Pt II: Liberal Democracy, Civil Rights, and Women’s Liberation
Both men’s and women’s movements are modern societal issues, not more than 100 years old. However, it makes no sense to speak of “men’s movements” except in relation to the “women’s movements” which preceded them.
I have no doubt that women have always been dominated by men in every culture, and every part of the world, since civilization began (and from anthropological and archeological evidence, in prehistoric communities as well). In those historically recorded places where women were honored, and held leadership roles, it was by the leave of male authorities governing their society. Obviously my view can’t be proven – even with many books – but there is no need to argue about it in this piece. Our topic deals with the modern idea of women’s movements, and its development in western liberal democracies, since the American and French ‘Revolutions’ of the so-called Age of Enlightenment, which were in turn prefigured by the British Glorious Revolution of 1640. A reasonable summary of that historical period is possible, even though historians can’t help making some value choices which may color their findings – e.g. simply what to include in their research.
The Declaration of Independence states “all men are created equal”, but that did not include women or slaves. The 13th Amendment of 1865 forbade slavery, but did little to liberate ex-slaves – either men or women – from violence and abuse. The 15th Ammendment of 1870 said, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” But that legal right applied to men only, and very ineffectively at that. Women were not considered voting citizens until the 19th Amendment in 1920.
The efforts at social reform in Roosevelt’s “New Deal” during the Great Depression were interrupted by WWII, and shortly after that, conflict with the Soviet Union caused the American people and politicians to shift their attention away from social programs, and into the Cold War. Nonetheless, a movement began in the ’50s and ’60s when southern Blacks began non-violent protests against discrimination.
This movement for civil rights was brought to a head by Martin Luther King’s joining the April 12, 1963 protest march in Birmingham (where he was jailed), and President Kennedy’s hesitant, but effective speech on June 11, 1963. The latter came after Alabama national guard troops were federalized, under a district order, to integrate the Tuscaloosa campus of Alabama University, and two black students – one male and one female – were escorted into that school.
After Kennedy’s death, many orders, policies and proposals for legislation about education, higher income jobs, leadership business roles, and guarantees of civil rights, were initiated by Lyndon Johnson, following Kennedy’s assassination. But much that was intended failed to materialize, for reasons that were political rather than on their merits. Johnson became associated in the public eye with a failed and hateful war in Vietnam, which lost him the support of progressive voters, and the presidency went to the Republican party, under Nixon.
At the same time, a conservative campaign began in earnest by those who considered all forms of social liberalism to lead down what political philosopher Friedrich Hayek (a “libertarian”) called the Road to Serfdom – i.e., the loss of individualism, independence and freedom. These were all parts of the American dream of success, since the days of the Founders and before.
Of course, most immigrants have never realized the American Dream. Even so, a few success stories, coupled with natural optimism, have been enough to keep it alive. Hope springs eternal. The colossal Liberty image beckons to people around the world with her deeply moving invitation:“Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” But today the dream is even less likely to come true than in earlier generations. This Wikipedia article, “Socioeconomic Mobility in the United States”, is a good summary of the facts in the issue. A study by Raj Chetty of the Brookings Institute, has charts that summarize visually many factors in the mobility issue. The perspective of a very successful African American – New Jersey Senator Cory Booker – presents it as a broken bargain and a Dream Deferred. Not surprisingly, though, this dream, and other myths related to it, are perpetuated by those who benefit from public ignorance, including even the false and misleading claims of school textbooks, shown in James Loewen’s 1995 book, Lies My Teacher Told Me.
Women (of whatever color or class) did not gain voting rights until 1920, but perhaps that inequality was less burdensome for upperclass women who were served by those from lower classes. More importantly, though, as with the 15th Amendment, those legal rights never guaranteed just treatment under law, or a fair chance to share in the common good. The Equal Rights Amendment (E.R.A.) was proposed in 1923, and finally passed both houses in 1972 – 50 years later! But it fell just short of ratification by two-thirds of the states (receiving 35 of 38 needed), and expired in 1982. With the present conservative trend in Supreme Court justices, it isn’t surprising that the E.R.A. movement is still very much alive in feminist thinking.
Women did show how well they could compete with men, however, when America entered WWII and needed support services (WACs WAFs, WAVES, and others), though generally not in direct combat. Heavy industries needed for the war effort were well served by women, who were recruited by publicity campaigns, and flattering posters, like the iconic “Rosie the Riveter”. But is American done with class differencs now? I think not. See Feudalism in aSilicon Valley.
I was raised in a home pervaded by the conservative American dream spirit. My father built the house he and my mother moved into the day of their wedding, which they lived in until death. My paternal grandfather was a patent attorney from Pittsburgh, who opened a practice in Philadelphia with several of my uncles.
My father – who read the success stories of Horatio Alger as an adolescent – enrolled in engineering at Penn State, but tired of that, and started a contracting and building business with a class-mate friend. His business did well in our small town, whose origin dates from 1889. They were helped by contracts from friends and from the local ‘borough’ government, and especially from several millionaire patrons who were members of the same tight-knit community, named Bryn Athyn (Welsh for “Hill of Cohesion”). It was established by members of a Philadelphia church group who purchased property in the farmlands north of the city, with a church and school to support their shared belief system.
The overriding culture of this town was ‘conservative’, religiously, socially, economically and politically. What few ‘progressives’ there were – e.g., my inspiring older cousin Sigfried, who taught us highschool history – were treated like black sheep. I went off to college and lost touch with Sig, never realizing until recently that he was never promoted, and chose to move into larger circles of higher education, where he gained recognition for his unimpeachable character and clear thinking.
In my adolescent years – i.e., the Fifties – my parents were more and more affected by the growing national conservative culture. My mother’s older sister married one of the sons of the town’s original founder. Not surprisingly, my wealthy aunt and uncle were contributors to Republican politics , and personal friends of the Eisenhowers, and the Nixons. My parents were drawn to that movement, by family association and temperament.
Our basement became a makeshift library for conservative literature. The shelves that used to hold Mason jars filled with our home grown vegetables and applesauce were increasingly stacked with well-classified magazine subscriptions, like National Geographic, and National Review, and books like Conscience of a Conservative. Eisenhower, Goldwater, Nixon, and William F. Buckley were named in many family conversations. The word “liberal” was spoken with a tone of disgust. Roosevelt was, in their view, unquestionably the worst president America ever had.
“Women’s liberation” is an expression I don’t recall ever hearing. I’m sure it would have been dismissed, as representing an affront to the social, psychological and spiritual distinctions of men and women – to say nothing of their biological differences – which were part of our inherited belief system. The idea of a protest sign identifying the dangerous power of female organs, could not be conceived. Even less, seeing a woman proudly encouraging promiscuity as a female right.
In my adolescence, the characters of James Dean’s “Rebel Without a Cause” (1954) and Marlon Brando’s “The Wild One” (1953) were inspiring reactions to a smothering conformity to social order. However, I didn’t take rebellion very far, personally. In fact, against the trend of my more savvy fellow college students, I voted for Goldwater, and enlisted in the army during the Vietnam war, getting assigned to an intelligence group. Despite our best efforts to be deployed in the war zones, there were too many people with the same MOS (military occupational specialty), and too few overseas ‘slots’ availabe to place us. So most of us remained in the U.S.; but that’s another story.
The 19th Amendment of 1920 granted voting rights to all women. Celebrating the 50th anniversary of that event, feminist leaders spoke of their work as a “second women’s movement”, but there were many previous efforts to achieve that goal, in many countries, by women (and men) of many colors. During the Sixties in America, Betty Friedan (1921 – 2006) and her followers were moderate, believing it would be counterproductive to be confrontational. But younger advocates of ‘women’s liberation’, like Gloria Steinem (born 1934), helped push the movement into the political mainstream, and didn’t shy away from confrontation. (The disparaging expression “women’s libbers” shows the reaction to that.)
All this occurred at the same time that socially and economically conservative counter-movements were underway, resulting in more emphasis on war (to fight the ‘Commies’), and expresssing a libertarian general distrust of government social programs, including efforts to pass civil rights amendments. Alex DiBranco, of the Yale Institution for Social and Policy Studies (ISPS) comments on the effectiveness of this New Right political development. He summarizes:
“My archival research into the New Right network of leaders, foundations, think tanks, student groups, media, and other institutions provides an explanation for how to build a sustainable sociopolitical movement with influence half a century later.”
Finally, by way of introducing the theme of Part III, here is an article by Ross Douhat (NYT) which received criticism for its apparent ‘moralizing,’ and orthodox ‘conservative’ stance, but I disagree with that judgment. He warns feminists about the real threat to their freedom, when they choose to support surrogate motherhood. Selling their uterus to the highest bidder is not a blow for feminism, but against it. It goes completely against earlier feminists’ argument that it cheapens the mothering role most women respect. And this paragraph near the end is on point – certainly not an expression of the kind of main stream capitalism practiced today.
But the most serious form of cultural conservatism has always offered at most two cheers for capitalism, recognizing that its great material beneficence can coexist with dehumanizing cruelty, that its individualist logic can encourage a ruthless materialism unless curbed and checked and challenged by a moralistic vision. (From Douhat’s June 2018 article: “Handmaids of Capitalism“)