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FROM SUFFRAGE TO WOMEN'S LIBERATION: FEMINISM IN TWENTIETH CENTURY AMERICA Published in Women: A Feminist Perspective ed. by Jo Freeman, Mountain View, Calif: Mayfield, 5th edition, 1995, pp. 509-28.

The suffrage movement was not a united movement. It was a coalition of different people and organizations that worked together for a few intense years around the common goal of votes for women. Approximately 95 percent of the participants in the movement were organized under the umbrella of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Throughout most of its history this organization pursued the vote on a state by state basis. In 1916 NAWSA President Carrie Chapman Catt presented her "winning plan" to focus on a federal amendment while continuing with state work. She mobilized the coalition into high gear until success was achieved.

Her plan was stimulated by the challenge of Alice Paul who had returned to the United States in 1913 after an apprenticeship in the British Suffrage Movement. There she had learned the value of publicity to be obtained by marches, civil disobedience and hunger strikes. Paul persuaded NAWSA to let her organize a Congressional Committee to pursue a federal amendment, and when she felt support for her activities were insufficient, broke off to create a separate Congressional Union. One of Paul's strategies was to mobilize women in the states where women could vote. From her British experience she adopted the idea of holding the party in power responsible for failing to pass the federal amendment. Since President Wilson was a Democrat, she organized enfranchised women to vote against all Democrats in 1914, including those Members of Congress who supported suffrage. In 1916 a separate National Woman's Party was created for this purpose, but Wilson was overwhelmingly re-elected, carrying ten of the twelve states in which women could vote for President.

During World War I NAWSA leaders worked both for Suffrage and in support of the war effort. The Congressional Union only worked for Suffrage. They flouted Wilson's slogan that the purpose of the War was "to make the world safe for democracy" by standing outside the White House with banners reading "How long must women wait for democracy?" The rate of state enfranchisement of women accelerated and pressure on the President and Congress intensified. In January 1918 President Wilson declared his support for a federal amendment, and later that month the House passed the amendment without a single vote to spare. It was not until May of 1919 that the Senate did likewise. A ferocious state-by-state battle ensued to get the three-fourths necessary to ratify the Suffrage Amendment. It almost didn't make it, but by two votes Tennessee became the 36th state. On August 26, 1920 the Nineteenth Amendment joined the Constitution and twenty six million American women became eligible to vote. Carrie Chapman Catt calculated that it took:

57 years of campaigning,
56 referenda to male voters,
480 efforts to get state legislatures to submit suffrage amendments,
277 campaigns to get state party conventions to include women's suffrage planks,
47 campaigns to get state constitutional conventions to write women's suffrage into state constitutions,
30 campaigns to get presidential party conventions to adopt women's suffrage planks into party platforms,
19 successive campaigns with 19 successive Congresses.

NAWSA disbanded. Some of its members reorganized into a non-partisan, non-sectarian League of Women Voters to provide women with political education and work for a broad range of social reforms. Other members, including Catt, turned their energies to working for peace. Many more returned to the organizations from whence they had come, such as the Women's Trade Union League, the General Federation of Women's Clubs and the National Consumer's League. Still others founded new organizations, such as the National Federation of Business and Professional Women, and separate women's organizations within different occupations. These and several other women's organizations joined together to form the Woman's Joint Congressional Committee which was described by the Ladies Home Journal as the "most highly organized and powerful lobby ever seen in Washington." Among their major achievements on the federal level were the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Protection Act (1921), equal nationality rights for married women (1922), and the Child Labor Amendment (1925). The WJCC along with other Progressive organizations were repeatedly attacked as socialist and subversive. These attacks took their toll; as the Progressive impulse faded, many women returned to private life. The Congressional Union - National Woman's Party reorganized itself into a new National Woman's Party and continued its work for women's equality with men.

Survival During The Doldrums

Between the suffrage movement and the women's liberation movement, the paramount feminist issue was the Equal Rights Amendment. It was first proposed in 1921 by Alice Paul who had decided that the next step was removal of all legal discrimination against women and that the most efficient way to do this was with another federal amendment. The ERA was aimed at the plethora of state laws and common law rules that restricted women's jury service; limited their rights to control their own property, contract, sue, and keep their own name and domicile if married; gave them inferior guardianship rights over their children; and generally stigmatized them as lesser citizens. It was vigorously opposed by progressive reformer Florence Kelley and her allies in the National Consumers' League, the Women's Trade Union League, and the League of Women Voters, because she feared it would also destroy the protective labor laws for which she had fought all her life.

The preponderance of these laws limited the hours women could work each day and each week, prohibited night work for women, and removed women from certain occupations altogether. Some states also required minimum wages for women only, though the Supreme Court declared this unconstitutional in 1923. Although many of these laws had passed before Suffrage, Kelley and other progressives had joined the Suffrage Movement only after they became convinced that women must have the vote in order to pass more laws to improve the condition of working women. They were not about to see their decades of effort undermined by the utopian ideals of the militants.

The NWP was not initially hostile to protective labor laws; many members had fought for such laws in their home states. Early versions of the ERA exempted these laws from coverage. However, Kelley could not be convinced that any version would not be misinterpreted by the courts, and after much thought Paul and her colleagues decided that any exemption would be come a universal exemption. Besides, she concluded, protective labor laws really hurt women more than they helped, because they encouraged employers to hire men. By the time the ERA was first introduced into Congress in December 1923, it had divided women's organizations into two warring camps, who fought each other to a stalemate for almost five decades.

The battle was more than a disagreement over what women wanted. Behind it was a fundamental disagreement over the meaning of equality. The NWP favored absolute equality of opportunity. Women would never achieve economic independence as long as laws treated them like children in need of protection. The reformers accepted fundamental differences in physiology and family role as incontrovertible. They noted that the female labor force was largely young, unmarried and transitional. Labor unions did not want to organize women because they were not permanent workers and did not earn enough to pay dues. Thus collective bargaining did not offer the same protection for women workers that it potentially could for men. Only legislation could save them from gross exploitation by industrial capitalism.

Though both women, their followers and allies, had roots in the Progressive movement, they came from different generations and had different world views. Kelley called herself a socialist, though her allies in the women's organizations would not have used that term after it became tainted by the red scare of the twenties. Yet her view of women was solidly grounded in a conservative conception of the sexes that saw each as fundamentally different from the other and properly occupying separate spheres. Whereas Kelley accepted the status quo, Paul was a feminist visionary; she saw what women could be, undistracted by their current reality. She pursued this vision monolithically. With rare and minor exceptions she ignored any political issue other than removal of all legal barriers to women's equality and economic independence. During the twenties she stifled any discussion within the NWP on the disenfranchisement of black women or the suppression of birth control information. Despite her commitment to anti-communism, during the fifties she thwarted an attempt to broaden the base of the now minuscule NWP by including patriotic issues.

Hindered by declining numbers and influence, the NWP kept the feminist faith burning through some very hard times. The Depression led to an upsurge of extant public opinion against the employment of married women, or any woman who had a male relative to support her. Such women were thought to be taking jobs away from men, who had families to support. The advent of the Roosevelt administration brought to power Kelley's disciples Frances Perkins and Molly Dewson, not to mention Eleanor Roosevelt, who, while a role model for activist women, thought the NWP "a perfectly useless organization." Their strong opposition to the ERA was based in part on their perception that it was primarily a class issue and not one of sex equality. As social reformers they argued that requiring equal rights under law would favor upper class professional and executive women at the expense of working class women who needed legal protection. While they acknowledged that there were many state laws that unfairly distinguished between men and women, they felt that these should be eliminated state by state and law by law.

World War II saw the suspension of protective labor laws and a renewed interest in both the ERA and working women. Several organizations shifted their opinion from con to neutral to pro, following the lead of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women (BPW) in 1937. Many of the opposing organizations ceased to be active. The Republican Party first endorsed the ERA at its 1940 national nominating convention; the Democrats followed in 1944. The Senate voted on it for the first time in 1946. It failed, and when it came up again in 1950, opponents were ready with a crippling "rider" to exempt all laws for the protection and benefit of women. This was added on the Senate floor in both 1950 and 1953; after that the ERA never left committee. In the meantime, the NWP went through two crippling internal disputes involving purges and lawsuits. Leadership of the opposition was taken over by the AFL-CIO and traditional liberal organizations such as the ACLU. The Women's Bureau of the Department of Labor, a leading opponent since the ERA's inception, briefly withdrew during the Eisenhower administration (the only sitting President to endorse the ERA before 1972) but resumed its leadership role with vigor when Kennedy appointed Esther Peterson as its director after he became President in 1961.

Peterson had two items on her agenda for women: passage of an Equal Pay Act and derailment of the ERA. The first was achieved in 1963 after two years of concerted lobbying and compromises. Her strategy for attaining the second was the creation of a President's Commission on the Status of Women which would propose a program of constructive action that would make the ERA unnecessary. The PCSW's final report urged "judicial clarification" of women's legal rights rather than a blanket declaration of legal equality via a Constitutional amendment, along with a lengthy list of other objectives. In the process of reaching these conclusions, the commission thoroughly documented women's second-class status; its 1963 report, American Women, became something of a Government Printing Office best seller. It was followed by the formation of a citizen's advisory council and fifty state commissions. Many of the people involved in these commissions, dissatisfied with the lack of progress made on their recommendations, became founders and early activists in new feminist organizations.

Origins of the Women's Liberation Movement

By the 1960s the ERA was a non-issue. It had even been dropped from the platforms of the Democratic (1960) and Republican (1964) parties, despite continual lobbying by the NWP. Founders of the new feminist movement had no idea how much they owed to the lengthy battle over the ERA. Few had even heard of the NWP. Their focus was on the elimination of discriminatory practices and sexist attitudes, not legal rights. Their role model was the civil rights movement, not the old feminist movement.

The women's liberation movement was the bastard child of the civil rights movement. Unplanned, unwanted, and unloved by its parent, it nonetheless bore its stamp. During the fifties and early sixties, the civil rights movement captured the public imagination and educated it on the immorality of discrimination and the legitimacy of mass protest. As such, it became the mother of all the movements of the sixties and seventies. For women, however, it provided not only a model for action, but a very different world view from that of the "separate spheres" which had been the reigning ideology for the previous century. The idea that different people had a different place in society was in part a product of the Nineteenth century Victorian era. It was accepted by the dominant force for social change of that period -- the Progressive Movement -- which sought to make government the protector of the unfortunate and the downtrodden, not their equalizer. The Supreme Court's 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (163 U.S. 537) that separate could be equal reflected this view. It was rejected by the Supreme Court in 1954 when Brown v. Board of Education (347 U.S. 483) declared that separate was inherently unequal. The civil rights movement popularized this view, and in so doing undermined the rationalization behind the sexual division of labor. The analogy that was often made by sixties feminists between the status of women and the status of blacks was one that had been made frequently in the previous centuries, and like then, was part of the process of educating American women to the inequities inherant in separate statuses.

The movement actually had two origins, from two different strata of society, with two different styles, orientations, values, and forms of organization. In many ways there were two separate movements which only began to merge in the mid 1970s. Although the composition of both branches was predominantly white, middle-class, and college-educated, initially the median age of the activists in what I call the older branch of the movement was about twenty years greater. The difference in age between the participants in the two branches reflected an often noted characteristic of society in the sixties known as the generation gap. Over time the gap declined. Younger women joined older branch organizations, and the women in the younger branch became older. Today age is no longer a defining characteristic of different feminist groups (except for those organized into OWL -- originally Older Women's Liberation now the Older Women's League).

The first new feminist organization was the National Organization for Women (NOW) which was founded in 1966. Its key progenitor and first President was Betty Friedan who came to national prominence by publishing her best seller The Feminine Mystique in 1963. Many of NOW's founders and early participants were members or staff of the President's and State Commissions on the Status of Women. The Women's Bureau held annual conferences for Commission members; it was at the third such conference that NOW was proposed. The immediate stimulus was the refusal of the Bureau to permit a resolution urging the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to enforce the provision of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibiting sex discrimination in employment.

The addition of "sex" to a section of a major bill aimed at eradicating race discrimination had at the time seemed more of a diversionary tactic than one geared to improving the status of women. With little notice and no hearings it was added during the last week of floor debate by Rep. Howard W. Smith of Virginia, whose antagonism to civil rights was well known. What was not well known was that Smith had been a supporter of the ERA and the NWP for over twenty years and proposed the sex amendment at its request. This was not the first time for this tactic. The NWP had a long standing policy of demanding rights for women that were given to any other group. It had been lobbying for two decades to add sex to Executive Orders which prohibited discrimination on the basis of race by federal contractors. And it had successfully added sex amendments to two previous civil rights bills -- in 1950 and 1956. These bills did not pass but the 1964 bill did, creating a tool to attack sex discrimination that piggybacked on the civil rights struggle. Although the Women's Bureau had initially opposed the sex provision it quickly changed its attitude. It's objection to the resolution by the conference it sponsored emanated less from concern about the EEOC than that the NWP would demand a resolution on the ERA.

The NWP's initial attitude toward NOW was not sisterly. It did not want its role as the preeminent feminist organization to be usurped, particularly by women who had a broader agenda than the ERA. However, it knew an opportunity when it saw one. It infiltrated NOW as it had BPW and many other organizations, and in 1967 NOW endorsed the ERA. The debate was spirited but not acrimonious. Although labor union women felt compelled to withdraw from NOW because their unions opposed the ERA, most participants at the NOW conference were strong supporters. They were unaware of the decades of debate over protective labor legislation, and very attuned to the importance of equality as a result of the civil rights movement. The latter had created a different frame of reference than that of the struggle to protect workers against industrial exploitation at the turn of the century.

Just as important, by 1967 the world was a very different place than it had been in the 1920s. Women were one-third of the labor force; the fastest growing segment was mothers of young children. The idea that they were merely transitory was rapidly receding into the past. Despite the "back to the home" propaganda of the "feminine mystique" era of the 1940s and 1950s, women's participation in the labor force had risen steadily while their position within it had declined. Opportunities to work, the trend toward smaller families, plus a change in preferred status symbols from a leisured wife at home to a second car and a color television set, helped transform the female labor force from one of primarily single women under twenty-five as it was in 1940, to one of married women and mothers over forty by 1950. Simultaneously, the job market became even more rigidly sex-segregated, except for traditionally female professional jobs such as teaching and social work, which were flooded by men. Women's share of professional and technical jobs declined by a third, with a commensurate decline in women's relative income. The result of this was the creation of a class of well-educated, underemployed and underpaid women. These women became the social base of the new movement.

Many of them joined NOW, but as with any social movement there was a mushroom effect which resulted in numerous new organizations within a few years. In 1968, women who were unhappy with NOW's support of women's right to choose abortion left to form the Women's Equity Action League (WEAL) in order to focus on economic and educational issues. The same year Federally Employed Women (FEW) organized for equal opportunity within the government. In 1969 men and women who wanted to devote their energies to legalizing abortion founded the National Association to Repeal Abortion Laws (NARAL). Between 1969 and 1971 women's caucuses formed in professional associations that did not already have separate women's organizations from the Suffrage and post-Suffrage era. In 1971 women who wanted to work within the political parties founded the National Women's Political Caucus (NWPC). And in 1972 unionized women formed the Coalition of Labor Union Women.

In 1967 and 1968, unaware of and unknown to NOW or to the state commissions, the other branch of the movement was taking shape. While it did not begin on the campuses, its activators were ont he younger side of the generation gap. Although few ere students, all were under thirty and had received their political education as participants in or concerned observers of the social action projects of the preceding decade. Many came directly from new left and civil rights organizations, where they had been shunted into traditional roles and faced with the contradiction of working in a freedom movement but not being very free. Others had attended various courses on women in the multitude of free universities springing up around the country during those years.

During 1967 and 1968, at least five groups formed spontaneously and independently in five different cities -- Chicago, Toronto, Detroit, Seattle and Gainesville, Florida. They arose at a very auspicious moment. The blacks had just kicked the whites out of the civil rights movement, student power had been discredited by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the organized new left was on the wane. Only draft-resistance activities were on the rise, and this movement more than any other of its time exemplified the social inequities of the sexes. Men could resist the draft; the women could only counsel resistance.

There had been individual temporary caucuses and conferences of women as early as 1964, but it was not until 1967 that the groups developed a determined, if cautious, continuity and began to expand. In 1968 they held a national conference attended by over 200 women from around this country and Canada on less than one month's notice. For the next few years, they expanded exponentially.

This expansion was more amoebic than organized, because the younger branch of the movement prided itself on its lack of organization. Eschewing structure and damning leadership, it carried the concept of "everyone doing her own thing" almost to its logical extreme. The thousands of sister chapters around the country were virtually independent of one another, linked only by journals, newsletters and cross-country travelers. Some cities had a coordinating committee that tried to maintain communication among local groups and to channel newcomers into appropriate ones, but none of these committees had any power over the activities, let alone the ideas, of the groups it served.

One result of this style was a very broadly based, creative movement, to which individuals could elate as they desired, with no concern for orthodoxy or doctrine. Another result was political impotence. It was impossible for this branch of the movement to organize a nationwide action, even if there could have been agreement on issues. Fortunately, the older branch of the movement had the structure necessary to coordinate such actions and was usually the one to initiate them.

The Small Groups

The younger branch of the women's movement was able to expand rapidly in the beginning because it could capitalize on the new left's infrastructure of organizations and media and because its initiators were skilled in local community organizing. Since the primary unit was the small group and no need for national cooperation was perceived, multitudinous splits increased its strength rather than drained its resources. Such fission was often "friendly" in nature and, even when not, served to bring ever-increasing numbers of women under the movement's umbrella.

Unfortunately, these newly recruited masses lacked the organizing skills of the initiators, and, because the very ideas of "leadership" and "organization" were in disrepute, they made no attempt to acquire them. They did not want to deal with traditional political institutions and abjured all traditional political skills. Consequently, the growth of movement institutions did not go beyond the local level, and they were often inadequate to handle the accelerating influx of new people into the movement. Although these small groups were diverse in kind and responsible to no one for their focus, their nature determined both the structure and the strategy of the movement.

The major, although hardly exclusive, activities of the younger branch were organizing rap groups, putting on conferences, putting out educational literature, running service projects such as bookstores and health centers and organizing occasional marches against pornography or to "Take Back the Night". This branch contributed more in the impact of its ideas than in its activities. It developed several ideological perspectives, much of the terminology of the movement, an amazing number of publications and counter institutions, numerous new issues, and even new techniques for social change.

Nonetheless, its loose structure was flexible only within certain limits, and the movement never transcended them. The rap groups were excellent for changing individual attitudes, but they were not very successful in dealing with social institutions. Their loose, informal structure encouraged participation in discussion, and their supportive atmosphere elicited personal insight but neither was very efficient for handling specific tasks. Thus, although the rap groups were of fundamental value to the development of the movement, the more structured groups were more politically effective. Individual rap groups tended to flounder when their members exhausted the virtues of consciousness raising and decided they wanted to do something more concrete. The problem was that most groups were unwilling to change their structure when they changed their tasks. They accepted the ideology of structurelessness without recognizing the limits on its uses.

Because structurelessness provided no means of resolving political disputes or carrying on ideological debates, the younger branch was racked by internal disputes and personal attacks. "Trashing" sometimes reached epidemic proportions. The two most significant crises were an attempt by the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), youth group of the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP), to take over the movement, and the gay/straight split. The Trotskyist YSA saw the younger branch of the movement as a potential recruiting ground for socialist converts and directed its members to join with that purpose in mind. Although YSA members were never numerous, their enormous dedication and their contributions of time and energy enabled them to achieve positions of power quickly in many small groups whose lack of structure left no means of resisting. However, many New Left women had remained within the younger branch, and their past experience with YSA predisposed them to distrust it. Not only did they disagree with YSA politics, but they also recognized that, because YSA members owed their primary allegiance to a centralized national party, those members had the potential to control the entire movement,. The battle that ensued can euphemistically be described as vicious, and it resulted in YSA being largely driven from the younger branch of the movement. (Several years later, in their SWP guise, YSA members began to join NOW, but NOW's structure made it more difficult to control.) However, the alienation and fragmentation this struggle left in its wake made the movement ill prepared to meet its next major crisis.

The gay/straight split occurred not because of the mere presence of lesbians in feminist groups but because a vocal group of those present articulated lesbianism as the essential feminist idea. They argued first that women should identify with, live with, and associated only with women, and eventually that a woman who actually slept with a man was clearly consorting with the enemy and could not be trusted. When this view met the fear and hostility many straight women felt toward homosexuality, the results were explosive. The gay/straight struggle raged for several years and consumed most of the time and energy of the younger branch. By the time the tensions eased, most straight women had either become gay or had left the younger branch. Some jointed NOW, some rejoined the new left, and many simply dropped out of women's groups altogether. After gay women predominated (by about four to one) in the small groups, their anger toward straight women began to moderate. However, the focus of both the gay and the straight women who remained was no longer directed at educating or recruiting nonfeminists into the movement but rather was aimed at building a "Women's culture" for themselves. While a few groups engaged in outreach through public action on issues of concern to all women (e.g. rape) or even on issues concerning straight women exclusively (e.g. domestic violence), most of the small groups concerned themselves with maintaining a comfortable niche for "women identified women" and with insulating themselves from the damnation of the outside world.

By the mid-1970s the small groups had disappeared or melded into women's culture. Most of the publications they had created folded though a few remain to this day. Some of the service projects "institutionalized" by getting government funding (e.g. battered women's shelters and rape crisis centers) and others survived as small businesses (e.g. bookstores and abortion clinics). Many women remained active in "sub-movements" which focused on specific issues such as battered women, rape, health, etc. Some women did burn out and retreat to their private lives. Others took their feminist consciousness with them into other arenas of activity. In particular the pro-choice, environmental and anti-nuclear movements were energized and informed by feminists, creating such hybrids as ecofeminism. Many other feminists moved into academia where they built campus women's centers and women's studies departments. And a lot of newly politicized women who would have joined a small group in the 1960s joined NOW and other older branch groups bringing with them some of the free-wheeling style and desire for new ideas that had characterized the younger branch.

The Older Branch

Older branch organizations have stayed with traditional forms of organization, including elected officers and national boards. Some experiemented with new forms such as joint holding of offices. Some have paid staff. All started as top down organizations lacking a mass base. Only NOW subsequently developed a mass base, though not all wanted one. The NWPC tried to build a mass membership, but its success has been limited. Some of the service projects that originated as small groups but then obtained government funding joined together into national coalitions such as the Displaced Homemakers Network and the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV). Many women who wanted to work full time on feminist issues created staff-based organizations without members, and sought support through contributions, foundations and government contracts for research or services. These include the Center for Women's Policy Studies, National Committee on Pay Equity, and the Women's Legal defense Fund. In addition, some long-standing women's organizations such as the American Association of University Women and the National Federation of Business and Professional Women, became explicitly feminist, and still others such as the American Nurses Association and the National Education Association, implicitly so. They often join with feminist groups to pursue different items on the feminist agenda.

All have functioned largely as pressure groups, sometimes on the government, and sometimes within their professions. Those based in Washington created a feminist policy network, often working with labor, civil rights and liberal organizations to obtain their goals. Collectively these organizations have used the legal, political and media institutions of the country with great skill, bringing about major changes in law, public policy and many institutional practices. There has been some specialization of function. Lawsuits have been largely handled by the Women's Rights Project of the ACLU with other legal defense groups joining with amicus curiae briefs. NOW has organized most of the large marches. The NWPC has focused on campaign training of women to run for elected office.

As a result of their activities the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission changed many of its originally prejudicial attitudes toward women. Numerous lawsuits were filed under the sex provision of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The Equal Rights Amendment passed Congress in 1972, as did Title IX of the Educational Equity Act. The Supreme Court legalized most abortions in 1973 and radically rewrote Constitutional law on women by 1976. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed in 1978. Complaints were filed against several hundred colleges and universities, as well as many businesses, charging sex discrimination. Articles on feminism appeared in virtually every news medium, and a host of new laws were passed prohibiting sex discrimination in a variety of areas.

The organizations of the older branch have been able to sustain themselves longer than those of the younger branch, but they have had their ups and downs and some (e.g. WEAL, NCADV) no longer exist. Funding is a continual problem. Assaults by the right wing have forced many to choose between staying on the cutting edge of social change or paying their staff. Controversy aids fundraising by direct mail; but direct mail is very expensive to initiate and siphons off a lot of time. Memberships rise during controversies, but fall when they are over; members also require expensive servicing and sometimes want to participate in decision making. Staff based organizations are the most flexible and efficient but also the most dependent on the goodwill and policy preferences of foundations and government contracts. Few contemporary feminist organizations can rely on rich doners as the National Woman's Party did for so long.

Although NOW began as a Washington pressure group, it is the only new feminist organization to develop a mass membership. It's early history was a convoluted one. NOW suffered three splits between 1967 and 1968. As the only action organization concerned with women's rights, it had attracted many different kinds of people with many different views on what to do and how to do it. With only a national structure and, at that point, no local base, individuals found it difficult to pursue their particular concerns on a local level; they had to persuade the whole organization to support them. This top-down structure, combined with limited resources, placed severe restrictions on diversity and, in turn sever strains ont he organization. Local chapters were also hampered by a lack of organizers to develop new chapters and the lack of a program into which they could fit.

These initial difficulties were overcome as NOW grew to become the largest single feminist organization. Although it never hired organizers to develop chapters, the enormous geographical mobility of its members and their desire to create chapters wherever they moved had the same results. NOW also benefitted greatly from the publicity the movement received in the early seventies. Although much of that publicity was a response to the eye-catching tactics of the younger branch, or was aimed at creating "media stars" (none of whom were NOW leaders), NOW was often the only organization with a telephone and a stable address that incipient movement participants could find. Consequently, its membership grew at the same exponential rate that the younger branch had experienced in the late sixties.

With its first contested presidential election in 1974, NOW developed two major factions that fought for control of the organization and every nearly split it into two. Although these factions articulated their concerns ideologically, the fight in fact was not over issues but rather was a very ordinary attempt by "outs" to become "ins". By 1975, the insurgent faction had established solid control, and, in spite of an occasional contested election, it has remained in power ever since. Over the next few years control of the organization was centralized. A national office was established in Washington, the bylaws were rewritten and state organizations were created. Dues were collected directly from members, not all of whom were members of local chapters, and used to fund a national staff and national projects. While this centralization did drain resources and energy from the chapters, it allowed NOW to focus its efforts and thus to increase its power on the national level. Major national projects, such as ratification of the ERA and opposition to restrictions on abortion, helped recruit money and people.

Although NOW remains the preeminent national feminist organization, it has only been a tangential part of the feminist policy establishment in Washington. This is partially from its own choice; NOW has usually stayed out of coalitions that it did not run. But it is also because NOW has often chosen controversy over caution. It adopted from the younger branch not only most of its ideas, but a lot of its flamboyant style; organizing demonstrations, sit-ins and other activities designed to catch the public eye. Its size and its actions made it a lightening rod for attacks from the right. Consequently, even among feminists NOW is often in the unenviable position of always being an outsider. The establishment dismisses NOW as too radical, while self-defined radicals disdain it as part of the establishment.

The Feminist Agenda

The contemporary feminist agenda has always been a lengthy one, but has not always stayed the same. In this it differed from its predecessor. Suffrage was the consuming passion of the Woman Movement. After it was achieved the National Woman's Party deliberately stuck to one issue -- Congressional passage of the ERA; Alice Paul viewed occasional diversions into other concerns as "side shows." The founders of the women's liberation movement thought concentration on a single issue had been a mistake; most conscientiously sought to be as broad ranging and inclusive as possible.

From the beginning it has been popular to differentiate the older and younger branches ideologically. Specifically the terms "reformist" and "radical" were often used, particularly by members of the younger branch for whom the distinction was of critical importance to their identity as radicals. However, these terms hide more than they reveal because they imply fundamental differences in analysis which simply are not there. Structure and style more adequately distinguished the two branches than ideas. Indeed, had there been fundamental ideological differences it would not have been so easy for ideas, and eventually people, to move among groups in both branches. In reality, feminism in all its manifestations is radical in that it seeks to redefine the basic human relationships between the sexes and to redistribute power and other social goods. It is also conservative in that its driving force are the concepts of liberty and equality which have been part of our civic culture for over two hundred years. There are ideological differences within the overall feminist movement, but they don't correspond to the organizational forms.

Ideology aside, there were were some differences in how participants in the two branches approached feminism, which reflected their past experiences more than their understanding of what feminism meant or what a feminist world would look like. Older branch members were willing to work with existing institutions and were issue oriented. They identified problems and demanded specific changes in laws, policies and private practices to improve women's status and opportunities. Younger branch members adopted from the new left a suspicion of existing institutions. "Working within the system" was to them inherantly suspect. While they rarely disagreed with the issues identified by the older branch organizations, and made similar demands within the institutions of which they were a part (other social movement organizations, academia, etc.) they were more concerned with articulating broad conceptual frameworks which would explain women's oppression and point to far-reaching solutions. In addition to reform and radical, labels such as "liberal" and "socialist" were often used to distinguish among different types of feminism. All of these labels were derived from traditional male ideological frameworks; none are very useful in understanding feminist ideas.

Younger branch feminists were also more concerned with process, espousing principles of inclusion and participation. From the very beginning a "feminist way" of doing things was often more important than feminist goals. That is why the structure and style of the two branches continued to differ even though issues and ideas readily diffused throughout the entire movement. Long after the two branches had merged to the point that such a distinction was no longer relevant, organizational form and process continued to be a priority and often a source of conflict. Such concerns were neither new nor radical. An "anti-power ethic" has a long and honorable tradition in American history. Even though it is not a specifically feminist one many feminists have incorporated it into their concept of feminism to the point where it became part of their ideology.

Within the younger branch a basic difference of opinion developed quite early. It was disguised as a philosophical difference, was articulated and acted on as a strategic one, but actually was more of a political disagreement than anything else. The original issue was whether the fledgling women's liberation movement should remain a branch of the radical new left movement or become an independent women's movement. Proponents of the two positons became known as "politicos" and "feminists" respectively, and traded arguments about whether the enemy was capitalism or male-dominated institutions and values. In some ways this argument recapitulated that between Florence Kelley and Alice Paul. As did Kelley and her allies, politicos saw women's problems lodged in an inequitable economic system which had to be changed before women could be free. Feminists in both eras acknowledged the role of economics, but saw improving women's opportunities as their priority. However, unlike Kelley, politicos had no faith in the power of law to rectify these problems or the willingness of the state to improve the position for women. They and their feminist counterparts were alienated from traditional political institutions and put their faith only in an undefined revolution. This conflict faded after 1970 when the influx of large numbers of previously apolitical women made an independent, autonomous women's liberation movement a reality instead of an argument. The spectrum shifted toward the feminist direction, but the basic difference in orientation remained until wiped out by the debate over lesiban feminism. Those women who maintained their allegiance to the Left then created their own socialist feminist groups or united in feminist caucuses within Left organizations.

At NOW's 1966 founding convention it passed a broad statement of purpose which articulated a general philosophy of equality and justice under law. It emphasized that "women's problems are linked to many broader questions of social justice; their solution will require concerted action by many groups". The following year it passed a Bill of Rights for women to be presented to candidates and parties in the 1968 elections. The first six planks were quickly passed. They were: enforcement of sex discrimination laws; paid maternity leave; tax deductions for child care; establishment of public, readily available, child care facilities; equal and unsegregated education; and equal job training opportunities, housing and family allowances for women in poverty. Proposals to support the Equal Rights Amendment and reproductive control were controversial; they passed but several members quit as a result. By the time NOW organized the first national feminist march down New York City's Fifth Avenue on August 26, 1970, one of these, abortion, had become accepted as a major concern. The central demands were: equal opportunity in employment and education; free abortion on demand; and twenty-four-hour childcare centers. It was not until 1975 that ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment became the dominant motif. Even this was true only for the National office and in the unratified states. Most NOW chapters were in ratified states and they worked on a plethora of local issues.

As it did in the younger branch, lesbianism as an issue generated enormous hostility in older branch organizations. Even NOW initially rejected sexual preference as a legitimate feminist concern. However, by 1977 all feminist and most women's organizations acknowledged it as an important part of the feminist agenda. That year a government sponsored women's conference was held in Houston to commemorate International Women's Year (this was actually in 1975), which passed a National Plan of Action including elimination of discrimination on the basis of sexual preference and laws on private sexual behavior. Although the overall plan identified over two dozen concerns, the ERA, abortion, and sexual preference were the lead issues.

By the late 1970s real ideological differences were emerging in the women's (no longer called liberation) movement -- not the false ones implied by the radical and reform labels. These differences replicated the debate over equality versus difference that had split women during the twenties. The initial emphasis on equality that had bonded feminists of all stripes in the early movement was challeneged by the values of what came to be called cultural feminism.

As is true of any social movement, the ones which are emphasized are the ones that individuals choose to give their time to.

The Equal Rights Amendment

The Equal Rights Amendent was the dominant issue of the women's movement during the 1970s and part of the 1980s. This was not by choice. Had it not been waiting in the wings for the right historical moment none of the founders would have proposed it. Nonetheless the ERA became the dominant issue because it caputured the public's imagination -- pro and con -- as no other issue had. It was the quintessential symbolic issue. It meant what people thought it meant, and all involved projected onto it their greatest fears and their greatest hopes for the future of women.

In 1970 feminist moles in the federal government urged Congresswoman Martha Griffiths (D. Mich), the ERA's chief sponsor in the House of Representatives, to file a petition to discharge it from the House Committee in which it had been burried for almost two decades in order to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Suffrage. Massive publicity on the rise of the new feminist movement encouraged a groundswell of support for the ERA within the government. The Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings after some pressure from NOW. A Women's Bureau conference endorsed it, as did the Secretary of Labor. The President of the National Federation of Republican Women and the (women's) Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee wrote their state affiliates urging resolutions of support. After delegates attending the national conference of the Business and Professional Women deluged their representatives wtih telegrams, a discharge petition was signed by enough Members of Congress to bring the issue to the floor. Nonetheless, it took two years and several votes before it was sent to the states for ratification on March 22, 1972.

Passage of the ERA came at a unique point in its history. It had been debated for years by mutual antagonists who would not compromise an inch. In the meantime, social and legal changes intervened to undermine the basis of the opponents' position. Between 1970 and 1972 opposition was greatly attenuated. With a few notable exceptions, the ERA became a symbolic issue on which everyone could agree. Yet even as this agreement was reached a new opposition was developing. Ironically, it was from the right, which had mostly supported the ERA during its lengthy stay in Congress. This opposition grew and eventually consumed more moderate forces, even while the ERA gained support from ancient foes to the left.

While not a new issue, the ERA became newly public at the end of a major period of social reform and at the beginning the women's movement. The timing couldn't have been worse. The sixties saw a major transformation in American society, and like previous social reform movements, it stimulated a backlash. The initial focus of that backlash was on busing, but it quickly spread to encompass the new issues of feminism, abortion, and gay rights, all of which were interpreted as an attack on the family and the American way of life. At the time the right arose, feminism was still riding on the crest of enthusiasm that accompanies all new social movements. This enthusiasm was sufficient for the two-year Congressional campaign but it was not uniform throughout the states. The new feminist organizations were not yet sufficiently organized to transfer resources to where they were most needed or to deal with practical political problems. By the time they were it was too late.

The 22 states that had already had strong feminist movements quickly ratified the Amendment (except Illinois). In January 1973, a national "Stop ERA" campaign surfaced, headed by noted right-winger Phyllis Schlafly. Drawing on a network of readers of her newsletter, Eagle Forum, Republican women's clubs, and fundamentalist churches, she was able to bring to the anti-ERA campaign a political expertise the feminist organizations did not yet have. The kind of constituent pressure that congresspeople had felt at the national level local legislators felt at thes tate level -- but for the opposite position. By 1975 only another 12 states had ratified and the major women's grops realized that the ERA would require a long, hard political fight in southern and rural states. It took another three years to create viable, knowledgeable ERA coalitions in those states, largely, but not always, led by NOW. In 1978 only one more state was added to the ratification list, but Congress agreed to extend the seven-year deadline until June of 1982.

Although no more states ratified, the war fared better than the battle. Feminism made the personal political and, in the process, raised everyone's consciousness about the importance of family issues, sexuality, and the role of women. It also stimulated major strides toward the legal equality that the ERA was originally written to achieve. Many state equal rights amendments were passed, discriminatory laws were changed, and the Supreme Court reinterpreted the basic premise against which laws affecting women were to be judged from one of protection to one of equal opportunity. But this time the emphasis was different than it was fifty years ago. The argument was not over the meaning of equality, but the role of women. This time the opponents rejected equality of any kind as desirable for women, favoring instead protection of women to pursue the traditional goals of wife and motherhood in a traditional way. To them the ERA symbolized not equal legal rights, but the entire women's liberation movement which, along with the other social movements of the sixties, was, they felt, a severe threat to their basic values and way of life.


The movement to change restrictive abortion laws began independently of and earlier than the women's liberation movement, but when that movement emerged it quickly captured the abortion issue as its own, energizing and publicizing it along the way. Since then, the two movements have proceeded along parallel tracks. The abortion, or pro-choice movement as it prefers to be called, has distinct organizations devoted solely to that issue. The most prominent of these is NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League). Planned Parenthood (which has a broader agenda) is the most powerful. Before Roe v. Wade legalized abortions, the younger branch nourished many referral groups. Since then, local pro-choice organizations still exist in many cities though their activities vary enormously. These organizations are sustained by a separate set of activists whose primary energies are focused on reproductive freedom even though virtually all are sympathetic to other feminist concerns. The parallel tracks are tied together by these sympathetic activists and their equivalents in feminist organizations. Some activists "cross over" as staff of feminist and pro-choice organizations, but most concentrate on one. Although there are feminists who are anti-abortion, they are a small minority within the women's liberation movement and are ignored. All of the feminist organizations see reproductive freedom as an intrinsic part of the feminist agenda. Everyday organizing and lobbying is handled by the pro-choice organizations; demonstrations may be organized by any group; during crises everyone pitches in.

Pro-choice activity can be divided into three periods. Before Roe the emphasis was on reforming or repealing state laws (NARAL's acronym at its 1969 founding stood for National Association for Repeal of Abortion Laws). The initiators in the early 1960s were largely professionals -- doctors, lawyers, clergy -- and mostly men. Aided by several public crises (a german measles epidemic, the Thalidomide scare) they stimulated vociferous debate. Four states repealed their abortion restrictions and several others loosened them. Referral services mushroomed. Although feminists were attuned to this debate as early as 1967, they didn't begin to impact on it until 1970. By the time Roe was decided in 1973 feminists and feminist consciousness permeated the entire pro-choice movement. The argument had shifted from a physician's right to counsel his (sic) patients to a woman's right to control her body. This approach moved the abortion debate from one of freedom of professional decision-making to a fundamental Constitutional right. Roe itself was the project of a small feminist group in Austin, Texas and the lawyer who argued Roe before the Supreme Court was one of its participants.

After Roe the movement grew complacent. It was the antis -- calling themselves the right to life movement -- who were the activists.

This changed in 1989 when the Supreme Court handed down its Webster decision. Although the Court had been moving toward permitting greater state regulation of abortion throughout the eighties, it had not questioned the basic premise of Roe. By Webster enough new, anti-choice Justices had been added to the Court that that decision rang the firebell of alarm. Even though the decision was not unexpected, and could have been worse, within a few hours after being announced on July , 1989 pro-choice supporters were commiting civil disobedience all over the country. For the first time young women, who had not known the fear of unwanted pregnancy that was so common before Roe, realized how tenuous reproductive freedom was.

When pro-choice activists were roused from their complacency it escalated the conflict between them and the pro-lifers. Even before Webster, a new, more militant group calling itself Operation Rescue had brought thousands of people to Atlanta during the 1988 Democratic Conveniton to block abortion clinics. Although hundreds were arrested, they continued their strategy of targeting a specific city for massive blockades continuing for weeks at a time. When local police proved inadequate to protect the clinics, they asked the federal courts for injunctions to keep OR away from their doors. Many federal judges complied by invoking an 186 statute passed to protect blacks from the Ku Klux Klan. In 1992, the Court overturned these injunctions, saying the statute was not intended to be used for this purpose.

The Next Revolution

The ERA dominated the women's liberation movement as it did the NWP but it was more by accident than by intention. When NOW proposed a Bill of Rights for Women in 1968 it contained eight planks, only one of which was the ERA. The younger branch never made a list of its demands, but in the many papers that appeared in its media, a constitutional amendment to achieve legal equality was not one of the articulated goals. At the first national feminist march, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Suffrage on August 26 1970, the three demands were equal opportunity in employment and education, free abortion on demand and twenty-four hour child care centers. Even in 1977, when the ERA campaign was at its height, the National Women's Conference in Houston, Texas passed resolutions on twenty-five separate issues. By then the three most controversial and visible issues were the ERA, abortion and gay rights.

Of all these issues the ERA captured the public imagination because it was the quintessential symbolic issue. It meant what people thought it meant, and all involved projected onto it both their fears and their hopes. But this time the emphasis was different than it was fifty years ago. The argument was not over the meaning of equality, but the role of women. This time the opponents rejected equality of any kind as desirable for women, favoring instead protection of women to pursue the traditional goals of wife and motherhood in a traditional way. To them the ERA symbolized not equal legal rights, but the entire women's liberation movement which, along with the other social movements of the sixties, was, they felt, a severe threat to their basic values and way of life.

While not a new issue, the ERA became newly public at the end of a major period of social reform and at the beginning the women's movement. The timing couldn't have been worse. The sixties saw a major transformation in American society, and like previous social reform movements, it stimulated a backlash. The initial focus of that backlash was on busing, but it quickly spread to encompass the new issues of feminism, abortion, and gay rights, all of which were interpreted as an attack on the family and the American way of life. At the time the right arose, feminism was still riding on the crest of enthusiasm that accompanies all new social movements. This enthusiasm was sufficient for the two-year Congressional campaign but it was not uniform throughout the states. The new feminist organizations were not yet sufficiently organized to transfer resources to where they were most needed or to deal with practical political problems. By the time they were it was too late.

Nonetheless, the war fared better than the battle. Feminism made the personal political and, in the process, raised everyone's consciousness about the importance of family issues, sexuality, and the role of women. It also stimulated major strides toward the legal equality that the ERA was originally written to achieve. Many state equal rights amendments were passed, discriminatory laws were changed, and the Supreme Court reinterpreted the basic premise against which laws affecting women were to be judged from one of protection to one of equal opportunity.

The ERA was ahead of its time in the 1920s. The NWP saw it as a legal revolution, but did not realize that an economic revolution had to come first. Women had only just won the right to work; they had not achieved the right for their work to be taken seriously. The real revolution of the contemporary women's movement is that the vast majority of the public no longer questions the right of any women, married or unmarried, with or without children, to work for wages or to achieve her fullest individual potential.

The next revolution is a social one -- a revolution in personal and family relationships. Although women have finally won the right to work, there is still a fundamental assumption that the principal social unit is the two-parent family, only one of whom is a primary wage earner. There is still a basic division of labor in which men are expected to be the "breadwinners" and women are expected to focus their energies on the family, though each may "help" with the other's task.

The women's liberation movement began the social revolution with its critique of established sex roles. But it raised more questions than answers, and the backlash clearly indicates that, like the NWP in the 1920s, the movement is ahead of its time. Our society is not yet ready for the vast changes in the organization of work and in social policies that will be required to bring about this next step. These changes, like those that constituted the economic revolution, will probably accrue over time. They will come about as more women, and more men, adjust their lives to the conflicting pressures of family and work until a threshold of incompatibility is reached. At that time, as in the states, a new feminist movement will be needed to propose a new vision that can confront the problems of the social revolution.

It's popular to speak of the contemporary feminist movement as the second wave of feminism. In reality it's the third wave of female activism, and the first wave of feminism. Women's movement do not happen in isolation.