"Ordinary" Women and the Second Wave: Rethinking U.S. Feminist Activism in the 1960s and 1970s

AHA Session 9
Thursday, January 6, 2011: 3:00 PM-5:00 PM
Wellesley Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Susan Ware, independent scholar

Session Abstract

Much attention has been given to the organized women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s: the formation of the National Organization for Women (NOW), the protest at the 1968 Miss America Pageant, the consciousness-raising sessions of women's liberation groups, and organized political fights for legalized abortion, government-funded childcare, and the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). More recently, attention has also been drawn to anti-feminist backlash that arose in these same years, oftentimes led by women themselves who disagreed with the ideologies that feminists espoused on the reasons for gender inequality. Scholarship has focused on Phyllis Schlafly's STOP ERA and other conservative women's groups that lobbied against the ERA and were key in halting its ratification, but women also participated in anti-abortion protest and battles against lesbian and gay rights, signaling their disagreement with the goals of feminist activism. Moreover, in letters to newspapers and magazines criticizing women's liberationists, "ordinary" women revealed their polarization from a women's movement that seemed to advocate the complete cultural destruction of all forms of gender difference. However, very little scholarship has focused on ordinary women who, while not participating in official feminist activism, believed in the goals of the feminist movement or expressed their agreement with feminist ideas in non-political ways. How did feminism affect the consciousness of ordinary women who did not participate in rallies or marches, but still noticed the effects of gender inequality on their own lives? And why did some women demonstrate agreement with feminist principles, but ultimately fail to join in the organized movement or identify themselves as feminists? This panel will present papers that seek to understand how feminist ideologies gained popular acceptance among women in the 1960s and 1970s, rather than focusing solely on the popular backlash against feminism. Our research explores how women's popular dress styles created controversies and inspired ordinary women to stand up for their right to dress as they wished; how “pink collar” working women used Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to fight for their own versions of equality in the workplace, without necessarily ascribing to the legal arguments used by feminist organizations; how African-American female athletes challenged boundaries of gender and race through their competitive success; and how one African-American female minister in Chicago melded religious beliefs in equality to the feminist movement, bringing feminist ideals into a realm often considered to be dominated by religious conservatives. These papers invite historians of feminism, women, and popular culture to consider how at least some principles of feminism gained broader approval in the 1960s and 1970s, and how feminist ideas shaped the lives of ordinary women in ways both large and small.

See more of: AHA Sessions