The Paradox of Change: American Women in the 20th Century

By William H. Chafe | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 11
The Revival of Feminism

HELMAN Before all else, you are a wife and mother.

NORA That I no longer believe.I believe that before all else, I am a human being, just as much as you are— or at least that I should try to become one.

Henrik Ibsen, A Doll's House ( 1879)

IN THE FALL of 1962, the editors of Harper's observed a curious phenomenon. An extraordinary number of women seemed "ardently determined to extend their vocation beyond the bedroom, kitchen and nursery," but very few showed any interest in feminism.Both observations were essentially correct. In the years during and after World War II, millions of women had joined the labor force, many of them leaving the home to take jobs; but the expansion of their "sphere" occurred without fanfare and was not accompanied either by progress toward equality or an organized effort to protest traditional definitions of "woman's place." If many women were dissatisfied with what one housewife called the endless routine of "dishwashing, picking up, ironing and folding diapers," they had no collective forum to express their grievances. Women examined their futures privately and with an unmilitant air. There seemed to be no sanctioned alternative.

Eight years later, feminism competed with the war in Vietnam, student revolts, and inflation for headlines in the daily press. Women activists picketed the Miss America pageant, demonstrated at meetings of professional associations to demand equal employment opportunities, and insisted on equal access to previously all-male bars and restaurants in New York.They called a

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