Mass Media and the Shaping of American Feminism, 1963-1975

Mass Media and the Shaping of American Feminism, 1963-1975

Mass Media and the Shaping of American Feminism, 1963-1975

Mass Media and the Shaping of American Feminism, 1963-1975

Synopsis

Beginning in 1963 with the publication of Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique and reaching a high pitch ten years later with the televised mega-event of the "Battle of the Sexes" --the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs--the mass media were intimately involved with both the distribution and the understanding of the feminist message. This mass media promotion of the feminist profile, however, proved to be a double-edged sword, according to Patricia Bradley, author of "Mass Media and the Shaping of American Feminism, 1963-1975. Although millions of women learned about feminism by way of the mass media, detrimental stereotypes emerged overnight. Often the events mounted by feminists to catch the media eye crystalized the negative image. All feminists soon came to be portrayed in the popular culture as "bra burners" and "strident women." Such depictions not only demeaned the achievements of their movement but also limited discussion of feminism to those subjects the media considered worthy, primarily equal pay for equal work. Bradley's book examines the media traditions that served to curtail understandings of feminism. Journalists, following the craft formulas of their trade, equated feminism with the bizarre and the unusual. Even women journalists could not overcome the rules of "What Makes News." By the time Billie Jean King confronted Bobby Riggs on the tennis court, feminism had become a commodity to be shaped to attract audiences. Finally, in mass media's pursuit of the new, counter-feminist messages came to replace feminism on the news agenda and helped set in place the conservative revolution of the 1980s. Bradley offers insight into how mass media constructsimages and why such images have the kind of ongoing strength that discourages young women of today from calling themselves "feminist." The author also asks how public issues are to be raised when those who ask the questions a

Excerpt

This is a study of the intersection between mass media and the second wave of the women's movement, a period I have defined as ranging from 1963, the year of publication of The Feminine Mystique, to 1975, when the initial energy of the movement was over, at least as far as mass media was concerned. I have represented the high point of media attention as the Billie Jean King–Bobby Riggs tennis match in 1973, a popular culture event of national proportions that provided the media definition that the women's movement was most about permitting women entry into the male bastions of the workplace.

Entry into the workplace was indeed high among feminists' goals, but for many of the early feminists it was just one of the panoply of issues that aimed at examining gender roles and gender relationships. Second-wave activists not only sought entry for women into new areas of the workplace and an end to gender barriers generally but also sought to put on the public agenda issues of how women's secondary nature in U.S. society adversely reflected attention to women's health, child support concerns, rape and legal protections, and domestic abuseâ–issues that were discrete problems to be corrected as well as related to the overall pattern of culture. As long at the pattern remained, these activists argued, solutions would be impermanent or subverted.

This larger discussion slipped away as job equity came to dominate other ways of examining American life. Once it seemed assured that women would be allowed to enter what had been forbidden parts of the workplace, mass media's interest in the women's movement markedly dropped. The New York Times, the setter of the nation's news agenda, drastically curtailed its coverage of the National Organization for Women after 1975, despite the organization's ongoing efforts on behalf of passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, the use of challenges against broadcast licenses, efforts to implement of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and Title IX of the Education Act and other feminist issues (Barker-Plummer 2002: 192). By its own account, the Associated Press covered the Equal Rights Amendment “as if it were the culmination of a trend, but the movement for women's rights is one of the continuing 'trend' stories of the time. In this case, it may be too late to correct the shortcoming in coverage” (APME 1982: 168). When the “trend” story of women's rights was covered, it shifted to “first-women stories”â–women who became the first of their gender to enter previously male occupations. Such attention served to emphasize the definition that the women's movement had . . .

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