The Women's Boom


The Decade of Women: A Ms. History of the Seventies in Words and Pictures

Edited and Produced by Suzanne Levine and Harriet Lyons

Paragon Books: $8.95 paper, $17.95 cloth

"Last week we pointed out that the so-called Women's Liberation Movement (WLM) had its origin in Soviet Russia. This week, let's take a look at the red hot mammas of the '70s.

...The women, in general, appeared to be hippies, lesbians, or from other far-out groups. Most of them were very colorfully dressed, but the majority (sic) wore faded blue jeans. Most seemed to be making a real attempt to be unattractive... One of the interesting aspects of the delegates' dress was the extreme fuzzy appearance of their hair...someone said this was gotten by braiding their hair in tiny braids and leaving it that way while it was wet until it dried. Then they would take out the braids. From the looks of their hair they apparently didn't bother try and comb it out afterwards.

...It is estimated that there are 150 to 200 small groups...It is difficult to keep a record of the persons in the groups inasmuch as the women frequently switch according to possible changes in address, workplace, movement affiliation, marital status, ideological anaysis, or whim...

Radicals are increasingly finding success in the WLM as a vehicle through which to radicalize women." from FBI files of the early 1970s.

STILL QUAKING from the horror that was the 1968 Miss America Pageant Protest, where women cast bras, girdles, false eyelashes and other feminine by-products to the winds, the FBI graphically confirmed what home-loving husbands and benevolent bosses already knew: an insidious radical force was on the loose--out to get the women of America. By 1969, thousands of women had left their womanly duties to rally behind the National Organization for Women (NOW) which advocated such national reforms as an equal rights constitutional amendment, equal and un-segregrated educational and job opportunities for women, women's right to control their own reproductive lives, and other revolutionary policies. In 1970, 50,000 people had marched down Fifth Avenue in New York City in support of a nationwide Women's Strike for Equality. And the final straw--when those radical weeklies, Time and Newsweek, featured the WLM in cover stories, the FBI knew the time had come to move on this growing pinko-inspired threat.

But what was to be done? The G-men, no doubt, considered the alternatives. Assassination? Probably not. Simply identifying the leaders would be tough enough; the FBI's own reports attested to the whimsical shiftings of loyalties within the movement. True, Betty Friedan had started it all back in 1963, but the New Jersey housewife was hardly the frizzy-haired symbol of heterodoxy the FBI sought as the ideal exterminatee.

Infiltration? A possibility. The problem was locating a female among FBI ranks who would be willing to frizz her hair and wear jeans (for the good of the country). Rumor has it that they finally located one for the job, but unfortunately she came back from her first NOW meeting demanding equal pay. So, recognizing the instability inherent in all females, even their own recruits, and unable to find any male agent willing to go in drag, the FBI abandoned the infiltration ploy.

Presumably not to be thwarted, the FBI put their best minds to work on the problem. The best minds came up with some heartening facts. First, they recognized that the feminist movement had many powerful enemies. Government, business and the media were controlled by men, all of whom were dedicated to maintaining their own power. The government thus could be counted on to keep women out of key positions, and business, always knowing a good thing when they had it, would fight to the death to keep women out of the executive washroom and behind the steno notebooks.

As for the media, well, where could newspapers be without the Women's Pages? You can't run supermarket ads on the financial pages. And countless "women's" magazines like Good Housekeeping and the Ladies Home Journal would simply cease to exist if women no longer centered their lives around fashion, food, and babies. As for television, daytime T.V. would suffer horribly, family sitcoms would lose their raison d'etre, and Johnny Carson would lose his major source of T's and A's if women could no longer appear as the emotional, frivolous, and charming creatures that they were. Even the news programs would suffer, for how could wars be fought if there were no Mom and apple pie for which to fight?

Yes, the media was indeed a powerful ally, and finally, with Madison Avenue graciously pledging its continued support and infinite influence to the cause of keeping woman in her place, the FBI dropped its campaign against the feminists, confident that the traditional image of woman as wife, mother and sex object would live forever in the hearts and minds of all Americans everywhere.

Furthermore, the best minds reasoned, the movement was doomed by an inexorable biological imperative. Populated by lesbians and unattractive shriekers who would never get husbands anyway, the radical feminists would never reproduce and the movement wither away and die of its own accord.

THAT WAS THEIR big mistake.

"Where were you in 1970?" Gloria Steinem asks in her introduction to The Decade of Women: A Ms. History of the Seventies. If you were a woman between the ages of 18 and 64 in 1970, you probably were not where the FBI thought you were: that is, snug at home in your kitchen making dinner for your husband and 3.3 children. In the real world, by 1970, 50 per cent of the female population worked full-time outside the home. Forty out of 100 of those women had been divorced at least once. And the majority wanted to have two or fewer children.

Contrary to FBI beliefs, the feminist movement was not just another commie-inspired flash-in-the-pan. Women and women's roles had been quietly changing since the '30s. Though virtually un-noticed by Madison Avenue and the male power establishment in the '60s, dramatic new norms were emerging. There was general acceptance of women working, smaller families and divorce, while new habits, new identities, and new networks created new needs and expectations. Because the government would not or could meet these needs, political mobilization occurred. By the time the government officially noticed the Woman's Liberation Movement, it was a revolution.

Since its beginnings in 1972, Ms. Magazine has been the only national voice of the feminist (r)evolution. Despite dissension, division, and backlash from within the movement as well as attack from without, Ms. has survived to provide what is probably the only real and complete record of woman's turbulent history of the last decade. In pictures and words compiled from Ms. and other sources, it chronicles not only the women's movement but the effect it has had on the rest of the world as well, quoting everyone from Angela Davis: "Let us then forge among ourselves and our movements an indivisible strength," to Phyllis Schlafly: "Why should we lower ourselves to 'equal right' when we already have the status of special privilege?" to Patti Smith: "As far as I'm concerned, being any gender is a drag."

Everything is here, from the founding of NOW to Sister Theresa Kane's polite chiding of Pope John Paul II for his conservative policies toward women in the church--the losses and divisions as well as the victories appear in this book. In fact, Steinem, in her detailed insightful introduction, sees victory even in those defeats:

"...Massive change proceeds more as a spiral than a straight experiences that appear to be circular and discouraging in the short run may turn out to be moving in a clear direction in the long run. Those of us who were taught the cheerful American notion that progress is linear and hierarchical, for instance, may have had to learn with pain in the '70s that no worthwhile battle can be fought and won only once."

Buy this book. If you want to learn about the feminist movement or celebrate it, if you want to look at some good pictures or simply be entertained, buy it. It has violence, sex, dignity, pathos, humor, and political change, and it's a true story. Because, contrary to popular belief, the '70s weren't silent for everybody.