The Longest Revolution

The Longest Revolution

American women entered the twentieth century without the right to vote and ended it with the right “to have it all” as long as they “do it all.” Progress? It depends on whom you ask. The nation’s citizens are deeply divided about the changes that have transformed the lives of women. At the center of the “culture wars” remains the debate over the proper role for modern women in American society.

This has been the longest revolution of the century. Bursts of artillery fire, mass strikes, massacred protesters, bomb explosions—these are our images of revolution. But some revolutions are harder to recognize: no cataclysms mark their beginnings or ends, no casualties are left lying in pools of blood. Though people may suffer greatly, their pain is hidden from public view. Such was the case with the modern women’s movement. Activists didn’t hurl tear gas canisters at the police, burn down buildings or fight in the streets. Nor did they overthrow the government, achieve economic dominance or political hegemony. But they did subvert authority and transform society in irrevocable ways; so much so that young women who come of age in the twentieth-first century may not even recognize the America that existed before the feminist revolution came about.

Consider the last half of the twentieth century. During the 1950s, before the revolution began, the president of Harvard University saw no reason to increase the number of female undergraduates because the university’s mission was to “train leaders,” and Harvard’s Lamont Library was off limits to women for fear they would distract male students. Newspaper ads separated jobs by sex; employers paid women less than men for the same work. Bars often refused to serve women; banks routinely denied women credit or loans. Some states even excluded women from jury duty. Radio producers considered women’s voices too abrasive to be on air; television executives believed women didn’t have enough credibility to anchor the news; women didn’t run big corporations or universities, work as firefighters or police officers, sit on the Supreme Court, install electrical equipment, climb telephone poles, or own construction companies. All hurricanes bore female names, thanks to the widely held view that women brought chaos and destruction to society. As late as l970, Edgar Berman, a well-known physician, proclaimed on television that women were too tortured by hormonal disturbances to assume the presidency of the nation. Few people knew more than a few women professors, doctors, or lawyers. Everyone addressed a woman as either Miss or Mrs., depending on her marital status, and if a woman wanted an abortion, legal nowhere in America, she risked her life, searching in back alleys for a competent and compassionate doctor. The public believed that any rape victims had probably “asked for it”; most women felt too ashamed to report it; and no language existed to make sense of marital r...

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