To the alarm of conservatives, during the 1970s the sexual revolution passed from the counterculture into the social mainstream. The number of Americans who told public-opinion polls that premarital sex was wrong plummeted. The number of divorces soared, reaching more than 1 million in 1975, double the number ten years earlier. The age at which both men and women married rose dramatically. The figure for divorces in 1975 exceeded the number of first-time marriages. A popular 1978 film, An Unmarried Woman, portrayed the dissolution of a marriage as a triumph for the wife, who discovered her potential for individual growth only after being abandoned by her husband. As a result of women’s changing aspirations and the availability of birth control and legal abortions, the American birthrate declined dramatically. By 1976, the average woman was bearing 1.7 children during her lifetime, less than half the figure of 1957 and below the level at which a population reproduces itself. Like all averages, these figures conceal significant variations. Poorer Americans, especially in the South and rural heartland, had more children than educated urbanites. A 1971 survey of the last five graduating classes at Bryn Mawr, an elite women’s college, reported the birth of more than seventy children. A similar survey covering the classes of 1971 through 1975 found that only three had been born.
During the Nixon years, women made inroads into areas from which they had long been excluded. In 1972, Congress approved Title IX, which banned gender discrimination in higher education, and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which required that married women be given access to credit in their own name.
The giant corporation American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) entered into a landmark agreement in which it agreed to pay millions of dollars to workers who had suffered gender discrimination and to upgrade employment opportunities for women The number of women at work continued its upward climb.
In 1960, only 20 percent of women with young children had been in the workforce. The figure reached 40 percent in 1980, and 55 percent in 1990. Working women were motivated by varied aims. Some sought careers in professions and skilled jobs previously open only to men. Others, spurred by the need to bolster family income as the economy faltered, flooded into the traditional, low-wage, “pink-collar” sector, working as cashiers, secretaries, and telephone operators.
Daryl Koehn, of Kansas, celebrates in 1977 on learning that she has been chosen as one of the first group of women allowed to study at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. Since their establishment in 1901, the scholarships had been limited to men.
Figure 26.1 MEDIAN AGE AT FIRST MARRIAGE, 1947-1981
In addition, the gay and lesbian movement, born at the end of the 1960s, expanded greatly during the 1970s and became a major concern of the right. In 1969, there had been about fifty local gay rights groups in the United States; ten years later, their numbers reached into the thousands. They began to elect local officials, persuaded many states to decriminalize homosexual relations, and succeeded in convincing cities with large gay populations to pass antidiscrimination laws. They actively encouraged gay men and lesbians to “come out of the closet”—that is, to reveal their sexual orientation. During the 1970s, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental diseases.
As pre-World War I bohemians saw many of their ideas absorbed into the mass culture of the 1920s, values and styles of the 1960s became part of 1970s America, dubbed by the writer Tom Wolfe the “Me Decade.” When asked in a Gallup poll to rate a series of ideas, respondents gave the highest ranking not to “following God’s will,” “high income,” or “a sense of accomplishment,” but to “freedom to choose.” The demand of student protesters that individuals be empowered to determine their own “lifestyle” emerged in depoliticized form in Americans’ obsession with self-improvement through fitness programs, health food diets, and new forms of psychological therapy.