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How the Sexual Revolution Changed America Forever

With a little pharmaceutical ingenuity, the double standard relaxed its clawing grip on female humanity.

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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.”