Many Real Change readers may know about “second-wave” feminism — the upsurge in the 1960s and 1970s that won the right to abortion, made workplace discrimination against women illegal and changed the assumption that men were the providers and women the housekeepers. But some readers didn’t live through that period, and they may have bought into the stereotype that the movement was about supermoms who tried to have it all by raising families while having full-time careers, a prescription that resulted in stress and burnout.
Second-wave feminism was both more nuanced and more focused on deeper changes than that. In fact, when feminists did advocate “having it all,” they were talking about a society in which men and women participated equally in housework and parenting. They advocated for making work hours less rigid and restructuring society to provide financial and child care support to working families.
Kirsten Swinth’s “Feminism’s Forgotten Fight” is a well-documented, if somewhat dry, book that lays out both the victories and defeats of the feminist movement on work and family issues in the 1960s and 1970s. It also shows the breadth of the feminist vision, especially in the radical and socialist feminist wings of the movement. Swinth portrays a movement that was as divided as today’s feminist movement in terms of class and race, but that preserved some basic unity of goals among its different factions. Many of the leaders and participants in the movement recognized the call to address the needs of people of color and working-class families in general.
Some of their victories and ideas have become so integrated into modern American society that it’s hard to remember that things were ever different — in particular, the social and legal acceptance of the idea that women have a right to be treated equally at work and that even mothers of young children have a right to ask for social support to be in the workforce. We forget that the idea that men and women should share housework and child rearing was considered unhealthy by mainstream psychology and ridiculous or worse by mainstream media.
The prevalence of child care centers today, sometimes subsidized and sometimes not, is in marked contrast to the unavailability of any kind of child care for most families with preschool children before the 1960s. The practices of flextime — arriving or leaving earlier or later than your standard work shift — and alternative work hours — a set schedule that’s different from the average workweek — were fought for and won by women in the federal government in that era. The idea that working women could use sick leave or vacation to give birth was not a given; it was a product of the feminist movement. But women in the movement didn’t advocate for these reforms just to make it easier for middle-class women to climb corporate career ladders; they envisioned a society in which parents of both genders would be able to hold down jobs and still have time and energy for parenting.
Swinth points out that, besides pushing political changes, second-wave feminism initiated a redefinition of selfhood for both men and women that went deep into people’s psyches and affects how we all see ourselves today. Consciousness-raising groups, a deeply grassroots form of discussion of women’s oppression, numbered in the thousands and spread far beyond the White middle-class movement that is central to the media stereotype; Swinth cites Chicana and African-American women’s collectives that had their origins in consciousness-raising groups. These groups involved a deep examination of women’s personal lives and ways of being that many women had never previously questioned, and helped foster a vibrant women’s culture, with its own bookstores, music groups and collectives.
Swinth also documents the anti-sexist men’s movement that grew up in parallel to the women’s movement. It was never as large, but it provided some male support for the women’s movement and was influential in helping men question their standard roles and in breaking down some of the psychological barriers keeping men from taking on more nurturing roles.
Second-wave feminism ultimately was swamped by the tide of reaction that started in the late ’70s. “It was convenient to fault the movement for the strains on families as the new postindustrial economy swept male-breadwinning households away ... As the media peddled the ‘cult’ of having it all ... the setbacks of the new conservative era and the new economic realities conspired to obscure a decade-and-a-half of feminist activism on behalf of work and family.”
One source of the “having it all” myth was advertising, which used pseudo-feminist rhetoric to sell products, like the Virginia Slims’ cigarette slogan, “You’ve come a long way, baby” or Enjoli’s “eight-hour perfume for the twenty-four hour woman.” The conservative “pro-family” movement pounced on the characterization: “Women are discovering they can’t have it all ... if they have careers, their children will suffer, their family life will be destroyed.”
“Feminism” as a concept was unfairly discredited in mainstream culture; it took decades for a third wave of feminism to take hold, rebuilding the movement, but sometimes forgetting its roots. “Feminism’s Forgotten Fight” is a good start on uncovering those roots.
Mike Wold is a regular volunteer and contributing writer for Real Change. He is a 25-year resident of Rainier Valley.
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