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The 20th Century’s Longest Revolution Still Has Work to Do

Ruth Rosen, a history professor at UC Davis, is the author of "The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America," to be published by Viking in February 2000

American women entered the 20th century without the right to vote and ended it with the right “to have it all” as long as they “do it all.” Progress? It depends on whom you ask. In many ways, the women’s movement has been the longest revolution of the century.

Bursts of artillery fire, mass strikes, massacred protesters and bomb explosions are our usual images of revolution. Yet some revolutions are harder to recognize: No cataclysms mark their beginnings or ends, no casualties are left lying in pools of blood. Though people may suffer greatly, their pain is hidden. Such was the case with the modern women’s movement. Activists didn’t hurl tear gas canisters at the police or burn down buildings, overthrow the government or achieve economic dominance. They did, however, subvert authority and transform society in dramatic and irrevocable ways.

Consider the last half of the 20th century. Before the 1950s, the president of Harvard University saw no reason to increase the number of female undergraduates because the university’s mission was to “train leaders.” Newspaper ads separated jobs by sex. Bars often refused to serve women. Banks routinely denied women credit or loans. Some states even excluded women from jury duty. No women ran big corporations or universities, worked as firefighters, sat on the Supreme Court, climbed telephone poles or owned construction companies. All hurricanes bore female names, thanks to the widely held view that women brought chaos.

As late as 1970, Dr. Edgar Berman, a widely known physician, proclaimed on television that women were too tortured by hormonal disturbances to assume the presidency of the nation. Few people knew more than a handful of women professors, doctors or lawyers. If a woman wanted an abortion, legal nowhere in the United States, she risked her life searching among quacks in back alleys for a competent and compassionate doctor. The public believed that rape victims probably had “asked for it,” and most women felt too ashamed to report it. No language existed to make sense of marital rape, date rape, domestic violence or sexual harassment. Just two words summed up the hidden injuries women suffered in silence: “That’s life.”

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American women’s participation in both the labor force and the sexual revolution had dramatically altered their lives. Yet it took the modern women’s movement to address the many ways women felt exploited, to lend legitimacy to their growing sense of injustice.

Many men and women did not see change coming. In 1967, internationally renowned sociologist David Riesman, then a professor at Harvard, uttered what has to be one of the most hilarious predictions in recent history. Writing in Time magazine in 1967, he declared that “if anything remains more or less unchanged, it will be the role of women.” Poor timing. That was the year the modern women’s movement began spreading across the country. As women activists learned to see the world through their own eyes, the feminist movement fragmented, and new populations of women--trade unionists, the old, the young, racial and ethnic minorities, some of whom had initially spurned feminism--began to assert different priorities. Many different feminisms began permeating American society. A backlash was inevitable, though few anticipated its religious and political ferocity.

However, by the end of the 20th century, feminist ideas had burrowed too deeply into our culture for resistance or politics to root them out. The backlash, in short, reflected a society deeply divided and disturbed by rapid changes in men’s and women’s lives.

Yet at the height of this national debate, more American women, not fewer, grasped the importance of the goals of the women’s movement. In 1986, a Gallup Poll asked women: “Do you consider yourself a feminist?” Fifty-six percent of American women answered yes.

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Women of all classes were becoming aware of the ways in which gender shaped their lives. Pollsters consistently found that more African American women approved of the goals of the women’s movement than did white women. A 1989 poll found that 51% of all men, 64% of white women, 72% of Latino women and 85% of African American women agreed with the statement: “The United States continues to need a strong women’s movement to push for changes that benefit women.”

Perhaps the most important legacy was precisely that “women’s issues” had entered mainstream national politics, where they had changed the terms of political debate. Everyday life had also changed in small but significant ways. Strangers addressed a woman as Ms.; schoolchildren learned about sexism before they became teenagers; language became more gender-neutral; popular culture saturated society with comedies, thrillers and mysteries that turned on changing gender roles.

And two decades after the movement’s first years, the number of women politicians doubled. Even more significant, millions of women had entered jobs that once had been reserved for men. Although women had not gained the power to change institutions, they had joined men in colleges and universities in unprecedented numbers. In the 1950s, women constituted only 20% of college undergraduates, and their two most common aspirations, according to polls, were to become the wife of a prominent man and the mother of several accomplished children. By 1990, women constituted 54% of undergraduates, and they wanted to do anything and everything.

Women also had joined men in blue-collar and professional jobs in startling numbers. In 1960, 35% of women had worked outside the home; by 1990, that figure had jumped to 58%.

The cumulative impact of decades of education, debates, controversies and high-profile trials raised women’s gender consciousness, which in turn eventually showed up in a long-awaited political “gender gap.” In 1871, Susan B. Anthony prematurely predicted that once women got the right to vote, they would vote as a bloc. A gender gap did not appear until 1980, when more men than women voted for Ronald Reagan, whose opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion may have moved some women into the Democratic column. Eventually the gender gap would cause at least a temporary realignment of national politics. In 1996, 16% more women than men voted for Bill Clinton for president.

Some political analysts now believed that women were voting their interests as workers, family caregivers or as single or divorced mothers. Gender gap or not, the rightward tilt of American politics led to the demonization of poor women and their children. While some middle-class women captured meaningful and well-paid work, ever more women slid into poverty and homelessness, which, on balance, the women’s movement did too little, too late, to change.

Each generation of women activists leaves an unfinished agenda for the next generation. First-wave suffragists fought for women’s citizenship and created international organizations dedicated to universal disarmament but left many customs and beliefs unchallenged. Second-wave feminists questioned nearly everything, transformed much of American culture, expanded the idea of democracy by insisting that equality had to include the realities of its women citizens and catapulted women’s issues onto a global stage. Women now mattered.

Yet these activists left much unfinished too. They were unable to change most institutions, to gain greater economic justice for poor women or even to convince society that child care is the responsibility of the whole society. American women won the right to “have it all” but only if they “did it all.”

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The struggle is just beginning. It is for a new generation to identify what they need in order to achieve greater equality.

As each generation shares its secrets, women learn to see the world through their own eyes and discover, much to their surprise, that their problems are not theirs alone. The poet Muriel Requester once asked: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?” Her answer: “The world would split open.” And so it has. A revolution is underway, and there is no end in sight.


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