The women’s liberation movement inspired a major expansion of the idea of freedom by insisting that it should be applied to the most intimate realms of life. Introducing the terms “sexism” and “sexual politics” and the phrase “the personal is political” into public debate, they insisted that sexual relations, conditions of marriage, and standards of beauty were as much “political” questions as the war, civil rights, and the class tensions that had traditionally inspired the Left to action. The idea that family life is not off-limits to considerations of power and justice repudiated the family-oriented public culture of the 1950s, and it permanently changed Americans’ definition of freedom.
Radical feminists’ first public campaign demanded the repeal of state laws that underscored women’s lack of self-determination by banning abortions or leaving it up to physicians to decide whether a pregnancy could be terminated. Without the right to control her own reproduction, wrote one activist, “woman’s other ‘freedoms’ are tantalizing mockeries that cannot be exercised.” In 1969, a group of feminists disrupted legislative hearings on New York’s law banning abortions, where the experts scheduled to testify consisted of fourteen men and a Roman Catholic nun.
The call for legalized abortions merged the nineteenth-century demand that a woman control her own body with the Sixties emphasis on sexual freedom. But the concerns of women’s liberation went far beyond sexuality. Sisterhood Is Powerful, an influential collection of essays, manifestos, and personal accounts published in 1970, touched on a remarkable array of issues, from violence against women to inequalities in the law, churches, workplaces, and family life. By this time, feminist ideas had entered the mainstream. In 1962, a poll showed that two-thirds of American women did not feel themselves to be victims of discrimination. By 1974, two-thirds did.