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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 like men.
The women’s 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 women’s movement of the 1960s made significant changes for women in regards to basic rights, in the home and in the workplace for the better.
Since denied basic rights in most aspects of society, from political rights to reproductive rights, women in the United States fought vigorously for equality.
For example, 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 woman’s worth,” especially the swimsuit portion of the contest (Echols 149). Also, according to Estelle Carol, the founder of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, women began to get over this idea in the 1960s, but many women still felt

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 women’s 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 media’s hype about women’s 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 Jane’s example, other secret clinics launched up everywhere. In big cities, women’s health clinics, rape-crisis centers and women’s bookstores developed. As a result of the New York Radical Women, a group founded in 1967, a “women’s 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 Women’s 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.
Many noteworthy 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 women’s 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 women’s 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 society’s view that the sole responsibility rested with the woman” (The Women’s Movement 419).
According to 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 homeowner’s meetings. Because of her openness, the other women became scared of her and her seemingly radical ways. “Therefore, she felt as though she didn’t 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 150).
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,
“There 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 progressing.
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 President’s 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 Women’s History Project). By 1965, President Johnson’s Executive Order 11246 ordered “federal agencies and federal contractors to take ‘affirmative action’ in overcoming employment discrimination” (National Women’s History Project).
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 Women’s History Project). As one can see, the 1960s made many positive changes for women in regards to the workplace.
In conclusion, 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.


Annotated Bibliography

Carol, Estelle. E-mail Interview. March 30th, 2001.
Ms. Carol wasa founding memberof the CWLU, or Chicago Women’s Liberation Union. She was a women’s “liberator” in the 1960s and provided a great deal of information regarding the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960s. Much of this information came from first hand experience.

Deckard, Barbara Sinclair. The Women’s Movement: Political, Socioeconomic, and Psychological Issues. New York: Harper & Row, 1979

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 Women’s 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 http://www.now.org, 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 Women’s History Project.” [Online] Available http://www.legacy98.com, Feb. 13th, 2001.

This website is an informative site for the Women’s 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 presented.

O’Neill, Lois Decker. The Women’s 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 women’s 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 author’s experiences through life and what motivated her to become so actively involved in the women’s 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 Company, 1987
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 lie.

- - - . 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 Women’s Liberation. New York: Harper & Row, 1972

This book has a large list of women and their efforts involved in the women’s liberation movement. It is a secondary source and public information. The author has no reason to lie and gives other evidence.