The Women’s Liberation Movement Essay
Since the beginning of time, women had been working to advance their place in society. From the Stone Age through the twentieth century, individuals and organized groups had felt that women were treated unequally, and they vowed to do something about it. Perhaps the peak of this movement occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, when the Women’s Liberation Movement was recognized as an organized effort to gain equality of women.
Beginning in ancient times, women of the Prehistoric Age were first considered inferior through division of labor.
The men were sent to hunt, and the women stayed at home gathering vegetables while taking care of the children. This creation of sexually depicted roles implied that women were too fragile and weak to go out hunting with the men (Sinclair 184). The New Stone Age, or Neolithic Age, kept women’s status inferior to that of men. They were still in charge of gathering and farming, which led them to many technological advances in the fields of plowing and cooking.
Although the contributions of women were unmatched by most men in this era, the male race still reigned supreme (Sinclair 186). In later years, renowned scientist Sigmond Freud drew some astounding conclusions about humans through his research. He found that the development of boys and girls were similar until the age of five where the phallic stage begins. From there, each sex takes an interest in their own genitals. It is here where he states that females develop a complex known as penis envy. He says that from then on, females feel that they are lacking as people because they do not have male genitals (Sinclair 16). “According to Freud, woman is passive, masochistic, and narcissistic. Woman’s inferiority is anatomically based. She is an incomplete ‘maimed’ man because she lacks a penis” (Sinclair 15). This conclusion is the basis for the feeling of inferiority placed upon women from Freud’s time until the present.
It was in the mid-1800s when the first signs of the feminist movement came about. In 1861, a man named John Stuart Mill wrote The Subjection of Women, which was said to have spawned the ideology of the Women’s Rights Movement (Ryan 11). He discussed the role of women is society during that time, pointing out how the patriarchy placed such an intense limit on what women could do. Patriarchy is the system in which the male race governs societal views, and this practice has been in existence since the dawn of time. This work raised the consciousness of many women, but the first hints of an organized movement did not come about until the approach of the twentieth century. It has been said the Black Abolition Movement was the encouragement that women needed to go after what they believed in (Ryan 10). In 1898 came the beginnings of Women’s Suffrage, which was the movement intended to allow women the right to vote. During this time, over 500 separate campaigns were launched with the goal of attaining this right. Females such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony spoke all over the country on women’s rights and suffrage, gaining many supporters along the way (Ryan 9). The National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was soon formed, and Stanton was its first president. She helped to begin extensive mobilizing efforts and put a strong foot forward in the suffrage movement (Ryan 22). When the Nineteenth Amendment was passed, women nationwide rejoiced at their accomplishment with the feeling that they had made a difference, and their feeling of inferiority had subsided.
During the Jazz Age of the 1920s, the women’s movement declined, and the patriarchy ran its course. In the 1930s, women were driven into the labor force by the horrible conditions caused by the Great Depression. Soon after, World War II caused an influx of women to join the work force to take the place of the enormous number of men that went into the military (Salper 185). Just as women were beginning to get a taste of leaving the home to make money, the war was over and working females found themselves giving up their jobs to the men returning from battle.
The rebirth of the women’s movement could most likely be traced to the “family-centered” years of the 1950s (Ryan 41). Females began to marry younger and bear an average of three or four children. The term “housewife” became a valid description for women of this time, and it was considered unacceptable to have children and work outside the home (Evans 4). Women were brainwashed into thinking that feminine beauty and pleasing their husbands and children were the most important thing (Stambler 13). This soon changed when women began to need other gratification in their lives. “Women’s work” was created, and many housewives took on jobs such as secretaries, social workers, teachers, sales clerks, stewardesses, and waitresses. Ironically, these jobs all had requirements similar to those expected of women at home. Although women felt a sense of independence through going to work, the patriarchy was still in control of the female race. Few of the women entering the labor force saw themselves as a challenge to tradition; they were just helping their families. This was a mixed blessing- the extra money was good, but it began to make the wife a threat to her husband. Many males began to feel like “inadequate providers”, and this caused a problem in the home. On the other hand, this new participation in the labor force enhanced females’ self worth. However, with the positives come the negatives. Women now had to carry the double burden of keeping up the home and family in addition to her outside work, and this placed an incredible amount of stress on the whole household. Also, females failed to realize at this time that these occupations were jobs, not professions. However, by the late 1950s, this realization came to women when they began to find their jobs to be repetitious and boring with low pay and few rewards (Evans 8-9).
The 1960s and 1970s had women taking their movement a step farther. Women had an intense urge to advance in society, and they began to see that they were being held back by a combination of the patriarchy and traditional values. Women took on different strategies to earn the rights and respect that they felt they deserved. Women felt that they were oppressed both economically and biologically. One goal of the movement was to get women to not believe that they were inferior. They had been brainwashed over the decades to feel empty and only important for reproduction. This belief had to be rejected in order for the movement to advance. Women had to be able to develop confidence in their ability to organize and get things done, as well as a conscious awareness of themselves and other women as a sex category as opposed to a sex object (Ryan 11). Perhaps the most popular method of protest was consciousness raising. This was done by speaking to groups, holding meetings, and any way that feminists could get a message of oppression out to others. “It created a sense of unity and strength, but after a while women felt a need to actually do something” (Ryan 47). This soon became a common practice, and was thought of as the prelude to political activism. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and Abortion campaigns were the primary motivations in getting women out of the house and into the movement.
The people involved in the movement were soon classified into different categories. Radical Feminists believed that men were the roots of women’s oppression, and that the worldwide system was patriarchal. This group called for a complete social transformation or unequal power relations, and would go to any length to do so. The second group were called the Politicos. They called for the elimination of both capitalism and patriarchy. The third group of feminists were knows as the cultural feminists. They called themselves radical, but were sometimes known as political lesbians or separatist feminists. Many of these were homosexual, for the sexual revolution was at its peak during this time and many found themselves ‘coming out of the closet’. This group was sometimes knows as the offshoot of early feminism because these women “celebrated their femaleness”. They, like the other groups, felt that “the patriarchy was the cause of female oppression, war, racism, destruction of the environment…they wanted a redefined world, calling for changes in linguistic, artistic, sexual, and symbolic images of women. In short, they wanted a world apart from men” (Ryan 55).
Three classes of women- students, middle-class, and working women- were most active in the movement. Students were mostly unmarried, middle-class girls, who were opposed to one-way relationships that would lead them into a wife-role. They rebelled against passivity and dependency in relationships, along with the notion that they must function as sex objects. Middle-class women were oppressed by “psychological mutilation and injustice of institutionalized segregation, discrimination, and imposed inferiority… they are most sensitive to the dehumanizing consequences of their severely limited lives” (Salper 186). Working women were concerned mostly with the economic issues of guaranteed employment, fair wages, job discrimination, and child care. All three groups were made up of primarily educated and capable people, and they brought many objectives to the movement (Salper 186).
With the reformation of the feminist movement came different groups dedicated to the cause. Perhaps the most notable of these was the National Organization for Women, or NOW. Formed in the mid- 1960s by the heroine of the movement, Betty Friedan, NOW’s purpose was “to take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of society now, exercising all of the privileges and responsibilities thereof in a truly equal partnership with men” (Sinclair 330). NOW was, and still is, a very important agency for all aspects of achieving women’s rights (Friedan 122). Other organizations, such as Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) formed. This was a lesbian secret group that tried to align with gay males as to enhance feminist and homosexual rights in society (Ryan 49). Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) worked within the universities to advance in the movement. The Federally Employed Women (FEW), formed in 1968, pressured the Civil Service Commission to enforce an executive order banning sex discrimination in federal employment. The Radical Women of New York believed that “before women could influence public policy, they must overcome their own subjugation. The problem of women in America is social, not personal” (Sinclair 333). The Women’s Equity Action League (WEAL) were active in cases of sex discrimination in higher education and in the ERA campaign. The Human Rights for Women group was a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing legal aid in sex discrimination cases. Groups such as these helped victims speak out against their oppression (Sinclair 334). There were also some radical groups, such as the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH) and the Society to Cut Up Men (SCUM). These were less productive groups that certainly made their mark (Bardon 13).
Perhaps one of the greatest accomplishments of the movement was the legalization of abortion. The New York State Legislature in 1970 set forth the “first law embodying women’s right to choose and have medical help in abortion” (Friedan 122). In 1973, the Supreme Court granted the right to sexual privacy and control of women’s own bodies in the matter of childbearing and abortion. “Only one voice needs to be heard on the question of whether a women will or will not bear a child, and that is the voice of the woman herself: her own conscience, her own conscious choice. Then, and only then, will women move out of their stage as sex objects to personhood and self determination” (Friedan 123). After the Supreme Court decision, maternity mortality dropped to an all-time low in the United States, for abortion related deaths dropped by 600 percent. In 1974, 900,000 American women had safe and legal abortions (Friedan 122).
The media had a significant influence on the Women’s Liberation movement, encouraging its causes and effects. Feminist publications, such as Voices of the Women’s Liberation Movement by Jo Freeman in 1968 helped to encourage females to take their place in the movement. Gloria Steinem, another landmark figure in feminist history, founded Ms. magazine in 1972. It was intended to reach non-movement women, but ended up having a profound impact on the entire nation. When New York Magazine put out a sample issue of the magazine, 300,000 copies were sold out in eight days. However, Ms. had no control over the ads it printed, and most feminists found them sexist. Steinem saw to it that future issues had carefully chosen ads that did not exploit or belittle females (Sinclair 370). In another medium, portrayal of women on TV commercials was considered demeaning and was protested. Females were depicted in two ways: “the housewife mother, blandly pretty, always interested exclusively in trivia, the whitest laundry, and shiniest floors, and often stupid, or as a sex kitten, only good for one thing, and not bright” (Sinclair 379). In Wellesley, Massachusetts, a committee was set up to screen textbooks for sexism. The American Book Company and Scott Foresman were asked to make some changes in their material and they did so. Children’s books were also scrutinized during this time. One study took one thousand children’s books and only two hundred were labeled nonsexist (Sinclair 377).
Times were changing as the 1980s approached and women were beginning to get their demands. Although patriarchy is still the ruling force of American society, females, through their efforts, have gained many equal rights to those of males. In the eyes of many feminists, women are a long way from having complete equality, but most believe that the increased opportunities for women in the 1980s and 1990s is a great improvement over the past decades. The feminist movement brought about many equal rights for women as well as a common bond for the entire female race.
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Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1978.
Evans, Sara. Personal Politics. New York: Vintage Press, 1979.
Friedan, Betty. It Changed My Life. New York: Random House, 1976.
Ryan, Barbara. Feminism and the Women’s Movement. New York:
Salper, Roberta. Female Liberation: History and Current Politics.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972.
Sinclair, Barbara. The Women’s Movement: Political, Socioeconomic,
and Psychological Issues. New York: Harper and Row,1975.
Stambler, Sookie. Women’s Liberation: Blueprint for the Future.
New York: Ace Books, 1970.