In early September 1968, American feminism announced its arrival to the nation, when a hundred women demonstrators from New York traveled down to Atlantic City to disrupt the Miss America pageant. The protest on the boardwalk was more or less antic and funny, skewering the proceedings inside the hall, which even then were starting to seem a bit tawdry. The feminists’ major events included the crowning of a sheep as Miss America. And although the substance of the protests was not so frivolous, the slogans and denunciations seemed to many viewers as absurdities, the latest sign that the country had gone mad. Women?? Them too?? What’s next??????!
Far from an evanescent offshoot of the civil rights and antiwar movements, radical feminism, or women’s liberation as converts called it, flourished on its own. Indeed, its success stemmed from its ability to split off from the left, spreading its ideas and potent sensibility via college students, the press, and the much-maligned liberal National Organization for Women into the conversations, actions, and private reflections of millions. Tuned to the millennial pitch of 1968—the apocalyptic sense of perpetrators’ wrongdoing and the fervor to purge the world of wrongs—women’s liberation generated a description of American women’s reality that had an enormous, enduring impact. Brilliant, melodramatic, and rambunctious, radical feminist proposals to “liberate” women quickly captured a national audience alternately appalled and enthralled, scandalized and persuaded.
Almost instantaneously, ’68 feminists produced two stunning ideas: that women are made, not born; and that culture itself is an instrument through which men ensure that women remain “second.” The propositions could be found in Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, although few knew it at the time: the book, published in the United States to brief acclaim in 1953, was still stowed away on the top shelves of bookcases in 1968. To theoretical determinations about sexual politics, American feminists added a blistering critique of men’s behavior in the here and now: in sex, housework (that is, dodging it), and child-rearing, in how they looked at women and talked about them and saddled them with language that announced their status in relationship to the neutral male subject (“Mrs.” compared to “Mr.,” “poetess” compared to “poet”). Much of this was over the top, but it did the otherwise impossible work of blasting away the hard shell of custom and assumptions about the way things were that protected men’s privileges and power to immobilize women, keeping them always second.
Women’s liberation broke with the New Left in 1968, but militant feminism retained many of the left’s habits and much of its style well into the 1980s: the heavy-handed theorizing, the scorn for compromise, the insistence that life was lived in blacks and whites and not in grays, the...
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