Why did a women's movement develop in the 1960's in America?
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There are many reasons why a women's movement emerged out of the 1960's America and continued in the 1970s. A combination of social and political elements combined for a "perfect storm" of rights based reform. Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, an explosive critique of middle-class patterns that helped millions of women articulate a pervasive sense of discontent. Arguing that women often had no outlets for expression other than "finding a husband and bearing children," Friedan encouraged readers to seek new roles and responsibilities, to seek their own personal and professional identities rather than have them defined by the outside, male-dominated society. This book either coincided with or initiated the discussion of women's identity outside of the traditionally defined confines of social acceptance. In addition to this, the development of the birth control pill helped develop the argument for women that they had the ability to exercise autonomy over their own bodies, and senses of self ("Our bodies, our selves" became a social rallying cry). This was another step in allowing women to step outside the cloistered world of tradition and into a new realm where women's voices were authenticated and validated both personally and socially. Finally, the 1960s saw legislation to remedy the ills of racism passed. The Civil Rights movement and the legislation that accompanied it, along with the social dialogues that instigated change on the grounds of racial discrimination were appropriated by women in the hopes of transforming the gender discrimination that was apparent as well. Their argument was a convincing one: Can a nation that seeks to remedy the ills of racism be tolerant of the sins of sexism? It spoke loud and resonated to many, thus initiating the women's rights movement in 1960's America.
During World War II women had been encouraged to join the war effort in many ways, including factory work (a very popular icon of that effort was the image of "Rosie the Riveter"). Women were told they had a job to do and that their children would do better in day care than at home.
After the war ended in 1945, men returned from the battlefields and wanted their jobs back. Women were encouraged to be good housewives and told that their highest duty was to support their spouse. New research showed that children did better at home than in daycare and husbands of course needed dinner ready when they got home from the office or factory.
The economy had finally improved after the great depression and the American public was inundated with advertising suggesting they buy a house in the suburbs and a car and all sorts of nifty gadgets that would make housework easy and life better. Mass produced suburbs like Levittown developed in numerous places and the insterstate highway system made it practical to work in the city and live in your own home in a suburb. Television shows like "Leave it to Beaver" demonstrated the ideals - with happily married couples who spent most of their days in separate spheres.
Some women resented having to give up their jobs and their independence after the war, some were simply not as happy as they were "supposed" to be in their suburban homes. Women who did work had to fight off the perception that their husbands were unable or unwilling to provide for them. This unhappiness is what Betty Friedan articulated in her 1960 book "The Feminine Mystique." When isolated women realized they were not alone in their misery, and that their unhappiness did not mean there was something wrong with them, they started working to change things.
It was not until the 1960's that feminism experienced another upsurge. In 1953 Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex had appeared in English translation, an influential book that analyzed the history and implications of female subjection in Western culture. In 1963 Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, openly criticizing the prevailing stereotypical role of the American housewife and mother. Also in 1963 a Presidential Commission issued a report American Women which recommended a number of moderate reforms to improve their status. In response to these and other developments, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded in 1966 and soon became the largest and best known of various new women's organizations. NOW almost immediately took up the fight for an Equal Rights Amendment and demanded several other drastic reforms, such as the right to abortion. In the meantime, these demands found much wider support than previously, because many middle-class women had become radicalized through the renewed black civil rights struggle, voter registration drives in the South, and the peace movement against the American war in Southeast Asia. Sexual and reproductive liberation could be discussed more openly, as the whole country had become more sensitive to issues of fairness and individual freedom. In the early 1970's the abortion issue was suddenly settled by the U.S. Supreme Court in the feminists' favor. Moreover, Congress finally passed an Equal Rights Amendment stating "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." No matter how difficult and lengthy the struggle for ratification may turn out to be, and no matter how often it may fail, feminists are hopeful that the amendment will ultimately be adopted.
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