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, Growing Tensions, and Feminism and the Backlash. Each section includes a dynamic collection of primary sources and life stories to deploy in the classroom. By exploring the suggested activities and themes within this unit and combining materials across these distinct sections, some of the richest conversations are likely to emerge.

Unit Essential Questions

1. How did the ideals and the realities of post-war America differ? What roles did women play in both promoting and resisting the middle-class suburban vision of American democracy?

2. What roles did women play in the wide array of activist-led movements that formed in the 1960s and 1970s?

3. What was feminism and women’s liberation? Why did this movement gain national attention and momentum in the 1970s?

4. What divisions existed within the women’s liberation movement, and how did feminists work to address their disparate wants and needs?

5. How did conservative women—and men—respond to these demands for equality? To what extent were they successful in blocking the progress of these movements?

Explore by Section

Cold War Beginnings, 1948–1963

The same government propaganda machine that championed Rosie the Riveter now promoted a different notion. American women could embody democracy and fight communism from their suburban kitchens. In reality, most Americans did not have access to this white, middle-class ideal. For them, postwar America was neither democratic nor stable.

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Growing Tensions, 1963–1974

By 1963, social and political tensions in America were boiling over. Demands for equality and an end to the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War inspired a wave of activism that included and was often led by women.

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Feminism and the Backlash, 1969–1977

Inspired by demands for racial equality, women from diverse backgrounds began to speak out for gender equality. Feminists worked collectively and individually to build a national women’s liberation movement. But as they achieved more and more success, they also incited a powerful backlash.

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Explore by Theme

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Cold War Beginnings

Growing Tensions

Feminism and the Backlash