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The Women's Liberation
Movement of the 1960s by Vintee Sawhney
(Editor's Note: Vintee Sawhney is a high school student living in
Wisconsin. This essay was originally produced for her American Studies
class. Vintee conducted an e-mail inteview with CWLU Herstory Project
member Estelle Carol as part of her project.)
Imagine the life
of a woman before the 1960s. Her life had been difficult denied
basic rights, trapped in the home her entire life and discriminated
against in the workplace. Then, the 1960s came along with it, the
thought that women could have a say in their government, that they
could perhaps leave the home without feeling guilty about leaving
their children alone, and that they could receive a job and earn wages
liberation movement of the 1960s helped all these changes to come
about through its scores of policies and radical ways of thinking.
In fact, to illustrate some of these radical ways of thinking, some
extremist women made a Freedom Trash Can and filled it
with representations of women trapped in the home. They threw objects
like heels, bras, girdles, hair curlers, and magazines like Cosmo,
Playboy and Ladies Home Journal in it. The women
who put the Trash Can together planned to set it on fire, but decided
not to do so because burning of the contents prohibited a city law
(Echols 150). Nevertheless, given the numerous obstacles put in place
to stop women from changing their status in society, the womens
movement of the 1960s made significant changes for women in regards
to basic rights, in the home and in the workplace for the better.
basic rights in most aspects of society, from political rights to
reproductive rights, women in the United States fought vigorously
women fought for their rights not to symbolize beauty objects
or sex objects. In 1968, 100 women protested the Miss
America Beauty Pageant because it promoted physical attractiveness
and charm as the primary measures of a womans worth, especially
the swimsuit portion of the contest (Echols 149). Also, according
to Estelle Carol, the founder of the Chicago Womens Liberation
Union, women began to get over this idea in the 1960s, but many women
Overly obsessed with [their] body shapes and were often
prisoners of the fantasies [they] got from TV and magazine advertising.
But [they] were learning to question these things and even some of
the so-called supermodels spoke out bravely about the
need to get past this ridiculous beauty thing. (Interview).
Since the presence
of the media displayed beauty as the only way for happiness, the idea
that womens only importance was for their bodies became more
widespread. Later, once women recognized that they were worth more
than just looks, they took the measures to overcome the medias
hype about womens bodies. The largest protests staged, the Miss
America protest and the Freedom Trash Can protest, helped women claim
national attention towards their struggles. Because of the 1960s Civil
Rights Movement that was also going on at the time, the climate seemed
just right for women to speak out as well, therefore they received
attention too (Echols 153). Women also fought for the right to abortion
or reproductive rights, as most people called it.
In response to
the 1960s abortion effort, women established an underground abortion
hospital called Jane in Chicago. Following Janes
example, other secret clinics launched up everywhere. In big cities,
womens health clinics, rape-crisis centers and womens
bookstores developed. As a result of the New York Radical Women, a
group founded in 1967, a womens community developed
throughout cities and neighborhoods around the nation (Echols 160).
In these communities women got together to talk about their problems,
usually dealing with male chauvinism, and they discussed how to overcome
their problems. Probably the largest achievement for women regarding
abortion rights came in 1960 when the Food and Drug Administration
approved birth control pills and approved them for marketing a year
later (National Womens History Project). This proved to be a
major step for women in regards to their reproductive rights. Now
that women had an abortion option, they were not as tied to the home
as they had been. They had the ability to work and go out without
having to always feel the burden childbearing or childcare until they
were ready. If perhaps a woman made a mistake and became pregnant
before she was ready, the opportunity of abortion was always available
to her. To conclude, women during the 1960s fought hard to earn rights
that society denied them.
domestic changes for women were accomplished during the 1960s. For
example, childcare became a 1960s issue. Ms. Gwen Diab, an activist
and supporter of the womens struggle during the 1960s declares,
Women were hesitant to leave the home before the 1960s because
they felt guilty leaving their children all alone. By the 1960s, women
started to get over this feeling of guilt and left the house more
frequently to go to womens clubs or meetings (Interview).
Society believed that a woman could either be a career woman
or she could stay at home and have children. There was no way she
could do both (Sanger 517). Society also believed that if a
woman were to become pregnant, she would stay in the home, caring
for her children, because that is where she belonged. Margaret Sanger,
a traditionalist, also concluded that if a woman took the risk of
getting pregnant and if she was a working woman, [she] should
not have more than two children (Sanger 519). Childcare
was the first step towards breaking down societys view that
the sole responsibility rested with the woman (The Womens
Estelle Carol, since the number of workingwomen increased in the 1960s,
men felt reluctant to share housework, but this improved and men have
been taking more responsibility for childcare as well (Interview).
However, domestic issues went far beyond childcare in the 60s.
For instance, an anonymous woman in Iowa wrote many letters to her
sister relating her dealings with her feelings on the issue of domesticity.
Many times, she wrote about how she felt as though she was the only
woman that said anything in the homeowners meetings. Because
of her openness, the other women became scared of her and her seemingly
radical ways. Therefore, she felt as though she didnt
quite fit in with the other women in her community. One man even felt
scared of her because he thought that she was too smart to be a woman.
She stated, Nobody expects a woman to talk. It bothers them
all especially men when a woman talks (Gornick
This shows how
America still belonged a the traditional times where women were expected
to stay at home and take care of the home and children. These feelings
soon changed with the growing participation of women in their communities.
It took time for men to start to think of women as equals, and not
just the second sex. Unfortunately, these changes took
a long time in coming because women were thought to be feminist militants
if they wanted any type of change in society and called communists
and man haters if they had anything to do with the liberation movements
(60s Radicalism 150,151). Because of these accusations, many
housewives felt scared to get involved in the movement, while the
career women tried to gain their support (Gwen Diab). Because
the career women did not really have backing or support for the movement,
there were few gains in the early years. It was only when women such
as Gloria Steinem, Simone de Beauvoir and Angela Davis got involved,
that normal housewives felt that they could make a difference and
that their rights were worth fighting for. As one can see, the 1960s
made many advances for women in the area of domestic issues.
The last and
major area, in which the 1960s made significant changes for women,
was in the workplace. As stated by Estelle Carol, In the 1960s,
there were no women bus drivers, welders, firefighters, news anchors,
CEOS or Supreme Court Justices. Women professors, doctors, scientists
or lawyers were rare (Estelle Carol). Later, as the economy
of America began to expand, women started working for a second family
income, although they only made 60% of what men were earning (Echols
152). Denied credit by banks before the 60s, women could not
receive capital to start their own small businesses because a man
always received first priority when it came to funds for starting
up a business (Gwen Diab). According to Ms. Diab,
was no way a woman could get $25,000 to start up her own business!
There was always a Sam, Peter or a Joe in front of her to get it first.
Always! (Gwen Diab). Fortunately, after a long struggle, the
National Credit Union Administration accepted feminism as a field
and let them draw credit (60s Radicalism 160). Women even began
to have their own professional and labor organizations to keep themselves
During the early
stages of the 1960s, many changes were put in place to help women
get to the top. For instance, in 1961 President Kennedy created the
Presidents Commission on the Status of Women, chaired by Eleanor
Roosevelt. Fifty other parallel state commissions were eventually
established. Also, the Equal Pay Act, which was planned in 1940, finally
acknowledged equal pay for men and women who worked the same jobs.
Another major achievement for women in regards to the work place was
in 1964, when Title VII of the Civil Rights Act barred employment
discrimination by private employers, employment agencies and unions
based on race, sex and other grounds. To investigate complaints and
enforce penalties, it established the Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission, which received 50,000 complaints of gender discrimination
in its first five years (National Womens History Project).
By 1965, President Johnsons Executive Order 11246 ordered federal
agencies and federal contractors to take affirmative action
in overcoming employment discrimination (National Womens
One major setback
that women faced in the 1960s was that as men realized what women
were trying to do, some did as much as they could to keep fully qualified
women out of their workplaces. Gwen Diab related an experience where
an employer at the business that she and some of her friends had applied
to had a spot open for work: Since it was women who were seeking the
employment, the employers usually lied, saying that there were no
spots open, and then the next day hired a male worker for the very
same position, even if he was less qualified! (Interview). In
1969, a Supreme Court Ruling changed all this. In the case of Bowe
vs. Colgate-Palmolive, the Supreme Court ruled that women meeting
the physical requirements could work in many jobs that had been for
men only (National Womens History Project). As one can
see, the 1960s made many positive changes for women in regards to
the 1960s really did make many significant changes for women in regards
to basic rights, domestic issues and their abilities to get fair job
opportunities in the workplace. Although women still only make about
70 cents for every dollar a man makes, are still the main caretakers
of the home, and are still struggling for abortion rights, women have
come a long way from the traditional attitudes of old, Puritan America.
The radical 1960s provided background and support for everything that
the women accomplished.
Carol, Estelle. E-mail Interview. March 30th, 2001.
Ms. Carol wasa founding memberof the CWLU, or Chicago Womens
Liberation Union. She was a womens liberator in
the 1960s and provided a great deal of information regarding the Womens
Liberation Movement of the 1960s. Much of this information came from
first hand experience.
Deckard, Barbara Sinclair. The Womens Movement: Political,
Socioeconomic, and Psychological Issues. New York: Harper &
This book is about the changing role of women in society and how
women themselves are changing with the times. It also mentions the
processes women went through to become liberated from the society
that held them down. Much of this public information is secondary,
although some is primary. The author has no reason to lie and there
is other information presented.
Diab, Gwen. Live interview. March 26th, 2001.
Ms. Diab is a secretary for the Wisconsin Womens Work Initiative
Corporation. She was an activist in the 1960s, fighting for civil
rights for blacks and equal rights for women. She provided a lot of
valuable information from firsthand experience.
DuPlessis, Rachael Blau, and Ann Snitow. The Feminist Memoir
Project. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998
This book is a collection of writings by various women liberators
on their experiences and their struggles to get equal rights for women.
This book has primary documents and is open to the public. There is
other information presented and the author has no reason to lie.
Echols, Alice. Nothing Distant About It. New York:
Harper & Row, 1994.
This book is an excellent source dealing with the means of protest
that women used for their liberation movement. This public book is
a secondary source. The author has no reason to lie, and there is
other information presented.
Gornick, Vivian. Essays In Feminism. New York: Harper
& Row, 1977
This book is a collection of essays that the author wrote dealing
with the changing times and how women should play a larger role in
these times. This book is a primary document with other information
presented. The author has no reason to lie, as it is public information.
National Organization of Women. [Online] Available
Feb. 13th, 2001.
This website is the main site for the National Organization of Women.
It contains archives and many other links for useful information.
This site contains primary sources as well as secondary sources. The
authors have no reason to lie and it is open to the public. Other
information is presented.
National Womens History Project. [Online]
Feb. 13th, 2001.
This website is an informative site for the Womens Liberation
Movement for all decades. It contains many archives, pictures, links
and articles. This public site contains primary and secondary documents.
The authors may have some inclination to lie, but there is other information
ONeill, Lois Decker. The Womens Book of World
Records and Achievements. New York: Anchor Books, 1979
This book is a collection of achievements that women have accomplished
throughout time. It covers almost every topic one can think of and
covers a very large period of time. This compilation of accomplishments
by women is public information and is a secondary source. The author
has no reason to lie, but there is no other information presented.
Rossi, Alice S. The Feminist Papers: From Adams to deBeauvoir.
New York: Columbia University Press, 1973
This book is mainly a collection of letters and essays that active
women in the womens liberation movement wrote. 2 of these women
were very prominent in the 1960s Margaret Sanger and Simone
deBeauvoir. This book is filled with primary documents, with no reason
to lie and open to the public. There is also other evidence presented.
Steinem, Gloria. Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions.
New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983
This book is about the authors experiences through life and
what motivated her to become so actively involved in the womens
lib movement. She reveals what the world for women is like from behind
the scenes. This book is a primary document with other evidence
to present. The author has no reason to lie and it is public information.
Thom, Mary. Letters To Ms. New York: Henry Holt and
This book is an assortment of letters that were written to the popular
feminist magazine, Ms. Included in this book is a very informative
introduction about Ms. By Gloria Steinem. This book is filled with
primary documents and is open to the public. There is no other evidence
presented, and the authors of the letters may have had a reason to
- - - . Inside Ms.: 25 Years Of The Magazine And The Feminist
Movement. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997
This book is about the history of the magazine Ms. and how it helped
move along the feminist movement. It is a secondary source and is
public information. Other evidence is shown, and the author has no
reason to lie.
White, William. North American Reference of Womens
Liberation. New York: Harper & Row, 1972
This book has a large list of women and their efforts involved in
the womens liberation movement. It is a secondary source and
public information. The author has no reason to lie and gives other