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. Men needed to ‘move over’, but they didn’t need ‘movements’ until after “women’s movements” began. I have no doubt that women have always been dominated by men in every culture, and every part of the world, since written history began (in Mesopotamia). I believe that was also true of prehistoric communities, which is the usual interpretation of anthropological and archeological findings. However, recent research suggests that earlier thinking was prejudiced and may be unfounded. Gerda Lerner’s 1986 book, The Creation of Patriarchy, argues for this view, suggesting that early men did not control women; instead men and women collaborated willingly to manage their group efficiently. Her perspective is summarized here in Wikipedia. It is further supported by finds in the Peruvian Andes that show a woman buried with big game hunting tools. (See the article abstract. I doubt she wore pink.) The ‘standard’ interpretation I still believe is supported by this article in Aeon.
Since these views are all interpretations, obviously my view can’t be proven – even with many books. There’s no need to argue about it here. Our topic deals with a relatively modern concept of women’s rights and their slow development in western liberal democracies over 3 and a half centuries. The idea of Women’s Independence wasn’t even considered until long after the concept of Democracy developed in the American and French ‘Revolutions’, during the so-called Age of Enlightenment. True Liberal Democracy was in turn prefigured by the complex Glorious Revolution of 1640 in England, that partially freed parliaments from royal houses, especially from Catholic royalty (whose ‘French Connection’ was worrisome to English protestants, the Church of England, and the Dutch protestants). Despite the size of armies and naval fleets put together, there was little bloodshed – most disputes being settled by parliamentary agreements – so it’s also called the ‘Bloodless Revolution’.
The Declaration of Independence states “all men are created equal”, but that didn’t include women or slaves as we all know. A century later, the 13th Amendment (1865) forbade slavery, but did little to liberate ex-slaves – either men or women – from abuse and violence. The 15th Ammendment (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 too applied to men only, and not very effectively. Women were not considered voting citizens until the 19th Amendment in 1920.
Efforts at social reform in Roosevelt’s “New Deal” during the Great Depression were interrupted by WWII, and shortly afterward, conflict with the Soviet Union caused American politicians and the public 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 (he was jailed), and by J. F. Kennedy’s hesitant, but effective speech on June 11, 1963. The President, and his attorney general brother Robert, discussed how to integrate the Tuscaloosa campus of Alabama University without alienating the South, and shedding more blood. Ultimately he gave an executive order authorizing Alabama’s national guard troops to carry out the integration. On the same day, with Gov. Wallace trying to block the door, two black students (a male and a female) were escorted in under a federal district court order. JFK’s speech was delivered 4 hours later.
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 more political 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.
At the same time, a conservative campaign began in earnest by people who thought all forms of social liberalism would lead down what political “libertarian” Friedrich Hayek called the Road to Serfdom – i.e., the loss of individualism, independence and freedom – all standard parts of the American dream of success, since the days of the Founders and before.
Most immigrants have never realized the dream. Even so, a few success stories, coupled with natural optimism, are enough to keep it alive. Hope springs eternal, as it should. The colossal Liberty image still 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. A Wikipedia article “Socioeconomic Mobility in the United States” is a good summary of the facts. And this study by Raj Chetty of the Brookings Institute (n.b., a conservative think tank), charts a visual summary for many factors in the upward mobility issue. Still another perspective – that of a successful black man, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker – calls the case a broken bargain and a Dream Deferred. Not surprisingly, though, this myth and others like it are perpetuated by those who benefit from public ignorance, including the false claims of history textbooks, discussed in James Loewen’s 1995 Lies My Teacher Told Me , and even more the case today.
Women (of whatever color or class) did not gain voting rights until 1920. That inequality was no doubt less burdensome for upperclass women who had lower class servants. As I write this, a movie – The Nanny – is being filmed in my well-to-do neighborhood. I see many black nannies taking white children around – frequently in fancy multi-child strollers. That same relationship is seen in this slave era photo, and a 1951 version of the same beneath it. No doubt it might have involved genuine love, but what about the effects on the nannies and their own children, or the effects on white children and on their parents? That subject is considered in this Saturday Evening Post article by a white woman in a liberal family (from Dalas) about the black woman who raised her.
More importantly, though, as with the 15th Amendment, those rights never guaranteed just treatment under law, or a fair chance to share in the common good. To bring about the actual application of those legal rights to women in practice, the Equal Rights Amendment (E.R.A.) was proposed in 1923, and finally passed both houses 50 years later (1972). But it fell short of ratification by two-thirds of the states (receiving 35 of 38 needed), and expired in 1982. With the present conservative trend in the Supreme Court, it isn’t surprising that the E.R.A. movement is still very much alive for feminists.
When America entered WWII and needed support services, women showed how well they could compete with men, though generally not in direct combat (WACs, WAFs, WAVES, and others).
Industries needed for the war effort were well served by women recruited in marketing campaigns, with flattering posters, like this iconic “Rosie the Riveter”.
Gender distinction aside, how about class distinctions. Are they done with now? I think not. See Feudalism in Silicon Valley.
I was raised in a home pervaded by the conservative American Dream spirit. My father built the house that he and mother moved into the day of their wedding, They stayed there until they died in old age. My paternal grandfather was a patent attorney from Pittsburgh, who opened a practice in Philadelphia with several of his children (my uncles). He also designed an electric car, but the idea apparently didn’t sell. I can’t find any record or patent.
My father – who read the success stories of Horatio Alger as an adolescent – started 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, 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, and built a church and school system to support their shared religious beliefs.
The overriding culture of this town was ‘conservative’, religiously, socially, economically and politically. What few ‘progressives’ there were, like my inspiring older cousin Sigfried, who taught our highschool history classes, were treated like black sheep. I went off to college and lost touch with Sig, never knowing until a few years ago that he was not promoted, and so chose to move on to 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 aunt and uncle were contributors to, and personal friends of the Eisenhowers, and the Nixons, and my parents were drawn in to that movement.
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. Names like Eisenhower, Goldwater, Nixon, and William F. Buckley got into 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 quite 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 Marlon Brando’s “The Wild One” (1953) and James Dean’s “Rebel Without a Cause” (1954) were inspiring reactions to an oppressive 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 (1964), and enlisted in the Army during the Vietnam war, getting assigned to an intelligence group. When my fellow grad students protested the Kent State shootings by national guard (1970), I thought they were ‘unpatriotic’. Little did I know. Despite our best efforts to be deployed in the war zones, there were too many people with my MOS (military occupational specialty), and too few openings overseas to place us. Most of us remained in the U.S. Even so it was good experience; 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. (“Women’s Libbers!”, said with a disparaging tone shows a common reaction.)
All this occurred at the same time 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.
“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, to introduce the theme of Pt III, here is an article by Ross Douhat (NYT). It was criticized for its seeming ‘moralizing,’ and orthodox ‘conservative’ stance, but I disagree with that judgment. He warns feminists about the threat to their true freedom, when they choose to support surrogate motherhood. ‘Selling their uterus to the highest bidder’ is not a blow for feminism. It goes completely against earlier feminists’ argument that it cheapens the mothering role that most women respect. Douhat’s thoughts towards the end are on point, and certainly don’t reflect orthodox capitalism.
“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)