Ruth Rosen Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Women's Movement in Historical Perspective: Conversation with Ruth Rosen, historian and columnist; 12/5/01 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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The Modern Women's Movement: The Younger Generation

In telling this story, one of the major themes is the change in women's consciousness. Your book begins with The Feminine Mystique. Tell us a little about that, and how that set the stage for all that was to follow.

In many ways that book, even though it did not reflect all women's lives, had a profound affect on people who read it, because it described an archetype, an ideal archetype of the fifties, of a woman who lived only to be a mother, only who lived through her husband and her children, who had no fundamental identity of her own. Although it doesn't reflect the working-class women and it doesn't reflect minority women's experience, it did reflect what the ideal was of the 1950s, which was already crumbling when Betty Friedan's book came out in 1963. I argued in my book that there was a whole generation of middle-class educated girls coming of age whose parents' expectations was that they were going to go to college. And they, in turn, feared becoming like that stereotype. They feared becoming an imprisoned mother and housewife who would not use her education. They created the noise; they politicized these issues rather than just living them out as a different kind of life than their mothers'. They politicized it, and, in effect, created the women's movement. They formed the shock troops of the early women's movement.

But there's an older generation that comes out of old-left politics and out of the labor union activity who formed the older women's groups. They are the ones who founded NOW and other groups that were less noisy, less counter-cultural, didn't come out in the antiwar movement or the Civil Rights movement quite so directly. They came out of the labor unionism, they came out of the Communist Party, they came out of leftist organizations from the [second world] war and the pre-war period.

We'll talk about that dynamic in a minute, because it's an interesting dynamic as you look at the sixties. But I'm intrigued by this moment of change in consciousness. Because in the preface to the book, you describe teaching at Davis and suddenly realizing that you had students who were benefiting from a change of consciousness, but were not aware of what it had been like before.

That's right.

Give us an account of this fault line, and what it was like before -- what it meant for a woman, who was, say, at the top of her class, who got a B.A and went on to a professional or graduate school, and the constraint on her opportunity.

The most important thing to look at before that fault line is that everything seemed normal. No matter what happened, it was the way life was. So if someone were raped, well, she'd be embarrassed, not talk about it. If someone were beaten by her husband, there was no language to describe it. If someone was discriminated against, well, that's just what happens, that's just life. You know, get a job; well, if you're paid less, that's just the way it is. Or if you're not promoted, well that's just the way it is. You have a dream and you can't make it because women aren't in that field, well, that's just the way it is. Everything seemed normal. And, moreover -- and this is what I really talk about that I think it's so important -- there wasn't a language for all these, what I end up calling "hidden injuries of sex." There wasn't a language. There was no language for sexual harassment. There was no language for domestic violence. There was no language for all these things.

What happened in the 1970s is that early activists in the women's movement began to name these injuries. One year after another, they took an issue, after issue, after issue and named them. By the time I came to that moment when I was talking with my several hundred students in my class, those things had been named. I realized I was writing on the board all these things, and for my students, it was like, "So what's the big deal?" And I realized they did not know that people had been sexually harassed at work and thought, "Well, my fault," or "bad luck," or "that's just the way life is; that's life." That's what their mothers had told them. That's what they grew up knowing. That's life. Now people are saying, "No, that's not fair. It's unjust." And more: "I'm going to seek redress."

[Today] laws have been passed about every one of those injuries -- about rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment, discrimination, equal pay -- all of these issues that have to do with life both within a home and at the workplace, which are the two major localities; and those two places were changed. People had to behave differently at home and they had to behave differently at work. Both men and women got new responsibilities and new rights.

That is the impact of the women's movement. Those students grew up knowing those things and taking those for granted, as well they should. But that's the history I wanted to evoke. I wanted people to understand there was a time before. There was a time before, when my mother was sexually harassed when she was a worker, and she told me, "If you ever get a job and you work, and this happens to you, what you have to do is you have to act in such a way that you don't encourage it." The whole onus was on me. Mothers gave their daughters advice on how to fend off problems, but not how to get redress, not how to get justice, because they didn't know.

I wanted to give the people a sense that this is the way life was before, briefly and quickly in the beginning, and then to show that the real genius of the women's movement was to name things for which there was no language. Once you name something, you can cause a debate. Once you cause a debate, you can cause a policy debate. And then you can have a whole society arguing, "Is this fair? Is it just?" And the fact is, in a democracy, you get lots of men saying, "That's not fair. I hadn't thought about it before, but that's not right." And that's why the women's movement succeeded so well, not because women named it, but because there is a sense of Americans always asking, "Is something fair?" That is an egalitarian ethic that we have in our society. "Is that fair? Hmm, no."

Lots of men are fathers. They have daughters. They have sisters. They're not impervious to those questions. Once you've asked those questions, you get a critical mass of men and women saying, "You know, that's not right. We ought to pass a law against that. We ought to create a guideline. We ought to have a voluntary statement that this is not acceptable behavior." Then you start getting cultural, social, and, in the most extreme cases, legal changes in rules of evidence and in admissibility, the ways in which courts operate, and so forth. You get structural and institutional changes.

And you get different judges and different people ...

You get different people, that's right.

... who are actually making the law or arguing the cases.

One of the points in the book that is quite striking regarding this new generation of women in the sixties who were a key factor in the change in consciousness, was about their experience in the movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-War movement, where they suddenly realized that they had more to offer than typing the letters and going out to get the coffee. And that was a very important turning point, was it not?

It was. It was important because, again, it goes back to the question, "Is this fair?" These women, like the men, were some of the best and the brightest and most exciting and intellectually brave people of their generation. They did extraordinary things, as the men did. But the work that they did was often devalued or not valued. They were often marginalized within the movement. And, yet, it was the freest place. If they had been outside the movement and they had been at, say, twenty-one, already married and a mother, they would have been more constrained, they would have had less freedom.

People expected that the world within the movement [would be different]. Actually, these movements were about peace and justice, and equality. And so it was bumping up against the contradiction of less equality than they would have liked. But the situation, in fact, gave them more freedom than any other place might have given them.

So they began to push the limits. They began to ask for more responsibility; they wanted to be able to write manifestos. Some of the women, for example, who were doing incredible organizing work were angry and disappointed that the work that they did was not valued, even though it was more important sometimes than the position papers that were just going onto the shelf, that the men were writing. So it was also a question of the work they were doing.

So they saw in the movement the inequality they were experiencing. And then from what you were describing, the next stage was to say, "Hey, well, wait a minute, this is also going on at home, in the family."

Yes, that's right.

And that is also a critical turning point.

That didn't happen right away. That really happened more in consciousness-raising groups, because that was really difficult to see. After all, every woman is in a home by herself. And it's very hard ... it's so normal to take care of people, that is the expected role, that it took women coming together in these small consciousness-raising groups, like the little group I joined, and listen to people talk about, "Why am I particularly suited to wash these toilet bowls? What is it about my education that makes me preferably suited for this? How come I'm expected to be involved in the movement and also hold down a job, take care of the baby, and also have dinner on the table? Why are we not sharing these jobs? In a movement that's dedicated toward equality and peace and justice, why are the women in this movement still playing these subordinate wifely roles?"

These women weren't into the movement in order to be wives, they were in it to be independent people who are activists. And they kept bumping up against this blurry identity. On the one hand, they were girlfriends and wives, on the other hand, they were movement activists. And they didn't quite overlap perfectly.

So I think it was in these consciousness-raising groups that people began to bristle, "Wait a minute, how come I have to do this? We're doing the exact same thing." Or, "We're both graduate students, we're both movement activists, and how come I do the laundry, I take the dry cleaning, I get the shopping done, and I cook the meals? How come? Where is this written? Is there an Eleventh Commandment?" Just questioning, again. For people who are used to questioning received wisdom, this didn't take a long time. These were people who were used to questioning the American government's foreign policy in Southeast Asia, the American support of apartheid in the South, legal apartheid. So, these were people who were used to questioning authority, and it didn't take long for them to question an amazing array of both legal and informal customs.

Next Page: The Modern Women's Movement: The Older Generation

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