Women's Rights and Gendered Spaces in 1970s Boston

By Spain, Daphne | Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies, January 2011 | Go to article overview

Women's Rights and Gendered Spaces in 1970s Boston


Spain, Daphne, Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies


The status of women and the nature of cities have changed dramatically since World War II. In fact, the two phenomena are related. By pursuing greater rights, the contemporary women's movement created opportunities for women to claim urban space for daily use. The struggle for reproductive control took shape in women's health clinics. Establishing the right to personal safety in the home produced shelters for victims of domestic violence. And the quest for rights to an independent identity was expressed through women's centers, feminist bookstores, and banking facilities. These were voluntarily gendered spaces created by and for women, and new to American cities and suburbs. Despite schisms caused by internal arguments over organizational structure, goals, sexuality, class, and race, feminism had revolutionary consequences for the rights of all women, not the least of which was the opening up of the city. Using interviews and archival data for 1970s Boston, I expand our understanding of the Second Wave by exploring its spatial consequences.

WOMEN'S RIGHTS AND GENDERED SPACES: I97OS BOSTON

During the 1970s feminists in Boston declared their rights to their own bodies by establishing women's health clinics and domestic violence shelters. In doing so, they wrote a modern chapter in the distinguished history about how women have shaped the city.

Almost one hundred years earlier, in 1877, the Women's Educational and Industrial Union opened on Boylston Street as a center to promote women's intellectual and economic independence. (1) Elite and middle-class women of the era also sought a role in urban politics. They became "municipal housekeepers" who did more than clean up the city the way they cleaned their homes. By learning as much as they could about local government, these women influenced policies that improved air and water quality, public health, and children's welfare. Other women of privilege established settlement houses that became "neighborhood living rooms" where immigrants could take English and citizenship classes and escape filthy tenements. Settlement house residents also lobbied for housing reform that had a major impact on the regulation of tenement construction. Women often worked together through voluntary associations to provide places of respite in the urban landscape. Members of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) and the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) opened vocational schools and boardinghouses to educate and protect young women living in the city away from their families. According to historian Sarah Deutsch, women in the late nineteenth century "took a hand in altering the map of the city and defining its meaning." (2)

Women's successes in making themselves visible and viable in the urban realm were remarkable, given the general male intransigence to their presence. For example, wealthy male patrons of Chicago's I lull I louse cut off donations when Jane Addams backed Eugene Debs and the workers in the 1894 Pullman railroad strike. (3) Yet Hull House persevered for many more decades as a major site of Progressive reform. (4) Barkeepers vigorously opposed temperance, yet the Woman's Christian Temperance Union closed thousands of saloons in its battles for Prohibition. When women marched for suffrage, some men were so outraged that they attacked demonstrators. On March 3, 1913, the day before President Woodrow Wilson's inauguration, more than five thousand suffragists took to the streets of Washington, DC, on behalf of their cause. Mobs heckled, tripped, and shoved the women, sending more than one hundred to the hospital and injuring hundreds more. (5) Yet women eventually won the vote in 1920.

Much had changed for women by the twentieth century, but much remained to be done. The women's movement of the 1970s, known as the Second Wave, continued the fight for women's rights." (6) Legalized abortion, personal safety, and equal pay and credit opportunities were the most important issues.

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