Sex was everywhere in the 1970s.
As a generation of women became liberated in their sexual identities, they wanted that liberation to extend beyond the bedroom.
Women’s equal rights advocates like Gloria Steinem, Susan Brownmiller and Kate Millett emerged and became the faces and voices for a generation.
Here are some of the key women and events that helped – or hindered – women’s liberation throughout the decade.
Feminism goes mainstream
The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which states that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex,” was originally introduced to Congress in 1923 – three years after women gained the right to vote – but never reached the House or Senate floor.
The National Organization for Women, which was founded in 1966 and advocated for a “fully equal partnership of the sexes,” soon endorsed the ERA and made passing it into the U.S. Constitution a top priority. (The amendment had been unsuccessfully presented to every session of Congress between 1923 and 1970.)
However, the ERA was just one part of what the new, “second-wave” feminists wanted to accomplish, as TIME’s article “Who’s Come a Long Way, Baby?” from August 31, 1970, points out:
“They want equal pay for equal work, and a chance at jobs traditionally reserved for men only. They seek nationwide abortion reform – ideally, free abortions on demand. They desire round-the-clock, state-supported child-care centers in order to cut the apron strings that confine mothers to unpaid domestic servitude at home. The most radical feminists want far more. Their eschatological aim is to topple the patriarchal system in which men by birthright control all of society’s levers of power – in government, industry, education, science, the arts.”
In the same article, TIME spotlights Kate Millett, an author who was able to capture the feminist movement’s most radical ideology into a book that became a must-read for any supporter.
“Until this year, however, with the publication of a remarkable book called ‘Sexual Politics,’ the movement had no coherent theory to buttress its intuitive passions, no ideologue to provide chapter and verse for its assault on patriarchy. Kate Millett, 35, a sometime sculptor and longtime brilliant misfit in a man’s world, has filled the role through ‘Sexual Politics.’
” ‘Reading the book is like sitting with your testicles in a nutcracker,’ says George Stade, assistant professor of English at Columbia University. He should know; the book was Kate’s Ph.D. thesis, and he was one of her advisers.”
What gender equality would look like
Gloria Steinem’s 1969 New York Magazine article “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation” also brought nationwide attention to the women’s movement. The following year, she testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and TIME published her essay on what a world with gender equality would look like.
In “What It Would Be Like If Women Win,” from August 31, 1970, Steinem writes:
“In Women’s Lib Utopia, there will be free access to good jobs – and decent pay for the bad ones women have been performing all along, including housework. Increased skilled labor might lead to a four-hour workday, and higher wages would encourage further mechanization of repetitive jobs now kept alive by cheap labor. … Schools and universities will help to break down traditional sex roles, even when parents will not. Half the teachers will be men, a rarity now at preschool and elementary levels; girls will not necessarily serve cookies or boys hoist up the flag.”
The 51% minority
The women’s movement attracted women of all races, backgrounds and political beliefs because many of them felt that they were being treated like second-class citizens. Despite making up more than half the American population, women were not admitted to colleges at the same rate as men or allowed equal pay or job opportunities.
As the feminist wave swept across the country, the support for ERA picked up even more steam.
The amendment was passed by both houses of Congress and President Richard Nixon in 1972, and was sent off to be ratified into law by the states. At the end of 1973, the ERA only needed five more states to ratify it by March 1979 in order to get the three-fourths approval it required.
Women as ‘Man of the Year’
Mid-decade, the women’s liberation movement had inundated America. The changes were so rampant that TIME awarded its “Man of the Year” in 1975 to “American women.” Their article “Great Changes, New Chances, Tough Choices” from January 5, 1976, reads:
“They have arrived like a new immigrant wave in male America. They may be cops, judges, military officers, telephone linemen, cab drivers, pipefitters, editors, business executives – or mothers and housewives, but not quite the same subordinate creatures they were before. Across the broad range of American life, from suburban tract houses to state legislatures, from church pulpits to Army barracks, women’s lives are profoundly changing, and with them, the traditional relationships between the sexes. …1975 was not so much the Year of the Woman as the Year of the Women – an immense variety of women altering their lives, entering new fields, functioning with a new sense of identity, integrity and confidence.”
Then, feminism hit a roadblock: Her name was Phyllis Schlafly.
Schlafly, a staunch conservative, began speaking to the women who felt that the feminist movement was not for them – women who enjoyed their roles as mothers and housewives.
Schlafly, who was known to open her speeches by thanking her husband for letting her attend because “it irritates the women’s libbers,” rallied together the anti-ERA crowd. In Schlafly’s eyes, the ERA would strip away any protections that women had, like child support and exemption from the military draft. TIME notes this in their article “Great Changes, New Chances, Tough Choices” from January 5, 1976:
“The sweeping simplicity of the amendment – ‘Equality of rights under law shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex’ – made many voters, especially women, nervous. The anti-ERA lobby, led by Phyllis Schlafly – a conspicuously liberated woman who at 51 is working for a law degree – conjured up the prospect of unisex public toilets, an end to alimony, women forced into duty as combat soldiers.”
National Women’s Conference
In January 1977, Indiana became the 35th state to ratify the ERA. The amendment was now only three states shy of becoming law, but the effort was losing momentum. Many feminists saw the National Women’s Conference in November 1977 as a chance to breathe new life into it. More than 14,000 women gathered to discuss the problems facing women and formulate a plan of action to deliver to President Carter.
As the “What Next for U.S. Women” TIME article from December 5, 1977, shows, the conference was a chance for many women on the fringe of the movement to finally become a part of it:
“Ida Castro, from New Jersey: ‘It was a total high to get together and discover so many people who agree on so many issues, and finding that I am not alone.’
“Sharon Talbot, a 19-year-old Smith College student, put it, ‘I didn’t have to be a radical to be a feminist. Before I went, I hadn’t really decided where I stood. Now I know that all those other women feel the same way I do, so if they call themselves feminists, or whatever, then that’s what I am too.’ “
Ultimately, more radical hot button issues like abortion and gay rights drove a wedge in the conference.
“During a conference vote favoring abortion, one woman cried, ‘I never thought they would come to this. It’s murder!’ Said another: ‘It will be old people next.’
“Dorris Holmes, a Georgia delegate, said ‘Lesbianism has been an albatross on the whole movement since the last century. It is an extra burden we do not need.’ “
While the National Women’s Conference was taking place, Phyllis Schlafly was leading a counter rally of “pro-family” supporters.
“The Equal Rights proponents,” she charged, “want to reconstruct us into a gender-free society, so there’s no difference between men and women. I don’t think babies need two sex-neutral parents. I think they need a father and a mother.”
Many women left feeling more empowered than ever before, but the momentum did not translate into more votes for the ERA. After Indiana, no other state voted for its ratification. TIME also noted that during the conference “American women had reached some kind of watershed in their own history, and in that of the nation.”
Steinem and other movement leaders expressed a similar sentiment.
“In terms of real power – economic and political – we are still just beginning. But the consciousness, the awareness – that will never be the same,” Steinem said.