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social sciences

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Women's Liberation Movement  
page: 1  2  

While men, from government officials to radical leftists, had trivialized women's issues, by talking together women began to construct a political analysis of a sexist society that encompassed the government, the educational system, the media, religion, the family, and even the language. Rape, abortion rights, and day care became issues just as important as equal pay for equal work.

The new feminists rejected the traditional role that had been imposed upon women of the 1950s. In one of the most famous actions of the women's liberation movement, in 1968, a hundred women gathered to protest the shallow values of the Miss America pageant. Into a trashcan, they threw symbols of the sexual objectification of women such as bras, girdles, and make-up. Though nothing was burned, the media seized on the event, and feminists were "bra-burners" ever after.

Sponsor Message.

By the late 1960s, the women's liberation movement had expanded with energy and excitement. Women started women's centers, women's health clinics, rape crisis centers, and bookstores. They formed political groups that published feminist political writings, such as Redstockings' "Bitch Manifesto." Bread and Roses in Boston took over a building on the Harvard campus where they set up a day care center and taught classes for ten days before being forced out. They used money that they collected from supporters to open one of the longest running women's centers in the United States. In 1969, Cornell University in Ithaca, New York became the first college to offer accredited Women's Studies courses.

Diversity in the Movement

Although many defined the movement as white and middle class, working class women and women of color were some of the most important founders of women's liberation. Strong Black feminists such as Cellestine Ware, Florynce Kennedy, and Barbara Omolada were pivotal in the formation of feminist theory.

African American women's groups such as Mothers Alone Working, formed in 1965, and the Mount Vernon/New Rochelle Group, formed by Pat Robinson in 1960, may not have called themselves feminist, but they were models of women's liberation. Most radical feminist groups came to place on their agendas the struggle against racism and classism alongside the struggle against sexism, seeing them inextricably related.

Lesbians in the Movement

Each of these early feminist groups had lesbian members and lesbians among the leadership. After the Stonewall rebellion in the summer of 1969, most of these lesbians became unwilling to remain closeted. However, many straight feminists were . They were reluctant to admit or accept the presence of out lesbians within the women's liberation movement.

Betty Friedan, the first president of NOW and author of the pivotal 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, coined the phrase "lavender menace" to describe what she saw as the damaging effect of lesbians within the movement. Unable to resist the challenge, many radical lesbians, who were already working hard to fight sexism, had lavender t-shirts emblazoned with the words "lavender menace." They wore them en masse to the Second Congress of United Women in New York City in 1970 to demonstrate that lesbians were already a major part of the women's liberation movement.

Although homophobia continued to exist within the movement, as elsewhere, in 1971 NOW made support for lesbian and gay rights part of its policy, leading the way for other liberal feminist groups to do the same.

Success and Backlash

The women's liberation movement flourished into the late 1970s, gaining energy as it spread. All over the country, women published newspapers, such as Washington, D. C.'s off our backs and Denver's Big Mama Rag. Lesbian feminists published literary journals, such as Moonstorm in St. Louis and Amazon Quarterly in Berkeley. Because male-dominated publishing houses could not be counted on to publish women's work, feminists started their own publishing houses, including Spinsters, Ink, Kitchen Table Press, and the Feminist Press.

Women gathered in women's restaurants, coffeehouses, and bars. They listened to women's music, like that of Alix Dobkin and Meg Christian, and watched women's theater groups, such as At the Foot of the Mountain in Minneapolis. Feminists created a women's culture, which was closely intermingled with lesbian culture.

As frequently happens, however, there was a conservative backlash to the explosion of activity and energy of the women's movement. Anti-feminists had always trivialized the movement, calling feminists humorless and strident, but by the 1980s, conservatives began to treat women's liberation as a fait accompli. Women had once been discriminated against, laws had been changed, and now all was well, they said. Young women became reluctant to call themselves feminists and some began to call themselves "post feminist."

However, the women's liberation movement lives on, both in the work of older feminists who never stopped working to address the issues of sexism, and in the younger women who continue to be inspired by the courage and dedication of generations of women who fought for liberation, lesbians prominent among them.

Tina Gianoulis

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social sciences >> Overview:  African Americans

Glbtq African Americans frequently experience racism in predominantly white glbtq communities and homophobia in heterosexual black society, but the multiple oppressions faced by black glbtq people are now being recognized.

social sciences >> Overview:  French Gay Liberation Movement

The French gay liberation movement was born during the early 1970s on the foundation of a courageous, if conservative, homophile movement and the thrust of a massive wave of social activism.

social sciences >> Overview:  Gay Left

The Gay Left refers to a cluster of positions on the political spectrum that has existed within the lesbian and gay rights movement at least since the Stonewall riots.

social sciences >> Overview:  Homophobia

Homophobia was originally defined as a "dread of being in close quarters with homosexuals," but it is now sometimes used to describe any form of anti-gay bias.

social sciences >> Overview:  Lesbian Feminism

The dominant ideology among politicized lesbians during the 1970s and 1980s, Lesbian Feminism was based on the premise that lesbianism and feminism were inextricably linked.

arts >> Overview:  Music: Women's

Stylistically diverse and continually evolving, women's music has broadened over time, but it remains committed to lesbian visibility and feminist values.

social sciences >> Overview:  Patriarchy

Patriarchy, literally "the rule of the fathers," is a social system in which men hold positions of power and women are oppressed and glbtq people are treated negatively.

social sciences >> Overview:  Women's Studies

Women's studies, an interdisciplinary academic field that was inaugurated at major universities around 1970, is now offered at every conceivable type of academic institution throughout the world.

literature >> Beauvoir, Simone de

Best known for her revolutionary study of women's condition, The Second Sex (1949) and as the companion of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir had a number of same-sex relationships during her life.

arts >> Dobkin, Alix

A lifelong progressive activist and a pioneer in women's music, Alix Dobkin not only helped create a new era of women's music in the 1970s but also paved the way for mainstsream lesbian musicians.

social sciences >> National Organization for Women (NOW)

The National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded in 1966 with the goal of bringing about political, social, and legal equality for all women.

social sciences >> Radicalesbians

A short-lived but important group, the Radicalesbians was instrumental in bringing visibility to lesbians in the American feminist movement of the early 1970s.


Cade, Toni, ed. The Black Woman: An Anthology. New York: Signet, 1970.

Deckard, Barbara Sinclair. The Women's Movement: Political, Socioeconomic, and Psychological Issues. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.

Gornick, Vivian. Essays in Feminism. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.

Morgan, Robin, ed. Sisterhood Is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women's Liberation Movement. New York: Random House, 1970.

Rossi, Alice S. The Feminist Papers: From Adams to de Beauvoir. New York: Columbia University Press, 1973.

White, William. North American Reference of Women's Liberation. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.


    Citation Information
    Author: Gianoulis, Tina  
    Entry Title: Women's Liberation Movement  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2004  
    Date Last Updated December 17, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  


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