How the Sexual Revolution Changed America Forever
Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from "Delirium: How the Sexual Counterrevolution is Polarizing America" by Nancy L. Cohen. Click here to buy a copy of the book.
Perhaps if the pill had not been invented, American politics would be very different today.
Enovid, the first birth control pill, went on the market in 1960. Unlike any other previously available form of contraception, the Pill was both reliable and controlled by a woman herself, requiring neither the consent nor the knowledge of her sexual partner. “I don’t confess that I take the Pill,” said one Catholic mother after the Vatican reaffirmed its doctrine against the use of birth control, “because I don’t believe it is a sin.” Within five years, 6 million American women were on the Pill. With one quick visit to a doctor, a woman immediately gained sole and exclusive power over her fertility, a power that had eluded her sex since . . . well, since forever.
The Pill made possible the sexual revolution of the 1960s. The true warriors in that revolution were young, single women, who, with the help of this new contraception, took their sexuality into their own hands. If not for women’s self-determined sexual liberation, the sexual revolution might have been another unremarkable episode in the long and varied sexual history of humankind. Instead, with the impetus the sexual revolution gave to a new feminism and a movement for gay liberation, it became one of the major catalysts of America’s ongoing political delirium.
Men certainly benefited from the new sexual freedom, but for them, it was hardly an innovation. Although religious doctrine and public mores told them chastity and marital fidelity applied equally to men and women, the practical moral code included an important loophole: the double standard. Single men had always been able to avail themselves of sexual relations outside of marriage, even at the pinnacle of American sexual puritanism in the waning days of the nineteenth century. For men, the sexual revolution changed things by making sex relatively cost-free. Women were now liberated, and the Pill steeply lowered the risks of accidental fatherhood and unwanted marriage.
For women, likewise, the sexual revolution concerned the rules of engagement, rather than the act of sex itself. Premarital virginity had been going out of fashion for decades before the declaration of sexual liberation. It started in the 1920s, as middle-class Americans converted from Victorianism to Freudianism and began to accept that a desirous woman was perhaps not so depraved after all. There- after doctors and psychologists counseled America’s women that a happy marriage was sustained by mutual sexual satisfaction. Experts encouraged women to explore their natural desires, but to start the journey in the marital bed. Women accepted the prescription and ignored the fine print. At the high noon of fifties traditionalism, 40 percent of women had sex before they married—compared to just 10 percent who did in the reputedly Roaring Twenties.
Yet sex before marriage, like any act of civil disobedience, entailed risk. Each and every time an unmarried woman had intercourse, she risked pregnancy, and with it a limited number of unsavory life- changing options: an illegal abortion of doubtful safety, a shotgun wedding, forced adoption, or single motherhood of a child whose birth certificate would be stamped for posterity with the word “illegitimate.” With rare exceptions, all known human cultures have policed the sexual behavior of girls and women, and America, circa 1959, was no different. Before women obtained the power to control their fertility, they had compelling reasons to comply with whatever arbitrary double standard their society imposed. The Pill permanently changed women’s age-old pragmatic calculus. With a little pharmaceutical ingenuity, the double standard relaxed its clawing grip on female humanity.
Still, birth control remained illegal in some states, and the grip of the law also had to be pried loose before women could take full advantage of the new opportunity for sexual liberation. In the late nineteenth century, purity crusaders had succeeded in passing a spate of national and state laws criminalizing the sale, distribution, or even discussion of birth control. In 1965, the Supreme Court ruled Connecticut’s 1879 anti-contraception statute—originally written by circus impresario P. T. Barnum—to be unconstitutional. In that case, Connecticut had convicted Estelle Griswold and Dr. C. Lee Buxton of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut for providing birth control to a married couple. (They had been fined $100.) In Griswold v. Connecticut, the Court ruled that the law, and any other restrictions on access to contraception for married couples, violated the marital right to privacy, and were thus unconstitutional. Seven years later, the Supreme Court effectively extended the right to obtain birth control to unmarried men and women, in Eisenstadt v. Baird. In that case, the state of Massachusetts had charged William Baird with a felony for giving away vaginal foam to an unmarried college student who attended one of his lectures on birth control and overpopulation. Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., wrote in his opinion for the court: “If the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision to whether to bear or beget a child.”
Those who hoped to preserve the pre-Pill cultural norms now had only the power of persuasion at their service. It helped them little. The rapidity of change in women’s sexual behavior was dizzying, and it suggests how much the old order had been preserved by cultural coercion rather than willing consent. In the 1950s, six in ten women were virgins at marriage and 87 percent of American women believed that it was wrong for a woman to engage in premarital sex, even with “a man she is going to marry.” By the time girls born during the sexual revolution came of age, the double standard— in practice, if not exactly in the minds of teenage boys—had been obliterated. Only two in ten of them would be virgins at marriage. Teenagers, in particular, shed the old ways. In 1960, half of unmarried 19-year-old women had not yet had sex. In the late 1980s, half of all American girls engaged in sexual intercourse by the age of 17, two-thirds by the age of 18, and the difference between teenage male and female sexual experience had narrowed from 50 points to single digits.
As Americans settled into the new normal of open heterosexual sexuality, even more profound changes were afoot. The Pill allowed American women to delay marriage and motherhood, while remaining sexually active. Women took advantage of these added carefree years to improve their position in the labor market. According to the economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, the surge in women’s professional education occurred at the exact moment the Pill became legally available to college-aged women. “A virtually fool-proof, easy-to-use, and female-controlled contraceptive having low health risks, little pain, and few annoyances does appear to have been important in promoting real change in the economic status of women.” They concluded, “The Pill lowered the cost of pursuing a career through its direct effect on the cost of having sex and its indirect effect of increasing the age at first marriage generally.” The Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade provided women with even greater control of their own fertility, a goal that had eluded them while abortion remained illegal. (In the years after the Pill went on the market and before abortion became legal, about one million illegal abortions took place per year.) In 1978, the first test- tube baby was born, marking the beginning of the age of assisted, sex-free reproduction.
Before the revolution, the whims of men determined the reputation, if not the fate, of women; female desire was contained within the closet of marriage; and men retained their traditional sexual privileges and discreetly enjoyed their sexual liberties. After the revolution, women, if they so chose, could dispense with men, or with marriage altogether, without giving up sex or children or a lifetime loving relationship. Of course, most women continued to love men, marry men, and have children with men. The point, however, was that for the first time in human history, women had a choice.
In a desperate effort to stop cultural change in its tracks, the critics of the new sexual order accused the sexual revolutionaries of destroying the traditional American family. They had their cause and effect reversed. By the time the revolution in sexual mores gained steam, the nuclear family was already in an advanced state of fission from the reactive force of its soul-bending emotional demands and outdated economic arrangements. Deprived of the coercive power of the law and public opinion, the sexual traditionalists took refuge in a myth.
The so-called traditional family of midcentury America was itself an invented tradition, with only a spotty historical pedigree. All proper families, according to this ideal, were made up of a working father, a homemaking child-focused mother, and two to four children, preferably residing in a suburban single-family home. Pets were common, grandparents and extended family less so. In previous eras, only the urban, educated, Protestant upper class could afford to live by this ideal.
Postwar prosperity, however, underwrote nuclear family proliferation for all—or almost all. The twenty years after the end of the Second World War in America were utterly unique in world history. Never before had the masses of ordinary people lived in such material comfort; never before had families in the midst of their childrearing years had disposable income; never before could they look forward to an old age of plenty and security. A white working man generally earned enough to buy a house; support his wife to stay at home minding the kids and running the appliances; send the boys and even the girls to college; pay for vacations, while allowing him to retire while he still had his wits and strength about him. (African American families, because of legal segregation in the South and de facto segregation in the North, were left out of the postwar nuclear family compact. The wages of black men remained low, and black wives and mothers typically worked for wages as well. Poor Americans, of which there were millions, were left out as well.) In 1960, sixty-two percent of Americans owned their own homes. Two-thirds of all white women—not just those with children at home—did not work out- side the home. Families were large, larger than they had been since the nineteenth century. Elderly parents retired on their Social Security checks, instead of inside the homes of their adult children. Father Knows Best wasn’t quite reality-TV, but for white middle-class Americans, it wasn’t far that off.
After experiencing fifteen years of economic depression and war, most men and women were more than happy to sign up for the new traditionalism, the suburban lifestyle, and female domesticity. Still, politicians, teachers, medical experts, business leaders, journalists, and intellectuals worked hard to make sure the offer was one few women would refuse. In 1957, nine out of ten Americans thought any person who chose not to marry was either “sick,” “neurotic,” or “immoral.” A national best seller made the case that it was dangerous to allow single women to teach young children and called for a nationwide ban on their employment. More than half of American women were married by the middle of their twentieth year; those that were not married by the age of twenty-five were viewed as damaged goods, to be avoided or pitied. Employers paid women less than men and refused to hire them in jobs considered men’s work, in a practice that was perfectly legal because it was presumed to be perfectly natural. Even in cases in which a job was theoretically open to women, American women were grossly ill-prepared for most of those well-paying ones. In 1961, only 8 percent of women were college graduates. Only 2 percent of law degrees, 4 percent of MBAs, and 6 percent of medical degrees were conferred on women. In the year President John F. Kennedy announced the nation would put a man on the moon, most young American women dreamed of marrying by age twenty-one, quitting work, and having four children.
The long-term survival of the nuclear family depended on each sex’s willingness to fulfill its prescribed role. Men were to be dutiful to their corporate employers and to financially support their families, but to leave the daily tasks—and its pleasures—of raising children to their wives. Women were to seek fulfillment in their roles as wife, mother, and homemaker. By the late 1950s, some Cassandras were raising the alarm that American life had become a real life invasion of he body snatchers. Sociologists diagnosed the disease of the company man, while Hugh Hefner offered men relief with Playboy, the nation’s first mass circulation porn magazine. Even before the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s best-selling and wildly influential The Feminine Mystique, the placid mothers of the fifties were telling pollsters they wanted their daughters to graduate from college, go to work, and wait to get married—in other words, to not follow in their own footsteps.
The nuclear family order also depended on the ability of husbands and wives to sustain the arrangement economically. Whatever chance there might have been for it to survive the eruption of the sexual revolution, there was little hope for the model to withstand the whipsaw of the American economy and the rude return of insecurity brought on by the post-1973 economic troubles.
In the late 1940s, only one-third of all American women, single as well as married, worked outside the home, and women constituted only 29 percent of the nation’s labor force. By the early 1960s, women had steadily increased their numbers in the workforce. College-educated daughters chose to delay marriage and pursue careers, while their mothers, who were availing themselves of the new birth control technologies, went back to work after their children left home.
What started as a choice, for more spending money or for broader horizons, became for many women a necessity by the late 1970s. When income growth stagnated after the oil shock of 1973, women flooded into the paid labor force in an effort to maintain the family income. As far as the nuclear family was concerned, the change that reverberated most powerfully was the move of married women with children still at home into the workforce. In the mid-1970s, fewer than half of all women with children and teenagers at home worked. By 2000, 79 percent of American mothers with school-age children were working outside the home. A typical middle-class mother was putting in about thirteen weeks more of full-time work in the first decade of the 21st century than her counterpart had in 1979. Among two-parent families, a stay-at-home mother was on the scene in only one of every four homes.
The changes in the American economy after 1973 combined with other monumental social changes—the Pill, the sexual revolution, feminism, increased levels of education among women and men—to revolutionize the American family. American men and women began to marry later, have fewer children, and divorce more frequently. In the year the Pill went on the market, most Americans lived in nuclear families, the average married couple had four children, and mothers stayed home. By 2000, the average family had two children, one out of two marriages ended in divorce, and almost a third of American children were being raised by a single parent or an unmarried couple.
The 1950s neotraditional domestic ideal had been a fragile creation, a hothouse flower of Cold War culture, coaxed into bloom by long-deferred dreams of stability, hiring practices that discriminated against women, and the pseudo-science of pop psychology. Its prospects for longevity were always slim. Viewed dispassionately, the 1950s ideal of the nuclear family set itself against almost every demographic trend of the modern world, and Americans were, if anything, modern. From 1900 to World War II, women had been increasing their labor force participation, marrying at a later age, attending college in greater numbers, having premarital sex more commonly, bearing fewer children, and divorcing at higher rates. These trends, briefly, were reversed from the end of World War II until 1961; after the mid-1970s, they reasserted themselves with a vengeance.
The nuclear family perished of natural causes after barely more than a decade of moderately good health. When this invented domestic ideal met the headwinds of the sexual revolution and economic crisis, a mass historical amnesia about the real history of the American family would set in. In the aftermath of its demise, the nuclear family would be resurrected as an age-old American tradition, as the endpoint of a desired return to the way we never were, and the source of political warfare about sex and women couched in the appealing yet deceptive brand of family values.
It was inevitable that relations between men and women would change as a result of the sexual revolution, women’s mass exodus from the home into the workforce, and women’s rapid educational advance. It was not inevitable that the new relations would take the form they did. The ultimate result was in good part the handiwork of the American women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
In the 1960s, a small group of women and men picked up where earlier women’s rights movement had left off in the campaign to achieve equal treatment of the sexes in politics, law, and the economy. One of their first surprise victories piggybacked on the advancing tide of the civil rights movement. An opportunity presented itself when a southern congressman, Howard Smith, put forward an amendment to ban sex discrimination in employment in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Smith, though himself a supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, intended his amendment to function as a poison pill—a provision that would kill the whole bill. Given that almost everyone at the time considered it absurd to pretend the sexes had equal capabilities and aspirations, Smith knew the ban on sex discrimination could give cover to northern Congressmen to vote against black civil rights, while allowing them to avoid being charged with racism. Savvy lobbying by women’s rights advocates foiled Smith’s design, and the provision survived into the final version of the bill. The Civil Rights Act passed, but for reasons having nothing to do with women’s rights.
There have been few pieces of legislation that have had a greater effect on the daily lives of Americans than that one clause of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII made it illegal for employers to discriminate against any individual on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”
Many men, however, didn’t quite appreciate the historic momentousness of the act. The head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency created to enforce Title VII, called the ban on sex discrimination “a fluke . . . conceived out of wedlock.” Clever wordplay. Over the next two years he blithely ignored the thousands of complaints of discrimination women sent to his office. The liberal New Republic, which had been appalled by Southern resistance to black equality, commended the EEOC’s nullification of a national law: “Why should a mischievous joke perpetrated on the floor of the House of Representatives be treated by a responsible administrative body with this kind of seriousness?” Other bastions of the elite press became obsessed with the problem the new law posed for clients of Playboy Bunnies. The Wall Street Journal worried for the well-being of businessmen who might encounter “a shapeless, knobby-kneed male ‘bunny’” at their local gentlemen’s club. The press started to refer to the sex discrimination clause in shorthand as “the Bunny Law.” A glib New York Times editorial joked, “The Rockettes may become bi-sexual, and a pity, too . . . Bunny Problem, indeed! This is a revolution, chaos. You can’t even safely advertise for a wife anymore.”
The hue and cry over sex discrimination offer a revealing look inside the hearts of powerful men compelled to contemplate a world in which the sexes would be equal. The volcanic potential of these subterranean emotions becomes clearer once we consider the contrast between America before and America after the women’s rights movement of these years. Before, it was perfectly legal to discriminate against women in employment; married women in many states could not get credit in their own name; states routinely treated men and women differently in family matters; state governments set different standards for the duties of citizenship; and sexual violence against women was routinely tolerated. Florida exempted women from jury duty, leaving women defendants to be tried by a jury of their all-male peers. Oklahoma set the legal drinking age for women at 18 and men at 21, so as not to inconvenience the young wives out on a date with their older husbands. Michigan deemed it improper and illegal for a woman to be a bartender, unless she was the wife or daughter of the bar’s owner. Ohio compelled pregnant teachers to go on unpaid leave. North Carolina only allowed virgins to file rape charges, and Maryland had no provision in its laws to allow a wife to sue the husband who had beaten her to a pulp.
As men in power continued to make sport of women’s equality, veterans of the battles over equal employment decided women needed a civil rights organization of their own. In 1966, they founded the National Organization for Women (NOW). Its statement of purpose declared that “the time has come for a new movement toward true equality for all women in America, and toward a fully equal partnership of the sexes.” Between 1966 and 1976, NOW and its allies won campaigns to enforce the laws against wage and employment discrimination; to outlaw discrimination against pregnant women; to end discrimination against women in education; to provide equal funding for women in public education; to reform divorce law; to prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace; and—almost—to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
Today, equal rights, protected by laws banning discrimination on the basis of sex, are so ingrained that most Americans under the age of 50 hardly know it was ever any different. So, if self-declared feminists were the ones who achieved these gains for all American women, why and how did feminism get such an awful reputation? It did so because, at the very moment NOW and its allies tackled legal institutional discrimination, a new kind of activist entered the scene, proposing a more provocative theory about how women were kept down. Women’s liberation offered Americans a new way to look at themselves in the world, wrapped up nicely in a four word slogan: The personal is political.
How was it that personal issues, private matters, had anything to do with politics? At its core, politics is about power, about who rules whom. A nation born in revolution well understood the script of protest and resistance. According to the logic of American politics, one that activists of every shade and opinion share, the oppressed eventually rise up to claim their rights, their interests, and their due. Indeed the two women who first turned the women’s movement onto the women’s liberation track were American Christian reformers, not angry man-hating radicals so prominent in the antifeminist imagination. Mary King was the daughter of a southern Methodist minister who came to politics via the YWCA; Sandra “Casey” Cason Hayden was a Texan, the daughter of a single mother, who had also gotten her initiation into activism in the YWCA. After several years working in the civil rights movement in the South with other student activists, King and Hayden simply asked, who was exercising power over women? Their answer, explained in a widely circulated memo written in the fall of 1965, would send shock waves through American society for the next decade. Of course, distant politicians and presumptuous bosses kept women down, but that was the least of their troubles. Nearer to home, Hayden and King suggested, women met their oppressors—fathers, husbands, lovers, brothers, and male friends—face to face. Intimacy and oppression, all wrapped into one. Their memo went viral among women under the age of 30.
The idea that the personal is political soon got even more personal. The budding feminists in the student and radical movements of the 1960s were also the advance guard of the sexual revolution. They quickly came to see that they could apply their new consciousness not only to politics and the workplace, not only to family relationships, but also to sex itself. Although there has always existed a strain of sexual radicalism in America—from the Free Love movement of the 1860s to the Greenwich Village Bohemians of the 1910s—it had always been held in check by the failure rate of birth control. (Sex for sex’s sake simply doesn’t mix well with pregnancy and the care of infants.) Feminists doubted that women could ever attain full equality, or the practical ability to realize their individual potential, if they were not free to decide if they wanted to have children.
While the Pill was more effective than other forms of birth control, women remained at the mercy of biology as long as abortion was illegal. These young women activists joined the movement for abortion law reform and reframed the issue. They declared abortion to be an issue of a woman’s right to control her body on her own, with no man, church, or state having the power to tell her what she ought to do in such private matters of conscience. Feminists held public speak-outs in which they recounted their ordeals of illegal abortions in unsafe conditions. Men might have been able to take heart that at least they were needed by the newly sexually liberated women, except that these women had also redefined sex, or at least good sex. In 1970, in an influential essay, “The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm,” a founder of New York Radical Feminists claimed men had sold women a bill of goods about their own desires and biology. She declared women’s right to sexual pleasure, told men they had been doing it wrong forever, and pronounced that women actually didn’t need men for sex at all.
An even more radical challenge to sexual norms was emerging in the nascent gay liberation movement. On Friday night, June 27, 1969, the New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay and lesbian bar in Manhattan. Police raids of gay bars were common, but that night, a lesbian refused to go peacefully, and as crowds gathered in the streets of Greenwich Village, the patrons of Stonewall fought back. That night and throughout the weekend, New York gays and lesbians battled the NYPD in the streets of the West Village. The Stonewall Riot, coming at the height of the antiwar movement, the black power movement, and a radical turn in the women’s movement, immediately sparked a new social movement of gays and lesbians. Within a few weeks the Gay Liberation Front had been founded and spread quickly throughout the nation’s thriving gay urban communities. The GLF quickly transformed the existing gay rights movement, previously focused on mounting legal challenges to discriminatory laws, much as the young feminists had redirected the women’s movement from legal reform to cultural change. The GLF’s manifesto declared, “We are a revolutionary homosexual group of men and women formed with the realization that complete sexual liberation for all people cannot come about unless existing social institutions are abolished.” Influenced by all the radical identity movements of the time to take a “revolutionary” stand, the GLF had the greatest kinship with radical feminism. The two groups shared the belief that the proscribed gender roles of American society were oppressive to individuals, and they also shared a visceral suspicion of the nuclear family. “The family is the primary means by which this restricted sexuality is created and enforced, one GLF member wrote. “In a free society everyone will be gay.”
Lesbians and gays claiming heterosexuality wasn’t just optional but tyrannical and women talking openly about the pleasures of sex and the graphic details of illegal abortion made a lot of Americans queasy. Women asserting their right to all the perks previously enjoyed only by men alerted men that their own privileges would likely get renegotiated in the coming era. Many Americans were angered on a gut level by these feminists and gays, by their rejection of convention, by their disdain for classic femininity and masculinity, by their political radicalism and sexual experimentation.
But this phase of “liberation” lasted only a few years. It involved at most a couple tens of thousands of women and men in a nation of 205 million people. So, although it is easy to grasp why “women’s lib” and gays coming out of the closet might have ticked off a lot of people, it is hard to imagine how it could have sparked the delirium that has consumed American politics for four decades.
But that is what feminism and, to a lesser extent, gay liberation did. Not because a handful of women refused to shave or put on makeup or associate with men. Or even because some men and women retreated into a gay subculture removed from mainstream society. The two social movements sparked resistance because their proponents claimed to have exposed the family as a petty tyranny, a site of sexual repression, gender inequality, and cultural oppression, the place where our ambitions and our desires went to die.
Such a notion of the false promise of family life set itself against fundamental assumptions about American culture. That the nation was sustained by the selfless domestic labors of wives and mothers, that the goodness of the nation was secured by their superior virtue, that men needed to assume their natural role at the head of the family and serve as its representative in the public world. Dating as it did from pre–Civil War America, the ideal bore an exceedingly remote relation to present reality. American womanhood was like the insect trapped in the amber gem, precious when preserved in its ancient casement, ugly and disturbingly menacing in its liberated form. The creation of a politically polarized America, of a nation divided between enraged Republicans and beleaguered Democrats, can never be understood without first acknowledging that many people interpreted sexual self-determination, economic self-sufficiency, and political power for living women as a lethal attack on the American way.