Women’s Liberation

Women’s studies scholars identify several stages of the American Women’s Movement. The first stage, suffrage/voting rights, began with the Seneca Falls women’s rights convention in 1848 through decades of work by women’s activists, suffragettes and the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920. (Edwards, Women & Music, p. 211.) The second stage, initiated by Betty Friedan’s famous book The Feminine Mystique in 1963 and developed by such activists as Gloria Steinem, was politically oriented and focused on discrimination issues. The third stage was radical feminism, characterized by a general fragmentation along lines of class, sexual preference and race. The fourth stage was cultural feminism, a reaction to radical feminism, dominated by young feminists and the emergence of women’s culture in 1980-1990s characterized by an emphasis on women’s creativity, spirituality, relationships and on women’s organizations. (Kimball, pp. vii – xiii; Echols, pp. 75-96, 109-110, and 242-243, note 41.)

The Women’s Liberation Movement was described by Rodnitzky:

Of all the 1960s activist movements, the one with the most staying power, and perhaps the most important, was the Women’s Liberation Movement. This feminist movement was also the most divisive, since it largely excluded males. Topical music was particularly useful to young feminists, who followed the New Left maxim of organizing around your own oppression. Furthermore, since feminism pioneered consciousness-raising, what better device to accomplish this than topical songs? Women’s liberation music was very diverse, ranging from worker’s songs to ballads of cultural pride and psychological independence. Compared to the previous women’s movement—the Suffrage Movement—the new mood was much more strident and the goals much more fundamental.

(Rodnitzky, The Decline and Rebirth of Folk-Protest Music, p. 19.)

The Women’s Movement of the 1960s arose out of “The pain and frustration of being a woman in a patriarchal world.” (Savage, They’re Playing Our Song: Women Talk about Feminist Rock Music, p. xiii.) It was a reaction to “male chauvinist pigs,” whose attitude was that women should stay “in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant.” Betty Friedan, a 1942 honors graduate of Smith College and former psychology Ph.D. candidate at the University of California at Berkeley, had quit graduate school, married, moved to the New York suburbs, and bore three children in rapid succession. She questioned her supposedly happy suburban housewife lifestyle.

In 1957, Friedan sent out questionnaires to fellow members of her college graduating class. The replies amazed her. Again and again, she found women suffering from “a sense of dissatisfaction.” Over the next five years, Friedan interviewed other women at PTA meetings and suburban cocktail parties, and she repeatedly found an unexplainable sense of melancholy and incompleteness. Friedan noted, “Sometimes a woman would say ‘I feel empty somehow … incomplete.’ Or she would say, ‘I feel as if I don’t exist.'”

Friedan found that the 1960’s woman was fighting the malaise of the satisfied suburban housewife’s life; she was a woman who wanted a more meaningful existence, a life outside the home, equal economic opportunity, especially in employment. Friedan’s heroine questioned traditional family roles. She was critical of women’s preoccupation with physical appearances and charms to attract (and keep) a husband. “She wrote that it was not neurotically unfeminine to be unfulfilled by a white wash, a polished floor and a station wagon full of kids.” (Kimball, xiv; Carroll, pp. 32-34.)

Ms. Friedan was not the only observer to detect a widespread sense of discontent among American women. Doctors identified a new female malady, the “housewife’s syndrome,” characterized by a mixture of frustration and exhaustion. CBS broadcast a television documentary entitled “The Trapped Housewife.” Newsweek magazine noted that the nation’s supposedly happy housewife was “dissatisfied with a lot that women of other lands can only dream of. Her discontent is deep, pervasive, and impervious to the superficial remedies which are offered at every hand.” The New York Times editorialized, “Many young women … feel stifled in their homes.” Redbook magazine ran an article entitled “Why Young Mothers Feel Trapped” and asked for examples of this problem. It received 24,000 replies. (Id.)

The woman’s malaise described by Betty Friedan is reflected in the Rolling Stones’ song, “Mother’s Little Helper”, written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards(1966). (https://youtu.be/tfGYSHy1jQs)

What a drag it is getting old
“Kids are different today,”
I hear ev’ry mother say
Mother needs something today to calm her down
And though she’s not really ill
There’s a little yellow pill
She goes running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper
And it helps her on her way, gets her through her busy day

“Things are different today,”
I hear ev’ry mother say
Cooking fresh food for a husband’s just a drag
So she buys an instant cake and she burns her frozen steak
And goes running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper
And to help her on her way, get her through her busy day

Doctor please, some more of these
Outside the door, she took four more
What a drag it is getting old

“Men just aren’t the same today”
I hear ev’ry mother say
They just don’t appreciate that you get tired
They’re so hard to satisfy, You can tranquilize your mind
So go running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper
And for help you through the night, help to minimize your plight

Doctor please, some more of these
Outside the door, she took four more
What a drag it is getting old

“Life’s just much too hard today,”
I hear ev’ry mother say
The pusuit of happiness just seems a bore
And if you take more of those, you will get an overdose
No more running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper
They just helped you on your way, through your busy dying day

Economically, women workers were concentrated in low-paying service and factory jobs. The overwhelming majority worked as secretaries, waitresses, beauticians, teachers, nurses, and librarians. Only three and a half percent of the nation’s lawyers were women. Women made up 10 percent of the nation’s scientists and less than two percent of the nation’s leading business executives. (1970 Report by Presidential Task Force on Women’s Rights and Responsibilities; Reader’s Digest, p. 438.)

Lower pay for women doing the same work as men was commonplace. One out of every three companies had separate pay scales for male and female workers. A female bank teller typically made $15 a week less than a man with the same amount of experience, and a female laundry worker made 49 cents an hour less than her male counterpart. Altogether, the earnings of women working full-time averaged only about 60 percent of those of men. (Id.)

Since the 1960s, women have made significant gains in many fields: women work in fields that were previously dominated by men; for example, half of law school graduates are now women, medical schools are filled with women, women fly commercial airplanes, and women are viable candidates for public office and hold many other top-level positions in business. Nevertheless, as reflected in Kristin Lems’ song, “The Living Wage” (2007), many of the same issues that were present in the 1960s and 1970s, e.g. equal pay and adequate child care, have not disappeared. (https://youtu.be/fCELEt6SNOU)

Well I’m a working woman and a single mother too
I got a full time job, it seemed the only thing to do
Now I work five days, it’s a 40 hour week
And here’s my life, come close and take a peek (2x)

It’s $1,200 a month before the SSI and tax
The take-home pay is $900 and a half
And the rent takes half of that, leaving $475
With a hundred for the groceries to keep us all alive (2x)

From the $375, take out $50 for the heat
And $50 for the lights and phone, utilities complete,
From the $275 take my public transport pass
To get me to and from this job, for which I bust my ass (2x)

But I haven’t finished yet, no, my babies are so young
That one is not in school yet, he has not yet begun
So I pay $200 to a mom who lives near me
So she can spend ten hours a day with him — instead of me
So she can spend 10 precious hours with him – instead of me

And add to that the clothing bill, the cleaning bill, the shoes
Prescriptions and medicine, birthday gifts and Brownie dues
And take all of that from the sum of $75
And your guess is as good as mine just how we stay alive (2x)

But the system is so thoughtful and the bankers are so kind
They’ve given me some credit cards for when I fall behind
So I make my monthly payments, a mere 39 to go —
Just looking at this nightmare makes me want to stay at home  (2x)

They’re trying to get welfare mothers into full time jobs
If we aren’t thrilled to leave the home, they call us lazy slobs –
Offer minimum wage, no benefits, and no childcare, naturally
So more can join the weary ranks of working poor like me (2x)

Oh I’d like to take each potbellied pol who talks that way
And let him try to take a walk in my shoes for a day,
He’d be screaming and crying and begging and irate
To raise the living wage now, before it is too late (2x)

For I’m a working woman and a single mother too
I left my full time job, it seemed the only thing to do
And until that happy day that the living wage is raised,
I’ll do odd jobs, stay with my kids, and home is where I’ll stay
This rich land can afford it, we have got to find a way
We’ve got to raise the living wage — we’ve got to find a way!

During the mid- 1900s, in many parts of the country, laws discriminated against women. In three states—Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina—women could not sit on juries. Many states restricted married women’s right to make contracts, sell property, engage in business, control their own earnings, and make wills. Six states gave fathers preference in the custody of young children after a divorce. In practically every state, men had a legal right to have intercourse with their wives and to administer an unspecified amount of physical punishment. “So widespread and pervasive are discriminatory practices against women, they have come to be regarded, more often than not, as normal.” (Task Force Report, Id.)

Friedan was one of the founders of National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966. The purpose of NOW was political: “…to confront with concrete action, the conditions which now prevent women from enjoying the equality of opportunity and freedom of choice which is their right as individual Americans, and as human beings.” (Carroll, Id.) NOW represented moderate feminism. It wanted to reform the system. It sought equal opportunities for women in education and employment, ending stereotypes, and “a truly equal partnership with men.” (Id.)

For example, NOW challenged airline policies that required stewardesses to retire after they married or reached the age of 32. And, it opposed the custom that men must carry the sole burden of supporting the family and that married women were entitled to lifelong support. (Anderson, p. 312.) NOW sought to push the federal government to enforce the provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawing sex discrimination; it was “ a paradigmatic liberal agenda focused on public access and the prohibition of employment discrimination.” (Farber, Alice Echols, Women’s Liberation and the Sixties Radicalism, p. 156-157).

“I am Woman, Helen Reddy (1972) has been called the “theme song” of the 1970’s women’s liberation movement. (Savage, p. 5.) (https://youtu.be/V6fHTyVmYp4)

I am woman, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
And I know too much to go back an’ pretend
‘Cause I’ve heard it all before
And I’ve been down there on the floor
No one’s ever gonna keep me down again

Oh yes, I am wise
But it’s wisdom born of pain
Yes, I’ve paid the price
But look how much I gained
If I have to, I can do anything
I am strong
I am invincible
I am woman

You can bend but never break me
‘Cause it only serves to make me
More determined to achieve my final goal
And I come back even stronger
Not a novice any longer
‘Cause you’ve deepened the conviction in my soul

Oh yes, I am wise
But it’s wisdom born of pain
Yes, I’ve paid the price
But look how much I gained
If I have to, I can do anything
I am strong
I am invincible
I am woman

I am woman watch me grow
See me standing toe to toe
As I spread my lovin’ arms across the land
But I’m still an embryo
With a long, long way to go
Until I make my brother understand

Oh yes, I am wise
But it’s wisdom born of pain
Yes, I’ve paid the price
But look how much I gained
If I have to, I can face anything
I am strong
I am invincible
I am woman

I am woman
I am invincible
I am strong
I am woman
I am invincible
I am strong
I am woman

The first major demonstration of the modern women’s movement was a protest initiated by The New York Radical Women, at the 1968 Miss America pageant. This pageant was considered the epitome of American sexual exploitation of women: promotion of physical attractiveness as the primary measure of women’s worth. Protesters formed picket lines, filled “Freedom Trash Cans” with various “instruments of torture,” such as bras, girdles, high-heeled shoes, hair curlers, and disrupted the nationally televised show. (Id., Echols, pp. 75-76.) The publicity obtained from the protest fueled the growth of the movement. In 1971, Gloria Steinem and others published Ms., the first national feminist magazine. The first 300,000 copies were sold out in eight days.

“Fight on Sisters, was written and sung by Carol Hanisch (1978), who was a volunteer in the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement, a founding member of The New York Radical Women, the initiator of the 1968 Miss America Pageant protest, and generally active in the Women’s Liberation Movement. (looking for audio)

When we started this movement ‘bout ten years ago,
Men laughed and said that it never would grow,
But we raised up our voices and we let ‘em know,
Fight on Sisters, fight on.

Chorus: Fight on Sisters, Fight on (2x),
Our power will grow and our dreams will be won,
If we fight on sisters, fight on

Our foremother’s visions would not let them rest,
They fought for their freedom from the east to the west,
They won some hard battles, we must win the rest,
So fight on sisters, fight on


Telling the truth about sex, love and men,
We examined our lives again and again,
It was male supremacy we found we must end,
So fight on sisters, fight on


The bosses claim women just aren’t qualified,
To work at the good job for which we applied,
But we talked to each other and found out they lied,
Fight on sisters, fight on


The Miss America Pageant we did protest,
The curlers, the girdles, high heels and the rest,
That torture a woman—our real self is best,
Fight on sisters, fight on


We disrupted a hearing on abortion reform,
Telling the panel—14 men and a nun,
That WE are the experts, our bodies are our own,
We fight on sisters, fight on


We know as we knew we must do it alone,
The war for our freedom can never be won,
Unless we grasp hold and make it our own,
Fight on sisters, fight on


We’ve made some mistakes now and don’t get it wrong,
The forces against us are wily and strong,
But we’re gettin’ smarter as we go along,
And, fight on sisters, fight on


Now some say the problem is all in our head,
While others proclaim that our movement is dead,
But we’ll rise up again, our anger still red,
And we’ll fight on sisters, fight on

Women’s liberationists (radical feminists) rejected the ideas of the liberal feminists, such as Friedan and Steinem and NOW. The Manifesto of The New York Radical Feminists states, in part: “Radical Feminism believes that the popularized version of love has thus been used politically to cloud and justify an oppressive relationship between men and women, and that in reality, there can be no genuine love until the need to CONTROL the growth of another is substituted by the love FOR the growth of the other.” (Hanisch, p. 8.)

In the same way that civil rights militants and the conservative NAACP were in conflict, radical feminists claimed that NOW’s philosophy ignored the real problems of women. The radical feminists contended that the major problem was woman’s subordination to the family. They argued that the solution to women’s oppression was not inclusion in the mainstream, but rather the eradication of the biological family, which was the source of all exploitation. They wanted to remake the world and radically transform the patriarchal society by making gender, a “patriarchal construct,” meaningless. (Echols, pp. 157-158.) A summary of their beliefs is found in the following quote:

…[W]omen’s liberationists challenged not only tyrannical beauty standards, but also violence against women, women’s sexual alienation, the compulsory character of heterosexuality and its origins around male pleasure…, the health hazards associated with the birth control pill, the definition of contraception as women’s responsibility and, of course, women‘s lack of reproductive control. They also challenged the sexual division of labor in the home, employment discrimination and the absence of quality childcare facilities.


Women’s liberationists challenged the sexual objectification of women, they also objected to violence against women, restrictive birth control, the ability of women to control their sexuality, ranging from conception practices to sexual orientation and abortion, the division of labor in the home, and employment discrimination. (Echols, p. 85.)

“My Mom’s a Feminist,written and sung by Kristin Lems is a reflection of the more radical approach to women’s rights. (https://youtu.be/qBO0oQbeVBg?list=PLG4gBArdrO24GMAE4NqYMd8InnAmLuB6W)

I pulled into the loading zone feeling nervous, I was all alone
Unloading my equipment before the show
I started wheeling it down the hall till I turned,
Hearing a young man call “Can I help? That must be heavy I know..
I’ve been looking forward to your show.

(Chorus): “‘Cause my mom’s a feminist, so I understand
that’s why I’m here today I’ve come to lend a hand
I was raised on equal rights and furthermore
She helped me see that equality is a goal worth fighting for.”

She decided she could do some good
Ringing doorbells in the neighborhood
Not for the Girl Scouts, but for ERA
Sometimes she takes her friends along
She’s only 10, but she’s already strong
She’s a mover and a shaker well on her way
When they ask what she’s doing, this is what she’ll say.


Different questions in the classroom now
Young seekers asking how Things came to be,
and how they can change
Becoming women and becoming men
May not ever be the same again
But the new ways won’t be quite as strange
When the people they trust help them get it arranged.


It’s worth all the time you take
What a difference your time can make
For the new generation still coming along
For our movement is to last
We must see that the torch is passed
And today’s young people will grow up strong
And thousands more will sing this song