma facing women had deep roots in the early nineteenth century, but in the 1950s in particular American society developed a cultural reverence of the family that placed restrictions on family members. Television, magazines, religious leaders, and politicians all celebrated an idealized middle-class domestic life, one composed of the breadwinner husband, the stay-at-home wife, and their children, all snug in their house. In 1950 only 16.2 percent of married women with children under six years old worked outside the home. In 1960, however, the statistics were changing: 34.8 percent of all women older than sixteen held a job outside the home; 18.6 percent of them were married with children under age six. By 1970, the percentage of working women rose to 42.6 By the end of the 1960s, many women lived lives dramatically different from the idealized notion of the previous decade. In addition to an increase in the number of women working outside the home, the American family unit had begun to change. Divorce occurred more frequently, leaving women oftentimes to work and raise children alone. Historian Annegret Ogden reported that the number of female heads of households rose by 1.1 million between 1960 and 1970.

Wife and mother … or more?: The women's rights movement

Although 96 percent of the respondents in a 1962 Gallup poll indicated that being a housewife was satisfying, the American cultural expectation that women become housewives and mothers caused a growing number of women to feel resentful. Betty Friedan captured these women's sense of frustration and constraint in her book, The Feminine Mystique. Published in 1963, Friedan's book identified the difficulties many women experienced in their pursuit of the traditional family life in which the roles of wife and mother defined women by their relationship to others rather than as individuals. Friedan compiled her information from questionnaires that she had sent to her classmates in the 1942 graduating class from Smith College. She learned that many women shared her view that the traditional family roles for women were too limiting. Her classmates who had become stay-at-home mothers desired meaningful, well-paying work outside the home. But she found that those who had become professional women had complaints too; while they enjoyed broader opportunities than housewives, they reported that their job privileges and opportunities were far fewer than those of their male co-workers. Friedan's book sold more than one million copies and triggered an awareness among women that things needed to change.

In 1966 Friedan, along with three hundred women and men, formed the National Organization for Women (NOW) with the intention of achieving equal rights for women. The group organized after becoming frustrated at a National Conference of the Commission on the Status of Women in Washington, D.C., that year, where they had been unable to pass resolutions that would require the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to acknowledge its legal mandate to end sex discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. NOW members placed an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, that would ensure the equal treatment of women under the law, high on the organization's list of political goals. In its efforts to gain support for the amendment, NOW drew attention to the fact that women only made fifty-nine cents for every dollar that men earned in the 1960s and early 1970s. Its efforts also drew attention to the gender discrimination women faced in the job market, including loss of employment because of pregnancy, legal limitations to the weight of objects women were allowed to lift on the job, and the inaccessibility to traditionally male jobs, among other things. Membership in the organization grew quickly, making NOW the largest women's organization in the country.

NOW promoted its causes by conducting political lobbying, by bringing lawsuits, and by organizing mass marches, rallies, and nonviolent civil disobedience protests. NOW's lobbying efforts helped to pass many gender-equalizing pieces of legislation into law, including maternity leave legislation that ensured that women could give birth without losing their jobs, legal prohibitions against ads in newspapers qualifying employment opportunities as either "male" or "female" positions, and welfare reform that provided job training. By bringing lawsuits to courts throughout the country, NOW helped secure the enforcement of many laws. The Weeks v. Southern Bell court case, which NOW's southern regional director Sylvia Roberts argued in the fifth district federal court in 1969, offered the first court ruling to enforce the sexual discrimination clause in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The federal ruling enabled women to apply for and hold jobs that involved lifting more than thirty pounds. Though the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled in 1968 that help-wanted ads in newspapers could not be categorized by gender, most newspapers continued to post separate male and female job ads until NOW succeeded in arguing the issue to the Supreme Court; the court's 1973 ruling made it possible for women to apply for and hold any job based solely upon skill.

NOW also helped to raise the debate about the Equal Rights Amendment to a national level. It staged marches and other events that drew hundreds of thousands of participants in various states. When Congress did pass the equal rights amendment and sent it to the states for ratification in 1972, NOW continued its massive campaigning efforts—including a 100,000-person march on the nation's capital in 1978. Magazines and newspapers ran stories about the implications of the ERA, and tracked the progress of the ratification campaign. Despite these efforts, the amendment failed to gain the necessary state approval by the deadline for ratification in 1981. Although the attention granted the ERA has since dwindled, NOW continues to work toward equal rights for women into the 2000s.

As membership within NOW grew, from 1,200 in 1967 to nearly 48,000 by 1970, several other groups formed with the similar intention of drawing attention to women's issues by working to change the legal and political systems in America. The Women's Equity Action League (WEAL) formed in 1968 to end sex discrimination in employment. The National Women's Political Caucus formed in 1971 to increase the number of women politicians and appointed officials. Other organizations formed to address the issues of black and other racial or ethnic groups of women, lesbians, impoverished women, business owners, professional women, and female politicians, among others. These organizations did extensive electoral and lobbying work and brought lawsuits to effect change. In the 1960s and early 1970s, these groups were made up of older women, many of whom had professional experience, but later came to include women of all ages.

The other side of the coin: The women's liberation movement

While the women's rights movement pushed for legislation through sophisticated political lobbying and traditionally organized action groups (those with elected officers and dues-paying members), a more informal variant of the women's movement also developed, especially among young women. Women organized in informal groups to seek changes in their own lives and in the world around them. Gathering in small, intimate groups for frank discussions about their lives, these women came to understand in new ways the nature of their oppression and with increased understanding they felt hopeful about creating personal change. This process of reviewing one's life from the perspective of sexual inequality was called "consciousness raising." Some of these women concerned themselves with redefining female roles and insisting on more realistic depictions of women in the media, among other issues. This branch of the women's rights movement came to be called the women's liberation movement.

Many women's liberationists had participated in the civil rights protests and hippie movement, either as volunteers in political organizations or as members of hippie communes. While part of these other groups, women discovered that their hard work was not held in the same esteem as that of their male counterparts. Civil rights organizations of the early 1950s and 1960s offered youths an opportunity to work together to change the world. Young men and women, black and white, assembled to get their messages out. While the work offered these young people a sense of camaraderie, young women found that most of the decisionmaking in these organizations was reserved for the men. Most of the speech givers were men, and the authors of protest pamphlets and papers were men. Women were expected to perform the grunt work of answering phones, making photocopies, and stuffing envelopes, as well as any cooking or cleaning that needed to be done. Hippies too, while espousing a new society, maintained a social hierarchy with men clearly on top. The leadership of communes, for example, was reserved for men, with peripheral support given by women, whom hippies called "chicks" or, if spoken for, "old ladies."

As these young women worked for the civil rights of racial minorities or tried to create a new society from the hippie standpoint, they began to wonder about their own place in American society. While older women concerned themselves with legal issues and discriminatory banking and education issues, younger women sought to change the cultural prejudices that impeded social equality. These younger women sought changes in the private, domestic lives of women. The fundamental change desired by women's liberationists was an end to women's subordination to men. Women began to push for men to help with such tasks as housework, meal preparation, and childcare, for example. Women also began to resist the standards of beauty that reduced women to sex objects.

The New York Radical Women (N.Y.R.W.), a group of women who had been active in the civil rights, the New Left, and the antiwar movements, organized the Miss America Pageant protest against American beauty standards in 1968 and won the women's liberation movement national attention. Nearly four hundred protestors gathered outside the Miss America pageant proceedings in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Women's liberationists considered the pageant to be a symbol of how American culture glorified women as sexual beings and how little importance or interest America placed on women as intellectual, emotional participants in society. Protestors threw objects, including curlers, girdles, high-heeled shoes, Playboy magazines, and even the bras off their own bodies, into what was called the Freedom Trash Can to symbolize their rejection of America's beauty standards.

While this protest and other civil disruptions drew a great deal of attention to the women's liberation movement, activists' most common method of protest was the much smaller, conscious-raising efforts. Groups, including The Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH), The Feminists, and Cell 16, organized to address a variety of women's issues, such as abortion and childcare. Several of the phrases that came to define the women's liberation movement were coined by a group formed in 1969 under the name Redstockings. Some of the most famous include: "The Personal Is Political," "The Politics of Housework," and "Sisterhood Is Powerful." "The Personal Is Political" is perhaps the most famous, and means that personal situations are not just a result of personal choices but are limited and defined by larger political and social restrictions. At consciousness-raising events women came to realize that their personal experiences were not unique and that together with other women—their "sisters"—they could transform the larger political and social setting in America. Although the women's liberation movement began as a separate branch of the women's rights movement, the two efforts complemented one another and eventually merged or began to work together.

Legacy of the women's movement

Women's groups organized and activated their members to improve the lives of American women. While the legal and political changes achieved during the 1960s were rather limited, those that were gained formed a strong foundation on which significant victories were won in the coming years. NOW's advocacy for the enforcement of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 started the ball rolling. Title VII prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex. But the law's prohibition against sexual discrimination had been ignored until NOW formed and began its lobbying efforts in 1966. NOW and other groups lobbied for legal protection and welfare benefits of particular importance to

How Homosexuality Came Out of the Closet

The women's movement came to include homosexuals as women's organizations formulated plans for action that would address the issues of all women, including lesbians. The step was bold because, at the beginning of the 1960s, homosexuality was a taboo subject for many Americans. Although some homosexuals had joined homophile, or gay, organizations following World War II, the vast majority kept their sexual preferences to themselves for fear of losing their jobs or being shunned socially. Throughout the 1950s, homosexuals were condemned as sinners by many religious leaders, pronounced mentally ill by psychiatric experts, and harassed by police in the many states that had laws against homosexual behavior.

The more permissive attitudes of the 1960s created an atmosphere in which some gays and lesbians began to assert themselves both socially and politically. The hippies' example of sexual experimentation and social nonconformity helped people feel freer to express their sexual preferences, which opened the door for some homosexuals to become more public about their lives. Furthermore, the political organizing that created the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement provided a foundation on which homosexuals could base their own desires for liberation. Many homosexuals joined these early movements, as well as the women's movement that emerged at the end of the 1960s, as sympathizers of persecuted people and as champions of tolerance. Working to ensure a fairer society for blacks and women may have encouraged many homosexuals to think about winning social equality for themselves as well.

The first march for homosexual rights occurred in May of 1965 when ten men and women picketed the White House. Several other small protests followed that year. The next year, the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations tried to begin a larger movement by creating a legal fund, sponsoring protests, and promoting the formation of homophile groups. By the end of the decade, however, membership in these groups had reached only 5,000, indicating the reluctance of homosexuals to announce their sexual preference. It took a violent act of rebellion to start the gay liberation movement in earnest.

The Stonewall Rebellion marked the real start of the gay liberation movement. Until the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, homosexuals had rarely resisted police harassment and tried to "fit in" to American society. But when police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, New York, something unusual happened: instead of allowing the police to shut down the bar, two thousand gays and lesbians rose up in a violent protest that lasted for two days. As the violent clash subsided, gays, lesbians, and others gathered at peaceful protest rallies, prompting many homosexuals to announce their sexual orientation and to join the movement for gay rights. The Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activist Alliance formed in the aftermath of Stonewall and soon became the most influential gay rights groups, sponsoring picketing of anti-gay establishments, forming alliances with organizations such as the Black Panthers, and setting up "kiss a queer" booths at student functions on college campuses. Other political action groups incorporated lesbian and gay issues into their agendas. In 1971 NOW became the first major national women's organization to support lesbian rights, making lesbians the theme of two national conferences. By the turn of the new millennium, homosexuals had won basic civil rights and job protections, but much work had yet to be done to achieve equality. For example, many states prohibited gay marriage, denying gays the ability to inherit the death benefits or to be protected under the health insurance of their significant others.

women, including equal pay, childcare, education, abortion, and birth control rights. Important early court decisions that have benefited women include the 1971 Supreme Court decision in Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corporation, which outlawed the practice of private employers refusing to hire women with preschool children, and the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, which made abortion legal throughout the nation.

The movement had also succeeded in opening a multitude of opportunities for women, making it possible for women to advance in fulfilling occupations, to ask for and to receive help with domestic chores from their spouses, and to continue to work for real equality in their own home and in the larger society. Many of the original organizations continued to thrive—NOW had membership of more than one million in 2004—and new ones have emerged. The debate about women's roles in American society continues to this day. Some organizations continue to push for more legal, economic, and political rights for women, while others insist that the women's movement has destroyed the American family and advocate for women to return to domestic lives centered on family nurturing. While the movement may have hinged on the question between stay-at-home mothers and working women at first, over the years more complex issues entered the debate, including the disparities of race, wealth, class, and sexual orientation.

Sexual revolution

Many people speak of the sexual revolution that occurred during the 1960s, bringing with it a newfound openness toward sexuality in American culture. But the sexual revolution's definition, origins, and participants are all subjects of great controversy among historians. The one thing that everyone agrees on is that "something" important happened during the decade. It wasn't that there were prohibitions on sex in the United States before the 1960s; after all, the post-World War II baby boom began in the bedroom. But there were real cultural prohibitions on public discussions or displays of sexuality. What was new in the 1960s was the buzz about sex in public conversations, in books, on television, and in movies. The 1960s saw the removal of social and legal impediments to talking about or practicing sex. The introduction of the first oral contraceptive pill in 1960 started the public talking about sex and contraception. In 1964 the Supreme Court ruled that Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer was not obscene, opening the way for books, magazines, and movies to begin referring to and showing sex in explicit ways that were once censored. Without these barriers, sex became a hot topic and people began to talk about the beginning of a "sexual revolution" during the decade.

The Pill

The oral contraceptive pill liberated women from the fear of pregnancy, allowing them to engage in sex for pleasure. Single women could have sexual encounters without the threat of unwanted pregnancy and married women could use the pill to help limit the size of their families. The creation of the pill, developed from research in laboratories throughout the world, is credited to Gregory "Goody" Pincus and his assistant M. C. Chang of the Worcester Foundation in Massachusetts, and John Rock of Harvard Medical School. Manufactured and distributed by Searle Pharmaceutical Company, the pill, named Enovid, first hit the market in 1960. Many women were glad to have a product to help them gain more control over their sex lives. By 1963 nearly 2.3 million women took the contraceptive daily, a number that continued to rise into the twenty-first century.

Developments in the preceding decades built momentum for the changes to American society in the 1960s. Scientific studies revealed the importance and variety of Americans' sexual lives, and the definitions of pornography and obscenity were challenged in courts. The work of two scientists especially influenced the revolution of the 1960s: Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957) and Alfred Kinsey (1894–1956). Starting in the 1920s, psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich published his sexual theories that questioned the American moral principles that applied more severe standards of sexual behavior to women than to men—allowing men more sexual experiences than woman—and the wisdom of abstinence for adolescents. Reich argued that men and women, young and old, need sexual release to ward off sickness. He also believed that political change could only occur when the repression of human sexuality ended. After moving to the United States in 1939, Reich publicized the need for humans to reach orgasm, or the peak of sexual excitement, publishing more books and developing a metal and wood box called the Orgone Energy Accumulator that supposedly absorbed the necessary energy for the person inside to achieve orgasm. Although U.S. government officials seized and burned his books and boxes and threw Reich in jail, his ideas sparked debates that laid a foundation for the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Biologist Alfred Kinsey's studies of American sexual habits, the Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and the Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), revealed the vast difference between Americans' actual sexual activities and the social expectations about sex. Kinsey studied heterosexual and homosexual behavior, presenting all his findings without placing a value on one type of sexuality over another. His data revealed that women, contrary to popular belief, were interested in sex for pleasure as well as for reproduction. Moreover, his study showed that half of the women surveyed had premarital sex, or sex before marriage, and 25 percent had extramarital affairs, or sexual intercourse between a married person and someone other than his/her spouse. The work of these scientists along with the changing definitions of pornography created an atmosphere in the 1960s that accepted discussion and questioning of sexuality.

New social norms

In 1959, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the publication of British novelist D.H. Lawrence's novel, Lady Chatterley's Lover, a book that had been censored for its description of adultery, was protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. This decision opened the floodgates for many books and movies dealing directly with erotic topics. By the 1960s Americans could read about sex in explicit language in scientific reports, how-to books, and novels, and they could see candid depictions of some sexual activities on film for the first time. Jacqueline Susann's novel Valley of the Dolls (1966) included sexually explicit descriptions and Helen Gurley Brown's Sex and the Single Girl (1962) offered young women advice on how to develop an active sex life while still unmarried. These and other books and movies shattered the idea that sex should only be practiced within the confines of a traditional marriage. The 1967 movie The Graduate, for example, depicted a middle-aged woman seducing her daughter's boyfriend. Sexual explicitness became more common, creating huge profits for publishers, filmmakers, and retailers.

The legal decisions and scientific studies of the earlier decades—together with the social upheavals of the civil rights, antiwar, and women's movements, the increased use of drugs, and the pulsing beats of rock music—ignited a variety of debates among Americans regarding sex. What role did romantic love play in sexual relations? Should men and women be able to fulfill their sexual urges outside marriage? What about interracial and same-sex relationships? These were just a few of the questions the sexual revolution triggered. New moral attitudes about sex also developed, and perhaps the most visible group engaged in developing these new sexual mores were the hippies, drug-taking cultural rebels. Public displays of nudity increased; for example among crowds at rock concerts, some women would bare their breasts. Rock stars sang about sex and some exposed themselves on stage. When popular rock stars such as Janis Joplin sang, "get it while you can" or Crosby, Stills, and Nash sang, "if you can't be with the one you love, honey, love the one you're with," they helped create an air of sexual permissiveness across the country. Promiscuous sexual encounters, or sexual experiences with multiple partners, increased, especially after the introduction of the birth control pill in 1960 freed women from the worry of unwanted pregnancies. Men and women began marrying later and having several sexual partners before marriage. Singles bars opened and drew people looking for sexual partners, personal ads with requests for sexual partners appeared in newspapers, and a controversial, highly publicized practice called "swinging," or the practice of couples switching sexual partners, started. Homosexuality also became more accepted and visible to the public.

The debates and sexual experimentation of the 1960s left Americans divided on issues of birth control, homosexuality, marriage and divorce, pornography, premarital sex, and sex education. Some felt that the new social practices freed Americans from cultural limits on their happiness. Others felt the new social permissiveness degraded women, led to juvenile delinquency, and undermined the sanctity of marriage, and would ultimately unravel the fabric of the traditional, family-centered American society. Controversy continued into the early 2000s in lingering battles between conservative and liberal politicians over federal and state funding of abortion, sex education, and healthcare for pregnant women. A potentially deadly legacy of the sexual revolution was the increase in occurrences of sexually transmitted diseases, such as gonorrhea, syphilis, hepatitis B, and herpes. (AIDS was first discovered in 1981.)

For More Information


Douglas, Susan. Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media. New York: Time Books, 1995.

Dudley, William, ed. The 1960s. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven, 2000.

Escoffier, Jeffrey, ed. Sexual Revolution. New York: Thunder Mouth's Press, 2003.

Hippies and Sex

In 1965 a group of people living in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco drew the attention of the nation. Living a lifestyle that included drugs and free love and sharing an intense interest in creating a peaceful, tolerant society, the hippies became a highly visible part of what came to be known as the counterculture. These young people had dropped out of mainstream society, as a rebellion against the pressure to conform to the social norms prevalent in the 1950s: mainly the pressure to marry, have children, and get a job. Some also rebelled against the draft and the war in Vietnam. Hippies dressed in colorful homemade or used clothing, rejected non-essential consumer spending, and both men and women wore their hair long. In their attempt to create a new society, hippies often lived in communes, cooperative communities in which people lived and worked together for the common good of the group.

Hippies believed that sexual freedom, including having more than one sexual partner, would spread love throughout the world. Some of the hippies' famous slogans were: "Make love, not war," from an unknown source, and "Love is all you need," from a Beatles song. Nearly 15,000 hippies lived peacefully in the Haight-Ash-bury district in 1966, and many hoped their developing culture would change the world. But the high point of hippie culture came in 1967 with the Summer of Love, when thousands of young people converged on the Haight-Ashbury district. The crowded streets became violent as drug addicts began stealing to support their habits and racial tensions sparked. In October of 1967, realizing that their utopian culture was ending, some hippies in the district paraded a coffin through the streets to symbolize the death of the hippie. Nevertheless, the image of the hippie lived on in songs, movies, and the popular imagination.

Farber, David, and Beth Bailey, with others. The Columbia Guide to America in the 1960s. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Harlan, Judith. Feminism: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1998.

Holland, Gini. The 1960s. San Diego, CA: Lucent, 1999.

Hurley, Jennifer A. Feminism: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2001.

Ogden, Annegret. The Great American Housewife: From Helpmate to Wage Earner, 1776-1986. Westport, CT: Greenhaven Press, 1986.

Williams, Mary E., ed. The Sexual Revolution. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2002.

Web sites

Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.www.glaad.org (accessed on June 18, 2004).

National Organization for Women.www.now.org (accessed on June 18, 2004).

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