Bonnie J. Dow, Watching Women's Liberation 1970: Feminism's Pivotal Year on the Network News

By Freeman, Barbara M. | Labour/Le Travail, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Bonnie J. Dow, Watching Women's Liberation 1970: Feminism's Pivotal Year on the Network News


Freeman, Barbara M., Labour/Le Travail


Bonnie J. Dow, Watching Women's Liberation 1970: Feminism's Pivotal Year on the Network News (Urbana: University of Illinois Press 2014)

Media historian Bonnie J. Dow chose to examine the year 1970 in her study of the media coverage of American feminism because, she writes, the three major television networks of the day--CBS, NBC and ABC--never gave it as much concentrated attention as a social movement before that year, or since. Dow approaches her case studies from a rhetorical perspective as she carefully examines both the verbal and visual media messages as well as the feminists' responding strategies during key events. Her overall findings, she writes, are more contradictory and complex than previous studies on feminism in the media would indicate.

The television networks, Dow notes, were already attuned to the social movements of the era and generally onside with equality or liberal feminism, especially regarding employment and education. They had much more difficulty grasping radical feminism, with its emphasis on revolutionary theory and process, not to speak of the activists' unruly behavior at a time when women were still expected to be well-behaved and moderate in their demands.

The first chapter analyses previous print media coverage of the second wave, identifying some of the rhetorical tropes that surfaced in the 1970 TV coverage and their impact on the feminists' responses to journalists. Specifically Dow dissects the major newspapers' coverage of the feminist protest at the Miss America Pageant in 1968 as a precedent to the kind of TV coverage that would follow the movement later, including the few available archived TV news clips of the pageant. She notes how even well-meaning journalists compared this all-white event to the staging of the Miss Black America Pageant in the same neighbourhood on the same day, pitting feminism versus moderate civil rights activism, women against men, and feminists against traditionalists. She writes that the feminist protestors were framed as self-indulgent, maladjusted, unattractive women intent on burning their bras (a myth--they threw them in a trash can) rather than as seasoned political actors who had justifiable grievances against systemic sexism. The follow chapters further explore these misconceptions and stereotypes, most of them about events that occurred in 1970.

These essays cover the activists' attempts to disrupt the Senate's hearings on the birth control pill--the women objected that the pill was unsafe--as well as nine mostly (but not all) negative reports on the nascent feminist movement on the CBS and NBC networks. The Media Women's large sit-in at the Ladies' Home Journal over both the lack of equal opportunities there and the magazine's traditionalist content forms the basis of a chapter that is mainly a study of the organizers' tactics and the print coverage of the event and its aftermath. There was actually little TV exposure as only Marlene Sanders of ABC was there to provide a news report in which she emphasized the liberal, equal opportunity angle to the protest. The next study examines a well-meaning but limited Sanders documentary that, Dow argues, ignored women of colour, working-class women and lesbians, as well as undercut the more radical insights of the women's liberation movement in favour of a predominantly liberal rationale for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). She next analyses the pivotal Women's Strike for Equality that was initially organized for all women by the liberal National Organization for Women (now), now, led by Betty Friedan, wanted to undercut the media's recent focus on sexual politics rather than equality rights, daycare, and abortion, but the three TV networks generally cast the strike as a radical event anyway. …

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