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Women's Liberation Movement  
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The phrase women's liberation was first published in Simone de Beauvoir's influential 1949 essay, The Second Sex, but the roots of the women's liberation movement reach back much further. Ever since men have claimed dominance over women in patriarchal societies, there have been strong women who have fought for dignity and human rights. At various times in history, these women have banded together to form feminist social movements, such as those that arose at the end of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and during the 1920s and 1940s.

These movements were often followed by backlash periods of increased suppression of women. Such a period of suppression occurred during the 1950s, which in turn inspired a new period of female rebellion that began in the 1960s. This latter rebellion constitutes the largest and most widely publicized social movement of women in history. It affected women of all races and classes around the world.

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Roots in the 1940s and 1950s

Much of the civil unrest of the 1960s stemmed from social changes that occurred during the previous decades. Because every hand was needed for the war effort, during World War II (1939-1945) women and people of color were offered a wider range of opportunities and independence than previously. Once the war ended, however, those in power attempted to restore society to its original shape, with white men on top, Blacks on the bottom, and women in the kitchen.

The repression of the 1950s acted like a pressure cooker on rage and frustration. Unwilling to return submissively to second-class status, African Americans began to demand equal rights. The civil rights movement they started became an inspiration for other movements.

The pressure cooker of the 1950s was especially stifling for women. During the war, with many men in military service, women had been actively sought for employment at more interesting jobs for higher wages than they had ever known before. Once the war ended, they were unceremoniously fired and their jobs given to men returning from the war.

Societal pressure urged women to become dependent and "feminine," and to stay home to take care of husband and family. Many women worked for the same reasons they had always worked, to support themselves and their families. But society's image of the 1950s woman was the aproned housewife. Women who did have jobs outside the home were usually relegated to dead-end "pink collar" jobs and paid far less than men.

In addition, the 1950s brought the creation of the housing development and the nuclear family. Millions of houses were built in suburbs, and middle class families moved in. Rather than the sprawling extended families that had been common on farms and in urban tenements, the "typical" suburban family included husband, wife, and a couple of children.

Within suburban developments, families were often isolated, each in its own house surrounded by its own yard. Most isolated of all were the women. While husbands left for work and children for school, wives stayed home, planning and preparing meals and doing housework. Doctors prescribed tranquilizers, barbiturates, and even lobotomies to help women accept their stifling roles serenely.

Improved Conditions for Change

In the early 1960s, the invention and distribution of the first reliable oral contraceptive, the birth control pill, opened a door in many women's trapped lives by giving them the power to plan or avoid pregnancies. In addition, the civil rights movement forced the passage of new laws. In particular, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbade job discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The addition of sex to the Civil Rights Act was almost an afterthought, but it proved to have significant consequences.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission did little at first to enforce the part of Title VII that applied to women, however. But in 1966, at the Third Annual Conference on the Status of Women in Washington, D. C., a group of 28 women formed an organization to fight for women's rights. They called it the National Organization for Women (NOW). By the end of the year, NOW had 300 members; by the end of the century it would have half a million.

The Scope of the Movement

Through mainstream organizations such as NOW, women began to demand changes in discriminatory laws, but women's liberation encompassed far more than the quest for legal rights. Women began to seek freedom, respect, and the right to an individual identity and a fulfilled life. No longer satisfied to define themselves in terms of husbands and families, these women performed the most radical act of all: they began to talk to each other.

Using a technique called "consciousness raising," women began to meet and talk about their lives. In these "cr" groups, women found that problems they had thought were individual were, in fact, shared by many other women. They also began to think that these personal problems could be solved only by changing society. This idea gave rise to one of the most important slogans of the 1960s women's liberation movement, "The personal is political."

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Influential feminist leader Betty Friedan (above, in 1960) famously dubbed lesbians a "lavender menace" in 1963.
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