Women’s Liberation in the 1960s

The 1960s was a decade of change, inspiration, and the fight for equality. The African Americans were revolting against the whites, demanding equal treatment and an end to segregation once and for all. Native Americans, Hispanics and homosexuals pushed for a guarantee of equal housing and job opportunities. Many of the youth protested against the Vietnam War; and the counterculture, or “hippies,” used drugs and sex to rebel against society. While women made up a majority of the United States, they still faced gender discrimination and were seen as sex objects in men’s eyes. The societal gender roles were strict and it was widely accepted that men were more dominant, aggressive, strong and unemotional. Men were meant to be politicians, doctors and business leaders; while women were simply seen as the homemaker, the child bearer and a sexual object. Many women grew tired of their humdrum lives of being the perfect housewife and wanted it to be socially acceptable to take the same roles in the community as men. Highly influenced by The Feminine Mystique, women began coming together from all over the country and forming groups to discuss topics such as the unequal treatment of women in the workplace and the fact that they were seen by men as sex objects; they knew that it was time for change.

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan is believed to have been the start of second-wave feminism. In 1957, Friedan attended her 15-year reunion at Smith College and surveyed her former classmates, discovering that many of them were unhappy because of their limited roles in society, despite their prosperous lives. She attempted to publish her results of the study, but women’s magazines refused, so she continued to work on the problem on her own. Her extensive research resulted in the publishing of The Feminine Mystique in 1963. The book explains the post-World War II era, where women were expected to be mothers and housewives and nothing else. It explores the unhappiness of mid-20th century women, calling it “the problem that has no name.” Many women felt depressed because of their expected gender role: to be submissive to men mentally, physically, financially and intellectually. Women wanted to be their own person; they wanted to be able to do the same things as men and have a little power of their own (Napikoski).

The “feminine mystique” was the idealized image to which women tried to conform despite their lack of fulfillment (Napikoski). Friedman explained that if women could escape the traditional notions of being a female, then they could truly enjoy being women.  After reading the book, many women realized that they were not alone and they were inspired to step out of the bounds of traditional feminism. The Feminine Mystique became an international best seller and had over one million copies sold. It is still used today as a key text in Women’s Studies and some history classes.  Betty Friedman gave women hope and helped them believe that they had much higher potential, rather than just being a housewife.

In 1963, soon after The Feminine Mystique was published, President John F. Kennedy created the Commission on the Status of Women to study the issues facing women. The commission issued a report stating that women faced discrimination in several ways, including in the work place and school. Even in elementary school, girls were not encouraged to pursue their educations, programming them at a young age to accept and fit into their cultural role as housewife. The commission recommended several actions that should be taken to help stop this. They suggested that college admissions have more flexible requirements, job counseling services for women, an end to discrimination when it comes to employment, and government sponsored day care centers (Kallen, 82).

President Kennedy supported the commission’s findings and on June 10th, 1963, he signed the act into law as part of his New Frontier Program, therefore establishing equal pay for men and women performing the same job duties. After Kennedy’s assassination, in 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. Title VII banned employment discrimination based on gender, race and other grounds, as well as establishing the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). However, despite the passage of bills against gender discrimination, women still experienced bad attitudes towards them in the workplace and it was not until several protests and lawsuits later that these bad attitudes seized (Kallen, 82).

Betty Friedan took note that despite these new laws being passed, women were still being discriminated. She observed the accomplishments of black civil rights organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and she decided to take a similar approach and organize a group to advance the rights of women. In 1966, Friedan and twenty-eight other women each contribute five dollars as a seed fund for the National Organization for Women (NOW). They quickly raised more money and by the end of the year, they had set up seven task forces to focus on women’s issues: family life, education, employment, media, religion, women in poverty, and women’s legal/political rights (Kallen, 88).

The women of NOW believed that women’s liberation could be achieved through child care, maternity benefits, equal job training opportunities, abortion rights, and the passage of an equal rights amendment to the Constitiution (Feinstein, 45). In 1967, after much lobbying from NOW, President Johnson signed a bill that prohibited sex discrimination in employment by the federal government and by contractors doing business with the government (Kallen, 88). After the passing of this bill, NOW put a majority of its efforts into urging Congress to adopt the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution. The amendment was first proposed in 1923, but its attempts of passage caused a lot of controversy. It stated, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States on account of sex.” Corporations argued that if women were paid the same as men, it would result in bankruptcy. Military planners worried that the ERA would force them to use women in combat roles. NOW fought for the ERA to be passed for years, but the amendment eventually died in 1982 (Kallen, 88).

Despite the death of the Equal Rights Amendment, women still made political advances. In 1968, NOW member Shirley Chisholm became the first African American woman elected to the House of Representatives. However, in 1969, even though women made up 53% of the United States, only eleven women served in Congress out of the 535 members. NOW also influenced the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to rule that employers could not place separate male and female “Help Wanted” advertisements in newspapers. They believed that these advertisements discouraged women from applying for jobs that they were perfectly capable of doing. In 1969, another NOW-backed victory for women was announced when the Fifth U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that women could not be forbidden to perform certain duties because of lifting requirements. This ruling helped to break down many barriers for women in industries where physical labor was necessary (Kallen, 89).

Meanwhile, NOW was generating controversy over abortion rights. NOW supported abortion, but it was currently illegal in several states, as well as opposed by the Catholic Church and several political organizations. After several battles throughout the sixties, the Supreme Court finally legalized abortion in 1973 in the Roe v. Wade case. Another controversial subject for women’s rights to her own body in the 1960s was over “the Pill,” which referred to the contraceptive taken by women which made it possible to have sex without getting pregnant. Within eighteen months of being approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1960, over half a million women were on the Pill. By 1964, the number increased to 3.5 million; and by 1966, over 50 percent of all married women under the age of twenty, and 81 percent of college graduates under the age of 25 were taking birth control (Kallen, 87). Women took the Pill to avoid falling into the family trap. The traditional American family had children, one after another and with very little time in between each birth. The Pill made it possible to space out the births of their children and advance their careers or receive college degrees. While married women used the Pill to slow down the rate of child birth, single women used the Pill to postpone marriage. The Pill sparked a sexual revolution and by separating sex from procreation, women were free to pursue pleasure without being slowed down by marriage and/or children (Peterson, 73).

The National Organization for Women (NOW) was not the only group of women working towards the complete equality of women to men. Many women joined mainstream organizations like NOW, but there were also more radical feminist groups that used protest tactics to prove their point and catch media attention. In 1968, an organization known as the New York Radical Women (NYRW) protested in front of the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey by using a sheep to represent mindless and submissive image of women that beauty contests stood for (Kallen, 90).

These women protestors argued that the beauty pageant promoted physical attractiveness and charm as the primary measure of a woman’s worth. They passed out fliers announcing all of the activities within their protest, including picket lines, a Boycott on the commercial products related to the Pageant and a midnight Women’s Liberation rally when Miss America was to be crowned on live television. They said that the protest would be peaceful to avoid arrest, but in the worst case scenario, if there were to be arrests, the women were to reject being cuffed by male authority and demand to be arrested by women instead. Coincidentally, women were not permitted to make arrests in Atlantic City. The entire protest would refuse help from men to further prove their point of women being independent and not needing men to get by (Kallen, 92).

The phrase “Women’s Liberation” was used for the first time on a banner used in the Miss America Pageant protest. Camera operators focused on the banner and the phrase flashed across television sets throughout the world. The New York Radical Women ended up attracting more attention than the Pageant itself; and this demonstration became the first in a long series of media-grabbing events that were staged by women in the sixties (Kallen, 92). In the protest, women used what was known as the Freedom Trash Can, in which they threw their bras, false eyelashes, wigs, girdles, curlers, women’s magazines and anything that represented feminism into. It became a regular icon in women’s protest rallies, representing women separating from their stereotypical role that society assigned to them.

Besides lobbying and picketing strikes like the one at the Miss America Pageant, “bra burning” was another well-known form of protest. Although few women actually set their bras on fire, many supported what it stood for. Bra burning not only made a stand for women’s rights, but it also symbolized women’s independence from men. Many women threw their bras in the garbage as a sign of liberation; some even stopped wearing bras altogether (Bra Burning).

In the midst of all the protests and lobbying in the 1960s, women all across the country were forming conscious-raising groups, where they would meet and discuss the personal details of their lives. These groups often helped women discover how much they had in common with one another. For the first time, women were able to openly discuss personal tragedies such as abuse and rape. As these issues were brought out into the open, support and counseling groups were formed to give women a place to seek help and put them on the road to recovery (Kallen, 95).

The idea to start a consciousness-raising group occurred early in the existence of the New York Radical Women (NYRW) organization. NYRW member Kathie Sarachild realized that the personal experience of an individual woman could be helpful for many other women. When the conscious raising groups met, they would pick a topic related to women’s experience, such as dating or abortion, and the women would go around, each speaking on the topic. In the end, they would discuss what they had learned (Napikoski). In addition to giving women a sense of sisterhood, conscious raising groups also helped women learn how to be more vocal and talk about their feelings that they would have previously dismissed as unimportant.

It is believed that conscious raising groups were the backbone of the women’s liberation movement, just as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was said to be the beginning of the movement. Conscious raising groups were probably the most character building experiences for women in the 1960s and The Feminine Mystique may have been the most influential work for them. With the help of conscious raising groups and the inspiration of The Feminine Mystique, women from all over the country came together to claim their independence from men and the traditional ideal of the female. They fought for equality, justice and their rights by protests and lobbying. Even though they hit several roadblocks, they had several successes, including the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the founding of the Commission on the Status of Women and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They successfully formed organizations like the National Organization for Women and New York Radical Women, two groups that helped transform the lives of American women. The women’s liberation movement also helped to raise awareness that college education lacked a woman’s perspective. Therefore, the first Women’s Studies programs were created as scholars attempted to re-examine history, literature, anthropology, psychology to explore the missing perspective (Napikoski).

With the inspiration of The Feminine Mystique, women from all over the country realized that it was time for change and began coming together to form groups that discussed sexism and the unequal treatment of females. Today, women are some of the strongest, most influential leaders in America. Women like Hilary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres have inspired millions and they may have never gotten the chance to do so without the vigor of the women from only a couple decades before them. Without the strong women of the 1960s and their persistence, women would not be where they are today; and they may still be housewives, leading a life that they simply settled for, rather than fulfilling their full potential and proving themselves to be powerful, independent and brave.

“Bra Burning in the 1960’s.” Women’s Rights 1960. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Jan. 2013.

Feinstein, Stephen. The 1960s from the Vietnam War to Flower Power. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow, 2000. Print.

Kallen, Stuart A. “The Changing Roles of Women.” Life in America during the 1960s. San Diego, CA: Lucent, 2001. 82-95. Print.

Napikoski, Linda. “Feminist Consciousness-Raising Groups.” About.com Women’s History. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Jan. 2013.

Napikoski, Linda. “The Feminine Mystique: The Book That Sparked Women’s Liberation.” About.com Women’s History. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Jan. 2013.

Napikoski, Linda. “The First Women’s Studies Department: Creation of the Women’s Studies Discipline.” About.com Women’s History. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Jan. 2013.

Petersen, James R. The Century of Sex: Playboy’s History of the Sexual Revolution, 1900-1999. New York: Grove, 1999. Print.


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