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18 | Refugees from the Fifties
In fall 1952, my parents pinned an “I Like Ike” button on my Brownie uniform. In 1957, I sat glued to the television as I watched nine brave black students desegregate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was a turning point in my life; I not only was inspired but learned a new meaning of bravery. Fast forward to the early sixties when I worked for a variety of civil rights organizations. And in spring 1965, after an all-night bus trip, I arrived bleary-eyed in Washington to protest the Vietnam War. There I marched with twenty-five thousand people, wept as World War II veterans wheeled themselves to the rally, and experienced immense relief that others shared my anguish over the Vietnam War.
Standing in front of the Washington Monument was Paul Potter, president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), who challenged me with his unforgettable speech. What kind of society, he asked, could promote so much injustice and cruelty? What kind of society, he asked, “consistently puts material values before human values—and still persists in calling itself free and still persists in finding itself fit to police the world? We must name that system. We must name it, describe it, analyze it, understand it and change it.” Only a social movement, he said, could change a system that daily violated its own ideals and values.
The Vietnam War and then the women’s movement shadowed my entire adult education. A few years later, as a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, both of these movements continued to consume my political activism. By 1970, I was teaching the first course in women’s history, demanding gym facilities, child care, and education that was relevant to women’s lives.
We were refugees from the fifties. The media called it “the generation gap.” Like so many young people in my generation, I suffered a sense of extreme alienation. My spiritual and moral compass was at odds with the materialistic and militaristic culture of a nation that daily violated its ideals of equality.
Not all young people felt alienated, nor did all those who felt alienated become activists. Some, like Sharon Jeffrey, got their language from their parents. What was unique about those who led and joined the civil rights, antiwar, women’s, gay, and environmental movements was that they politicized their feelings and became committed to changing the world in which they lived. As Paul Potter had rightly hoped, those movements gave activists individual purpose within the solidarity of a social movement.
Where did the language of these movements come from? Some young people had already learned the language of injustice from their families—activists in the Old Left and the civil rights movements in the 1930, 1940s, and 1950s. Still others, like myself, reinvented themselves and learned the language of opposition from their friends within the Movement.
The brilliance of the Port Huron Statement is that Tom Hayden and the people at the Port Huron convention captured that alienation. They understood that those of us who politicized our alienation were hungry for a new world and idealistic enough to believe that we could create it. They understood that many of us felt like refugees from another time and that we wanted to replace our sense of helplessness with becoming engaged members of a participatory democracy. In commemoration of the Port Huron Statement more than fifty years later, I discuss how those young men and women—mostly white, college-educated, and part of the dominant culture—entered the sixties with overlapping but varying expectations and anxieties and created something—captured so well in that Statement—that impacted men and women, of different classes and ethnicities, in dramatically different ways.
The young men and women of the fifties had much in common. The colonial struggles for independence and self-determination, especially in Africa and Cuba, inspired them to champion social movements for popular democracy. In their search for a language expressing their alienation, they read the same books, saw the same films, and read the same magazines. They rejected David Riesman’s “Lonely Crowd” and William H. Whyte’s “Organization Man,” and they identified instead with Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” They had read the existentialists and knew they had to find a larger purpose in life. On a more personal level, many searched for a way to escape the lives laid out for them.
For young men, hints of that escape began to appear when Mad magazine, first published in 1952, satirized the popular culture of the fifties. One year later, Hugh Hefner began publishing Playboy, which encouraged bachelors to enjoy a sybaritic sexual life. For the upscale man, an elaborately appointed apartment—complete with revolving bed, rotating lovers, and reflecting mirrors—offered all the pleasure of sex without the burden of a family.
Only a small number of young men could afford Hefner’s lifestyle, and it was mostly a few “wannabes” who followed the Beats into coffeehouses or out on the road, leaving behind crabgrass, marriage, and a mortgage. Still, as the alienated sons of the fifties entered a new decade, they had models of revolt, intellectual analyses of their alienation, prophetic mentors, and fantasies of escape, if only they dared.
Their female counterparts, influenced by the same intellectual and political legacy, had fewer examples of female rebellion and nonconformity. Like educated women before them, they lived in a dual culture, experiencing life as a woman but learning to interpret what they read as a man. They absorbed critiques of materialism and conformity through men’s eyes. They learned to view society’s conformity through men’s analyses and tried to shed the prudery of the fifties by inventing themselves as the free-spirited women young men increasingly expected them to be.
In the short run, the male literary and sociological tradition of dissent unleashed dreams of freedom and a critical distrust of authority, encouraging in their place a taste for nonconformity. All of this created a foundation of sorts for a future women’s movement that would question all conventional wisdom. In the civil rights movement, both black and white women fought against racial supremacy, which raised the question of what justified male supremacy. From Paul Potter and other SDS intellectuals, these women learned the need to “name the system” and to find language for the injustices they experienced in the Movement and identified in American foreign policy.
Women don’t appear in the Port Huron Statement because the path they needed to forge had not yet been articulated. Hardly anyone could have anticipated how differently the Movement would affect young women activists.
For female activists who worked in the civil rights, New Left, and antiwar movements, the generation gap between parents and children was far more complicated than it was for Movement men. Elsewhere, I have called it the “female generation gap.” The immediate past conjured up images of claustrophobic marriages, coercive motherhood, and constrained chastity. Most of these young women had had personal acquaintance with what would later be described by Betty Friedan as “the feminine mystique”: they recoiled from the role of housewife, even if their own mothers had worked on an assembly line or engaged in activism. The ghost haunting these young white women was not an “organization man” but a woman wearing an apron and living vicariously through the lives of her husband and children. Much of the women’s liberation movement would be forged in opposition to this image.
This was not the case for black young women, whose mothers had rarely enjoyed the luxury of avoiding work outside the home. Their rebellion was not against domesticity but rather against exploitative work, racism, and an older generation that had avoided direct confrontation with the white vigilantes who enforced segregation. These young women became leaders in the civil rights movement and demonstrated their organizational brilliance. They were angered by watching black men lust after white women. And later, in the late 1960s and 1970s, they reflected upon the sexism they had experienced in the Black Power movement.
Although young white women had been influenced, too, by what their male counterparts had read, they had precious few intellectual mentors who addressed them as women. Aside from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which did travel through movement circles, there was no C. Wright Mills or David Riesman to help them analyze their fears and dreams. In fact, some of the male mentors could be hilariously wrong. In the July 21, 1967, issue of Time magazine, the well-known sociologist David Riesman, who had taught me to seek authenticity, wrote authoritatively, “If anything remains more or less unchanged, it will be the role of women.” It was probably the worst prediction he ever made in his career.
As they entered the sixties, many young women began searching for ways to avoid becoming a traditional housewife. The birth control pill, of course, did something historic: it ruptured sexuality from reproduction for the first time in human history. New books addressed questions they hadn’t even articulated. In 1962, Helen Gurley Brown published Sex and the Single Girl, which mirrored Hugh Hefner’s “playboy” philosophy and encouraged single women to “swing” with men, whether they were married or not.
Like Hefner, Brown encouraged young women to leave crabgrass and domesticity behind, enjoying sex for their own pleasure. The few women who joined the Beats or who spent a few years in the urban sex scene soon discovered the fundamental inequality that shadowed their sexually liberated lives. If they waited too long, they could risk ending up with no husband and bumping up against their biological clocks. Without perfect contraception or legal abortion, women literally risked their lives if they became pregnant. And given that both young men and women were relatively ignorant about sexual relations, some women began to realize that more encounters did not necessarily result in better sex.
By 1964, the sexual revolution entered the circles of the antiwar and New Left movements. Some women felt the same ambiguity as those who had followed Helen Brown’s advice. Sexual liberation seemed an ideal form of rebellion, but some feared being treated as dispensable playmates by movement men. In addition, many still wondered how they would work, have a family, and yet not end up being a housewife responsible for all child care and homework. When movement men treated them as housewives, they had no idea what a hot button they were pushing.
At the time, there were few answers to the questions movement women began to discuss among themselves. The conventional narrative of the women’s movement is that sometime between 1965 and 1967, women began to leave the New Left and the antiwar movement because their work was undervalued and involved too much mimeographing, typing, and making the coffee rather than writing position papers or speaking to the press.
There is some truth to this story, but it hardly captures what is a far more complicated history. Movement men had grown up in the fifties. They had therefore inherited traditional views of women that began to irritate young women who were gaining confidence in their own abilities.
It may be hard to believe this, but before the women’s movement, the president of Harvard University saw no reason to increase the number of female undergraduates because the university’s mission was to “train leaders.” As a result, Harvard’s Lamont Library was off limits to women for fear they would distract male students. Newspaper ads separated jobs by gender; employers paid women less than men for the same work. Bars often refused to serve women; banks denied married women credit or loans, a practice that did not change until 1974. Some states even excluded women from jury duty. Radio producers considered women’s voices too abrasive to be on the air; television executives believed that women’s voices didn’t carry sufficient credibility to anchor the news; no women ran big corporations or universities, worked as firefighters or police officers, sat on the Supreme Court, installed electrical equipment, climbed telephone poles, or owned construction companies. All hurricanes had female names due to the widely held view that women brought chaos and destruction to society. As late as 1970, Dr. Edgar Berman, a well-known physician, proclaimed on television that women were too tortured by hormonal disturbances to assume the presidency of the nation. Few people knew more than a few women professors, doctors, or lawyers. Everyone addressed a woman as either Miss or Mrs. depending on her marital status, and if a woman wanted an abortion—legal nowhere in America—she risked her life, searching among quacks in back alleys for a competent and compassionate doctor. The public believed that rape victims had probably “asked for it,” most women felt too ashamed to report it, and no language existed to make sense of what we now call domestic violence, sexual harassment, marital rape, or date rape. Just two words summed up the hidden injuries women suffered in silence: “That’s life.”
This was the culture that formed most of these young men. What the conventional narrative misses is that these men, like their female counterparts, had traditional gender expectations and didn’t see them as a violation of their commitment to equality. As comrades, moreover, women and men were more or less equals. After the sexual revolution intersected with the Movement, around the middle of the decade, relationships became more problematic. Some young men even thought that the sexual revolution was the same thing as women’s liberation. Some women felt exploited.
The truth is, the Movement was a tremendous gift to young women. Nowhere in America could they find such opportunity and freedom. It was in the Movement that young women learned to clarify their ideas, analyze their grievances, and organize people for social justice and against the war. By 1967, the Movement promoted token women to speak at rallies, to head up committees, to write reports and position papers, and to take leadership positions. Many of these women would become leaders, writers, and organizers of the women’s movement. And given the influence of other liberation movements, it was hardly surprising that they dubbed the new movement they were creating “the women’s liberation front.”
In short, the common belief that men in the civil rights, New Left, and antiwar movements treated women badly ignores the historical context and erases a far more important story. These movements inspired a group of young women to seek their own independence and self-determination.
Why, then, did women gradually begin to discuss their grievances in consciousness-raising groups and write memos, position papers, and pamphlets that crisscrossed college campuses with new interpretations of women’s lives? There were many reasons. Black Power activists had asked white activists to organize their own communities. Some women denounced the revolutionary violent fantasies and self-implosion of the late New Left into sectarian groups. Many women no longer experienced the late New Left as a community that supported their growing desire for self-determination and their wish to speak about their own lives.
Between 1955 and 1965, then, these women activists had learned the skills they needed to create a national movement. The civil rights movement inspired them to question male supremacy. The spirit of Port Huron reflected their alienation and challenged them to carve out an individual purpose within the solidarity of a social movement. From those New Leftists who celebrated expressive and cultural politics, women learned that the personal is political and that there are political dimensions in all personal relationships. From the very beginning, the women’s liberation movement embraced the idea of participatory democracy. It was not, however, immune to the kind of sectarianism and “trashing of leaders,” influenced by Mao’s cultural revolution, that led some activists in women’s liberation to denounce talent and leadership.
These were the movements that gave women an opportunity to fight for equality as well as social and economic justice—an opportunity that would turn their lives upside down. From these movements, women inherited a sophisticated and substantive intellectual legacy. Networks were already in place and women knew how to organize. That is why the women’s liberation movement swept so swiftly across the nation and why pamphlets, poetry, memos, essays, and books poured out of movement presses and publishing houses so quickly.
Men were blindsided by the women’s movement. Shaped by their childhood in the 1950s, they thought they had been good comrades. And in many ways they had. So women’s anger shocked them. Women’s fury confused them. They didn’t realize that it was precisely the Movement in which female activists had first realized their subordination in American society.
For the first time, these young activists organized a movement around their own lives. Once they saw inequality, they saw it everywhere. And it was everywhere. But like fish in water, it had just seemed normal. As Paul Potter had said, they needed to name the system and to find language for what I have elsewhere described as “the hidden injuries of sex.”
Creating a Movement
On August 27, 1970, fifty thousand women marched down Fifth Avenue, announcing the birth of a new movement. Their three demands included legal abortion, universal child care, and equal pay for women and men—preconditions for women’s equality with men at home and at the workplace. These are not what SDS founders would have demanded in 1962, but they mirrored the values and vision of the Port Huron Statement.
Turns out, there were plenty more hidden injuries, which activists soon discovered and publicized. Rape, once a subject of great shame, became redefined as physical assault that had little to do with lust. Date rape, for which there was plenty of experience but no name, opened up a national conversation about what constituted consensual sex. Few people had ever heard the words marital rape. “If you can’t rape your wife,” Congressman Bob Wilson of California said in 1979, “then who can you rape?” Thus began a new conversation about the right of wives to have consensual sex.
Sexual freedom without legal abortion inspired women’s liberationists to join the abortion rights campaign of the sixties. Determined to repeal laws against abortion, New York feminists testified before the legislature and passed out copies of their model abortion bill—a blank piece of paper. Through “public speak-outs,” they admitted to having undergone illegal abortions, and they explained why they had made that choice. In Chicago and San Francisco, activists created their own clandestine organizations to help women seek qualified doctors. Some learned how to do it for their comrades. And then, in 1973, the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision ignited the endless abortion wars.
Activists also began to share their sexual ignorance and disappointment. Embarrassed to discuss sexual matters, many young women had faked orgasm for fear of being labeled frigid and wanting to be viewed as “good in bed.” It was no surprise, then, that the faked orgasm became a metaphor for the many ways women hid their private anxiety and anguish from others, especially men.
Arguably, the women’s health movement was the greatest accomplishment of what was increasingly called “the women’s movement.” Women knew too little about their own bodies and passively allowed physicians to treat them as ignorant children. In 1971, the Boston Health Collective published a booklet that would become Our Bodies, Ourselves, now translated all over the world. Inspired by the barefoot doctors of China’s Cultural Revolution, the book not only disseminated biological knowledge but also questioned why doctors controlled women’s reproductive decisions and why medical researchers only used male subjects when they tested new medicines. When activists in Los Angeles decided to teach each other to do gynecological exams with mirrors, they were arrested. As one activist famously wrote, “What man would be put under police surveillance for six months for looking at his penis?”
In time, feminists—as many activists soon called themselves—questioned the safety of the birth control pill and the dangers of drugs intended to prevent miscarriages. They created women’s health centers all over the nation and established the National Women’s Health Network, which asked researchers tough questions and testified before Congress.
Given the homophobia of the time, it was inevitable that much of the mainstream media and public would try to smear women activists as lesbians. Why else would they complain about male behavior? To dilute this constant accusation, women began to discuss and write about compulsory heterosexuality. Together with the burgeoning male gay movement, feminist lesbians formed the gay liberation front. What feminists had achieved, in the spirit of the Port Huron Statement, was the courage to call a custom a crime. Perhaps one of the greatest hidden injuries was the sexual predatory behavior of those who abused their power. Some called it sexual blackmail, but when renamed as sexual harassment, it became illegal because it created a hostile atmosphere where women worked and thereby violated their right to earn a livelihood.
When feminists reframed wife beating as domestic violence, women now had the right to be safe in their own homes. Battered women’s shelters, moreover, gave women a place to escape violence and possible death.
This is only a short list of the achievements of the early women’s movement. It doesn’t even include creating one word, “Ms.,” to replace Miss or Mrs. Nor does it reflect the struggle to ordain ministers and rabbis or to challenge the academic disciplines and change socially accepted behavior.
Sometimes these successes came from legal cases that ignited national debates. The movement also sued the textile, telephone, and airline industries for better working conditions for women.
But we shouldn’t underestimate how much the countercultural New Left had taught feminists about publicizing their grievances. In the streets, activists used agitprop and guerrilla theatre to satirize a male-dominated society. They whistled at men’s tight buns, loudly admired men’s bulging arm muscles, and heckled construction workers with shouts and whistles. They invaded bars that would not serve them; sat in at magazines, newspapers, and libraries that still quarantined them in special women’s sections; and posted stickers like “This ad insults women” all over American cities. One group, Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH), decided to deploy their magical powers by hexing Wall Street. The stock market inexplicably declined.
In 1968 they satirized the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, which exclusively valued women’s appearance. These activists, by the way, were rather good looking—check out the pictures—but they wanted to be valued for more than their appearance. To make their point, they decided to burn “instruments of oppression,” including bras, girdles, and hair curlers. But when the fire chief told them they might start a fire on the wooden boardwalk, they complied with his request. Nevertheless, by the next morning, the national media had spawned the myth that women’s liberationists had burned their bras at the Miss American contest.
Just as Tom Hayden had condemned materialism in the Port Huron Statement, women activists targeted the marriage industry for trying to turn young women into consumers of all kinds of domestic products. On February 15, 1969, on both coasts, feminists invaded two gigantic bridal fairs that featured gowns, furniture, appliances, and honeymoon trips and denounced the profits from the “sale” of marriage.
The inspired and disillusioned women who began the women’s movement had come a long way in less than a decade. And their excavation of the injuries of sex spread quickly to women in all occupations, professions, and unions through the media’s endless fascination with what they still viewed as a fad.
At the same time, minority women began to discover sexism in their own liberation movements. As early as 1967, women in the Chicano movement, for example, challenged the sexism of movement organizations. For them, however, the struggle was aimed not mainly against the housewife’s role, which seemed like a luxury, but against poverty, violence, racism, and the obstacles that kept their men from supporting families. Even though they bristled at sexism, they understood they were struggling to end the abuse of Mexican Americans, to preserve the survival of indigenous people, to support the independence of Puerto Rico, and to fight racism against Asian Americans.
Many felt divided loyalties. To preserve cultural tradition resisted the dominant culture. But tradition also limited women’s opportunities to live more independent lives. Elaine Brown, of the Black Panthers in the 1970s, wrote, “I had joined the majority of black women in America in denouncing feminism. Now I trembled with fury long buried. The feminists were right. The value of my life had been obliterated as much by being female as black and poor.” Gradually, they formed their own feminist organizations dedicated to helping the most vulnerable women in their communities.
The women who had grown up in the civil rights and New Left movements had absorbed a political culture and intellectual legacy that gave them the skill and spirit to create a new women’s movement, arguably the most transformative force of our time because it eventually reached half the world’s population.
At long last, activist women had begun to see their lives through their own eyes, and they came to understand that the state must protect their rights—as mothers, wives, union workers, and, of course, as citizens.
In turn, they altered mainstream political culture, as we still see in a nation polarized over women’s reproductive rights, equal pay, and same-sex marriage and in the emergence of a gender gap that rests mostly on the votes of African American women. You could say they helped kick off the cultural wars and you wouldn’t be wrong.
As Paul Potter had urged, they had found language for the world in which they lived and loved. In the spirit of the Port Huron Statement, they had sought independence and self-determination. Nothing less would do. Rage replaced shame. Entitlement supplanted despair. Activism led to pride.
Nothing would ever be the same again.