Throughout American history, gender, meaning notions of essential differences between women and men, has shaped how Americans have defined and engaged in productive activity. Work has been a key site where gendered inequalities have been produced, but work has also been a crucible for rights claims that have challenged those inequalities. Federal and state governments long played a central role in generating and upholding gendered policy. Workers and advocates have debated whether to advance laboring women’s cause by demanding equality with men or different treatment that accounted for women’s distinct responsibilities and disadvantages.
Beginning in the colonial period, constructions of dependence and independence derived from the heterosexual nuclear family underscored a gendered division of labor that assigned distinct tasks to the sexes, albeit varied by race and class. In the 19th century, gendered expectations shaped all workers’ experiences of the Industrial Revolution, slavery and its abolition, and the ideology of free labor. Early 20th-century reform movements sought to beat back the excesses of industrial capitalism by defining the sexes against each other, demanding protective labor laws for white women while framing work done by women of color and men as properly unregulated. Policymakers reinforced this framework in the 1930s as they built a welfare state that was rooted in gendered and racialized constructions of citizenship.
In the second half of the 20th century, labor rights claims that reasoned from the sexes’ distinctiveness increasingly gave way to assertions of sex equality, even as the meaning of that equality was contested. As the sex equality paradigm triumphed in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, seismic economic shifts and a conservative business climate narrowed the potential of sex equality laws to deliver substantive changes to workers.
Marjorie J. Spruill
The late 20th century saw gender roles transformed as the so-called Second Wave of American feminism that began in the 1960s gained support. By the early 1970s public opinion increasingly favored the movement and politicians in both major political parties supported it. In 1972 Congress overwhelmingly approved the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and sent it to the states. Many quickly ratified, prompting women committed to traditional gender roles to organize. However, by 1975 ERA opponents led by veteran Republican activist Phyllis Schlafly, founder of Stop ERA, had slowed the ratification process, although federal support for feminism continued. Congresswoman Bella Abzug (D-NY), inspired by the United Nations’ International Women’s Year (IWY) program, introduced a bill approved by Congress that mandated state and national IWY conferences at which women would produce recommendations to guide the federal government on policy regarding women. Federal funding of these conferences (held in 1977), and the fact that feminists were appointed to organize them, led to an escalation in tensions between feminist and conservative women, and the conferences proved to be profoundly polarizing events. Feminists elected most of the delegates to the culminating IWY event, the National Women’s Conference held in Houston, Texas, and the “National Plan of Action” adopted there endorsed a wide range of feminist goals including the ERA, abortion rights, and gay rights. But the IWY conferences presented conservatives with a golden opportunity to mobilize, and anti-ERA, pro-life, and anti-gay groups banded together as never before. By the end of 1977, these groups, supported by conservative Catholics,
Mormons, and evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants, had come together to form a “Pro-Family Movement” that became a powerful force in American politics. By 1980 they had persuaded the Republican Party to drop its support for women’s rights. Afterward, as Democrats continued to support feminist goals and the GOP presented itself as the defender of “family values,” national politics became more deeply polarized and bitterly partisan.
Courtney Q. Shah
A concerted movement to promote sex education in America emerged in the early 20th century as part of a larger public health movement that also responded to the previous century’s concerns about venereal disease, prostitution, “seduction,” and “white slavery.” Sex education, therefore, offered a way to protect people (especially privileged women) from sexual activity of all kinds—consensual and coerced. A widespread introduction into public schools did not occur until after World War I. Sex education programs in schools tended to focus on training for heterosexual marriage at a time when high school attendance spiked in urban and suburban areas. Teachers often segregated male and female students.
Beyond teaching boys about male anatomy and girls about female anatomy, reformers and educators often conveyed different messages and used different materials, depending on the race of their students. Erratic desegregation efforts during the Civil Rights movement renewed a crisis in sex education programs. Parents and administrators considered sexuality education even more dangerous in the context of a racially integrated classroom. The backlash against sex education in the schools kept pace with the backlash against integration, with each often used to bolster the other. Opponents of integration and sex education, for example, often used racial language to scare parents about what kids were learning, and with whom.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the political power of the evangelical movement in the United States attracted support for “abstinence-only” curricula that relied on scare tactics and traditional assumptions about gender and sexuality. The ever-expanding acceptance (both legal and social) of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender identity directly challenged the conservative turn of abstinence-until-marriage sex education programs. The politics of gender, race, class, and sexual orientation have consistently shaped and limited sex education.
Robert O. Self
Few decades in American history reverberate with as much historical reach or glow as brightly in living mythology as the 1960s. During those years Americans reanimated and reinvented the core political principles of equality and liberty but, in a primal clash that resonates more than half a century later, fiercely contested what those principles meant, and for whom. For years afterward, the decade’s appreciators considered the era to have its own “spirit,” defined by greater freedoms and a deeper, more authentic personhood, and given breath by a youthful generation’s agitation for change in nearly every dimension of national life. To its detractors in subsequent decades, the era was marked by immature radical fantasies and dangerous destabilizations of the social order, behind which lay misguided youthful enthusiasms and an overweening, indulgent federal government. We need not share either conviction to appreciate the long historical shadow cast by the decade’s clashing of left, right, and center and its profound influence over the political debates, cultural logics, and social practices of the many years that followed.
The decade’s political and ideological clashes registered with such force because post–World War II American life was characterized by a society-wide embrace of antiradicalism and a prescribed normalcy. Having emerged from the war as the lone undamaged capitalist industrial power, the United States exerted enormous influence throughout the globe after 1945—so much that some historians have called the postwar years a “pax Americana.” In its own interest and in the interest of its Western allies, the United States engaged in a Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union over the fate of Europe and no less over the fate of developing countries on every continent. Fiercely anticommunist abroad and at home, U.S. elites stoked fears of the damage communism could do, whether in Eastern Europe or in a public school textbook. Americans of all sorts in the postwar years embraced potent ideologies justifying the prevailing order, whether that order was capitalist, patriarchal, racial, or heterosexual. They pursued a postwar “normalcy” defined by nuclear family domesticity and consumer capitalism in the shadow cast by the threat of communism and, after 1949, global thermonuclear war with the Soviet Union. This prevailing order was stultifying and its rupture in the 1960s is the origin point of the decade’s great dramas.
The social movements of that decade drew Americans from the margins of citizenship—African Americans, Latina/o, Native Americans, women, and gay men and lesbians, among others—into epochal struggles over the withheld promise of equality. For the first time since 1861, an American war deeply split the nation, nearly destroying a major political party and intensifying a generational revolt already under way. Violence, including political assassinations at the highest level, bombings and assassinations of African Americans, bombings by left-wing groups like the Weathermen, and major urban uprisings by African Americans against police and property bathed the country in more blood. The New Deal liberalism of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman reached its postwar peak in 1965 under President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and then retreated amid acrimony and backlash, as a new conservative politics gained traction. All this took place in the context of a “global 1960s,” in which societies in Western and Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere experienced similar generational rebellions, quests for meaningful democracy, and disillusionment with American global hegemony. From the first year of the decade to the last, the 1960s were a watershed era that marked the definitive end of a “postwar America” defined by easy Cold War dualities, presumptions of national innocence, and political calcification.
To explain the foregoing, this essay is organized in five sections. First comes a broad overview of the decade, highlighting some of its indelible moments and seminal political events. The next four sections correspond to the four signature historical developments of the 1960s. Discussed first is the collapse of the political consensus that predominated in national life following World War II. We can call this consensus “Vital Center liberalism,” after the title of a 1949 book by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., or “Cold War liberalism.” Its assault from both the New Left and the New Right is one of the defining stories of the 1960s. Second is the resurgence, after a decades-long interregnum dating to Reconstruction, of African American political agency. The black freedom struggle of the 1960s was far more than a social movement for civil rights. To shape the conditions of national life and the content of public debate in ways impossible under Jim Crow, black American called for nothing less than a spiritual and political renewal of the country. Third, and following from the latter, is the emergence within the American liberal tradition of a new emphasis on expanding individual rights and ending invidious discrimination. Forged in conjunction with the black freedom movement by women, Latino/as, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and homophiles (as early gay rights activists were called) and gay liberationists, this new emphasis profoundly changed American law and set the terms of political debate for the next half century. Fourth and lastly, the 1960s witnessed the flourishing of a broad and diverse culture of anti-authoritarianism. In art, politics, and social behavior, this anti-authoritarianism took many forms, but at its heart lay two distinct historical phenomena: an ecstatic celebration of youth, manifest in the tension between the World War II generation and the baby boom generation, and an intensification of the long-standing conflict in American life between individualism and hierarchical order.
Despite the disruptions, rebellions, and challenges to authority in the decade, the political and economic elite proved remarkably resilient and preserved much of the prevailing order. This is not to discount the foregoing account of challenges to that order or to suggest that social change in the 1960s made little difference in American life. However, in grappling with this fascinating decade we are confronted with the paradox of outsized events and enormous transformations in law, ideology, and politics alongside a continuation, even an entrenchment, of traditional economic and political structures and practices.
Two images dominated popular portrayals of American women in the 1950s. One was the fictional June Cleaver, the female lead character in the popular television program, “Leave It to Beaver,” which portrayed Cleaver as the stereotypical happy American housewife, the exemplar of postwar American domesticity. The other was Cleaver’s alleged real-life opposite, described in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) as miserable, bored, isolated, addicted to tranquilizers, and trapped in look-alike suburban tract houses, which Friedan termed “comfortable concentration camps.” Both stereotypes ignore significant proportions of the postwar female population, both offer simplistic and partial views of domesticity, but both reveal the depth of the influence that lay behind the idea of domesticity, real or fictional. Aided and abetted by psychology, social science theory, advertising, popular media, government policy, law, and discriminatory private sector practices, domesticity was both a myth and a powerful ideology that shaped the trajectories of women’s lives.
Jessica M. Frazier
Women on all sides of the US war in Vietnam pushed for an end to the conflict. At a time of renewed feminist fervor, women stepped outside conventional gender roles by publicly speaking out, traveling to a war zone, and entering the male-dominated realm of foreign affairs. Even so, some claimed to stand squarely within the boundaries of womanhood as they undertook such unusual activities. Some American women argued that, as mothers or sisters of soldiers and draft-age men, they held special insight into the war. They spoke of their duty to their families, communities, and nation to act in untraditional, but nevertheless feminine, ways. But women did not act uniformly. Some joined the military as nurses or service personnel to help in the war effort, while others protested the war and served as draft counselors. By the end of the war, some anti-war protestors developed feminist critiques of US involvement in Vietnam that pointed to the war as a symptom of an unjust society that prioritized military dominance over social welfare. As in wars past, the US war in Vietnam created upheavals in gender roles, and as nurses, mothers, lovers, officers, entertainers, and activists, women created new spaces in a changing society.
Melissa A. McEuen
The Second World War changed the United States for women, and women in turn transformed their nation. Over three hundred fifty thousand women volunteered for military service, while twenty times as many stepped into civilian jobs, including positions previously closed to them. More than seven million women who had not been wage earners before the war joined eleven million women already in the American work force. Between 1941 and 1945, an untold number moved away from their hometowns to take advantage of wartime opportunities, but many more remained in place, organizing home front initiatives to conserve resources, to build morale, to raise funds, and to fill jobs left by men who entered military service.
The U.S. government, together with the nation’s private sector, instructed women on many fronts and carefully scrutinized their responses to the wartime emergency. The foremost message to women—that their activities and sacrifices would be needed only “for the duration” of the war—was both a promise and an order, suggesting that the war and the opportunities it created would end simultaneously. Social mores were tested by the demands of war, allowing women to benefit from the shifts and make alterations of their own. Yet dominant gender norms provided ways to maintain social order amidst fast-paced change, and when some women challenged these norms, they faced harsh criticism. Race, class, sexuality, age, religion, education, and region of birth, among other factors, combined to limit opportunities for some women while expanding them for others.
However temporary and unprecedented the wartime crisis, American women would find that their individual and collective experiences from 1941 to 1945 prevented them from stepping back into a prewar social and economic structure. By stretching and reshaping gender norms and roles, World War II and the women who lived it laid solid foundations for the various civil rights movements that would sweep the United States and grip the American imagination in the second half of the 20th century.
Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X are the names that come to mind for most Americans if asked about the civil rights or Black Power movements. Others may point to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, both of whom backed pathbreaking civil rights legislation. However, recent scholarship suggests that neither black male leaders nor white male presidents were always the most important figures in the modern struggle for black freedom. Presidents took their cues not simply from male luminaries in civil rights organizations. Rather, their legislative initiatives were largely in response to grassroots protests in which women, especially black women, were key participants. African American women played major roles in local and national organizing efforts and frequently were the majority in local chapters of groups as dissimilar as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Black Panther Party. Even familiar names like Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King have become little more than sanitized national icons, while their decades-long efforts to secure racial, economic, and gender justice remain relatively unknown. Aside from activists and scholars, even fewer of us know much, if anything, about the female allies of the black freedom struggle, including white southerners as well as other women of color. A closer look at the women who made enormous contributions to both the modern civil rights and Black Power movements sheds new light on these struggles, including the historic national victories we think we fully understand, such as the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In short, examining women’s participation in the “long civil rights movement,” which historians increasingly date to the New Deal and World War II, calls for a redefinition of more conventional notions of leadership, protest, and politics.
Working women and their issues played a central role in the women’s movement in the decades following World War II. Feminists lobbied, litigated, and engaged in direct action for workplace fairness. Working women, especially those in unions, joined feminist organizations and established their own organizations as well. There were fault lines within the women’s movement over the issues, strategies, and level of commitment to the causes of working women. In the first two decades after 1945, the unionists and liberal reformers who constituted the so-called Women’s Bureau Coalition (named after the U.S. Women’s Bureau) opposed the mostly affluent and conservative members of the National Woman’s Party for their support of the Equal Rights Amendment, supporting instead protective laws and policies that treated women differently from men in the workplace. With the arrival of second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, “labor feminists” clashed with the middle-class professional women at the helm of newly formed feminist organizations. As support for gender equality transformed employment practices, some labor feminists sought to retain (or extend to men) selected protective measures introduced in the early 20th century to shield women workers from the worst aspects of wage labor. In the face of harsh economic conditions in the 1970s, labor feminists again opposed other feminists for their efforts to modify the union practice of “last hired, first fired” as a way of retaining affirmative-action hiring gains.
In recent decades feminists have focused on equity measures such as comparable worth and pregnancy leave as means of addressing the unique challenges women face. In addition they have expanded their concern to lesbian and transgender workers, and, increasingly, to the needs of immigrant workers who make up an increasingly percentage of the working population.