The Liberationists

Forty-six years ago today, national feminist groups staged the Women’s Strike for Equality. “If the success of media activism is measured by the amount of news coverage generated, the Strike for Equality hit the mother lode,” Bonnie J. Dow reports in the UIP book Watching Women’s Liberation, 1970.

Strike Day was the brainchild of Betty Friedan, who had proposed it in a lengthy speech at the Chicago NOW convention in March 1970 as she was leaving the organization’s presidency after four embattled years. . . . From the beginning, the strike was conceived as media activism, but not simply in terms of getting media attention for what Friedan saw as feminism’s “real” issues, long a concern for NOW—a corollary goal was to take the focus away from those issues that imperiled the movement’s image.

Friedan originally aimed high:

She proposed that “women who are doing menial chores in the offices cover their typewriters and lose their notebooks, the telephone operators unplug their switchboards, the waitresses stop waiting, cleaning women stop cleaning, and everyone who is doing a job for which a man would be paid more—stop—every woman pegged forever as assistant, doing jobs for which men get the credit—stop.”

dowFriedan’s allies prevailed on her to walk back the ambitious idea, for fear a strike would make the National Organization for Women, and by extension the entire feminist movement, look foolish when it inevitably flopped. Instead, a quittin’ time march would begin at five p.m.

In retrospect, does a strike or even a march seem like an overreaction? Was the patriarchy really that oppressive, or did Friedan channel the passions of an overwrought time? The Equal Rights Amendment was in the air. Wasn’t the battle won already?

Not exactly.

ABC’s coverage was by far the most egregiously sexist. Its lead story on August 26 began with anchor Howard K. Smith quoting Vice President Spiro Agnew’s observation that “three things have been difficult to tame: the oceans, fools, and women,” and that while the oceans largely had been tamed, “fools and women will take a little longer.” At the close of the report, Smith quoted West Virginia Senator Jennings Randolph, who had called feminists a “small band of braless bubbleheads” (the senator’s identical comment would appear in all three networks’ coverage).

Pervy old Howard would get in his own quip, too:

Finally, Smith’s editorial commentary on August 25 had as a central focus his fear that women’s liberation would mean that women would cease wearing miniskirts, a garment that he called “the biggest advance in urban beautification since Central Park.”

As for Walter Cronkite—for those too young to remember Cronkite, imagine a mustachioed Morgan Freeman for the entire nation—Dow tells us:

Observing that the Nineteenth Amendment was passed fifty years earlier, Cronkite then said, “On this anniversary, a militant minority of women’s liberationists were on the street across the country to demand equal employment for women, care centers for mothers, child abortions for anyone who wants them, and general equality between men and women.” Designating the protestors as a “militant minority” characterized them as deviant, from women in general and among feminists as a whole, although there was no context and no evidence provided to substantiate their militancy. As in earlier coverage of feminist protest, any crowd of women was assumed to be an army on the march.