Feminist Activities in the 1960s

These accomplishments changed the lives of both men and women

N.O.W. Members Picket the White House
Members of the National Organization for Women demonstrate outside the White House. They wear chains decorated with flowers, and are asking for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

The resurgence of feminism across the United States in the 1960s ushered in a series of changes to the status quo that still have an impact today. In the media, and in women’s personal situations, 1960s feminists inspired unprecedented changes in the fabric of our society, changes with far-reaching economic, political, and cultural consequences. But what, exactly, were those changes? Here’s a look at some of the most important accomplishments of these activists for female empowerment:

The Feminine Mystique

Betty Friedan
Barbara Alper / Getty Images

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 did get a lot of people to start paying attention.

Consciousness Raising Groups

Woman with feminist symbol
jpa1999 / iStock Vectors / Getty Images

Called the “backbone” of the feminist movement, consciousness-raising groups were a grassroots revolution. Adopted from a principle tenet of the Civil Rights movement to "tell it like it is," these groups 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
Woman or Object? Feminists protest Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, 1969. Getty Images

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

Marchers with Women's Liberation banner
Women's Liberation group marches in protest in support of Black Panther Party, New Haven, November, 1969. David Fenton/Getty Images

These organizations sprang up across the United States. 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
Pro-choice rally, 2003, Philadelphia. Getty Images / William Thomas Cain

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
Birth Control. Stockbytes / Comstock / Getty Images

In 1965, the Supreme Court in Griswold v. Connecticut found that an earlier law against birth control violated the right to marital privacy, and, by extension, the right to use birth control. This soon led to many single women also using contraceptives, like the Pill, which had been approved by the federal government in 1960. This, in turn, led to a new-found freedom from worrying about pregnancy, a factor that precipitated the Sexual Revolution that was to follow.

Planned Parenthood, an organization that was founded in the 1920s when Margaret Sanger and others were fighting against the Comstock Law, now became a key provider of information on birth control and a provider of contraceptives themselves. By 1970, 80 percent of married women in their childbearing years were using contraceptives. 

Lawsuits for Equal Pay

A judges gavel
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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
Photograph from an abortion protest march in New York City, 1977. Peter Keegan / Getty Images

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

An English teacher talks to students in her class at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS)
Sebastian Meyer/Getty Images

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, as well as the formal study of women's history.

Opening Up the Workplace

Women For Equality
Archive Photos/Getty Images

In 1960, 37.7 percent of American women were in the workforce. They made on average 60 percent less than men, had little chances for advancement, and little representation in the professions. Most women worked in "pink collar" job 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. 

More About 1960s Feminism

Steinem, Scull and Friedan
American feminist, journalist and political activist, Gloria Steinem (left) with art collector Ethel Scull and feminist writer Betty Friedan (lower right) at a Women's Liberation meeting at the home of Ethel and Robert Scull, Easthampton, Long Island, New York, 8th August 1970. Tim Boxer/Getty Images

For a more detailed list of what happened in the 1960s feminist movement, check out the 1960s feminist timeline.  And for some of the ideology and ideas of the so-called second wave of feminism, check out the 1960s and 1970s feminist beliefs.