The Women's Protest Movement
The Women's Movement
The campaign for black civil rights was a major achievement in its own right. But is also gave many people a feeling that other faults in American society could be put right if enough people wanted to do so. In this way, the black civil rights movement helped to give birth to other protest movements. It is no coincidence that the decade of 'I have a dream' was also a decade of protest about other issues.
One of the most important protest movements was the women's movement, which aimed to win equal rights for women. Since the Second World War women's roles had been changing. This change was resisted by conservative Americans, who thought it was women's role to make a home and bring up a happy family, and men's role to work. But by the 1960s that view no longer fitted the real world.
The women's movement was launched in 1963 by a very influential book, The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan. Three years later Friedan and others set up the National Organisation for women (NOW). Supporters of the movement used petitions, strikes and legal action to improve the employment opportunities and pay of women.
By the early 1970s NOW had 40,000 members. It co-operated with a wide range of other women's movements, such as the National Women's Caucus, the Women's Campaign Fund, the North American Indian Women's Association and the National Black Feminist Organisation.
NOW learned some tactics from the civil rights movement and organised demonstrations in the streets of American cities. They also challenged discrimination in the courts. In a series of cases between 1966 and 1971, NOW secured $30 million in back pay owed to women who had not been paid wages equal to those of men. In 1972 the Supreme Court ruled that the US Constitution did give men and women equal rights.
NOW was at one end of a broad spectrum of women's movements. Friedan, for example, was a feminist but she still believed in traditional family values and marriage. NOW used conventional methods, such as political pressure and court cases.
At the other end of the spectrum were younger feminists with more radical objectives and different methods to achieve them. They became known as the Women's Liberation Movement (or Women's Lib).
Feminists ran 'consciousness-raising' groups, where women could talk about their lives in depth and discuss how to challenge discrimination in their lives. They said that 'the personal was political' - everything you did in your personal life could affect the way people treated all women. For example, it was an act of protest against male supremacy to go out without make-up. It was like saying, 'Look at me - I don't care if you think I am pretty or not.' Some of the most radical members of Women's Lib were lesbians who regarded men as surplus to requirements. One saying went: 'A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.'
Some groups hit the headlines with their bra-burning protests. Bras were burned as a symbol of male domination - women only wore them to look pretty for men. In 1968 radical women picketed the Miss World Beauty contest in Atlantic City. They said that the contest treated women like objects not people. To make their point, they crowned a sheep as Miss World. Demonstrations such as this raised the profile of the feminist movement - the media loved them - but some critics felt they did not help their cause because the protests were not taken seriously.
Roe v. Wade - The Right to Abortion
One of the most important campaigns for radical feminists was the campaign to legalise abortion. Abortion was illegal in the USA but feminists believed this law discriminated against women. They said they should not be forced to bear a child they did not want. They said that a woman had the right to choose what happened to her body and so should have the right to have an abortion if she wished to.
The struggle over abortion began in the early 1960s. A young medical technician, Estelle Griswold, challenged the anti-abortion laws in her home state of Connecticut. In Connecticut not only abortion but contraceptive devices, too, were illegal. Even giving information about contraception was illegal. Griswold's lawyers challenged Connecticut's laws. They handled their case cleverly. They did not argue directly against the abortion laws. They argued that these laws were an illegal restriction on the privacy of ordinary Americans. The right to privacy was contained in the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1965 the Supreme Court judges ruled 7-2 in favour of Griswold.
This victory gave power to the lawyers in an even more important case in 1970. This was the Roe v. Wade case, which lasted from 1970 to 1973. Jane Roe was the legal name given to Norma McCorvey to protect her anonymity. McCorvey was a troubled teenager who had been raised in a reform school. When she got married she was beaten by her husband. She already had three children - all of whom had been taken away from her because she couldn't care for them. She was pregnant again and wanted an abortion. She came to Sarah Weddington, a feminist lawyer, who saw this as the ideal test case to get the courts to allow abortion. She took the case through the courts and won McCorvey the right to have an abortion. That victory established a precedent that led to abortion becoming freely available.
At a time when attacking Communists had gone out of fashion, many right-wingers enjoyed attacking the extremes of feminism. This may help to explain the success of some of the anti-feminist movements. The most high profile was STOP ERA led by Phyllis Schlafly.
ERA stood for the Equal Rights Amendment, which was a proposal to amend the US Constitution specifically to outlaw sex discrimination. In the reforming climate of the 1960s, Congress was in favour of ERA, and so were 63% of the population. However Phyllis Schlafly led a successful campaign to prevent its becoming law.
She argued that feminists devalued the woman's role by making it equal with a man's and that they denied the rights of the unborn child by their support for abortion. She compared the feminist woman's complaints to the 'positive' women's approach.
The Equal Rights Amendment became bogged down in Congress as a result of Schlafly's campaigning. The measure was finally defeated by three votes in 1982.
Schlafly was helped by the fact that by 1980 the pendulum was swinging away from radicalism once again. The anti-abortion movement was growing stronger. Economic problems for poor women were getting worse not better - feminism did not seem to be relevant to their lives. Even mainstream feminists were prepared to accept that women had their own values and that equal rights might be a false objective.
Revision: How did the women's movement emerge? What did the women's movement achieve? How did the women's movement develop? What links were there between the protest movements?