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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 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.