The Historical Context of Modern Feminism

MODERN FEMINISM

The Historical Context

Modern feminism is essentially a product of the emancipation of women during the Second World War. Women were once again called into the work force but for a longer period of time and over a greater part of the population than during World War One. The experience of being independent and earning a living was transformative to many women. After the war, the women who had worked in factories and businesses keeping the war effort going were summarily fired and sent home with instructions to be housewives and mother. The removal of women from public life to make room for men was the largest transfer of wealth from one group to another in the history of America. Having no choice but to go home, women complied, but, one by one, they returned to the work force. And yet the idea that women were safely stowed in the domestic sphere became enshrined as an ideal of the “traditional family.”

The separation of the spheres of men and women into the public and the private dates back only a few hundred years and yet these gender specific areas of culture are considered “natural” by many people. Feminism asserts that the idea that women are “nature” and men are “culture” is not ordained but is instead a “cultural construct.” Because women are the eternal Other, always outside a male dominated society which has been made by and for the benefits of men, feminism, as a theory, asserts that women are different from men because they are reared differently and thus have a different social experience, a different psychology, and a different history. But “difference” should not mean “unequal.”

In fact, the idea of the 1950s happy suburban family with mom at home and dad at work was more of a myth than a reality. Most families had both parents working outside of the home. A dual income was necessary to pay for the house, to support the children and to buy the consumer goods pouring off the assembly line. The girls coming of age in the 1950s and 1960s had the women of wartime as role models and grew up expecting or hoping to be independent women. But they, like their mothers, were faced with a maze of discriminatory laws that kept women from achieving their full potential in any profession or walk of life.

But then something called “the Sixties” happened, and culture was turned upside down. The Civil Rights Movement refused to accept unconstitutional laws that codified second-class citizenship. The protests against the Viet Nam War were also refusals, refusals of young men to allow old men to send them off to war. Both movements were refutations of traditional authority and not only shook the foundations of American and European culture but also divided the nation in half, between the traditionalists and the revolutionaries.

Women were very impacted by the Civil Rights Movements and by the Anti-War Movement, both of which were change movements—to a point. Women who had marched shoulder-to-shoulder with men in anti-war demonstrations and who had worked for the civil rights of African Americans found themselves to be second class citizens in the so-called “radical” movements of the 1960s, making coffee, serving coffee, and providing their male companions with the benefits of the Sexual Revolution. Women soon found out that the “revolution” was not meant to include them.

The Return of Feminism

Feminism proposed that women were humans and entitled to the full rights routinely given to men. Feminism showed that men have invisible privileges, privilege of which they are often unaware, privileges that are denied to women. Historically women had always been excluded and it one is to include women into full citizenship it cannot be as a subset of the male. Feminism insisted that women should be included in society and in the culture.

In bringing women out of their traditional private sphere into the public sphere, it was assumed, perhaps naïvely, that if women politely reminded men that they had somehow been left out of the equal right equation that this oversight would be rectified. The early Feminist Movement failed to anticipate the opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment from both men and women and failed to acknowledge the power of the desire to maintain the status quo of male domination. They question is why?

The Women’s Movement came out of the Civil Rights Movement and the rights of women is a civil rights concern, but the Civil Rights of people of color were not seen as a direct threat to the dominance of the white male. There were, in the 1960s, simply not enough African-Americans, even in the South, to threaten the status quo in any meaningful way. At that time, the Latino population was not on the radar, so it was morally and ethically expedient to grant civil equality to the victims of slavery. The result was that white men “granted” rights to black men—a male to male transfer of symbolic power.

The Women’s Movement also emerged from the anti-war protest movements. Here the quarrel was generational but the leading actors were also male—young and old men. In the end the old men mollified the young men by ending the draft, freeing the young men to live their lives without having to serve their country in the military. Once again, the solution was a male to male transfer of opportunity power. Both social uprisings were masculine in character. The Civil Rights Movement, coming out of the black churches, was very patriarchal; and the Anti-War movement was very macho and masculinized.

Tired of being sidelined by yet another male revolution, women drifted out of these precursor movements and formed the Women’s Movement. These women were inspired by the 1964 book written by Betty Freidan, The Feminine Mystique, which was a study of the discontent among housewives. Through the efforts of these early pioneers the Civil Rights legislation was written to include women and the word “gender” in anti-discrimination laws. At the urging of Alice Paul, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 included the word “sex” and today the categories protected from discrimination include race, color, sex, creed, and age. Coupled with the invention of the Pill, the results of legalized equality for women would be profound.

Women are half the population and including them as equals was a very real economic, political and personal threat to American men. This revolution was a personal one. The war was a guerrilla war, fought from house to house, from bed to bed, from marriage to marriage. The resistance from men was automatic and instinctual and, during these years, many women had to decide between personal relationships and the actualization of their own lives. The results of this subterranean revolution were subtle but continue decades later. Today women are the majority of those receiving college and graduate and professional degrees. Today women outnumber men in the labor force. Today marriage has declined to an all time low and single parent households headed by women are at an all time high.

When social reforms for women were precisely targeted, resistance from men continues to be stiff. Among the most effective law was the famous Title IX, passed in 1972, a year before abortion was made legal. Title IX gave women equal access to athletic facilities, creating a generation of women athletes, much to the surprise of those who claimed that women “didn’t want” to be athletes. The “Title IX Babies” changed the face of women’s athletics. But some conservative men do not accept the law. On May 14, 2012, Sports Illustrated reported the following,

The world-famous U.S. women’s soccer player was in Sacramento on Monday with her Brazilian counterpart Sissi to be honored by the California Assembly as it recognized the 40th anniversary of Title IX.

The occasion prompted Assemblyman Chris Norby to reveal that he wasn’t a fan of the 1972 federal law chiefly known for mandating gender equity in high school and collegiate sports. The Fullerton Republican said he thought Title IX had come at the expense of male athletes, particularly those who depend on sports scholarships.

“We need to be honest about the effects of what I believe are faulty court interpretations or federal enforcement of Title IX, because it has led to the abolition of many male sports across the board in UCs and Cal States,” he said. “And that was never the intention of this, to have numerical equality. It was never the intention to attain equality by reducing opportunities for the men.”

Standing in the back of the chamber, Chastain, who plays with the semi-professional California Storm in Sacramento, visibly bristled at Norby’s remarks and raised her hand to try to interject….

The high point of the Second Wave of Feminism was that key decade of the 1970s, which was followed by a conservative backlash under the administration of Ronald Reagan. The election of Ronald Reagan signaled a rollback of the gains of the Civil Rights movements, of which the Women’s Movement was part. Affirmative Action was challenged by wounded white males who could not comprehend that they had enjoyed thousands of years of preferential treatment, but the genie was out of the bottle. Determined people of color and women pushed forward, demanding equal rights.

The Feminist Movement, before it is anything else, is political. How can such a legalized oppression, a Constitutional denial of equal rights be justified in a democracy? This is the question that political feminism asks. The slogan of Feminism is “The personal is political.” The continued domination of women by men is justified through a network of laws and customs that systematically disenfranchised women and that routinely privileged men. These laws were made by men for men and relegate women to the “personal” or domestic sector while politically empowering men. The years 2011 and 2012 were years marked by the surprising renewal of attempts to take abortion rights away from women, to limit their access to health care, to take away their right to control their own lives and to protect themselves from violence. The old slogan “the personal is political” was forgotten and never uttered because, by this time, “feminism” was a discredited word.

After the successful campaign to wrest the right to vote for women from the American government, Alice Paul wrote and campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment. When she died in 1977, the proposed amendment to the Constitution was still pending but the Women’s Movement was fully underway. As political activism, feminism is an extension of humanism and of the ideals of the enlightenment: all humans are created equal and should be granted equal political, economic, and social rights.

To many women, the Equal Rights Amendment was a necessary correction to legalized denial of equal opportunity for women in the public and private spheres. To other women, the Equal Rights Amendment actually took away “rights.” During the eighties, the issue was over what kind of rights women did and did not have, should and should not have. On one hand, the Amendment addressed legal rights with unknown consequences. Once women legally became the equal of men, there would be a shift in access to power, to the economy, to privilege. As with any law, it is impossible to see into the future and imagine the impact.

However, it was this lack of knowledge that fueled the imaginations of the opponents, because, on the other hand, there was the question of social rights or privileges that had been granted to women by virtue of their gender. For example, women had been exempted from military service and/or combat zones. Women who were housewives felt that their life choice was not being protected—would their husbands still be legally compelled to support them? Was their respected status as “wives and mothers” being downgraded by the feminists?

The arguments for and against the ERA were both biased, probably unconsciously, towards the situation of white middle class women. The women who favored the Amendment felt confident in their ability to compete in what had been a man’s world. Their stay-at-home sisters had the luxury of a middle class income to allow them to make a career of being a wife and mother. The majority of American women lacked the education or opportunity to participate equally in the business world and lacked the social and financial support to opt out.

It will never be known how the Equal Rights Amendment might have changed America. Despite the arguments of the Women’s Movement that women should be given equal rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, the ERA, went down to defeat in 1982, and on June 30, the opponents held a celebration dinner in Washington, D. C.. The original Amendment was proposed in 1923, so according the timetable of women’s history, it should have passed in 1995. But in 1982, for all intents and purposes, the Second Wave of Feminism had done its work and had run its course.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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