The Golden Age of marriage and family, the 1950s, was statistically a time when most women married and few divorced (Smith, lecture notes). On the surface, American society seemed to be content with the status quo; however, the existence of pervasive racial and gender inequality was preventing the oppressed from fully taking part in the Golden Age, let alone enjoying full citizenship.
Women in the 1950's began to suspect their happiness might depend on factors other than marriage, home, and three and a half children (Smith, lecture notes). Alcohol and valium were helping women find some relief from their unrealized dreams and unrelenting melancholia, in their role as domestic servants. With most of society expecting women to be happy as wife and homemaker this pervasive sense of unfulfillment became known as the "problem with no name." When the poet Ann Sexton eventually reached the age of 28, the superficiality of the life she was leading undermined her sanity and she experienced a psychotic break and a suicide attempt (Rosen 3). Despite the positive domestic statistics and ready access to chemical intoxicants, American society was bubbling below the surface with the necessary ingredients for revolution.
The Seeds of Revolution
Although there were women's organizations in existence at the time, their efforts to alter the trajectory of American society remained largely unsuccessful (Smith, lecture notes). This began to change during the World War II when women were called upon to do their patriotic duty and enter the manufacturing workforce drained of men entering the military (Rosen 19-20). Despite the government's aggressive efforts to halt and reverse this trend during the post-war period, in part by emphasizing the need to repay returning solders with jobs, the private sector eventually sought married women to fill clerical jobs on a large scale, because the low pay and no benefits these jobs offered increased profit margins. The overall effect was a doubling of the number of women in the workforce between 1940 and 1960.
Meanwhile, a small women's organization populated by former suffragists continued to push their agenda of getting the Equal Rights Amendment passed in Congress and ratified by the states (Rosen 27). This organization, the National Women's Party (NWP), was opposed by a number of groups seeking to ensure continued support for protective legislation. The protective legislation restricted the number of hours that women could work and provided a minimum wage; however, these statutes forced employers to treat men and women differently.
The anemic size of the NWP was due in part to the persecution of leftists during the late 40s and early 50s by some congressional leaders (Rosen 28). What has been called the McCarthy Era or the Red Scare was in fact an effort by some political leaders to exploit fears of communist infiltration into American society by Soviet agents. One of the larger women's organizations that formed after the war with strong international ties was the Congress of American Women (CAW) and the American chapter could claim 250,000 members during its heyday. Its agenda was the political, economic, social, and legal emancipation of women around the world, independent of racial identity. Given this agenda, which included federal training programs for impoverished women, socialized medicine, day care, equal pay, and equal access to higher education, many of its leaders were members of the Communist Party. When the House Un-American Activities Committee demanded that the CAW register as an agent of a foreign organization, the membership shrank and the looming legal battles forced the organization to dissolve.
The Blame Game
The influx of women into the workforce largely went unnoticed by the American public until the late 50's, when journalists and labor organizations began to take a closer look at the dramatic trends (Rosen 34-36). The National Manpower Council studied the situation and their findings left them incredulous, using the word 'revolution' several times to describe what had been occurring. Despite the statistics and a few voices of dissent in the print media, political leaders and the mainstream media continued to reinforce the belief that women belonged in the home and any unhappiness was their fault.
Despite the pressure to conform, some women were beginning to realize that the source of their happiness was primarily external (Rosen 34-36). Despite this gradual, shared awakening, there was considerable infighting between activists, working women, and homemakers. Working women called homemakers lazy and homemakers portrayed working women as indifferent to the needs of their children. Meanwhile the activists struggled to bring both sides together. This infighting continued until Betty Friedan published her book The Feminine Mystique in 1963.
The Feminine Mystique
The feminine mystique was essentially the social expectation that women in western societies could achieve fulfillment and happiness only through marriage, children, and a life spent at home (Rosen 4, 55). Breaking this 'curse' would depend on a new generation coming of age and choosing a life path distinct from their mothers' (Rosen 37). Importantly, they would encounter little opposition from their mothers. A Gallup poll conducted in 1962 revealed that a mere 10% of mothers hoped their daughters would follow in their early marriage and homemaker footsteps (Rosen 43-44).
These daughters came of age in a tumultuous period in American history (Rosen 58). The Beat generation advocated free will, while the civil rights and anti-war movement challenged the status quo. Bohemian lifestyles and the legalization of the birth control pill undermined traditional sexual roles as women increasingly expanded the social spheres they inhabited. For example, the nuclear fallout from above ground nuclear testing galvanized fifty thousand homemakers in sixty cities to engage in a one day walkout on November 1, 1961. With women protesting the Vietnam War and Jim Crow in the South, a transformation was occurring that would eventually lead women to seek social and political changes for themselves.
When President Kennedy was elected there were more women of voting age than men and he understood that his slim margin of victory might not have existed if not for women voters (Rosen 63-68). At the top of the feminist agenda was the placement of women in influential political positions, but Kennedy failed to grant this request. After he appointed Esther Peterson to head the Women's Bureau at the U.S. Labor Bureau, she and a coalition of women activists petitioned Kennedy to form a Presidential Commission to study the status of women in America. Although Kennedy viewed this commission as a way to get out from under the political debt he owed women the research data thus generated helped validate women's claims of second class citizenship. More importantly, the report issued by this commission helped seed the formation of women's commissions in all fifty states.
As the state commissions began to gather local data, it became clear that the status of women in America had changed dramatically and continued to do so (Rosen 68). Women were marrying later, having fewer children, divorcing more often, and living longer, so men were not always around to 'rescue' women. In the meantime, President Kennedy, the Supreme Court, and Congress were making their own changes to American society. In 1962 Kennedy ended the prohibition barring women from holding executive positions in the federal government, the Supreme Court banned state prohibitions against the sale of contraceptives or women serving on juries, and Congress passed the Equal Pay Act in 1963, which made it illegal to pay women less for the same work.
The overall effects of the organizing activity of the federal and state women's commissions were to mobilize women's activists in generally the same direction and to push for real changes in Congress and at the local level (Rosen 69-70). The state commissions remained within the scope of their mandates, but the research data gleamed from their work was used by women activists to push for legislative reforms across the country.
The Death of the Feminine Mystique
1963 was a momentous year in American history. The Equal Pay Act was passed in Congress, The Feminine Mystique was published, and the commission's Presidential Report on American Women was released (Rosen 70-72). In the aftermath of President Kennedy's assassination, Congress began to debate the civil rights bill. In an attempt to defeat the bill, a Congressman from the South, "Judge" Howard Smith, proposed an amendment to add the word 'sex' to the provision prohibiting employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin. Despite many viewing this amendment as a joke, unnatural alliances formed and the amendment passed. Its passage galvanized women activists to push for passage of the full bill. With the help of Lady Bird Johnson and several cabinet members, the Civil Rights Act became law.
Enforcing the equal employment provision in the Civil Rights Act became the next battle women would fight (Rosen 74). However, the issue cut across social and political divisions, thereby bringing together women activists of all stripes and colors to focus on a single goal. To end the Equal…