Gender wars: women redefining customs as crimes

The social movements of the 60s gave American women the skills to name and address the injuries they faced in their own lives, and led to a global women’s movement that is now facing a violent backlash. We need to know this history in order to fight for women’s rights today 

Ruth Rosen
22 January 2013

The idea of gender equality has almost always had its origins in a civil war, a revolution or a social movement. In the United States, the women’s movement had its origins in the American civil rights and anti-war social movements of the sixties. What was called “The Movement” gave birth, after a long and hard labour, to a movement that eventually flourished in the United States and spread around the globe.

The conventional wisdom is that the men in the New Left in the United States treated women so badly, that they gradually began leaving to start a movement that addressed their own lives. This is true, but does not capture a more complicated picture of the past. The “Movement" was also a tremendous gift to young women in which they learned how to name injustices, question the supremacy of one group over another in the civil rights movement, and to challenge the authority of the government in the anti-war movement.

For the first time, these young activists organized a movement around their own lives and that of other women. Once they saw inequality, they saw it everywhere.  And, it was everywhere. But like fish in water, it had just seemed normal.

On August 27, 1970, 50,000 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 the mostly male founders of the New Left would have demanded, but they reflected the values and vision of that movement which asked its members to identify and redress the injustices they witnessed.

Turns out, there were plenty of hidden injuries, which women activists discovered and publicized in consciousness-raising groups, pamphlets and books.  Rape, once a subject of great shame, became redefined  as a 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,” said one California politician (Senator Bob Wilson) “then who can you rape?” Thus began a new conversation about the right of wives to have consensual sex and the power relations within marriage.

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 and others 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 illegal abortions and explained why they had made this 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 sisters. The Supreme Court’s legalization of abortion in 1973 ignited the abortion wars which are still raging.

You could say this is when the cultural wars began and you wouldn’t be wrong.

Activists also began to share their sexual ignorance and disappointments. Embarrassed to discuss sexual matters, many young women had faked orgasm for fear of being labelled frigid, to placate men’s egos, and because they wanted 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 and still is 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 the Maoist 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. In the next years, feminists, as some now called themselves, questioned the safety of the Pill, and the drugs that prevented miscarriages. They also created women’s health centres that sprang up across the nation. When activists in Los Angeles decided to teach each other to do gynaecological 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?”

Given the homophobia of the time, it was inevitable that much of the mainstream media and public would label all feminists as lesbians. Why else would women complain about men’s behaviour? To counter this constant accusation, activists began to discuss and then write about compulsory heterosexuality. Together, with the burgeoning men’s gay movement, feminist lesbians and gay men began to form the gay liberation front. 

What feminists had begun to do was to redefine a custom as a crime. One of the greatest hidden injuries, of course, was the sexual predatory behaviour of those who abused their power as bosses. Some called it sexual blackmail. But when legal scholar Catherine Mackinnon renamed it as sexual harassment in a 1979 book, it soon became illegal because it violated women’s civil right to earn a livelihood and to work in a non-sexist atmosphere.

If sexual harassment changed the workplace, the reframing of wife beating as domestic violence now turned a custom into a felonious crime. And battered women’s shelters, gave women a place to escape violence and possible death.

This is such a short list of the achievements of the early women’s movement. It doesn’t even include creating the word “Ms”, to replace Miss or Mrs. Nor does it reflect the struggle to ordain ministers and rabbis or to challenge the curriculum of academic disciplines, or to change socially accepted behaviour.

Sometimes these successes came from legal suits to improve the working conditions of women in the textile, telephone and airplane industries. Quite often they came from national debates and media circuses, as when Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas, who had been nominated to be an associate justice of the Supreme Court,  of sexual harassment.

Naming injuries was important, but  we shouldn’t underestimate how well the countercultural New Left had taught them to publicize their grievances. In the streets, activists used guerrilla theatre to satirize a male-dominated society. They whistled at men’s tight buns, and heckled construction workers with shouts and whistles. They invaded bars that would not serve them; and sat in at magazines, newspapers and libraries that still quarantined them in special women’s sections. Many feminists carried a pad of posted stickers that said l “This ad insults women” and plastered them all over American cities. One group, decided to deploy their magical powers by hexing Wall Street.  The stock market inexplicably declined.

In 1968 they satirized the Miss America Contest in Atlantic City that exclusively valued women’s appearance. These activists, by the way, were rather good looking - check out the pictures - throwing‑bra‑in‑the‑trash.jpg but they didn’t want to be valued exclusively for their appearance. To make their point, they decided to burn “instruments of oppression,” including bras, girdles and hair curlers in a garbage can. But when the fire chief warned them that 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. 

In the Port Huron Statement that founded the Students for a Democratic Society in1962, Tom Hayden, the principal writer of this famous manifesto had condemned materialism. Now, women activists targeted the marriage industry for seeking profits by 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. They handed out leaflets that denounced 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 - partly through organizing, and partly through the media’s endless fascination with what they still viewed as a fad. 

In the late 60s, lesbians began to come out and critique compulsory heterosexuality. Minority women in other liberation movements also began to publicize the sexism they encountered in their own organizations. Black women wrote about the “double jeopardy” from they suffered. Women in the Chicano movement challenged the sexism in their organizations. Puerto Rican women, who fought for the independence of Puerto Rico and indigenous women, sought to preserve the survival of their cultures did the same.  They did not have a private fear of the Feminine Mystique, which seemed like quite a luxury. Their struggle was against poverty, violence, wife beating, alcoholism, racism, and the obstacles that kept their men from supporting their families.

Some women of colour felt divided loyalties. Their larger political goals often conflicted with their growing awareness of their subordinate position in their communities. To preserve cultural tradition, after all, resisted appropriation by the dominant culture. But tradition also limited women’s opportunities to live more independent lives. In 1975, Elaine Brown of the Black Panthers wrote , “I had joined the majority of black women in American 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, over the 70s, women of colour formed their own feminist organizations dedicated to helping the most vulnerable women in their communities.

The women who had felt like refugees from the fifties created the most transformative movement of the late 20th century. Why? Because they eventually reached and affected half the world’s population. Like minority women in the U.S., female activists around the globe gradually began to redefine women’s issues. In some regions, women identified sufficient water and wood as their women’s most profound problems. In other countries, women targeted the hidden injuries of dowry deaths, genital mutilation, 'honour' killings, arranged marriages and rape when used as an instrument of war. By the 21st century, the UN had passed resolutions against any kind of violence against women and girls and had criminalized the use of rape as an instrument of war as a war crime.

Feminism had gone global.

It was movement culture that had taught young women to see their lives through their own eyes. In turn, they transformed mainstream political culture, as evidenced by a nation still polarized over women’s reproductive rights, equal pay, same sex marriage and the emergence of a gender gap that now depends mostly on the votes of African American and Hispanic women.

As the New Left had urged, they had found language for the world in which they lived and loved.  In the spirit of the sixties’ movements, they had sought independence and self-determination within a movement.  Rage replaced shame. Entitlement supplanted despair. Activism led to pride. 

Nothing would ever be the same again. 

Now, in 2013, women around the world have “named” the injuries and injustices they experience, but that has not resulted in institutional or cultural changes in most of the world.  The backlash against women’s demands, moreover, is fierce. As more women enter the labour force, they - like American women - will need child care, as well as protection against sexual harassment at work and violence at home and in their communities. It is there that the battle for human rights will be fought.






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