1In the past year, the United States has witnessed a striking change in its political culture as the Democratic Party pitted two extraordinary candidates against each other for the party’s nomination as its Presidential candidate. The choice between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, a woman and a man of biracial ancestry (which automatically labels him as black in the United States) has been considered revolutionary – breaking a cultural mold. Americans have wondered whether voters’ possibly racist tendencies would affect their support for Obama and also whether underlying sexism would defeat a candidacy of Hillary Clinton.
2It is my view that sexism, some of it still lurking in everyday life, some of it orchestrated by right-wing ideologues, was responsible for the defeat of Clinton, and that she was a victim of the same biases directed against the women’s movement in the United States (and perhaps elsewhere in the world) and its late leader Betty Friedan.
- 1 Only recently the writer Christina Hoff Sommers, in a September 17, 2008 article in the New York (...)
3The attacks on Betty Friedan, founder of the National Organization for Women in 1966 in the United States, and on Hillary Clinton during her campaign in 2007-8, had not only to do with their agendas, but also with their presumed motivations, manners, and appearance. The shape of Clinton’s legs, the fact that she sometimes changed her hairstyle, and an image of her as humorless and harsh were all the subjects of repetitive media coverage. Whispering campaigns (for which there are no citations !) questioned her sexuality, and condemned her for remaining married to President Bill Clinton despite his alleged infidelity. Similarly, Betty Friedan, was repeatedly described as unattractive,1 insinuating that women’s movement activists offered a feminist agenda because their appearance and personalities made them unattractive to men. In spite of such mindless critiques, the women’s movement was successful in achieving major social changes, most notably in opening opportunities for women to obtain equal education and to work in the crafts and technological occupations formerly limited to men as well as in the professions. Further, the movement forced changes in many norms, permitting women to enter the public sphere and reach political positions only a tiny number of them had achieved before.
4Hillary Clinton and Betty Friedan each faced many attacks from those on the political Right, as well as on the political Left. The Right insisted that women made their own choices to make family roles primary and work secondary in their lives, and so were uninterested in career education and advancement. On the Left, and especially in academia in the U.S., many individuals have accused the feminist movement on being oriented primarily to the concerns and interests of middle-class white women. I believe that both sets of views are myths that are demonstrably wrong.
5This paper focuses on Betty Friedan and the woman’s movement. Although Hillary Clinton did not win nomination as the Presidential candidate of the Democratic Party, I believe her near-success was due, in large part, to the achievements of the American women’s movement and the resulting breakthroughs in the status and opportunity structure for women in the United States and elsewhere.
6The push for women’s equality that resurfaced in the late 1960s in the United States after the first wave of feminism resulted in women achieving the vote in 1920 was touched off by the Civil Rights movement that sought rights for Black Americans. As is well known now, the 1960s were a time when several U.S. Presidents backed civil rights legislation and had the political support needed for it. This constituted the political opportunity structure within which women’s rights were renegotiated. It was the time of school desegregation and of the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. President John F. Kennedy had backed a Civil Rights bill to extend the rights of black people in the U.S. Although Kennedy was assassinated before he could act on it, his successor, President Johnson, maneuvered the bill through Congress as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII of the act guaranteed equality in employment to Americans no matter what their race, national origin, or sex.
- 2 Pedriana, Nicholas, « From Protective to Equal Treatment : Legal Framing Processes and Transformat (...)
7 The inclusion of sex in the bill was accidental. In fact, its introduction by Senator Howard W. Smith of Virginia, a southerner opposed to civil rights legislation, was meant to draw opposition that would kill the entire bill2. The addition of the word « sex » to the bill did draw jeering laughter from some of Smith’s colleagues but it also motivated several women members to mobilize the support needed to pass the bill, providing the mechanism for extreme social change with respect to the rights of women. The Act established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) with the power to establish guidelines for enforcement, and later, some authority to litigate violations.
8For the 40 years since passage of the Act, the feminist agenda has had its ups and downs and attacks on the woman’s movement – now, hundreds of organizations devoted to supporting women’s rights – continue, with ridicule and invective from opponents, aided by infighting among various factions within the woman’s movement. In particular, some women writers have attacked the movement for being too centered on the needs and concerns of middle class white women rather than minority women or those who are economically disadvantaged (Erenreich and Hochschild XXXX). Some even condemn white professional women as exploiters of the minority women serving in their homes as housekeepers and nannies.
9The facts are totally contrary to these myths. Friedan, along with other feminist activists, was responsible for the strategies that brought most of the strides forward made in the past 40 years for minority and working class women. This piece of history remains hidden and unknown or has been disregarded by critics of the women’s movement who suggest that the movement has served the middle class and not women of color or the poor.
10A look back at history of the National Organization for Women, the first of the many organizations that now serve women’s interests, shows how from the very beginning it included minority women in positions of leadership, fighting for their rights and championing the cause of poor and working class women.
- 3 This is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the organization respo (...)
11The book Betty Friedan wrote, The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963, made her very visible, and immediately a potential leader for change. Lawyers in government who had championed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 approached her to form an NAACP3 for women, which would provide momentum and political will to help achieve the goals of the Act.
- 4 Friedan, Betty, The Feminine Mystique. N.Y, W.W. Norton and Co., 1963.
12 Friedan’s book told the story of a generation of American women who lacked a sense of identity and purpose when not employed outside the home and it soon became a best seller, selling over a million copies, and identifying a sea of discontent among American women. In her book, Friedan labeled this « the problem that has no name »4, and also attacked stereotypes of women in society and in the works of academic social scientists. It was not surprising that the book touched the nerves of women who became housewives after World War II, many because it was difficult for them to get meaningful employment in terms of job content and salary. Those who had been recruited to take the place of men during the war in non-traditional (for women) war industry work, were expected, indeed were forced, to relinquish their jobs to the men coming home from war. The women who remained in the paid labor force were segregated in a narrow range of jobs, almost all of which were « dead-end » in that they provided no opportunity for advancement in authority or wages. Then, as now, few men were employed in such « women’s jobs » as telephone operators, secretaries, factory work in food processing and, somewhat more skilled, elementary school teaching. Women were extremely underrepresented in government, the professions and business except at lower levels. The proportion of women who were elected officials was miniscule – no more than two women served in the U.S. Senate at any time until 1987 (and most of them were widows of men who had served in the Senate). Furthermore, before the 1960s many laws and practices resulted in discrimination against women in the areas of property rights and reproductive freedom. These issues had been raised by feminists during the first woman’s movement by such activists as Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton at the landmark Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848.
- 5 For example, law professors Sylvia Law (1984) and Herma Hill Kay (1985) have argued that the law o (...)
13Equality has been a contested concept in the United States, as in many other societies. Views about how equality should be defined or achieved were, and for some, remain, bound up in views about men’s and women’s « natures ». Many political actors as well as lay people have maintained that women and men have different physical and emotional constitutions. Some believe that women require special protections5.
- 6 Pedriana, Nicholas, « From Protective… », op. cit., p. 1743.
14However, those interested in social change and distrustful of assumptions about women’s and men’s presumed capacities and incapacities, sought to specify and codify conventions defining equality. In the 1960s some of those activated by Friedan’s book felt that a focus on difference and on special protections for women served to solidify discrimination and would be a barrier to women’s access to well paying jobs and opportunities for advancement6. Many had been activists on behalf of black people during the civil rights movement activities of the 1950s, and some had been active in the various students’ organizations that gained momentum in the 1960s.
15In the earliest days of NOW its activities were led by Friedan and Aileen Hernandez, a Hispanic-American woman who had been a founder of NOW and its first Executive Vice-President, and who succeeded Friedan as NOW President.
- 7 Epstein, Cynthia Fuchs. « The Major Myth of the Women’s Movement », Dissent. Fall 1999.
16Friedan was an important and effective leader because she had an instinct for political drama as well as an agenda that appealed to a wide array of women. For example, she called for a nationwide Strike for Women’s Equality on August 16 1970, the fiftieth anniversary of U.S. women’s suffrage. The New York Times reporting on the event commented that the National Organization for Women (NOW), the largest group in the August 16 coalition, « works to change the basic social structure by working for the Equal Rights Amendment and lobbying for federally funded day-care centers ». Led by Friedan, tens of thousands of women marched in New York « women of all ages, occupations and viewpoints » according to the Times – and similar demonstrations were held throughout the country. The Washington Post reported that the marchers in the capital were made up of « weatherwomen, black women, League of Women Voters members, women of the peace movement, Black Panthers and religious orders »7.
17The Post reported that speakers at the rallies condemned sexual discrimination by labor unions, by the medical profession, by churches, and in school curricula and advertising. They « advocated liberal abortion laws, peace in Vietnam, and greater opportunity for black people and an end to the capitalist system ». The Post quoted the African American leader Jean Wharton of the Washington Teachers’ Union, « the women’s liberation movement…concerns black and white women…because it’s against a racist, capitalist system that oppresses all blacks, all women and all workers »8. The composition of the marches and rallies held coast to coast that day reflected the heterogeneity of Friedan’s allies and comrades-in-arms.
18I was a participant in those early days, a member of the New York City Chapter of NOW at its founding in 1966, standing with the women and (a few) men Friedan recruited to march, agitate, and explain in every forum open to us what equality might mean in practice. The fights Friedan would have with some members of this group (who later split into separate factions) were usually about organizational structure or strategic emphasis. For example, although sympathetic to issues affecting lesbian women, Friedan felt that issues of sexual identity were diversions from NOW’s main program. « This is not a bedroom war, this is a political movement », she maintained9. Friedan was unwavering in demanding priority for women’s economic security, autonomy, and equality and changing the stereotypes of women’s nature. She was most concerned about discrimination in factory jobs, the need for job training, for equality in labor unions, and economic security for housewives10. Friedan and NOW’s history was bound up with the work of the EEOC, the federal agency leading the legal battle for equality in employment.
- 11 In 1968 it had investigated only s few hundred out of over 15,000 complaints. (EEOC 1969. Third (...)
- 12 Pedriana, Nicholas and Robin Stryker, « The Strength of a Weak Agency : Enforcement of Title VII o (...)
19The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was created to monitor Title VII – the employment provisions of the Civil Rights Act. Put in place initially without enforcement powers and almost no personnel (in 1966 only 30 investigators for the entire nation)11 – the EEOC was set up only to investigate complaints and engage in conciliation with discriminatory employers. There was a lack of continuity in its leadership12. Only in 1972 did Congress give EEOC prosecutorial powers and its mandate was enlarged. Activism on the part of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund was very important in transforming the EEOC into an assertive agency for black Americans (and other minority groups) in the same way as the activity of NOW was crucial in establishing women’s rights in employment.
- 13 Epstein, Cynthia Fuchs. «The Major… », op. cit.
- 14 Merton, Robert K., « Opportunity Structure : The Emergence, Diffusion, and Differentiation of a So (...)
20It was because of The Feminine Mystique and the attention the book aroused, that Friedan was approached by Pauli Murray, a black lawyer and civil rights worker, and urged to form an « NAACP for women »13. She was also approached by Sonia Pressman Fuentes, the first woman lawyer at the EEOC and one of a small number of women in government interested in collective action to improve the status of women in employment and training (some had worked in the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor). Serving as political entrepreneurs, these women, too, urged Friedan to provide an organizational mobilization that the EEOC could use to legitimate its moves to equalize the workplace and to remove the legal and social barriers that made for sex segregation in employment, positioning women on the lower rungs of the occupational ladder. It was clear that sex segregation was not a natural outcome of women’s interests and abilities, but stemmed from prejudices that blocked their access to training in the well paid crafts and professions. In short, the problem lay in the society’s opportunity structure14, not in women’s own capacities and interests. As I wrote in my 1970 book, Woman’s Place : Options and Limits in Professional Careers, women were a tiny percent of practitioners in the prestigious professions because of stereotypes and restrictive quotas on their admission to law schools, medical schools and engineering schools, reinforced by the unlikelihood that they would be selected as protégées and brought into the informal networks that guaranteed men’s advancement.
21In 1966, in response to these calls for action and the changing political climate reflected in the Committee on the Status of Women created by President John Kennedy, Friedan founded the National Organization for Women at a national conference in Washington D.C. Its Statement of Purpose began with a call to both men and women to organize to obtain equality :
- 15 Friedan, Betty, « The National Organization for Women's 1966 Statement of Purpose », 1996. Availa (...)
We, men and women, who hereby constitute ourselves as the National Organization for Women believe that the time has come for a new movement toward true equality for all women in America and toward a fully equal partnership of the sexes, as part of the world-wide revolution of human rights now taking place within and beyond our national borders.15
- 16 Rossi, Alice, « Women in Science : Why So Few? : Social and Psychological Influences Restrict Wom (...)
22Some of NOW’s founding members were women in academic life. Among them was Alice Rossi, a sociologist who had written a number of analyses of women’s lack of equality, and in particular their under representation in the sciences16. Furthermore, Rossi was a founding member of Sociologists for Women in Society – the organization of women in the field of sociology-members of the American Sociological Association –devoted to remedying women’s poor representation on sociology faculties and to encourage research on women and on gender issues.
- 17 Friedan, Betty, op. cit.
- 18 Ibid.
23NOW’s Statement of Purpose referred to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its implementation through the EEOC, but noted that the commission had « not made clear its intention to enforce the law with the same seriousness on behalf of women as of other victims of discrimination »17. It pointed out that « many of these cases were Negro women, who are the victims of double discrimination »18.
- 19 As they wrote in the Redstockings Manifesto « Women are an oppressed class. Our oppression is tota (...)
24The founding of NOW was the opening shot of the renewed women’s movement. Its membership grew as chapters were organized throughout the country until by 2006 it claimed 500,000 members. It became a mainstream organization in American society, different from a number of other groups that were regarded as radical and advocates of social changes far beyond equal access to education and the occupations. One of these, the Redstockings, rejected NOW’s readiness to welcome men as members, asserting that women suffered from class oppression by men.19
25Friedan and NOW became a watchdog for EEOC and took the commission to task for not fulfilling its mandate and helping to fine tune its mission. For example, they called for replacement of EEOC guidelines on employment advertising. This focus was on the differentiation of advertisements for jobs by gender – the « Help Wanted » ads in newspapers, which until then had segregated job offers under “Help Wanted-Male” and « Help Wanted-Female ». This not only placed men and women on separate tracks but reinforced notions that certain jobs were suitable for one sex and not the other.
- 20 Bem, Sandra L. and Daryl Bem, « Does Sex-Biased Job Advertising Aid and Abet Sex Discrimination? » (...)
- 21 Pedriana, Nicholas, « From Protective… », p. 1743.
- 22 Ibid., pp. 1744-1747.
26Friedan organized members of New York NOW to participate in hearings on the effects and legality of sex-based employment advertising. I was one of a number of scholars who spoke of the implications and consequences of such a practice from a sociological point of view. Sandra and Darryl Bem20, social psychologists at Stanford University, also gave testimony about the consequences of framing jobs under the headings « male » and « female ». The position of the social scientists was that there were virtually no jobs save for wet nurses and sperm donors that could not be done by individuals of either sex and that there were more differences among members of each sex with regard to their capacities than between the two sexes as a whole. So in interpreting guidelines for Title VII, gender stereotyping attached to jobs was challenged in this public forum. It was one of the first steps in challenging these « taken-for-granted » categories and terms in the social and legal spheres21. It became dedicated to a universal equal treatment standard under law that included the elimination of protective policies. NOW further represented plaintiffs and filed amicus briefs in cases challenging hours laws and weightlifting restrictions (that often kept women out of high-paying jobs). Over time, the federal courts effectively struck down state protective legislation and the Commission revised its guidelines to remove restrictions on women22.
27The National Organization for Women engaged in other activities that had impact on the status of women of all classes. These are a few from the early days of the organization :
28In 1967, in response to a 1966 petition by NOW, the EEOC held hearings on sex discrimination in employment.
- 23 Weeks proved she not only could lift 30 pounds but that she was routinely asked to move her typewr (...)
29In 1968, NOW attorney Sylvia Roberts argued the first sex-discrimination case (Weeks v. Southern Bell) in which a secretary for the telephone company (Lorena Weeks), was denied promotion to « switchman » because of a 30 pound limit on lifting23. The court ruled that the limit discriminated against women and found the company to be in violation of the Civil Rights Act.
30In 1970, NOW established a Federal Compliance Committee to press for enforcement of federal opportunity laws requiring that federal contractors not discriminate against employees on the basis of sex. (Friedan organized social scientists to speak at hearings held by the commission to show the consequences for women of bias by federal contractors.)
31Further, NOW was able to institute a successful suit against the airlines which had limited the job of Airline Stewardess to single women of a certain weight and appearance, a case brought by Aileen Hernandez, an EEOC commissioner before she became NOW’s second President.24
32It instituted a campaign for comprehensive childcare.
33In 1972 NOW endorsed the candidacy of Shirley Chisholm, a member and the first African American woman to run for President of the United States.
34In 1973, NOW created a task force on rape defining it as a crime of violence.
35A broad range of other organizations were founded in the 1970s and 1980s to challenge ongoing practices and assumptions about women’s competencies and personalities and to campaign for women’s rights. Most academic disciplines such as sociology, political science, and anthropology spun off women’s sections or independent organizations devoted to collecting information about the status of women in their fields and advocating equity in hiring and promoting women faculty. Similarly, Status of Women organizations were formed in the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association and other related organizations. These also were not only advocacy organizations but fact-finding as well, keeping tabs on the numbers of women in training, in the professions and their mobility.
36NOW itself supported a number of groundbreaking cases for working women through its legal arm, the NOW Legal Defense Fund, over several decades. The Fund has now broken off from the founding organization to follow an independent set of priorities and today is known as Legal Momentum.
37I cannot list the hundreds of organizations in the United States that today are associated with what is now a rather amorphous women’s movement. But their numbers are large and their impact is strong. They have become specialized – such as those devoted to issues of sexuality, the rights of women in ethnic and racial minority groups, the abuse and rape of women, sex discrimination in employment and the differential treatment of women in education from grade school through higher education. They gather information, fight stereotyping, and move to effect further changes in the law. These organizations often do not work in concert, and sometimes clash on priorities and tactics, but they have added to the mix of pressures for social change in this country.
38I have attempted to show how a confluence of events and social forces contributed to the growing equality of women in American society and how the orientation to social justice of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s set the stage for advancement of women’s rights. Further, how an important piece of legislation, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provided a strategic legal tool for establishing women’s rights. I have pointed as well to the strategy of government actors who encouraged pressure on their agencies by fostering the formation of a woman’s movement that created public sympathy for social change and a serious transformation of society. Finally, the activism of women in the academy through the formation of organizations and crafting of research agendas on the condition of women and on the processes that lead to their differentiation in society were important contributions to the political agenda of equality.
39But I have also noted that ideologies of « difference » persist among women as well as men, constraining further advances of women in public life. At the same time, the woman’s movement has been transmuted into a large number of small organizations, (though the old NOW continues to operate), each oriented to a set of issues with particular adherents – the rights of women workers, glass ceilings in business and the professions, sexual harassment, and other issues of stereotyping and exclusion.
40Feminists have faced many difficulties in continuing to pursue their agenda, especially from the right-wing practices of the Republican congress and the administration of the George W. Bush presidency these past eight years. And in the culture, the term « feminist » has been disdained by younger generations of women who have accepted old stereotypes attached to movement activists as being « man-hating » aggressive women. It is also the case that many younger cohorts of women believe that they have attained equality and that the differentiation remaining in the paths of women and men is a product of their own choices, not social or cultural or economic forces.
- 25 Roe v. Wade held that women could have an abortion for any reason until the fetus was viable and c (...)
- 26 Epstein, Cynthia Fuchs, Robert Sauté, Bonnie Oglensky, and Martha Gever
Graduate Center, «Glass Cei (...)
41 To sum up, there have been great advances in women’s opportunities and status in the United States, and Betty Friedan and NOW played critical roles in these changes. But on the other hand, there are greater restrictions against women’s access to abortion today than was the case when the U.S. Supreme Court passed its decision in Roe v. Wade (1973)25, women still have difficulty in attaining top jobs in the professions26, there is limited access to child care (most of it is private), and the courts, under the right-wing judges appointed by President Bush and other Republican Presidents, have limited women’s opportunities for redress of discrimination against them in employment. Further, in the popular culture, conventional views about « woman’s place » make it difficult for women to aim too high or compete too forcefully with men.