The Women's Movement and Feminist Activism in the 1960s

These accomplishments changed the lives of both men and women

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The resurgence of feminism across the United States during the 1960s ushered in a series of changes to the status quo that continue to have an impact decades after the women's movement. Feminists inspired unprecedented changes in the fabric of our society that had far-reaching economic, political, and cultural consequences. Changes included books, consciousness-raising groups, and protests.

The Feminine Mystique

Betty Friedan
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Betty Friedan’s 1963 book is often remembered as the beginning of the second wave of feminism in the United States. Of course, feminism did not happen overnight, but the success of the book, which examined why middle-class women yearned to be more than housewives and mothers, helped to start a dialogue about gender roles in the country.

Consciousness Raising Groups

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Called the “backbone” of the feminist movement, consciousness-raising groups were a grassroots revolution. They encouraged personal storytelling to spotlight sexism in the culture and used the power of the group to offer support and solutions for change.

Protests

Feminists protest Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, 1969

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Feminists protested in the streets and at rallies, hearings, marches, sit-ins, legislative sessions, and even the Miss America Pageant. This gave them a presence and a voice where it mattered most—with the media. 

Women's Liberation Groups

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These organizations sprung up across the United States and two early groups on the East Coast were New York Radical Women and Redstockings. The National Organization for Women (NOW) is a direct offshoot of these early initiatives.

The National Organization for Women (NOW )

Pro-choice rally at Love Park November 13, 2003 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
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Betty Friedan gathered feminists, liberals, Washington insiders, and other activists into a new organization to work for women’s equality. NOW became one of the most well-known feminist groups and is still in existence. The founders of NOW set up task forces to work on education, employment, and a host of other women's issues.

Use of Contraceptives

Birth Control Pills and Calendar
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In 1965, the Supreme Court ruled in Griswold v. Connecticut that an earlier law against birth control violated the right to marital privacy. This decision soon led many single women to use contraceptives, like the Pill, which had been approved by the federal government in 1960. Reproductive freedom allowed women to take charge of their bodies, and the popularity of oral contraceptives precipitated the sexual revolution that was to follow.

Planned Parenthood, an organization founded during the 1920s, became a key provider of contraceptives. By 1970, 80 percent of married women in their childbearing years were using contraceptives. 

Lawsuits for Equal Pay

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Feminists went to court to fight for equality, stand up against discrimination, and work on the legal aspects of women's rights. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was instituted to enforce equal pay. Stewardesses—soon to be renamed flight attendants—fought wage and age discrimination, and won a 1968 ruling.​

Fighting for Reproductive Freedom

Abortion Protest March
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Feminist leaders and medical professionals (both men and women) spoke out against restrictions on abortion. During the 1960s, cases such as Griswold v. Connecticut, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1965, helped paved the way for Roe v. Wade.

The First Women's Studies Department

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Feminists looked at how women were depicted or ignored in history, social science, literature, and other academic fields, and by the end of the 1960s a new discipline was born: women's studies. The formal study of women's history gained momentum during this period, too.

Opening Up the Workplace

Women For Equality
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In 1960, 37.7 percent of American women were in the workforce. They made on average 60 percent less than men, had few chances for advancement, and little representation in the professions. Most women worked in "pink collar" jobs as teachers, secretaries, and nurses, with only 6 percent working as doctors and 3 percent as lawyers. Women engineers made up 1 percent of that industry, and even fewer women were accepted into the trades.

However, once the word "sex" was added to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it opened the way for many lawsuits against discrimination in employment. The professions began to open up for women, and pay increased as well. By 1970, 43.3 percent of women were in the workforce, and that number continued to grow.