Tidal Wave: How Women Changed America at Century's End

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9780743255028: Tidal Wave: How Women Changed America at Century's End

As recently as 1960 few women worked outside the home, married women could not borrow money in their own names, schools imposed strict quotas on female applicants, and sexual harassment did not exist as a legal concept. In Tidal Wave, Sara M. Evans, one of our foremost historians of women in America, draws on an extraordinary range of interviews, archives, and published sources to tell for the first time the incredible story of the past forty years in women's history.
Encompassing the so-called Second Wave of feminism (1960s and 1970s) and the Third Wave (1980s and 1990s), Evans challenges traditional interpretations of women's history at every turn. Covering politics, economics, popular culture, marriage, and family, and including the perspectives of women ranging from leaders of NOW to little-known women who simply wanted more out of their lives, Tidal Wave paints a vast canvas of a society in upheaval. The movement's shocking success is evinced, Evans notes, by the simple fact that we now live in a country in which all women are feminists, in practice if not in name.

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About the Author:

Sara M. Evans is Distinguished McKnight University Professor of History at the University of Minnesota, where she has taught women's history since 1976. The author of Born for Liberty and Personal Politics and the coauthor of Free Spaces and Wage Justice, she lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One: The Way We Were; The Way We Are

The "first wave" of women's rights activism in the United States built slowly from its beginnings in the middle of the nineteenth century, finally cresting in 1920 with the passage of the nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing women the most fundamental right of citizenship, the vote. It swelled slowly and steadily, riding this single, symbolic issue. By contrast, a "second wave" of women's rights activism in the last half of the century arose almost instantly in a fast-moving and unruly storm, massive from the very outset. This driving storm, with shifting winds and crosscurrents, never focused on a single issue and sometimes seemed to be at war as much within itself as with patriarchy. Yet that storm, with all its internal conflicts, produced a tidal wave of feminism that washed over the United States and changed it forever.

It is startling to realize that in the early 1960s married women could not borrow money in their own names, professional and graduate schools regularly imposed quotas of 5-10 percent or even less on the numbers of women they would admit, union contracts frequently had separate seniority lists for women and men, and sexual harassment did not exist as a legal concept. It was perfectly legal to pay women and men differently for exactly the same job and to advertise jobs separately: "Help Wanted -- Men" and "Help Wanted -- Women."

Feminism, the broad banner under which the second wave named itself, not only shattered a set of legal structures that upheld inequalities between women and men but also challenged prevailing "commonsense" everyday practices built on the assumption that women were naturally docile, domestic, and subordinate. Should a corporate secretary also be an "office wife" who serves coffee and buys birthday presents for the boss's wife? Should etiquette demand that men hold open doors for women but not the reverse? Must women change their names upon marriage? Can men tolerate having a female boss? Can women operate heavy machinery or wield surgical knives with meticulous precision? Must women always be the ones to make and serve coffee? Would successful businessmen take legal advice from female lawyers? Can language accommodate the possibility that firemen, policemen, and chairmen might, in fact, be women? Are women's incomes, in fact, secondary? Is a woman working outside the home by definition a "bad mother"? Is a man whose income cannot support his family by definition a failure at manhood? Can rape occur within a marriage?

Many of these issues remain unresolved decades later. Certainly, ongoing inequalities and injustices, such as sexual harassment, unequal pay, job discrimination, female poverty, and restrictions on reproductive rights, are easy to document while the cultural debate on "women's place" continues apace. In many ways the legal structure has changed, but the vision of equality that undergirds those changes continues to be illusive. Women's opportunities for work and for equal compensation remain systematically limited. The structure of work outside the home and the continued expectation that women have primary responsibility for child care and housework still force mothers into impossible choices between the demands of work and of family. And in the United States, as throughout the world, women continue to face unconscionable levels of violence and harassment.

The democratic mobilization of women to challenge inequality and to claim their civic right to be full participants in making changes and solving the problems of the twenty-first century will be essential for the foreseeable future. Indeed, it has always been needed. I use the word feminism to name that mobilization and the egalitarian ideas that inspire it. The term "feminism" came into being in late nineteenth century France and was adopted by a segment of the U.S. movement for woman suffrage (the vote) in the 1910s. Those early feminists sought cultural as well as legal change. In the early 1970s, women's rights activists adopted feminism as a common label, bridging enormous ideological and strategic differences. Should women work inside existing institutions, such as the political party system, universities, and corporations, or should they create new ones? Should they prioritize economic rights, reproductive rights, or cultural change? Should they seek alliances with men? Can they work simultaneously on the problems of race, poverty, and militarism while maintaining a focus on sexual equality? The differences among feminists are so deep that some regularly challenge others' credentials as feminists. Yet the energy of the storm that drives them all comes from their shared challenge to deeply rooted inequalities based on gender.

For the purposes of this book, it makes no sense to insist on a more precise definition of the term "feminist": my focus is on the movement itself in all its diversity of ideas, constituencies, strategies, and organizations. There are, however, some distinctive characteristics of that movement as it has ebbed and flowed between the mid-1960s and the beginning of the twenty-first century. Perhaps its most distinctive characteristic has been the challenge to the boundary between the "personal" and the "political" captured in an early slogan, "The Personal Is Political." Under this banner, the movement politicized issues that had long been deemed outside the purview of "politics," including sexuality, domestic violence, and the exercise of authority within the family. It also confronted the ancient association of men and maleness with public life (politics and power) and women and femaleness with domesticity (personal life and subordination). The result was a far more radical challenge (in the sense of fundamental, going to the roots) than efforts simply to gain admission for women into the public world of civic and economic rights. It raised questions about the nature of politics and about our very understanding of maleness and femaleness with all it implies for personal relationships, sexuality, and the family, and in so doing, it questioned one of the most fundamental and intimate forms of hierarchy, one that has been used in myriad contexts to explain, justify, and naturalize other forms of subordination. The result of this feminist challenge has been a political, legal, and cultural maelstrom that continues to this day.

I argue here that the brilliant creativity and the longevity of feminism in the late twentieth century is grounded in the breathtaking claim that the personal is political. At the same time, this confluence of personal-private and public-political contained the seed of the movement's repeated episodes of fragmentation and self-destruction. On the one hand, "the personal is political" empowered both individuals and groups to challenge inequities that the culture defined as natural. Women sued corporations and unions; invented new institutions, such as havens for battered women; created journals, day care centers, and coffeehouses; ran for public office; and wrote new laws and lobbied them through. On the other hand, the linkage of personal and political led some to a search for purity, for "true" feminism in the realm of ideas and the formula for a perfectly realized feminist life. The pursuit of perfection made it difficult to entertain complexity, sliding easily into dogmatism. Differences of opinion and lifestyle betrayed the "true faith" and could not be tolerated. Thus, this is a history rife with contradiction: growth and fragmentation, innovation and internal conflict. One cannot understand it without exploring the interplay of these contradictory tendencies, because they are inextricably linked both to the movement's capacity to reinvent itself and to the necessity to do so. Repeatedly pronounced "dead," feminism in the late twentieth century has again and again risen phoenix-like in new and unexpected contexts, unnoticed by those who attended the funeral.

The origins of this deep contradiction can be located historically in the nature of women's subordination in the United States after World War II and in the political context of racial conflict and identity politics at the time of the feminist rebirth in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The creative side of the movement has flourished despite political repression, and indeed often in response to it. Fragmentation and self-destruction have also been driven at different times by economic downturns and government surveillance and infiltration and in the 1980s by a governmentally sanctioned backlash. Yet feminism is still alive and well at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Having accomplished, at least partially, many of its goals, there are many aspects of feminism that have become so much part of the mainstream (language, laws, labor force, and access to professional education) we take them for granted. In addition, current forms of feminist activism are not particularly oriented toward visibility in the sense of large public demonstrations. It is less discernible than it has been in recent decades. Such an eclipse is dangerous, however, as the history of feminist activism represents a heritage new generations need if they are to re-create it yet again.

One of the motives behind the writing of this book is my own awareness that the loss of historical memory would have far-reaching consequences. It would force future generations to invent feminism as if they had no shoulders on which to stand, repeating the unfortunate experience of many in the 1960s. It took some time for the emerging feminist movement to recover its own roots and realize that this was not the first time such issues had been raised and fought for. For example, the so-called "first wave," the fight for woman suffrage, had waxed and waned over the course of a century and in the 1910s it had blossomed into a many-sided movement that mobilized the energies of hundreds of thousands of women. In those years, women's rights gave birth to feminism's rebellious cultural criticism, although it never responded to the demands of African-American women for full inclusion. By the end of the 1930s, however, "feminism" had been marginalized into a narrow, single-issue movement for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). In the 1950s, as the generation that would initiate the "second wave" was coming of age, feminism, as either a set of ideas or a social movement, was virtually invisible. Perhaps this explains why such a large number of activists became professional historians. Certainly I am not the only historian who wishes to spare the next generation the rage we experienced about having been cut off from our own history in all its complexity.

The loss of historical memory between the great suffrage victory in 1920 and the post-World War II era has sobering parallels to the late twentieth century. The 1920s, like the late 1980s and 1990s, were a time when individualism flowered among women. In both these eras of flashy wealth, blotting out the continuing reality of desperate poverty, middle-class women gained new access to education and to a broader range of paid jobs and young women engaged in sexual experimentation and lifestyles that offered consumption as a primary form of self-expression. Women's battles, they believed, had been won. "Feminism" was a label that restricted their individuality when all they had to do was go ahead and live out their equality. As Dorothy Dunbar Bromley wrote in Harper's Magazine in 1927:

"Feminism" has become a term of opprobrium to the modern young woman. For the word suggests either the old school of fighting feminists who wore flat heels and had very little feminine charm, or the current species who antagonize men with their constant clamor about maiden names, equal rights, woman's place in the world, and many another cause...ad infinitum.

In the 1920s, the white women's movement split in two. It was rent by the conflicting goals of social reformers, on the one hand, for whom women's suffrage was part of a broader agenda that ultimately shaped key aspects of the New Deal and the emerging welfare state, and the National Women's Party, on the other, which focused single-mindedly on passage of the Equal Rights Amendment to complete the process of establishing legal, constitutional equality for women. As that battle erupted again and again in the 1920s, 1930s, and into the 1940s, "women's rights" and "feminism" took on increasingly narrow and distant connotations, feeding popular images of feminists as shrill, elitist, "mannish," and antifamily. Younger women were not recruited, and by the 1950s feminism was so thoroughly marginalized that most young women were entirely unaware of it.

There are significant differences between the interwar era (1920-1940) and the last 20 years, but the similarities are striking nonetheless. The conservative attack on the women's movement has trumpeted the same themes for more than a century, warning against "mannish" women and the endangered patriarchal family. In the 1970s, aroused conservatives like Phyllis Schlafley attacked feminists as "anti-family, anti-children, and pro-abortion." She went on to characterize the new journal, Ms., as "a series of sharptongued, high-pitched, whining complaints by unmarried women. They view the home as a prison, and the wife and mother as a slave."

The Republican ascendancy led by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s endowed antifeminists like Schlafley with intellectual authority and placed people who agreed with her in major administrative posts. Writers like George Gilder, who had insisted since the early 1970s that "women's place is in the home," became intellectual insiders, blaming feminists (most of whom in his view were single mothers, lesbians, or simply unmarried) for destroying the moral fabric of America with demands for day care. Despite the Republican embrace of the traditional patriarchal family, the 1980s were also an era of rampant individualism and high consumption. Like the twenties, they were a time when educated women could experiment with newly available opportunities -- for careers as well as sexual encounters. As early as 1982, Susan Bolotin wrote in the New York Times that women then in their twenties were a "postfeminist" generation. Typically they told her, "I don't label myself a feminist. Not for me, but for the guy next door that would mean that I'm a lesbian and that I hate men." A conservative young woman, Rachel Flick, contended feminism had become "an exclusively radical, separatist, bitter movement." Young women just out of college, confident in their ability to find well-paying jobs and to make it on their own, saw feminists as shrill, bitter, ugly, and lacking a "sense of style." By 1991, Paula Kammen lamented the resulting loss to her generation, which came of age in the 1980s when "young feminists didn't seem to exist." With no access to consciousness-raising experiences or other links to prior generations, they were defenseless against the stigma of feminism. All they knew were the stereotypes: "The twisted, all-too-common logic about feminists goes like this: If you stand up for women, you must hate men. Therefore, you must be angry. Thus, you must be ugly and can't get a man anyway. Hence, you must be a dyke."

The attacks on feminism, howev...

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