A Brief History of Women’s Liberation Movements in America
Alix Kates Shulman and Honor Moore Map Genealogies
of Feminist Activism
During the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, feminist activism—richly diverse both in the women involved and in its aims, tone, and strategies—exploded in the United States and around the world, forever changing society by expanding the rights, opportunities, and identities available to women. And at the center of everything that the women’s liberation movement achieved was the writing that both forged and propelled it, writing that continues to inspire, challenge, educate, and even offend.
Yet, by the mid-1980s, despite occasional victories, the feminist movement had become so distorted and vilified that the tag “feminist” was rejected by many women who had welcomed the changes in their lives the movement produced. At the end of World War II—and even as recently as 1970, as detailed by Gene Boyer in her essay, excerpted in this volume, “Are Woman Equal Under the Law?”—a husband’s forcing sex on his wife was not legally considered rape. In some states, unless there was a title establishing the wife’s ownership, all her purchases belonged to her husband, even if bought entirely with her own earnings, and a married woman could not make a contract or obtain a credit card without her husband’s signature.
In many states a mother who daily lifted and carried her toddler could be barred from any job that required lifting more than 25 pounds, or, in California, newspaper employment ads were segregated by sex, and sometimes also by race. There were no policewomen or female firefighters and hardly any women broadcasters—female voices were considered too “shrill.” In fact, any job that required authority was in practice off limits to women: most law and medical schools had female quotas, and women were excluded from the clergy of most religions. Women made on average 59 cents for every dollar a man made for similar work, with the largest gender pay gap for women of color. All hurricanes bore female names, women being considered the creators of chaos, and in 1970 a prominent physician famously declared on TV that women were unfit for high office due to “raging hormonal imbalances of the lunar cycle.”
The revolution began quietly in 1946, when a French philosopher in her thirties named Simone de Beauvoir began to write about what it meant to be a woman. When her book Le Deuxième Sexe (The Second Sex), which criticized all Western thought for positioning woman as Other and man as default, was published in France in 1949, it became a sensation, and, given its stance on religion and sexuality, was banned by the Vatican.
When The Second Sex: Woman as Other was published in the US in 1953, it had a profound effect, influencing many of the women who would go on to create the American feminist movement. One of them was Betty Friedan, then a freelance writer for women’s magazines, who surveyed her Smith College class at their fifteenth reunion and found that an overwhelming number had a common set of complaints, ranging from the vague to the desperate. To their shared malaise she gave the appellation “the problem that has no name.” The Feminine Mystique, published in February 1963, quickly became a best seller. Friedan based her conclusions, which included the need for married women to work outside the home, on her sample of white educated housewives. Though she did not take up the concerns of women, both white and of color, who already had outside jobs and whose paychecks were essential to a family’s survival, the book’s revelations of discrimination against all women reverberated through the culture.
Like The Second Sex, The Feminine Mystique was a call to action, but no movement yet existed. This changed in 1966, during the Third National Conference of Commissions on the Status of Women in Washington, DC, which was attended by Friedan. The network of state commissions had been created five years earlier by President John F. Kennedy to document the barriers that limited women’s full participation in American life. The initial report of the commissions, published in 1963, endorsed women’s legal equality, and sex—what is now called gender—was included in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as one of the bases for which employment discrimination was prohibited. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was established as Title VII’s enforcement arm, but although nearly a third of the almost two thousand complaints filed during the EEOC’s first year concerned sex discrimination, those complaints were seldom acted upon. Anger at this injustice led 28 conference attendees, meeting in Friedan’s hotel room in June 1966, to plan a civil rights organization “to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, assuming all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men.”
The result was the National Organization for Women (NOW), the first grassroots organization of the movement that has been written into history as the second wave of feminism. (The 19th-century women’s rights movement, which won the women’s suffrage amendment in 1920, is known as the first wave.) NOW’s first organizing conference was held in Washington, DC, four months later. The 49 members in attendance—five of whom have writings in this volume: Friedan, Gene Boyer, Mary O. Eastwood, and civil rights activists Pauli Murray and Shirley Chisholm—hammered out a platform focused on ending legal discrimination in employment, education, and reproductive rights. NOW grew rapidly and today has hundreds of thousands of members, female and male, in more than five hundred chapters nationwide.
Soon after its founding, NOW would feel pressure from an emerging movement of radical women activists to broaden its concerns. That movement, which named itself women’s liberation, had its own history, goals, and style that differed from those of NOW. Its members, many of them young veterans of the civil rights, antiwar, and student movements, began to extend the radical social analyses they had learned in those movements to the situation of women. Some organized women’s caucuses within their civil rights and New Left organizations, such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Young Lords Party (both represented in this volume); but others, after presenting their ideas to dismissive or contemptuous male comrades, decided their cause required an independent women’s movement. Unlike women’s rights activists (also sometimes called moderate, reformist, or liberal feminists) who created traditional organizations like NOW and the National Women’s Political Caucus with officers, bylaws, and chapters, radical feminists came together in small, autonomous, women-only groups that rejected formal structure and focused on exposing the deep-rooted attitudes of sexism and misogyny and challenging everyday humiliations and injustices.
In Chicago, in 1967, a small band of radical feminists established The Westside Group, widely considered the country’s first radical feminist group. When its cofounder, a 22-year-old art student named Shulamith Firestone, moved to New York City later that year, she helped organize New York Radical Women, the first group in that city. Soon small groups were forming in cities, in towns, and on campuses all over the country—from Boston, New York, and Gainesville, to Chicago, Detroit, Iowa City, and Madison, to Seattle, Berkeley, and Los Angeles. By the early 1970s, radical feminists of diverse identities, ethnicities, races, classes, and sexualities had organized into groups—mainly of like rather than mixed membership—of Black feminists, lesbian feminists, socialist feminists, separatist feminists, high school feminists, as well as collectives devoted to a particular feminist activity, such as providing safe, though illegal, abortions; publishing a journal or books; opening a gallery or bookstore; opposing racism; practicing women’s self-defense; teaching vaginal self-examination; and starting a day care center or a battered women’s shelter.Soon after its founding, NOW would feel pressure from an emerging movement of radical women activists to broaden its concerns.
In some cities, umbrella organizations like The Chicago Women’s Liberation Union or the Boston area’s Bread and Roses gathered autonomous groups into loose coalitions. Frequently groups divided or split apart—resulting in the proliferation of new ideas and new organizations, and sometimes anger or heartbreak. Yet despite their many differences, radical feminists shared the overarching goal of creating a mass women’s liberation movement to transform power relations between the sexes and thus revolutionize society.
Having grown up in a society in which female subordination in nearly every aspect of life was not only taken for granted but so normal as to be often invisible, radical feminists embraced as their foremost task convincing women of their oppression as women—and the need for a women’s liberation movement. This was accomplished through two major organizing methods: the technique of consciousness-raising (CR), by which women in small groups gained understanding of their subjugation through shared personal testimony—described in Kathie Sarachild’s article on CR in this volume—and women’s liberation writings, a creative ferment of ideas proliferated via feminist newspapers, journals, conferences, and radio programs on radical stations. For many, recognition of a need for change was instantaneous—an experience Jane O’Reilly named a click! moment in her 1972 article “The Housewife’s Moment of Truth,” included here. A mounting sense of purpose aroused excitement, commitment, and sometimes such feelings of rebirth that some women, rejecting patronymics, renamed themselves: Elana Dyke-woman, Laura X, and Judy Chicago, whose name change proclamation we include in our photo insert.
Under the slogans “the personal is political” (discussed by Carol Hanisch in her article “The Personal Is Political”) and “sisterhood is powerful,” women in small groups, in many thousands of living rooms, kitchens, and newly opened women’s centers throughout the country, practiced CR by describing their maltreatment and exploitation in a range of ordinary experiences concerning sex, race, class, family, jobs, housework, health care, childcare, and more. Speaking for the first time of forbidden truths or private humiliations—as would women in the #MeToo movement decades later—they discovered that feelings they thought unique were widely shared: resentment at being judged by their looks, at having to fake orgasms, at being overlooked, silenced, and patronized. In 1969, CR went public in a Greenwich Village church, when the radical feminist group Redstockings presented the movement’s first public speakout—on the subject of abortion—to be followed in subsequent years by other groups’ speakouts on rape and sexual harassment, which ended taboos and opened vital national conversations. It was after reading about the first rape speakout that I, Honor, joined my first CR group in Manhattan.
At the same time, from the mid-1960s on, beginning with Valerie Solanas’s notorious SCUM Manifesto, excerpted here, there was a great outpouring of feminist writing, from incitements to action, group manifestos, and visionary analyses to seething satires, passionate polemics, and the burgeoning of feminist poetry, fiction, plays, film, and visual arts. Before photocopier technology and the Internet, these writings circulated as mimeographed pamphlets piled onto literature tables at every feminist gathering, and in the new feminist newsletters and journals springing up across the country, such as Chicago’s Voice of the Women’s Liberation Movement and The Lavender Woman, Washington DC’s off our backs, Denver’s Big Mama Rag, Iowa City’s Ain’t I a Woman?, Seattle’s Lilith, Baltimore’s Women: A Journal of Liberation, Boston’s No More Fun & Games, New York’s Aphra, Triple Jeopardy, and Notes from the First Year, and the San Francisco Bay Area’s Tooth and Nail, It Ain’t Me Babe, and Mother Lode.
In 1970, the first anthologies of these writings were issued by mainstream publishers and reached an eager mass audience: Sisterhood Is Powerful, The Black Woman, Voices of Women’s Liberation, Women’s Liberation: A Blueprint for the Future. Also that year, two scathing book-length radical feminist manifestos, The Dialectic of Sex by Shulamith Firestone and Sexual Politics by Kate Millett, both excerpted here, swept the nation and the best-seller lists.Having grown up in a society in which female subordination in nearly every aspect of life was not only taken for granted but so normal as to be often invisible, radical feminists embraced as their foremost task convincing women of their oppression as women.
On August 26, 1970—50 years to the day after the suffrage amendment was adopted and two years after the small, now iconic Miss America protest garnered national media attention for women’s liberation (see photo insert), and which I, Alix, helped to plan and gleefully attended—the movement held its first mass demonstration. A huge march, organized by a coalition of feminist groups as a Women’s Strike for Equality, urged women not to go to work or do housework that day (“Don’t iron while the strike is hot!”).
Some fifty thousand feminists, individually and in more than seventy groups—with names like Revolutionary Childcare Collective, the Lesbian Food Conspiracy, Black Women’s Liberation, Women Artists in Revolution, and Half of Brooklyn, representing both the radical and moderate branches of the movement—paraded together in triumph down New York’s Fifth Avenue (see photo insert). Demonstrators carried signs expressing the day’s spirit and demands: “Free Universal Childcare,” “I Am Not a Barbie Doll,” “Free Abortion on Demand,” “Liberté Egalité Sororité,” “Equal Pay for Equal Work.” In Boston, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Minneapolis, St. Louis, San Francisco, and Los Angeles “sister marches” were held, drawing between one hundred and five thousand demonstrators. The movement had entered the mainstream.
The new movement encompassed a culturally, ideologically, and racially diverse multitude of activists and visionaries and a cadre of daring writers and theorists who would reevaluate nearly every aspect of women’s lives and so thoroughly open new avenues of opportunity that it would seem to subsequent generations they had always been there. The movement that began by addressing “a problem that has no name” had become a movement that named with impunity, bringing into being new ideas and opportunities. Among the new terms were sexism, sexual harassment, marital rape, date rape, wife battering, sisterhood, double and triple jeopardy (early designations of what came to be called intersectionality), womanism, and women’s liberation. The ninety pieces in this volume trace that movement’s arc.
The week of the August 26, 1970, strike and marches, the mass newsweekly magazine Time profiled author Kate Millett and put on its cover her portrait by Alice Neel. Meanwhile, at Newsweek, the other mass-circulation newsweekly, 46 women, many of them researchers who had no opportunities for advancement, let alone bylines—though their qualifications were usually equal to those of the male writers they assisted—were preparing to file an EEOC Title VII suit for sex discrimination. They shrewdly filed their suit on the very day Newsweek published “Women in Revolt,” a cover story about the new movement, for which the male editors had hired a freelance female writer. In 1973 the magazine settled the suit.The new movement encompassed a culturally, ideologically, and racially diverse multitude of activists and visionaries and a cadre of daring writers and theorists.
Frustrated at their marginalization by the mainstream media, another group of women journalists and editors launched, in January 1972, a national feminist monthly magazine they named Ms. for the honorific that conceals—as “Mr.” does—marital status. A year later, two young feminists, Kirsten Grimstad and Susan Rennie, hit the road to gather information on the panorama of the new women’s culture for a pair of books titled The New Woman’s Survival Catalog (1973) and The New Woman’s Survival Sourcebook (1975), which spread news of women-run services and resources available in towns and cities all over the country. In one locale, a discretely situated lesbian bar was repurposed as a venue for feminist poetry readings and theatre performances; in another, feminists took over an old-line sexist radical newspaper. Playwrights, fed-up actresses, and women directors who couldn’t get hired started women’s theatre groups, and women singers and musicians started festivals and record labels.
These guidebooks are snapshots of the scope and reach of feminism at the time, including women’s centers, women’s restaurants, bookstores, schools, communes, and other enterprises that catered to women, including, in Kansas City, a feminist hotel. Many of them would vanish within a few years, but some, like the Feminist Press, the Boston Women’s Health Collective, and a national network of battered women’s shelters and rape crisis centers, endured, sometimes evolving into nonprofit institutions.
Excerpted from the introduction to Women’s Liberation! Feminist Writings that Inspired a Revolution & Still Can, edited by Alix Kates Shulman and Honor Moore. Copyright © 2021 by Library of America. Used by permission of Library of America.