1948 – 1977 Growth and Turmoil

"Oportunidades Iguales Para Las Mujeres En El Trabajo y La Educaccion", Women's Strike for Equality, New York, Fifth Avenue, 1970, Eugene Gordon photograph collection, 1970-1990. New-York Historical Society Library.

Key Ideas

1. The federal government and popular culture sought to promote the superiority of democracy over communism by celebrating the suburban family, which was held together by the American housewife. This middle-class ideal, however, excluded most Americans.

2. Ongoing racism and segregation led to a wave of civil rights activism, including and extending far beyond the African American community. Women played a significant role in leading this work.

3. The Vietnam War provided women with new opportunities for service and activism. Women were vocal participants in both the pro- and anti-war movements.

4. The activism of the 1960s was a major catalyst in the growth of the women’s liberation movement. Feminists from diverse backgrounds fought for equality, but they did not always agree on the best way to achieve it.

5. Not all American women supported gender equality and progressive feminist ideals.

Introduction

Poster for presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm, 1972. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gifted with pride from Ellen Brooks.

After a global economic depression and world war, Americans entered the middle of the 20th century ready for change. For some Americans, this came in the form of newfound stability in the suburbs. Government officials charged with defending American democracy against the dangers of communism often pointed to the suburban nuclear family as the front line against nuclear war and the downfall of democracy.

But this seemingly idyllic post-war lifestyle was built upon systemic racism and sexism. Pain, frustration, and disillusionment fueled an array of civil rights movements. While the fight for African American equality was the most visible movement of the era, it was not the only one. People of all backgrounds demanded attention and change from American society and government. The addition of a deadly, costly, and increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam only added to the unrest. Protests, rallies, marches, strikes, caucuses, and speeches dominated American life—and women were a part of it all.

The more women participated in civic engagement, the more aware they became of their own oppression. Pushed out of meetings, overlooked for jobs, and denied equal economic opportunities, women started to fully realize that they too were second-class citizens.

The feminist movement that was born out of this activism was made up of women who were as diverse as the American population. They were rich, poor, white, Black, Latina, Asian, Indigenous, straight, lesbian, trans, and more. They shared a common goal of equality but disagreed on how to achieve it. Regardless of the tensions, it was clear that women were having “a moment.” In every level of government, their voices were louder, and their ideas were changing policies and opening doors. When Congress sent the Equal Rights Amendment to the states for ratification, feminists celebrated together. But their fervor had incited a powerful backlash that showed the battle for women’s rights was far from over.

The period of 1948–1977 is an exciting, empowering, frustrating, and, sometimes, chaotic one. War, political battles, activism, and resistance were all taking place simultaneously. This unit organizes these topics into three chronological sections: Cold War Beginnings,