Controversy and Coalition: The New Feminist Movement across Three Decades of Change

By Myra Marx Ferree; Beth B. Hess | Go to book overview

Chapter 7

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: Defending Gains, 1983-92

With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the national political agenda shifted markedly toward the Right. In the following decade, under both Presidents Reagan and Bush, many fronts on which feminist gains had been realized in the 1970s came under direct attack. Outspoken antifeminists were appointed to the judiciary and placed in charge of civil rights enforcement; social programs benefiting poor women were cut or abandoned; and reproductive choice was openly opposed. For the New Feminist Movement, the major challenges of the 1980s included maintaining public approval for positions that a popular president and the federal government no longer supported; resisting efforts to reframe feminist concerns in hostile language; and defending feminist organizations and their members from direct, sometimes violent, attack.

In this chapter, we argue that the hostile climate in which the New Feminist Movement existed in this period led to major changes in organization, strategy, and emphasis. We call this decade one of “defensive consolidation” because much of the movement’s efforts were directed at defending feminist perspectives and programs, and because such efforts required more extensive consolidation among feminist organizations regardless of their specific form of feminist perspective (radical, socialist, liberal, or career) or organizational strategy (educational/political, direct action/self-help, or cultural/entrepreneurial). Much of this consolidation occurred along substantive lines.

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