Protesters at Miss America contest, 1967
Photo: Jo Freeman

The Women's Movement: Liberated at Last?

"If divorce has increased by 1,000 percent, don't blame the women's movement. Blame the obsolete sex roles on which our marriages were based."
Betty Friedan
Jan. 20, 1974

"[Feminism is] a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians."
Pat Robertson
1992 Republican National Convention

In 1920, just 40 years before the revolutionary ‘60s, American women couldn’t even vote. Women of the era grew up in the expectation and understanding that this civil right would not be theirs.

By 1960, things had changed. Women were voting, and going to college to obtain more than a husband, and doing more work outside the home. When NOW is founded, in ‘66, women already have legal protections from gender discrimination. So did the “second wave” of feminism really change anything for American women?

Economic Change

Equal pay for equal work is a basic principle of the Women’s Movement. Looking just at growth in median income (MI) from 1963 to 2003, America’s working women are definitely better off than they were 40 years ago.

But interpreting the same U.S. Census data as a percentage of median income relative to the median income of males, it’s clear that a wage gap still exists. Back in the ‘60s, black women were making almost 40% of what black man earned; white women made less than a third as much as their male counterparts. Jumping forward to 2003, black women have closed the gap significantly, earning three-quarters as much as black men; white women also improve their ratio, but still don’t earn three-fifths as much as white men.

all figures shown in 2003 dollars
1963 2003 Change
Black Female $4,905 $16,540 237.2%
White Female $7,973 $17,422 118.5%
1963 2003
Black Male 100% 100%
Black Female 38.6% 75.4%
White Male 100% 100%
White Female 32.6% 56.7%

Why does the gap between median income for men and women remain at all? True the statistics could reflect unfair compensation practices—but more likely causes include different levels of educational attainment, career paths that are less financially rewarding, or even something as simple as the desire to spend less time at work and more hours with family.

Political Changes

In 1972—the year Shirley Chisholm is a Presidential candidate—a quarter of people surveyed say they would not vote for a woman for President. By 1996, only 5% of women and 8% of men would rule out a female Presidential candidate.

Reproductive Changes

The pill was available in 1960, but state laws prevented millions of women from using it until 1965 or later. It wasn’t until ’65, that all 50 states finally eliminated laws preventing married couples from obtaining contraceptives!

In 1973, Roe v. Wade was a case of paramount importance to the Women’s Movement, establishing a woman’s reproductive rights.

Life Changes

In the early ‘70s, less than 4% of high school girls play organized sports. By the close of the 20th Century, over 30% of high school females participate. Increased participation is a direct result of Title IX legislation requiring opportunities for girls.

As of 2005, an entire generation of women has reached maturity without perceiving themselves as inferior in any way to men.

And there’s a new vocabulary of concepts that weren’t even conceivable 40 years ago: sexual harassment; the glass ceiling; the Mommy Track; the Family Leave Act.

Another 40 years from now, the changes should be even more interesting.

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