The civil rights revolution, soon followed by the rise of the New Left, inspired other Americans to voice their grievances and claim their rights. Many borrowed the confrontational tactics of the black movement and activist students, adopting their language of “power” and “liberation” and their rejection of traditional organizations and approaches. By the late 1960s, new social movements dotted the political landscape.
The achievement of the vote had not seemed to affect women’s lack of power and opportunity. When the 1960s began, only a handful of women held political office, newspapers divided job ads into “male” and “female” sections, with the latter limited to low-wage clerical positions, and major universities limited the number of female students they accepted. In many states, husbands still controlled their wives’ earnings. As late as 1970, the Ohio Supreme Court held that a wife was “at most a superior servant to her husband,” without “legally recognized feelings or rights.”
During the 1950s, some commentators had worried that the country was wasting its “woman power,” a potential weapon in the Cold War. But the public reawakening of feminist consciousness did not get its start until the publication in 1963 of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Friedan had written pioneering articles during the 1940s on pay discrimination against women workers and racism in the workplace for the newspaper of the United Electrical Workers’ union. But, like other social critics of the 1950s, she now took as her themes the emptiness of consumer culture and the discontents of the middle class. Her opening chapter, “The Problem That Has No Name,” painted a devastating picture of talented, educated women trapped in a world that viewed marriage and motherhood as their primary goals. Somehow, after more than a century of agitation for access to the public sphere, women’s lives still centered on the home. In Moscow in 1959, Richard Nixon had made the suburban home an emblem of American freedom. For Friedan, invoking the era’s most powerful symbol of evil, it was a “comfortable concentration camp.”
Few books have had the impact of The Feminine Mystique. Friedan was deluged by desperate letters from female readers relating how the suburban dream had become a nightmare. “Freedom,” wrote an Atlanta woman, “was a word I had always taken for granted. [I now realized that] I had voluntarily enslaved myself.” To be sure, a few of Friedan’s correspondents insisted that for a woman to create “a comfortable, happy home for her family” was “what God intended.” But the immediate result of The Feminine Mystique was to focus attention on yet another gap between American rhetoric and American reality.
In 1967, in a celebrated incident arising from the new feminism, a race official tried to eject Kathrine Switzer from the Boston Marathon, only to be pushed aside by other runners. Considered too fragile for the marathon (whose course covers more than twenty-six miles), women were prohibited from running. Switzer completed the race and today hundreds of thousands of women around the world compete in marathons each year.
The law slowly began to address feminist concerns. In 1963, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, barring sex discrimination among holders of the same jobs. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, as noted earlier, prohibited inequalities based on sex as well as race. Deluged with complaints of discrimination by working women, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission established by the law became a major force in breaking down barriers to female employment. The year 1966 saw the formation of the National Organization for Women (NOW), with Friedan as president. Modeled on civil rights organizations, it demanded equal opportunity in jobs, education, and political participation and attacked the “false image of women” spread by the mass media.