By Patrick Allitt, Emory University
Postwar America idealized families in which father worked outside the home, and mother didn’t. The National Organization for Women (NOW) campaigned successfully for the abolition of gender discrimination in employment. In the late 1960s, women in the Civil Rights and antiwar movements created ‘women’s liberation‘, arguing that women, too, were a disadvantaged minority group.
Women’s ‘consciousness-raising’ work, their attacks on sexism in advertising and the media, and their criticism of gender bias in society and law gave rise to radical feminism. At its most militant, it turned men into the enemy. In its more moderate form, it campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, the ERA.
The feminists were dismayed to discover that the ERA’s leading opponent was another group of women (StopERA), led by Phyllis Schlafly, who argued that women already enjoyed ideal conditions in America, and that the amendment would destroy public recognition of real differences between the sexes.
While American women of the 1950s and 1960s were probably the most privileged generation of women in the whole history of the world, many of them felt that their lives were being wasted. Those who had college degrees, in particular, felt that their education was being under-used, and that they were being artificially hemmed in by social distinctions that no longer made sense.
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‘The Problem That Has No Name’
The classic statement of this view came in Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963. One chapter is called, ‘The Problem That Has No Name’. Betty Friedan herself had been a student at Smith College in the class of 1942; in other words, she came from a privileged minority. After getting married, and then keeping in touch with some of her college friends who had gone through the same process, she found that many of them felt disappointed and stifled by living at home and working as full-time moms. They had to live vicariously through others, and they had to put too much store in sex, whereas their husbands had more variety in their lives; they were getting out into the world and doing important things. She also found that many of her friends were dependent on tranquilizers.
The women she was talking about were, for the most part, the mothers of the big baby-boom families; the American birth rate was very high in the late 1940s and the 1950s. Friedan said, “Mothering alone is not sufficient; it doesn’t justify the education they’ve had. These women ought to have the opportunity to enjoy important careers of their own.”
She was emphatic on this point: It isn’t just a matter of them getting jobs to earn money, it’s a matter of them having careers to give them the gratification that comes from doing complex and fascinating work: “The only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own. There is no other way.”
It was true that prior to 1965, it was entirely legal to discriminate against women in employment; in other words, to specify that only men could apply for certain jobs. Additionally, in jobs where men and women both did them, it was also permissible to discriminate in pay, and to pay the women less.
Discriminations in Jobs, in Payment, and in the Law
It is important to emphasize that Betty Friedan was aiming primarily at a middle-class readership. Working-class women, who were numerically greater, very often had to work and had to work all the way through.
The Second World War was a great moment for many of them, because it provided employment opportunities after years of low employment, and they continued in the workforce, but for reasons of economic necessity rather than seeking the gratification of careers.
Of course, though, that meant that any single woman who went into the workforce—whether because she’d never married or she’d become divorced, which was also more and more common by this period—tended to be at a severe economic disadvantage because women’s work was less well-paid. President Kennedy appointed a Commission on the Status of Women in 1961. This pre-dated Friedan’s book, and its first head was Eleanor Roosevelt. She was the widow of President Franklin Roosevelt, and she herself was one of the great standard bearers of liberalism all through the middle of the 20th century.
The report, which the Kennedy Commission delivered in 1963, agreed that women were discriminated against in jobs, in payment, and in the law. Some states, even then in the 1960s, didn’t let women sit on juries, and didn’t let them make wills. The women’s movement took form, in the 1960s, in response to these perceived injustices. It started as a moderate procedural organization and later on picked up some more radical overtones.
Women Join American Workforce
Friedan herself was the key figure in the creation of the National Organization of Women, NOW, founded in 1966. It campaigned in the following years for the complete abolition of gender discrimination in employment, taking the view: most of the jobs that currently excluded women aren’t the kinds of jobs where brute physical strength is necessary. In other words, because women are intrinsically as intellectually capable as men, there’s no adequate reason for them being excluded. Legislation passing through Congress in the early and mid-1960s gradually did include clauses preventing gender discrimination, and stipulating equal pay for equal work.
The result was that, in the 1960s, there was a sharp rise in the number of women entering the American workforce, particularly women entering into professional jobs, previously all-male and previously high-profile jobs.
Common Questions about Abolition of Gender Discrimination in Employment
Prior to 1965, it was entirely legal to discriminate against women in employment. Additionally, in jobs where men and women both did them, it was also permissible to discriminate in pay, and to pay the women less.
Betty Friedan believed that it wasn’t just a matter of women getting jobs to earn money, but a matter of them having careers to give them the gratification that comes from doing complex and fascinating work.
The National Organization of Women, NOW, was founded in 1966. It campaigned in the following years for the complete abolition of gender discrimination in employment,