The rise and emergence of feminism in the 1970s is one of the most significant social movements. This trend helped to define the time period. The emergence of "the politics of empathy" was one of the most significant and transformative movements of the 1970s. Feminism changed every aspect of the social order. Families were fundamentally transformed as women explored new aspects of their identity that existed outside of the domestic realm. With the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, public policy reflected the emergence of this social reality. Women were able to appropriate control over their own bodies and, in the process, helped to transform public discourse. This same discussion extended into the Equal Rights Amendment, and legislative action that ensured equality between the genders. The social trend of feminism helped to transform what society could be and helped to expand such possibilities.
Interestingly enough, an equally dominant social trend of the time period was the decrease in radicalism that had emerged in the previous decade. The election of Richard Nixon as well as the rise of "the silent majority" did much to reduce the radical thought that has defined the 1960s. Americans were feeling the crunch of an economic crisis in the 1970s, which did much to dampen or decrease the hopeful notion that radicalism of the 1960s. The 1970s featured a perception that America, as a nation, was losing control. Crime spiraled upwards, cities became intense reservoirs of blight and neglect, and Americans felt more unsafe about the world and their place in it. In 1976, fictional newscaster Howard Beale captured this essence of what defined 1970s. His words in the film Network went very far in expressing a dominant social trend that rebelled against the unifying and collection radicalism of the previous decade:
We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat. And we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that's the way it's supposed to be! We all know things are bad -- worse than bad -- they're crazy.It's like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don't go out any more. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we're living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, "Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials, and I won't say anything. Just leave us alone."
Beale's speech serves as a reminder that the 1970s featured a dominant social trend that decreased radical thought that sought transformation of the world and the individual's place in it. This rejection of radicalism asserted a quality of negative freedom, a condition that stressed the only potential for happiness existed in being left alone.
The 1960s might have been over but ripples of its influence were felt throughout the 1970s. The fights for social justice for women and minorities continued, and crusades and movements gained momentum in some areas, but also suffered setbacks due to assassinations and economic declines.
Unquestionably, some of the foundations for civil rights were shaken following the murders of important leaders and advocates, including President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. The deaths of these leaders led to riots and general unrest, but the assassinations were not the only factors in depressing the fervor of the 1960s. The war in Vietnam continued and contributed to the anger and dissatisfaction of the 1970s.
The change in 1960s attitudes can also be traced to the aging of its generation. The “Baby Boomers,” those who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, were no longer young and relatively responsibility-free. Most now had jobs and incomes. The huge number of people in this generation impacted literally everything in the nation, as their economic footprint was now huge.
Despite the Boomers spending power, the 1970s was a time of economic decline for the United States. By the end of the decade, three recessions and skyrocketing inflation resulted in mass unemployment. The manufacturing sector, once America’s “sure thing” for employment, was no longer secure. Oil embargoes further contributed to what President Jimmy Carter called the “malaise” of the nation. Mortgages rose to a crippling twenty percent, leading to a housing crisis. Credit card interest rates became untenable for the average American as well. These economic realities caused many former liberals to abandon their ideals. Conservatives took advantage of this backlash with a strong push towards “traditional values.” Churches also saw a return of participants; many found the “born again” philosophy appealing. Still others turn to more “new age” methods, which promised self-improvement and growth. The “age of affluence” that characterized the 1960s was gone. Americans were now not as optimistic as they had been about America’s ability to affect change in the world.
Presidential rhetoric shows the seismic shift in perception of the nation. In 1961, the young, energetic, civil rights-minded John F. Kennedy argued that Americans would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty." But in 1971, the stern-faced President Richard Nixon declared that "Americans cannot—and will not—conceive all the plans, design all the programs, execute all the decisions, and undertake all the defenses of the free nations of the world."
Philosophers and critics were watching these social changes, noting that the energy that once had turned outward had now turned almost completely inward. They feared that such self-centeredness would lead to “political passivity and cultural narcissism.” The end of the Vietnam war saw the end of antiwar protests, and a deep decline in political radicalism and political activism. Nonetheless, a large number of young Americans remained dissatisfied with the status quo, and were attracted to the counterculture. These young people assimilated many of the appealing aspects of the hippie movement of the 1960s into the mainstream, especially in regard to illegal drugs. Consumerism was widespread across almost all groups; most people were buying new products like stereos, color televisions, air conditioning, and other items.
While some radicalism of the 1960s died out, and some activist groups broke apart, this was not true of the feminist movement. The feminists took a different approach than other social movements; instead of being overtly confrontational, many feminists groups advocated for the “politics of empathy” and worked towards creating a more nurturing society, and sought to end male dominance, both at home and in the workplace. Many of these groups tried to create a more inclusive environment. They did so by demanding equal access for male dominated universities and workplaces and they created these in-roads through politics on all levels: local, state, and national. Women, for the first time in United States history, were becoming doctors, lawyers, scientists, pilots…no occupation was off-limits. Their influence and re-organization of traditional sexual roles and expectations upset many people who wanted a return to “traditional” values, especially when the Supreme Court found in favor of abortion rights in the landmark seven-to-two decision in the Roe v. Wade case of 1973. Without question, feminism was the movement of the decade, with supporters and detractors equally affected.
Source: American Decades: 1970-1979, ©1995 Gale Cengage. All Rights Reserved.