Feminists of the 1960s and 1970s

Natasha Zaretsky. Women’s Rights: People and Perspectives. Editor: Crista DeLuzio. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2010.

In the 1960s and 1970s, feminists created one of the most influential social movements in the history of the United States. Over a 20-year period, feminists generated a revolution in public policy, restructured older institutions, established new ones, and changed American culture. Feminists compelled people to reflect more deeply on gender relations, and, in the process, they expanded the meaning of freedom for both men and women. The women who comprised the movement differed along lines of race, class, and sexuality, and they did not always share the same strategies. For example, some sought to insure that women gained equality within preexisting institutions (such as the workplace and schools), while others sought to politicize issues (such as reproduction and rape) that had been excluded from the realm of public debate. But these diverse goals were what made feminism such a powerful force in the 1960s and 1970s. By the early 1980s, the movement had radically altered the politics, culture, and society of the United States.

Origins of Feminism

The feminist movement that emerged in the 1960s originated in changes that took place in the United States after World War II. The first change concerned the growing presence of women in the paid labor force. During the war, women had entered wage labor in unprecedented numbers, and the trend continued after 1945. A dominant postwar ideology emphasized women’s domestic duties as wives and mothers. But this ideology was belied by the fact that it was increasingly married women and mothers who sought paid employment. In 1950, married women accounted for 36 percent of the female labor force; by 1960, the number had jumped to 52 percent. Between 1940 and 1960, the number of dual income families—families comprised of both a husband and wife employed in the paid labor force—increased by over 200 percent. The reasons for women’s increased participation in the labor force varied along lines of class and race. Working-class women labored in order to sustain their families economically, while other women worked in order to secure their families’ position among the ranks of the middle class. For African American women, wage labor was a necessity, since by the mid-1960s, they were heading 25 percent of all African American families.

Despite these different motives, all women confronted pervasive discrimination and inequality in the postwar American workplace. The labor force was segregated along gender lines, with women often seeking employment as secretaries, waitresses, housecleaners, and retailers. Job listings that appeared in newspapers were divided by sex. Employers had separate pay scales for women and men; by 1966, women’s wages averaged only 60 percent of those of men. Meanwhile, women were excluded from academia, law, and medicine. Women also encountered uninvited sexual attention from male coworkers and bosses, and they had no way to fight back against male advances. Working women who became pregnant had no rights and could be fired on a whim. While these various forms of job discrimination hurt all women, they exacted the heaviest toll on racial minorities, who were consigned to the lowest-paying jobs. As late as 1970, one-third of all nonwhite working women were employed as private household workers. Postwar women thus confronted a contradiction: they were entering the workforce in increasing numbers, yet gender discrimination remained rampant.

The rise of working women was related to changes within the family. Divorce became more frequent in the decades after World War II; by 1973, the national divorce rate had approached the 50 percent mark. This rise meant that increasingly children were growing up in homes without their fathers. These changes in the family reflected a broader shift away from an earlier family wage economy (defined by a male breadwinner’s ability to support a stay-at-home wife and children) to a dual-earner economy in which both men and women would need to enter the labor market in order to survive. Within this new economy, women (whether married, single, or divorced) would have to secure employment outside the home. Yet labor legislation and economic policy continued to marginalize women economically. This was a contradiction that would spark feminist activism in the 1960s.

The feminist movement also had its origins in cultural changes that occurred in American life during the postwar years. The 1950s inaugurated a new era of openness surrounding female sexuality. In 1948, biologist Alfred Kinsey published the first of two volumes on sexual behavior, in which he reported that as sexual beings, men and women actually had much in common. In 1960, the federal government approved the use of the birth control pill, which gave women greater freedom to have nonprocreative sex. Two years later, Helen Gurley Brown wrote her bestselling Sex and the Single Girl, which encouraged young women to defer marriage and motherhood in favor of economic independence and sexual experimentation. In the 1950s and early 1960s, scientific research, birth control legislation, and popular culture undermined earlier ideologies of female sexuality, which tied women to restraint and their maternal role, in ways that would help pave the way for feminism.

The social movements of the postwar era also set the stage for feminist resurgence. After World War II, and especially after the 1954 Brown versus Board of Education Supreme Court decision (calling for school desegregation), African Americans became increasingly mobilized in their longstanding fight for racial equality. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, civil rights activists articulated a powerful rhetoric of freedom, equality, and justice. Meanwhile, activists in the New Left and the antiwar movement pursued a politics that combined a critique of U.S. policies with a quest for personal authenticity. In the years ahead, feminists would put forth a politics that combined these dual conceptions of freedom—on the one hand, a civil rights conception that linked freedom to the eradication of discrimination, and on the other, a New Left conception that linked it to the pursuit of personal authenticity.

The Fight for Women’s Rights

The feminist revolution of the 1960s and 1970s was made up of two distinct but overlapping political movements: the Women’s Rights Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement. The Women’s Rights Movement emerged in the mid-1960s. Rooted in the large-scale social transformations that had taken place since World War II, the movement was also linked to certain short-term causes. Between 1960 and 1965, policymakers and commentators began paying greater attention to the injustices that limited American women’s lives. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy created a Commission on the Status of Women. Under the leadership of former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the commission (made up of representatives from unions, governmental agencies, and women’s organizations) evaluated women’s place in the economic and legal system. It uncovered employment discrimination against women, as well as a dearth of adequate childcare options for working mothers. Published in 1963, the commission report had three immediate effects. First, President Kennedy issued a 1963 executive order requiring the federal civil service to hire for career positions without regard to sex. Second, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, which made it illegal to set different pay rates for women and men for the same work. Finally, commissioners decided to establish state commissions that conducted their own investigations into discriminatory laws.

In 1963, Betty Friedan published her bestselling book The Feminine Mystique. Born in 1921, Friedan was a wife, mother, and journalist who had spent her early literary career writing for leftist and labor movement publications. In 1957, Friedan attended her 15th reunion at Smith College, where she surveyed her fellow women graduates. The President’s Commission focused on the contradiction between women’s workplace participation and the persistence of sexism, but Friedan turned to a second contradiction: white, middle-class women received the early benefits of higher education, but their later lives were circumscribed by motherhood and marriage. The consequence, Friedan argued, was that these women were leading lives characterized by depression and personal frustration. Friedan’s study addressed the experiences of a narrow demographic group: white, middle class women who resided in the nation’s suburbs. But Friedan had set an important precedent for feminist politics by using women’s accounts of their own experience as a basis for a wider social critique.

A third watershed during these years was the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII of that act defined discrimination on the grounds of “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin” as an “unlawful employment practice.” Activists in the Civil Rights Movement had fought to secure a federal promise of fair employment for African Americans, and women’s rights activists soon discovered that Title VII could be used as a significant tool for combating sexism as well. Attorney Pauli Murray recognized the power of Title VII for challenging both racism and sexism simultaneously. When Southern Congressman Howard Smith proposed that sex discrimination be added to Title VII (possibly hoping to derail the bill), Murray drafted a memorandum that she distributed to every member of Congress. In it, she wrote, “If sex is not included, the civil rights bill would be including only half of the Negroes.” The inclusion of sex was particularly important for African American women, Murray contended, because they were the “heads of families in more than one fifth of all nonwhite families” (MacLean 2006, 121). The inclusion of sex in Title VII was significant for several reasons. First, Title VII represented an advance over the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which had only addressed the problem of wage discrimination for men and women employed in the same work. The larger economic obstacles confronting women revolved around sex segregation within the labor force (that is, that women were ghettoized into low-wage sectors of the economy). Second, Title VII acknowledged the reality of women’s employment and thus challenged a family wage ideal that identified men as the exclusive breadwinners within the family. Finally, Title VII’s inclusion of sex meant that women workers could appeal to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a newly formed federal agency that provided workers with a vehicle for suing employers who violated their right to fair treatment.

Soon after the EEOC opened in 1965, women workers began reporting to the agency the numerous obstacles that typified sex discrimination in the American workplace. Indeed, complaints from women workers made up 25 percent of the total number received by the EEOC. But most agency employees were initially unwilling to take women’s complaints seriously. The executive director of the EEOC described the inclusion of sex in Title VII as “a fluke” (MacLean 2006, 125). Yet only three years later, the agency’s employees had come to recognize the legitimacy of sex discrimination complaints. What had changed between 1965 and 1968?

The answer was that women activists demanded the enforcement of Title VII provisions. In June 1966, at the Third National Conference of Commissions on the Status of Women, approximately two dozen women, including Betty Friedan, formulated a resolution urging the EEOC to take seriously the problem of sex discrimination. When conference leaders responded that they could not issue a directive to a federal agency, the women formed the National Organization for Women, an organization committed to the fight for legal equality for women. The following October, NOW held its first conference, at which 300 men and women put forth the group’s statement of purpose, which demanded an end to occupational segregation and pay disparities, an end to discrimination in education and the professions, and the creation of a national system of childcare. The stated aim of NOW was “To take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, assuming all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership.” By the end of 1967, the organization had over 1,000 members.

The 1966 founding of NOW inaugurated a period of feverish women’s rights organizing. While NOW’s membership climbed, other feminist groups were formed. Women who opposed NOW’s support of abortion rights broke away from the organization in 1968 to form the Women’s Equity Action League (WEAL), which focused on ending sex discrimination in employment and education. Also emerging out of NOW was the Center for Women’s Policy Research, a think tank devoted to women and public policy. The National Women’s Political Caucus was founded in 1971 with the aim of supporting women political candidates, and a Professional Women’s Caucus was formed in 1970.

Between 1966 and 1976, these groups, along with others, facilitated a revolution in law and public policy. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson added gender discrimination to a 1965 executive order that prohibited discrimination by the federal government and by private employers. From that point on, affirmative action programs would address gender as well as race. By the early 1970s, Congress and the federal courts were also responding to feminist demands. Between 1971 and 1974, Congress prohibited sex discrimination in medical training programs, extended employment benefits to married women employed by the government, challenged gender discrimination in Social Security and other pension programs, prohibited creditors from discriminating against women, and passed a Women’s Equity Act designed to support women’s training programs. Activists also successfully fought for an amendment that extended to domestic workers the rights included in the Fair Labor Standards Act, a victory that was particularly meaningful for working-class and minority women. In 1972, Title IX of the Educational Amendments Act banned sex discrimination in education.

Meanwhile, both the upper and lower courts challenged sex-labeling of jobs, affirmed the principle of equal pay for equal work, and banned the press from referring to sex in job advertisements. Recognizing the significance of litigation to women’s rights organizing, feminists formed legal defense funds. The cumulative effect of this litigation was profound, in part because activists pursued industry wide (rather than individual) cases. In one landmark case, the EEOC brought a sex discrimination suit against AT&T. By the early 1970s, the Bell System (of which AT&T was a part) was the largest employer of women in the nation; it also barred women from jobs as linemen, classified all of its jobs according to sex, and denied women the benefits and promotions it accorded to men. Indeed, by 1970, the EEOC had received 1,500 complaints from women workers at AT&T (seven percent of the agency’s total). A government report on the case contended, “The Bell monolith is, without doubt, the largest oppressor of women workers in the United States” (MacLean 2006, 132). In 1972, the suit was settled out of court, when AT&T agreed to a multimillion-dollar payment to women workers and promised to implement a plan to end sex segregation at the company. The case reflected the power of litigation to change working women’s lives in dramatic and permanent ways; these transformations in the law, in turn, altered the way women workers saw themselves. As one female guard at a U.S. Steel plant recalled, “When I first took this job, I had to prove to them [the men] that women could handle it … Before this, I had been brought up to think women were inferior and I believed it. It wasn’t actually until I started doing what they considered a man’s job and found out that I could do it just as well that I actually began to believe” (145-46).

These victories were also accompanied by feminist defeats. Among them was the failure to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Support for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing women’s equality had been part of NOW’s early agenda, President Richard Nixon came out in support of the amendment in June 1970, and it won Congressional approval in 1972. But as the amendment moved through the states for ratification, grassroots activists launched a movement to defeat it. Responding to public ambivalence about recent changes in gender roles, ERA opponents like Phyllis Schlafly argued that the amendment would jeopardize the security of housewives who lacked job skills, that it represented a frightening encroachment of government power over family life, and that it would overturn federal laws that excluded women from the military draft. These arguments proved effective enough to derail the state ratification process, and by 1982, the ERA was dead.

A second feminist defeat revolved around childcare. A coalition of labor feminists, women’s rights advocates, and civil rights veterans had rallied successfully for the Congressional passage of the 1971 Comprehensive Child Development Act, which would have provided childcare on a sliding scale basis to working parents. Yet Nixon vetoed the act, arguing that it represented an endorsement of “communal approaches to childrearing” (Rosen 2000, 90). Like the defeat of the ERA, the failure to secure a national childcare program reflected both a deep ambivalence about shifting gender roles and a growing antigovernment sentiment in the 1970s.

Both academic and popular accounts of the women’s rights movement have critiqued mainstream feminist organizations like NOW for being dominated by white, middle-class women, and for failing to address the needs of working-class women and women of color. Yet the critique overlooks two significant facts. First, African American women were in the vanguard of the women’s rights movement when it came to issues like employment and public policy. Because African American women had been excluded from the family wage system, they had an acute sense of the need to combat sex, along with race segregation, in the workplace. Recognizing that racial and gender discrimination were interconnected, African American women like Pauli Murray helped to found NOW, and Fannie Lou Hammer and Shirley Chisholm (the first African American woman elected to the House of Representatives in 1968) were recruited to the organization. Aileen Hernandez, who had been among the first to fight against sex discrimination as an employee within the EEOC, succeeded Betty Friedan as NOW’s president in 1970. When it came to issues of workplace discrimination, in other words, African American women were trailblazers in implementing a feminist agenda.

NOW and other mainstream feminist organizations also formed coalitions with working-class women in the 1960s and 1970s. Women staffers of the United Auto Workers, like Olga Mader and Dorothy Haener, were involved in NOW from the start, and in 1974, they helped form the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), an organization designed to make unions more responsive to women’s needs. Organizations like Women Employed in Chicago, and the Boston-based group Nine to Five, mobilized women who were employed in the clerical and service industries. These groups helped define feminism’s legislative agenda. It was the UAW’s Dorothy Haener who urged NOW to fight for paid maternity leave for all working mothers, and in 1972, the organization successfully pressured the EEOC into issuing appropriate maternity leave guidelines. Six years later, women from the labor movement joined with feminists to persuade Congress to pass the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which protected pregnant women from unfair treatment. Like African Americans, working-class women were in the vanguard of legislative reform.

This is not to suggest that there were no divisions within organizations like NOW. For example, women of different classes were divided over the issue of the Equal Rights Amendment, since union women feared that the amendment would eliminate gender-based protective labor legislation that had been secured by the labor movement. And although African American women had been on the vanguard of feminist reform, they, along with other women of color, also encountered racism within feminist groups, and felt compelled to create their own autonomous organizations. The North American Indian Women’s Association was founded in 1970, the first National Chicana Conference was held in 1971, the first Conference of Puerto Rican Women took place the following year, and the National Black Feminist Organization was founded in 1973. The question of sexuality also threatened to split feminists. In 1969, Betty Friedan infamously described lesbianism as a “lavender menace” that undermined the larger aims of the women’s movement. The organization repudiated Friedan’s position by passing a resolution recognizing the civil rights of lesbians, and Friedan later reversed herself, publicly declaring her support for lesbian rights at the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston, Texas.

The Women’s Liberation Movement

The divisions within the women’s rights movement, over whether issues like abortion and lesbianism should be included in feminist organizing, reflected an attempt by organizations like NOW to focus on legal and institutional reform. But for some women, organizations like NOW did not go far enough when it came to analyzing, interpreting, and eventually uprooting women’s oppression. A desire to expand the definition of “the political” gave rise to a second movement in the late 1960s: the women’s liberation movement. While the women’s rights movement focused on eradicating gender discrimination in an array of institutions, the women’s liberation movement sought to redefine the relationship between the public and the private by insisting on the political nature of issues once seen as solely personal: issues like abortion, female psychology, and lesbianism.

The women’s liberation movement emerged in the late 1960s, and the women who were drawn to it tended to be somewhat younger in age, college educated, white, and middle class. Many had first become political through their activism in the Civil Rights, New Left, and antiwar movements of the era. Within these movements, they learned valuable organizing skills; at the same time, they encountered certain contradictions. In the Civil Rights movement, they were inspired by the struggle for racial justice and equality, and were exposed to models of female leadership in figures like Rosa Parks, Diane Nash, and Ella Baker. In the antiwar movement, women joined with men in indicting the Vietnam War. And within the New Left, young women worked with men to articulate a vision of participatory democracy that could combat the alienation they perceived within society. Yet within all of these movements, women were marginalized in certain ways. They were often expected to do traditional women’s work like cooking, laundry, and typing, and their crucial organizational roles were often obscured as male leaders assumed center stage. Sexual dynamics between men and women sometimes meant that women were treated as sexual objects. In a range of ways, the rhetoric of justice and equality within these movements was belied by women’s objectification and marginalization.

By the late 1960s, many women broke away from these movements and began organizing on their own behalf. They had come to believe that the problem of women’s oppression needed to be addressed on its own terms. They began to form their own political groups, including New York Radical Women, the Redstockings, the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, the Westside Group of Chicago, and D.C. Women’s Liberation. There were substantive differences between these various groups. Some activists believed that women’s oppression had its origins in capitalism, and thus argued that women’s groups should be tied to a larger leftist movement. Others argued that male supremacy was so pervasive that it required a complete break with leftist organizations. But they all shared a commitment to developing a more radical critique of women’s oppression than that put forth by organizations like NOW.

There were two crucial tools that women’s liberation activists used to analyze women’s oppression. The first was writing. Feminists circulated manifestos, essays, and position papers in which they reflected on the ways that women had been denied their full humanity: by media portrayals that treated women as sex objects, by the disproportionate responsibility for housework assigned to women, and by the male promulgation of myths that denied women their experience of sexual pleasure. In 1968, New York Radical Women published their papers under the title Notes from the First Year. Two years later, in 1970, feminist Robin Morgan published a feminist anthology called Sisterhood is Powerful, and Shulamith Firestone published The Dialectic of Sex, which argued that women’s oppression was rooted in biological reproduction. In all of these writings, activists explored themes that challenged the traditional division between public and private: female body image, the politics of housework, women’s sexuality, and reproduction.

The second political tool developed by women’s liberation activists was consciousness-raising (CR). Consciousness-raising was spearheaded by younger feminists who believed that overthrowing male supremacy required a psychological revolution no less than it required changes in law and policy. By bringing women together in small groups to discuss their personal experiences, feminists could link psychological problems to larger structures of oppression. As one feminist described it, consciousness-raising allowed for “the political reinterpretation of one’s personal life” (Echols 1989, 83). As CR groups spread throughout the country, women began to recognize collective patterns of sexism. At the same time, CR groups obscured differences of race and class among women.

As feminists used writing and consciousness-raising to explore sexism, they developed strategies such as public protests for calling attention to their cause. For example, New York Radical Women organized a protest of the 1968 Miss America Pageant. On the day of the pageant, women protestors gathered on the Atlantic City boardwalk and carried signs that read “No More Beauty Standards” and “Welcome to the Cattle Auction.” They even crowned a sheep as queen to underscore the absurdity of the pageant. At the center of the protest was a “Freedom Trash Can,” in which women threw away items that symbolized their oppression: dish detergent, false eyelashes, magazines, high heels, and bras (Rosen 2000, 160). The protest succeeded at bringing unprecedented public attention to the movement. On August 26, 1970, 50,000 women marched in New York City to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the woman suffrage amendment. Protestors draped a banner over the Statue of Liberty that read “Women of the World Unite,” and other women held marches and rallies in cities and towns throughout the country. The Women’s Strike for Equality was the largest women’s demonstration in the United States since the suffrage movement.

Protests brought the feminist cause to the attention of the mass media and the wider public. But the most enduring legacy of women’s liberation was the creation of new institutions that changed women’s relationships to themselves, their families, and their communities. Feminists founded women’s bookstores, coffee shops, music festivals, and summer camps with the aim of honoring and celebrating what they saw as a distinct women’s culture. In response to the male domination of the medical field, activists opened health clinics designed to address the specific needs of women patients. As more and more women began to speak out about their experiences with rape and domestic violence, activists opened battered women’s shelters and launched rape hotlines that provided assistance and refuge to women in crisis.

This institution-building reflected the dialectical relationship between the women’s rights movement and the movement for women’s liberation, and the extent to which activists from both groups often worked in tandem. The fight for women’s reproductive freedom provides an illustrative example. Even before the 1973 Roe versus Wade decision (which constitutionally guaranteed a woman’s right to an abortion), several states had begun liberalizing abortion laws. But beginning in the late 1960s, activists recast abortion as a feminist issue. Both activists in organizations like NOW and radical feminists disrupted legislative hearings, picketed, and organized sit-ins in which women could testify about their experiences with illegal abortion. While some activists focused on repealing abortion laws, other activists empowered women to learn more about their bodies. In 1969, a group of women in Boston began studying women’s anatomy, physiology, and sexuality. By 1971, they compiled all of their notes and lectures, a compilation eventually published in 1973 as Our Bodies, Ourselves. By the late 1970s, the Boston collective had been emulated in other cities and towns, and a national women’s health network existed that provided healthcare to women.

The women’s health movement highlighted the different histories that white women and women of color brought to the struggle for reproductive freedom. While white women conceived of reproductive freedom in terms of access to legal abortion and the right to prevent childbearing, women of color, who historically had been the victims of forced sterilization, insisted that the campaign for abortion rights be coupled with an attack on sterilization abuse. Thus, a multiracial coalition of feminists formed the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse, which demanded that states enact strict consent laws for sterilization procedures.

The emphasis on institution-building reveals the invaluable contribution of lesbians to the feminist movement. It was often lesbians who launched feminist bookstores and ran women’s health clinics; they sustained these institutions into the 1980s and beyond. The place of lesbianism in the women’s liberation movement was complex. Women’s liberation activists were divided around the question of lesbianism, with some radical lesbians contending that lesbianism was a necessary political choice for feminists, while other activists insisted that continued heterosexual relations with men did not compromise their feminist politics. Through speak-outs and consciousness-raising sessions, lesbian activists fought back against the homophobia they perceived within the feminist movement. Like women of color who had to balance their loyalties to feminism with their loyalties to their own racial communities, lesbians moved between feminism and gay liberation. Yet it was lesbians who often sustained the multiple feminist institutions that left such a lasting mark on American society and culture.


The feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s was among the most influential social movements in American history. As the country made the transition from an industrial to a postindustrial society, women entered the labor force in unprecedented numbers. By the late 1960s, the contradiction between women’s presence in the workforce and the persistence of sex discrimination unleashed a movement for women’s rights. Feminists took their inspiration from two primary sources: a Civil Rights Movement emphasis on equality, freedom, and justice, and a leftist emphasis on the quest for personal authenticity. Feminists transformed law and public policy, while creating new institutions that brought private issues into the public realm. Feminists were not always successful at bridging divisions of race, class, and sexuality. Yet it was African American women, working class women, and lesbians who propelled the movement forward and sustained it. Because of their exclusion from the family wage economy, African American women and working-class women were in the vanguard of the fight against workplace sexism. Meanwhile, it was often lesbians who supported feminist institutions over decades. The cumulative effect was that by the early 1980s, American society was dramatically different from what it had been only two decades earlier. Working together, millions of women created a feminist revolution, the outcome of which is still unfolding.