WOMEN’S LIBERATION

If NOW grew out of a resurgence of middle-class feminism, a different female revolt was brewing within the civil rights and student movements. As in the days of abolitionism, young women who had embraced an ideology of social equality and personal freedom and learned methods of political organizing encountered inequality and sexual exploitation. Women like Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer had played major roles in grassroots civil rights organizing. But many women in the movement found themselves relegated to typing, cooking, and cleaning for male coworkers. Some were pressured to engage in sexual liaisons. Echoing the words of Abby Kelley a century earlier, a group of female SNCC activists concluded in a 1965 memorandum that “there seem to be many parallels that can be drawn between the treatment of Negroes and the treatment of women in our society as a whole.” What bothered them most was the status of women within the movement, where assumptions of male supremacy seemed as deeply rooted as in society at large.

A 1970 women’s liberation demonstration at the Statue of Liberty.

The same complaints arose in SDS. “The Movement is supposed to be for human liberation,” wrote one student leader. “How come the condition of women inside it is no better than outside?” The rapidly growing number of women in college provided a ready-made constituency for the new feminism. By 1967, women throughout the country were establishing “consciousness-raising” groups to discuss the sources of their discontent. The time, many concluded, had come to establish a movement of their own, more radical than NOW. The new feminism burst onto the national scene at the Miss America beauty pageant of 1968, when protesters filled a “freedom trash can” with objects of “oppression”—girdles, brassieres, high-heeled shoes, and copies of Playboy and Cosmopolitan. (Contrary to legend, they did not set the contents on fire, which would have been highly dangerous on the wooden boardwalk. But the media quickly invented a new label for radical women—“bra burners.”) Inside the hall, demonstrators unfurled banners carrying the slogans “Freedom for Women” and “Women’s Liberation.”

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