Why were American women unhappy? In building her case regarding the unhappiness that women in America experienced in the 1950s, the author of The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America -- Ruth Rosen -- goes into great detail. On page 13 Rosen points out that after WWII in the American culture, women getting pregnant and having babies, was extremely common and normal. In fact, a woman who was not married was "an embarrassment," and the author quotes actress Debbie Reynolds (from the film The Tender Trap) as saying that marriage is "the most important thing in the world" and that a woman is not "really a woman" until she has a wedding and babies (Rosen, 13).
But after taking care of babies all day, doing housework, running errands and cooking dinner for the family -- all the while using the products and appliances that would help make her a "professional homemaker" (Rosen, 14) -- the wife of the 1950s still had to slip into something a little more sensual at bedtime so her husband would be attracted to her in a carnal way. In addition to just being a good sexual partner in bed, popular "how to" literature of the era laid down the law that a blissful marriage required man and wife to have orgasms simultaneously (Rosen, 16). And further, a book called Ideal Marriage: Its Physiology and Technique, asserted that if a woman was stimulated sexually yet did not achieve a climax, this then results in "an injury," and if this happens often, it can lead to "permanent -- or very obstinate -- damage to body and soul" (Rosen, 16).
Main Turning Points, Forces for Change, Job Reforms:
One of the first turning points towards women gaining more power (re-entering the labor force) over their lives and their families that was mentioned by Rosen was women getting back into the workforce about ten years after the men returned from the war in Europe and Asia; at the end of the war, women pretty much were pushed out of their jobs so the men could go back to work. But in the mid-1950s, businesses and corporations began hiring single women -- and educated married women -- as a source of inexpensive labor, to fatten corporate profits. This hiring process resulted in married women accounting for 52% of the female workforce by 1960 (Rosen, 20), up from 36% in 1950. More importantly, by the end of the Fifties, families with two incomes had jumped 222% in the past 20 years (Rosen, 20).
The bad news was that it was a "sex-segregated" workforce, and that even when women carried out the same tasks as men, with the same job titles and job descriptions, "they received substantially lower wages" (Rosen, 25). But this injustice became in fact a turning point, as it became a main point in the platform that would be built to advance the women's liberation movement. On page 36 Rosen notes that women began to gain'awareness" as to how their image as females had become "the basis for their exclusion" in the American good life.
The second main turning point (rebellion and education) that is reflected in Rosen's book happened in the early Sixties, as the female children born immediately after the war were coming of age during the period of social unrest, anti-war marches, youth rebellion, and questioning of old values. These young women, Rosen explains (39-40) saw how unhappy their mothers were, and began to fear becoming an "ordinary housewife" (39), which would mean being as miserable as mom (and older sisters), and would mean of life of being controlled by husband, job, family and society's expectations.
With these above-mentioned dynamics as a backdrop, young women in droves went to college, postponed marriage, got involved in political movements that espoused a rejection of the "feminine mystique" (Rosen, 45). And even though the media tended to describe all feminists as "white middle-class women" (Rosen, 46), but in fact many of the women who became activists came from blue collar or secular working-class Jewish families where the parents had been politically active.
The third main turning point was the birth control pill, the sexual revolution, the involvement of women in the peace movement. Women "eagerly embraced their sexual freedom" (Rosen, 55), but still sought a language though which to express their antipathy for the seeming servitude of marriage; women read The Second Sex and were impressed and moved by the "brilliant and daring analysis of women's condition" (Rosen, 57). The peace movement at that time was spurred on by nuclear fallout from testing, by poverty, pollution, and women joined these efforts as an alternative to getting married, having a family and being a housewife.
The fourth main turning point was the Presidential Report on American Women, a document produced by President John Kennedy's Commission on the Status of Women (67). Though it didn't have the teeth in it that feminists and social activists had hoped, it did allude to "the erosion of American family life" and contain a great deal of statistical information on " ... problems reported by housewives and workers." Some 83,000 copies of the report were distributed, and by 1967, all 50 states had similar commissions. Legislation was also passing through Congress -- and court decisions through the judiciary -- during the time of this commission report's impact and aftermath, that had huge impacts on women; the Equal Pay Act was a main force for change and a main job reform simultaneously.
Although the Equal Pay Act (passed in 1963) would not have a large impact on the great majority of women working in the labor force, it was "an important principle" (Rosen, 68), and moreover, some 171,000 female workers would receive $84 million "for equal work done but not rewarded" (68). Another positive change that came out of that period was the Supreme Court ruled that states could not prohibit women from buying birth control pills, nor could they exclude women from juries (68). And between 1960 and 1966, according to Rosen, there were 432 bills working through Congress "none of which" would have been created or debated without the "behind-the-scenes work of hundreds of political women.
Another main force for change that pushed politicians to create opportunities for women and remove antiquated laws from the books was a coalition of organizations that included leaders from Churchwoman United, the National Association of Catholic Women, the National Association of Jewish Women, the B'nai B'rith, American Association of University Women, League of Women Voters, NAACP, Teamsters, among many other groups (Rosen, 69).
A fifth major turning point in the feminist movement was the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Bill (1964), which was attached to the bill forbidding discrimination on the basis of race. That legislation paved the way for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (Rosen, 72, and was designed to investigate complaints of discrimination, both racial and gender-based. And although as Rosen noted on page 72, that Title VII "remained a joke" at the national level for some time, state commissions were gaining expertise and beginning to make a difference.
It was out of the frustration women felt over the dismal failure of Title VII that NOW (National Organization for Women) formed; fifteen women met during a conference of the state Equal Rights commissions in 1966, with Betty Friedan among the strong leaders. NOW was powerful because it was independent, outside the traditional political institutions, and could act accordingly in terms of advocating for equality for women.
An article by Alice Rossi -- "Equality Between the Sexes: An Immodest Proposal" -- had "an enormous impact on the rebirth of feminism" (Rosen, 76), and thus must be considered another force for change in the movement. Rossi's argument was that "androgyny" (gender equality though each sex cultivating "some of the characteristics" generally associated with the other sex) (76). But Friedan marched ahead with her idea of confronting, "with concrete actions" (77) the situations that keep women from enjoying equal opportunities with men.
Friedan had a point: on pages 78-79, Rosen points to the fact that in 1966, full-time female workers' wages averaged only 60% of male workers; that 75% of working women were stuck in menial jobs; that though women made up 53% of the population, they represented not quite 1% of federal judges, less than 4% of attorneys and just 7% of physicians.
There was a backlash against NOW, especially by younger women, who looked on NOW members as "stuffy and stolid" (Rosen, 88). There was also a debate between those in NOW who supported abortion and those who didn't (83), of those who thought lesbians should be part of NOW, and those, who supported Betty Friedan's statement that lesbianism was "a lavender menace" (83) that gave the feminist movement a bad image.
And on page 90, a major defeat for women's movement leaders occurred when Richard Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Act…