How Americans Fought for Issues on Gender and Discrimination


By Lynne Ann HartnettVillanova University

While an 18-year-old blonde beauty was being crowned Miss America, 100 other women were launching a protest for “Women’s Liberation”. These American activists were among the first participants in the women’s liberation movement, or second wave feminism. They attacked a status quo that depicted women as primarily sexual beings defined through their relationships with men.

Female purple-painted hand with the feminism symbol
Second-wave feminism focused on how women were viewed primarily as sexual beings. (Image: AdriaVidal/Shutterstock)

The Freedom Trashcan

Singing a parody of the song “Ain’t she sweet”, the women dumped bras, girdles, false eyelashes, high heels, dish soap, and Playboy magazines into a garbage bin they called the “freedom trashcan”.

The roots of the movement can be traced to Betty Friedan’s 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique. It argued that society sent women the message their ultimate aspirations should be to perform as fabulous housewives and doting mothers. Some women were unhappy and unfulfilled in such roles, Friedan said, and women weren’t encouraged to explore their own passions and abilities.

Instead, America’s post World War II economic boom had unleashed a wave of consumerism lifted by advertising campaigns that targeted American housewives with homogenous ideals of womanhood. Many women didn’t recognize themselves in these ads or models of behavior. They yearned for the freedom to define themselves apart from society’s expectations. 

In the same way that the 19th-century abolition movement and its language of rights sparked the campaign for women’s suffrage (the right to vote), the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, with a focus on equality and freedom, sparked a second wave of women’s movement.

The Feminine Mystique

The Feminine Mystique sold like wildfire. Educated middle-class white women ate it up. It validated them and their anger. Most working American women at the time were employed in jobs that paid less than most men earned, in part because they were seen as female jobs. This was the case even though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had banned employment discrimination on the basis of sex. 

More women made their way into the workforce each year. But only some jobs were considered appropriate for female workers. Indeed, until 1968, most newspapers divided help wanted ads by gender. That changed when the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled sex-segregated help wanted ads illegal.

This new legislation came after a group called the National Organization for Women (NOW) had protested against the practice. It envisioned itself as the NAACP-equivalent for women. NOW and other women’s rights groups initiated protests and advanced legal challenges to further democratize American society. 

Between 1965 and 1978, the Supreme Court granted married couples the right to use contraception, established a woman’s right to obtain an abortion, and banned states from excluding women from juries. Congress also banned housing and credit discrimination on the basis of gender and passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act forbidding discrimination based on pregnancy in any aspect of employment.

Title IX

Another significant achievement for women was Title IX of the Education Amendment in 1972, prohibiting sex discrimination in any educational program that received federal financial support. Title IX revolutionized women’s opportunities in higher education and sports.

One other development that can’t be ignored was the widespread use of the birth control pill beginning in the 1970s. By 1968, worldwide sales of “the pill” reached $150 million a year. Freedom for countless women now included reproductive freedoms.

Black Women’s Viewpoint

Despite such achievements, many Black women didn’t identify with the priorities of middle-class white feminists. Issues of economic and educational disparity affected Black American women as much as they did Black men. And so many Black women chafed at white feminists’ emphasis on gender discrimination when they encountered a more pressing life-and-death racial struggle. 

Though white feminists often viewed women as a homogenous group oppressed by men, African American women found more commonality with Black men than their white counterparts in spite of the sexism that persisted in Civil Rights groups and the Black power movement.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Great Revolutions of Modern HistoryWatch it now, on Wondrium.

The Lavender Scare

Portrait of of Joseph McCarthy
Senator Joseph McCarthy argued that deviant sexual behavior was tied to communist organizers as tools. (Image: United Press/Public domain)

Another element of the status quo that came under attack during the 1960s counterculture movement was discrimination against homosexuals. Senator Joseph McCarthy had publicly tied homosexuality to radicalism at the height of the Red Scare mania in the 1950s. 

McCarthy argued that “deviant sexual behavior” made Americans more vulnerable to blackmail and potential tools of communist organizers. Political rhetoric linked “communists” with “queers”. Both were described as morally weak, godless, and disturbed. In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower issued an executive order that banned homosexuals from working in the federal government because of the security risk they purportedly represented.

This order added sexuality to the criteria used to determine a federal job candidate’s suitability. The ripple effect of the federal government’s employment ban reached across many industries and areas of life. Gay men and women became stigmatized and suspect as the result of a government-driven paranoia known as the lavender scare.

What It Takes to Be Proud

Stonewall Inn 5 pride weekend 2016
The protests of Greenwich Village are still commemorated with pride parades around the world. (Image: Rhododendrites/Public domian)

In June 1969, New York City police raided a Greenwich Village gay bar known as the Stonewall Inn. It was part of a broader police crackdown on establishments that served alcohol without a license. On this particular night, the bar was packed with 200 customers, including gay men, lesbians, transgender people, drag queens, and teenage runaways. 

The police threw the customers out on the sidewalk and arrested 13 of them. But the bar patrons began to fight back. Over the next six nights, hundreds of people showed up at the Stonewall in a defiant show of solidarity. While some peacefully held hands, sang, and chanted gay power, others rioted.

The protests were so significant that they are commemorated each June—and have been since 1970—with pride parades in New York City and around the world. It’s hard to imagine that these many and various human rights campaigns of the 1960s would have had the force and effectiveness they did without the formative example set by the Civil Rights Movement.

Common Questions about How Americans Fought for Issues on Gender and Discrimination

Q: What status quo did second wave feminism aim to attack?

American activists aimed to attack the notion that women were merely sexual beings and were defined only by their relationship with men.

Q: Why didn’t many Black women identify with the priorities of middle-class white feminists?

Many female Black Americans had to struggle with issues that white feminists didn’t focus on. In this sense, Black women identified with Black men much more than they did with white women.

Q: What American protest was so significant that it is commemorated each June?

In June 1969, when tension between the police and members of a gay bar escalated, the police cracked down on the protestors while many of the protestors, American activists among them, stood their ground non-violently and even sang. This is still commemorated with pride parades every year.

Keep Reading
Che Guevara and the Guatemalan Coup
Fulgencio Batista, Fidel Castro, and the 26th of July Movement
Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution