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How the Civil Rights Movement Launched the Fight for LGBT, Women’s Equality

September 2, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
The civil rights movement didn't just promote equality for African-Americans. It was also a social justice springboard for other causes. To explore how the movement impacted the fight for LGBT and women's rights, Ray Suarez speaks with George Chauncey of Yale University and Ruth Rosen of the University of California, Davis.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And now we turn to the legacy of the March on Washington, 50 years later, as seen by scholars of other civil rights movements who were broadly represented at last week’s anniversary celebration.

For a century after the Civil War, the black struggle for equal rights reminded America of its unfinished business. 

Tonight Ray Suarez examines whether that struggle changed the way we think and talk about rights for everyone.

RAY SUAREZ: For that, we get two different perspectives.

Ruth Rosen is a professor emerita of history at the University of California, Davis, and author of the book “The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America.” And George Chauncey is co-director of the Research Initiative on the History of Sexualities and a professor of history and American studies at Yale University.

Professor Rosen, has this half-century changed what we mean, even who we’re talking about, when we throw around the terms human rights and civil rights?

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RUTH ROSEN, University of California: Absolutely.

The civil rights movement for justice and for economic equality actually influenced two women’s movement, one in the 19th century, when the abolitionist movement inspired a women’s right movement and suffrage movement, and then again in the 20th century, when women who had been member of the civil rights movement, the union movement founded NOW, and when younger women who had been part of the civil rights movement founded the Younger Women’s Liberation Movement.

So the civil rights movement has absolutely inspired twice in our history a fight for women’s equality.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Chauncey, same question.

GEORGE CHAUNCEY, Yale University: The African-American civil rights movement was really the wellspring of all great movements for social justice and equality in the United States.

It certainly had a profound impact on the lesbian and gay rights movement. Back, in the ’60s, at the time when the march happened, gays were regarded as mentally ill or people addicted to immoral behavior. And the civil rights movement really pioneered the concept as a powerful political concept of minority rights and made it easier for gays to begin to depict themselves as a minority who deserved the same civil rights that other Americans and other minorities did.

And the civil rights movement pioneered many of the organizational forms and political strategies that are important to the gay movement, women’s movement, the Latino movement, and many others. Even the marches themselves, the March on Washington in ’63 was followed just two years later by the first gay civil rights pickets outside the White House and Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and by the first National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1979.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Rosen, did this time put Washington, the national government, at the center of being a guarantor of these rights in a way it hadn’t been before?

RUTH ROSEN: It did for the civil rights movement and for the gay movement and for people who were pro-choice who went to Washington to demand their rights that Roe v. Wade be upheld.

But if you actually look at the women’s movement itself, the real march that made the women’s movement a household name took place in 1970, when 50,000 people marched down Fifth Avenue. That march then appeared on the front pages of every newspaper in the country.

Now, that didn’t end the women’s movement, nor did it start it. It was in the middle of it. But what happened afterwards, of course, is all the organizations, NOW, which is more like the NAACP in its organizational style, and the Younger Women’s Liberation Movement, penetrated every aspect of American culture, so that by the mid-’70s, every ethnic, every racial group of women, all the unions had women’s caucuses, women’s activities that were striving to change women’s rights at home and at the workplace.

RAY SUAREZ: Let’s talk a little bit about the inside and outside game. The public saw demonstrations. The public saw marches, but at the same time, there was an inside game in courts, in legislatures, filing briefs.

This was a big part of the success of all these movements, wasn’t it, the duality of the struggle?

GEORGE CHAUNCEY: Absolutely.

And I would emphasize again what Professor Rosen said applies to the gay movement as well. It was — nowadays, we’re accustomed to gay rights being a national issue. Every presidential candidate has to talk about his or her stand on marriage equality and so forth. But back in the ’60s and ’70s, gays could only dream of getting that kind of national attention.

 So the organizing was very local, as indeed the — most of the organizing in the black civil rights movement was.

RUTH ROSEN: And if you think about it, what the gay and lesbian movement did and the women’s movement did is, we changed the terms of debate in American political culture.

 If you look at the legislation that was passed just about women, women got the right to have credit cards in their own names, to buy mortgages, to be on juries in certain states. We got the right to actually own our own property in the 19th century, which we didn’t have, have custody of children.

And then, of course, Title IX in the 1970s gave women the right to sports. But the most important two things that I would mention is the fact that women are safer today because domestic violence has been made into a felony. And, at work, women know that if someone preys upon them, sexual harassment is illegal.

And those two things alone, domestic violence and sexual harassment, were names that we gave hidden injuries that women experienced, and they really didn’t have a way to talk about them. By naming them, we could debate them, and as a culture we could decide whether we wanted to pass legislation. And we did.

And, as a result, I think that women’s lives are a lot better, because at work and at home, they are protected from things that they really didn’t know how to discuss before.

RAY SUAREZ: All these movements, I think if you asked people who participate in them, they would say, we still have a long way to go, but it’s…

(CROSSTALK)

RAY SUAREZ: We will have to reflect on how we talk about progress in another conversation.

Thank you very much for joining us.