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1972, America, Gloria Steinem, women's liberation, women's movement

The Women’s Movement

Gloria Steinem declared 1971 the “Year of Women’s Liberation.”  And even though a year later, in 1972, the Supreme Court would rule unconstitutional separate hiring practices for men and women, there was still no consensus among observers or advocates as to what the women’s movement was all about – were they liberationists or feminists? Yet there seemed to be general agreement on two fronts: that women had too long suffered society’s oppression, and that the time had come to declare men and women not different but equal.  Time to shake off the shackles of the traditional social functions of women — functions that were products of the social institutions that caused them.  And those institutions were oppressive from the start – legal, economic, social, political institutions that refused women ownership, that refused them the vote, that paid them half the wages of a man doing the same job.

Even into the early 1960s the old way of thinking predominated, that, in America, men were so much more important to society than women, that they were stronger and smarter and therefore should be treated better, with a greater shot at a good education and more job opportunities and higher pay – because they were the breadwinners.  Many thought that whatever work a woman did – whether in the home or out – was always secondary to the man’s work, that he did the important jobs in the world — and whatever he did was important.

During World War II, when the men shipped out to war, it was left to the women to do their jobs, to trade in spatulas for jackhammers, to build the boats and planes and tanks and jeeps and guns and ammunition and parachutes and all the other pieces of what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called America’s “arsenal of democracy,” all the things that the men fighting overseas depended on to survive.  And the government helped the working women, by paying for day care centers, by creating training programs, by doing whatever they could to help Rosie the riveter get up and hammering in no time flat.

But once the war was over, the men were rewarded for their heroic efforts on behalf of freedom, while the women were punished for theirs.  The men got a slew of benefits, like college tuitions, home loans, health care and – perhaps most importantly – their jobs back.  Women were demoted or fired, sent back into the kitchen, their training programs destroyed, their day care centers demolished.  Their place was in the home.  Imprisoned.  Where else could they go?  All the exits had been sealed – and women shut off.   “Anonymous,” Virginia Woolf once said sadly, “was a woman.” How could such a thing happen in the land of equality?

What were the alternatives?

Here again the women seemed to be divided.  Some went the egalitarian approach: men and women were equal, therefore all sex roles must go – sex roles based on ancient divisions of labor, dating from the hunter-gatherer phase of human existence, when the men went out to slay the beasts while the women stayed at the home camp, communally gathering nuts and fruits, preparing the meals, tending to the children.   But modern technology made those roles painfully anachronistic.  Anyone could trek down to the Safeway and pick up a frozen TV dinner, bring it home and cook it in the oven.  And pharmacology could stop a women from becoming pregnant, so the birthing role could be controlled and with it women’s ancient childbearing burden.

Life was no longer a man-woman dichotomy.  And the egalitarian advocates believed that, when assigning roles by sex had finally disappeared, and people were freed to develop not as men or women but as individuals, independently, when every social function and lifestyle choice was fully integrated, blended until you couldn’t tell anything important about a person by knowing their sex, only then could women live in true liberty, having cast off the bonds of male-imposed femininity and gone culturally au naturel.

Other women asked, “Whoever said that men were something women should emulate?”  Not only should the roles be changed, they argued, but every institution that controls those roles.  Nothing short of total revolution.  Only then could everybody live free.  Not just women, but men as well.  Because, contrary to what they may have believed, men did not have it so rosy in the home of the brave.  They were wage slaves.  They were cannon fodder.  They were stress bombs.  Their lives were just as deplorable as the women’s.  Why?  Because the institutions that oppressed women oppressed people in general, men included.  Only by radically transforming those institutions – social, political, economic, military, whatever – could we all lead a more humane existence.   It was the difference between calling it a women’s rights movement or a women’s liberation movement.  You either fought for the same rights as men or you fought for the liberation of all humanity.

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About markwalston

Writer, historian, creative director, poet, playwright, author of nine books and nearly 200 essays and articles exploring a broad range of American social, cultural and historical topics.

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