By the 1960s, many women had become dissatisfied with society’s perception of women and what their proper roles should be. Some women began to join organizations dedicated to expanding opportunities for women. The Equal Rights Amendment stirred a national debate.

A Renewed Women’s Movement

What events revitalized the women’s movement?

African Americans and college students were not the only groups seeking to change American society in the 1960s. By the middle of the decade, a new movement had emerged: the feminist, or women’s liberation, movement. Feminism is the belief that men and women should be equal politically, economically, and socially. The onset of World War II provided women with greater opportunity. After the war, however, many women returned to traditional roles. The new postwar emphasis on establishing families discouraged women from seeking employment.

Despite the popular emphasis on homemaking, the number of women who held jobs outside the home actually increased during the 1950s. Many women went to work to help their families maintain comfortable lifestyles. By 1960, about one-third of all married women were part of the paid workforce. Yet many people continued to believe that women could better serve society by remaining in the home to influence the next generation of men.

Origins of the Movement

By the early 1960s, many women were increasingly resentful of a world where newspaper ads separated jobs by gender, banks denied women credit, and female employees often were paid less for the same work. Nearly half of American women worked by the mid-1960s, but three-fourths of these women worked in lower-paying clerical, sales, or factory jobs, or as cleaning women and hospital attendants.

One stimulus that invigorated the women’s movement was the President’s Commission on the Status of Women. Its report highlighted the problems women faced in the workplace and helped create a network of feminist activists who lobbied for women’s legislation. In 1963 they won passage of the Equal Pay Act, which in most cases outlawed paying men more than women for the same job.

Many women who had stayed home were also discontented. Betty Friedan tried to describe the reasons for this in her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique. Friedan had interviewed women who had graduated with her from Smith College in 1942. She reported that while most had everything they could want in life, they felt unfulfilled. As the book became a best seller, women began reaching out to one another. They poured out their anger and sadness in what came to be known as consciousness-raising sessions. While they talked about their unhappiness, they were also building the base for a nationwide mass movement.

Congress gave the women’s movement another boost by including them in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Title VII of the act outlawed job discrimination not only on the basis of race, color, religion, and national origin, but also on the basis of gender. This provided a strong legal basis for the changes the women’s movement later demanded.

But simply having the law on the books was not enough. Even the agency charged with administering the Civil Rights Act—the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)—ruled in 1965 that gender-segregated help-wanted ads were legal.

The Time is NOW

By June 1966, Betty Friedan had returned to an idea that she and other women had been considering—the need for an organization to promote feminist goals. Friedan and others then set out to form the National Organization for Women (NOW). In October 1966 a group of about 30 women and men held the founding conference of NOW.

"[T]he time has come to confront, with concrete action, the conditions that now prevent women from enjoying the equality of opportunity and freedom of choice which is their right, as individual Americans, and as human beings."

—from NOW Statement of Purpose, 1966

The new organization responded to frustrated housewives by demanding greater educational and career opportunities for women. NOW leaders denounced the exclusion of women from certain professions and from most levels of politics. NOW also was against the practice of paying women less than men for equal work. This had been prohibited by the Equal Pay Act, but was still commonplace.

When NOW set out to pass an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, its membership rose to over 200,000. By July 1972, the movement had its own magazine, Ms. A key editor of Ms. was Gloria Steinem, an author who became one of the movement’s leading figures.


Successes and Failures


What political and economic gains did women make during this time?

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the women’s movement fought to amend the Constitution and enforce Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. It also worked to repeal laws against abortion and pass legislation against gender discrimination in employment, housing, and education. As a leading voice in the women’s movement, Steinem explained the need for such legislation.

"The truth is that all our problems stem from the same sex based myths. We may appear before you as white radicals or the middle-aged middle class or black soul sisters, but we are all sisters in fighting against these outdated myths. Like racial myths, they have been reflected in our laws."

—Gloria Steinem, from testimony before a Senate subcommittee in support of the ERA, May 1970

The Equal Rights Amendment

The women’s movement seemed to be off to a strong start when Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in March 1972. The amendment specified: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” To become part of the Constitution, the amendment had to be ratified by 38 states. Many states did so—35 by 1979—but then significant opposition to the amendment began to build.

Opponents argued that it would take away some women’s rights. These included the right to alimony in divorce cases and the right to have single-gender colleges. They feared it would eliminate women’s exemption from the draft and do away with laws that provided special protection for women in the workforce.

One outspoken opponent was Phyllis Schlafly, organizer of the Stop ERA campaign. By the end of 1979, five states had voted to rescind their approval. Many people had become worried that the amendment would give federal courts too much power to interfere with state laws. Unable to achieve ratification by three-fourths of the states by the deadline set by Congress, the ERA finally failed in 1982.

Equality in Education

One major achievement of the movement came in the area of education. Kathy Striebel’s experience illustrated the discrimination female students often faced in the early 1970s. In 1971 Striebel, a junior high school student in St. Paul, Minnesota, wanted to compete for her school’s swim team, but the school did not allow girls to join. Kathy’s mother, Charlotte, was a member of the local NOW chapter. Through it, she learned that St. Paul had recently banned gender discrimination in education. She filed a grievance with the city’s human rights department, and officials required the school to allow Kathy to swim.

Shortly after joining the team, Kathy beat out one of the boys and earned a spot at a meet. As she stood on the block waiting to swim, the opposing coach declared that she was ineligible because the meet was outside St. Paul and thus beyond the jurisdiction of its laws.

In response, leaders of the women’s movement lobbied to ban gender discrimination in education. In 1972 Congress responded by passing a law known collectively as the Educational Amendments. One section, Title IX, prohibited federally funded schools from discriminating against women in nearly all aspects of school operations, from admissions to athletics.

Title IX increased opportunities for women, but it also had some surprising and unintended consequences. Within just a few years, the number of women attending college surged, and by 1978 the majority of people attending college were women. By 2014, women made up approximately 58% of all college students.

Title IX also created new opportunities for women in college athletics, but it also increased expenses for colleges. If a college needed to add a women’s sport, it would sometimes cancel a men’s sport in order to pay for it. In addition, prior to Title IX, the majority of coaches for women’s sports were women. But after Title IX, as women’s sports increased in funding and prestige, men were attracted to the field as well. Today, less than half of the coaches of women’s sports in college are women.

Right to Privacy and Roe v. Wade

The feminist movement worked to secure the right to make private decisions, including reproductive decisions. A constitutional right to marital privacy was introduced in 1965 when the Supreme Court outlawed state bans on contraceptives for married couples in Griswold v. Connecticut.

The right to privacy was expanded beyond married couples when activists began challenging laws against abortion. Until 1973, the right to regulate abortion was reserved to the states. The original plan of the Constitution reserved most police power to the states. Police power refers to the state’s authority to enact laws impinging on personal or property rights in the interest of safety, health, welfare, and morality. Early in the country’s history, some abortions were permitted in the early stages of pregnancy. By the mid-1800s, however, states had passed laws prohibiting abortion, except to save the life of the mother. In the late 1960s, some states began adopting more liberal abortion laws. For example, several states allowed abortion if carrying a pregnancy to term might endanger the woman’s mental health or if she was a victim of rape or incest.

The big change came with the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. The decision stated that state governments could not regulate abortion during the first three months of pregnancy, a time that was ruled to be within a woman’s constitutional right to privacy. During the second three months of pregnancy, states could regulate abortions on the basis of the health of the mother. States could ban abortion in the final three months except in cases of a medical emergency. Those in favor of abortion rights cheered Roe v. Wade as a victory, but the issue was far from settled politically. The decision gave rise to the right-to-life movement, whose members consider abortion morally wrong and work toward its total ban.

After the Roe v. Wade ruling, the two sides began an impassioned battle that continues today. In the 1992 case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Supreme Court modified Roe v. Wade. The Court decided that states could place some restrictions on abortions. For example, doctors could be required to explain the risks and have patients give “informed consent.”

Underage girls might now be required to inform their parents before getting an abortion, although the Court did strike down laws requiring women to notify their husbands before having an abortion. It also abandoned the rule that states could ban abortion only in the final trimester. Technology had enabled a fetus to be viable outside the womb much earlier in a pregnancy. States could now restrict abortion based on the viability of the fetus.

The Impact of the Feminist Movement

The women’s movement profoundly changed society. Since the 1970s many women have pursued college degrees and careers outside of the home. Many employers now offer options to help women make work life more compatible with family life, including flexible hours, on-site child care, and job sharing.

Even with those changes, a significant income gap between men and women still exists. A major reason for the gap is that many working women still hold lower-paying jobs such as bank tellers, administrative assistants, cashiers, schoolteachers, and nurses. Women have made the most dramatic gains in professional jobs since the 1970s. By 2000, women made up more than 40 percent of the nation’s graduates receiving medical or law degrees.

Thinking Like a HISTORIAN
Comparing and Contrasting
The emergence of social movements in the 1960s and 1970s has deep roots in American history. Social movements, historians contend, often share common goals—quality of life issues, political and democratic processes, economic and environmental issues. The significance of the two decades is the concentration of all such issues in a small time span: gender equality at home and at work; political issues and processes; labor and civil rights causes; and environmental and health concerns. 

Reviewing Vocabulary

TEKS: 9B, 9C, 10F, 26A


Using Your Notes

TEKS: 9B, 10E, 10F, 26A


Answering the Guiding Questions

TEKS: 9B, 9C, 10F, 26A

TEKS: 17D, 26A, 26D


Writing Activity

TEKS: 10F, 26A