The civil rights movement of the 1960s is now iconic. Who would speak out against its aims? And the farm workers are finally getting their due as Cesar Chavez and the power of the organization he led are being recalled in film and literature. But who speaks up for the women’s liberation movement? In popular culture, its activists were usually portrayed as self-centered, bra-burning,* man-hating New Yorkers.
To create an historic record of what really happened in the women’s movement, and to rescue it from ridicule and misconceptions, Boston University recently organized a conference titled, “A Revolutionary Moment: Women’s Liberation in the Late 1960s and Early 1970s.” The gathering drew more than 600 people — about two-thirds women activists and academics of that certain age, and one-third younger women and men interested in getting the history right.
In the opening conference session feminist historian Sara Evans explained that the spark that lit women’s liberation came from the other movements of the 1960s, where women gained organizing and strategizing skills as civil rights, peace and anti-poverty activists. That spark and those skills led women like me to create rape hotlines, reproductive rights campaigns, liberation schools, consciousness-raising groups, women’s newspapers, women’s clinics and innumerable other projects from Seattle to Chicago, Baltimore to Atlanta, Boston to Los Angeles and many, many cities and towns in between.
One of the most brilliant insights of women’s liberation, that the personal is political, erased the division between private and public life. This assertion brought the treatment of women out of the shadows and into public scrutiny, debate and re-definition. Journalist and historian Ruth Rosen described how, through a feminist renaming process, the long-accepted tradition of wife beating was transformed, in the public mind, to a national scourge called domestic violence. Rape, considered a hazard of being female, became a crime of sexual assault. Salacious language and acts on the job became sexual harassment, now illegal. Without this renaming of women’s grievances, we wouldn’t have been able to act.
Women’s liberation was the largest social movement in the history of the United States, said historian Linda Gordon. The rebellion was so broad and open that a huge range of people could participate, subverting some of the oldest structures of domination in our country and beyond. Within universities, religious denominations, health institutions, job sites, day care centers, family relationships and the home itself, feminist activists stepped up with new interpretations of societal relations and concrete demands for change. As Gordon described it, women began to understand that gender is not a characteristic of individual people, but rather a social system that could be challenged and transformed.
In Chicago, where I lived in the 1960s and ’70s, we formed the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, a citywide structure of women’s consciousness-raising groups and organizing programs. The union ran a newspaper, rape hotline, classes and skill-building workshops, along with a graphics collective, abortion referral service, a women’s rock band and a speakers’ bureau. At the same time we initiated campaigns to change oppressive and sexist laws and policies. Over the nearly 10 years of the organization’s existence, hundreds of women benefited from its services, volunteered on its hotlines and became leaders.
There was a belief in those heady days that everything could be changed – perhaps even overnight. And that the actions of a few could make history. So experimentation and audacious ambitions seemed sensible. Young people were challenging power structures all over the world and women were emboldened to bring our issues to the fore. There was a “utopian optimism,” as Gordon explained, that permeated the times.
Let’s hope the young women who attended the Boston conference will continue to search out the grassroots activism of the women’s liberation movement and write its history. This is a movement that deeply changed our nation and the world, and deserves attention and respect.
*Feminists never burned their bras. But others, including a Chicago radio station did, as a publicity stunt.