By Patrick Allitt, Emory University
The feminist movement coincided with what is called the ‘sexual revolution’. It’s no coincidence that it should have done so, because this was a period when questions about men’s and women’s proper roles and attitudes towards each other were heightened and were very self-consciously scrutinized. Meanwhile, there was a minority of radical feminists who viewed the world as an arena for conflict between men and women.
The most dramatic example of the enduring conflict between men and women can be found in Susan Brownmiller’s book, Against Our Will. Brownmiller believed that there has always been a conflict between men and women, and that the most sinister weapon in the men’s arsenal is rape.
According to Brownmiller, rape isn’t a horrible aberration of a crime committed by a ghastly tiny minority; it’s actually the standard operating procedure with which men encounter women, and how they’ve encountered them throughout history. Though she admitted that not all men were rapists, hers was an extremely bleak view of human interaction, of the essential antagonism between men and women in the world.
In the 1970s, one of the issues that caused great controversy within the feminist ranks was the question of lesbianism. If it was in fact the case that the men were the enemy, surely the very last thing one should be doing is consorting with the enemy. Consequently, the debate on if lesbianism was or was not normal, and really represented a higher state of consciousness and being, caused conflict inside the movement.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Kinsey Reports on Male and Female Sexuality
The Kinsey Report on male sexuality in 1948, and the Kinsey Report on female sexuality in 1953, had found very high levels of premarital sex and extramarital sex, and also of homosexuality among both men and women. Thus, for the first time, there was some sort of pseudo-scientific support for the idea that this was actually a society where there’s far more sex going on than had previously been officially recognized.
The sexual revolution had certainly been greatly facilitated by the perfection of the contraceptive pill in the early 1960s, because that was a technology that really did make it possible to reliably separate sex from procreation.
In addition, during the 1960s, there was a great deal of concern about the ‘population explosion’, the idea that the Earth’s population was growing at a terrifying rate and that, if something wasn’t done to curtail it, catastrophic Malthusian problems would follow. That’s why it was possible to view the widespread use of the pill as socially benign.
In 1968, the Pope, Paul VI, issued the encyclical letter ‘Humanae Vitae’, in which he upheld the Catholic Church’s traditional teaching against the use of artificial contraceptives. His view was: “Sex is a gift from God, and to have sex in which your intention is not procreative is turning away from God in an insulting way.” Most of the Catholic people, expecting the Pope to endorse the pill, were horrified to discover that his message was just the opposite.
Changes in Abortion Laws
Meanwhile, during the 1960s and early 1970s, the taboo on cohabitation outside of marriage, and of childbearing outside of marriage, broke down very rapidly. Consequently, what would have been regarded with absolute horror in the early 1960s in the American middle classes was regarded as entirely commonplace by the mid-1970s.
Even more dramatic was a transformation of the legal and social view of abortion, which in 1973 was permitted in the Supreme Court’s decision of the Roe v. Wade case. Originally, America’s anti-abortion laws had been passed in the late 19th century, at a time when Catholics already had a very strong prohibition against abortion, but the Protestant churches had never really commented on it. Most of the lobbying energy for anti-abortion laws had come from Protestant groups afraid that otherwise, the Catholic population was going to outstrip theirs.
Yet, by the early 1970s, the first group to take a prominent stand against this transformation of the abortion laws was itself Roman Catholic. The reason this had developed came partly out of all the changes we’ve been looking at, and partly out of the Sherry Finkbine case in 1962.
Case of Sherry Finkbine
Sherry Finkbine was a mother of four living in Arizona. Her husband brought back to her from a business trip to Europe a sleeping pill called ‘thalidomide’, but thalidomide had been linked to severe birth defects among European women. Once she realized she had been taking this pill and that she was pregnant, and that it might lead to a severe deformity in the child to which she would give birth, she told her doctor what had happened. He counseled her to get what was then called a ‘therapeutic abortion’.
She told one of her friends, who was a journalist, and she published the story in the local newspaper, and it became one of the cases that brought abortion into the public spotlight, and led to an intense debate around it.
Radical feminists in the late 1960s and early 1970s were campaigning for ‘reproductive freedom’, that is, the absolute right to decide such issues for themselves, rather than being instructed by doctors, as had been the convention until then. They thought of abortion as a right, and that was an entirely new concept.
Common Questions about Sexual Revolution and the Feminist Movement
Susan Brownmiller believed that there had always been a conflict between men and women, and that the most sinister weapon in the men’s arsenal was rape. Though she admitted that not all men were rapists, hers was an extremely bleak view of human interaction, of the essential antagonism between men and women in the world.
In 1968, the Pope, Paul VI, issued the encyclical letter ‘Humanae Vitae’, in which he upheld the Catholic Church’s traditional teaching against the use of artificial contraceptives. His view was: “Sex is a gift from God, and to have sex in which your intention is not procreative is turning away from God in an insulting way.”
The sexual revolution had been greatly facilitated by the perfection of the contraceptive pill in the early 1960s, because that was a technology that made it possible to reliably separate sex from procreation.