Monday, November 28, 2011

Second Wave Feminism and "The Problem With No Name"

I am coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled “American Dreams and Reality: A Retelling of the American Story.” Here, I describe the rise of a new feminist movement in the 1950s and 1960s and Betty Freidan's role in promoting women's rights.

The collapse of the civil rights coalition by the mid-1960s led to the birth of several other freedom struggles, including those of women and gays. Women who fought against segregation and for black voting rights became the leaders of the 1960s feminist movement. In a 1951 edition, "Seventeen" magazine had advised its readership to be "a partner of a man . . . not his rival, his enemy, or his plaything. Your partnership in most cases will produce children, and together you and the man will create a haven, a home, a way of life." By the early 1960s, college-educated women in particular rebelled against being reduced to domestic junior partners to their husbands.

In 1960, CBS television aired a documentary on the "trapped housewife." Journalist Marya Mannes used the Cold War as an argument for opening career options to women. The U.S. was at a disadvantage in its competition with the Soviet Union, she said, when it suppressed intelligent women. "We have for years been wasting one of the resources on which our strength depends and which other civilizations are using to their advantage."

In her 1963 bestselling book " Feminine Mystique," author Betty Friedan described the frustration and boredom felt by many educated suburban housewives as the “problem with no name.” Friedan’s book described the agonies of middle-class white American women who found themselves locked into lives as domestic servants to their husbands, burdened with washing iapers, raising children in isolation from adult company, waxing floors and preparing the big meals expected by their husbands.

Friedan, who worked during the 1950s at so-called “women’s magazines,” all edited by men, blamed the media for promoting the myth that healthy women could find true purpose and glory only in playing the role of wife and mother. Conducting an extensive survey of middle class and affluent women similar to herself, Friedan blamed the “feminine mystique” – which glorified only women who played a traditionally subservient role to men – as the cause of an outbreak of depression, anxiety, emotional withdrawal, anger and infantilization of adult women and their daughters. The book found an understanding audience, and "The Feminine Mystique"became a bestseller, with more than a million copies purchased.

The publication of her book occured almost simultaneously with the release of a report by the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, a blue-ribbon panel chaired by former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The report documented widespread discrimination against women regarding employment, pay and promotion at the workplace, and in colleges and universities. President John F. Kennedy responded to the report by signing an executive order directing federal agencies to hire employees “without regard to sex.” Kennedy also threw his support behind the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which prohibited employers from paying employees differently based on gender. The persistence of sexism in American life, plus the release of the commission’s report and Betty Friedan’s book, inspired the rise of what would be called the second wave of feminism (the first wave was the women’s suffrage campaign from 1848 to 1920).


The Equal Pay Act and the anti-sex discrimination provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act had a dramatic impact on women’s experiences in the workplace. The law empowered the newly created Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to enforce provisions against racial and sexual discrimination. At first EEOC administrators laughed at the concept of gender discrimination, an insensitivity reinforced by the male-dominated press which frequently scoffed at the idea of male and female equality.

Editorialists railed that men and women were biologically suited for different kinds of work. Would feminists protest, they joked, if a man were refused a job as a "Playboy" bunny, a waitress dressed in what was basically a one-piece bathing suit adorned with a fluffy bunny tail and bunny ears who served drinks at the nightclubs owned by Hugh Hefner, the publisher of Playboy, a popular men’s magazine? Newspapers caustically dubbed the anti-sexual-discrimination provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act as the "bunny law."

Feminists did not find such condescending attitudes from men amusing. Women still faced substantial legal obstacles. State laws in the 1950s and 1960s did not take spousal abuse seriously. Several states placed barriers to women serving on juries. Connecticut prevented women from obtaining birth control. Through the early 1960s, it was typical for classified ads to specify, “Help Wanted: Male.” In Texas, until 1967 a woman technically could not sign a contract to work without her husband’s permission.

By the late 1960s, many women had been active in the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements, yet suffered marginalization by male protestors. Men rarely listened to the ideas of their female comrades and sometimes made them the objects of crude jokes or as weapons to entice their political opponents. “Girls Say Yes to Boys Who Say No,” was a frequent slogan used by men in the anti-draft movement. Women acted as voter registrars and recruiters, often facing physical danger. Yet, at the civil rights offices, men expected these women to perform menial tasks like typing and making coffee, even demanding sexual favors. Reportedly, when asked “What is the position of women in SNCC [the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee]?”, African American civil rights activist Stokley Carmichael crudely replied, “The position of women in SNCC is prone.”

Women activists realized that they would have to form their own civil rights group to be heard. In 1966, feminists formed an organization named, at Betty Friedan's suggestion, the National Organization for Women (NOW). Overwhelmingly white, NOW at first catered primarily to older, more affluent, professionals – lawyers, government workers, and women working in the media. Like the NAACP, NOW primarily battled gender discrimination through lobbying Congress and state legislatures and litigation rather than through “direct action” protests.

The original NOW leadership came from a comfortable, upper middle class culture, and often showed a lack of imagination and had a limited vision of how feminism should change society. Women were entitled to more than access to professional jobs, as younger activist and historian Sara Evans suggested in her memoir "Personal Politics: The Roots of the Women's Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left." Women still received substantially lower salaries than men. Women had to directly challenge American society’s belief in male supremacy, the assumption that men were smarter, stronger and were natural leaders whose work deserved greater financial compensation, that women were irrational, less reliable and should be submissive.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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