Q&A with Watching Women’s Liberation, 1970 author Bonnie J. Dow

DowF14Bonnie J. Dow is an associate professor and chair of communication studies and an associate professor of women’s and gender studies at Vanderbilt University. She answered some questions about her book Watching Women’s Liberation, 1970: Feminism’s Pivotal Year on the Network News.

Q: You mark 1970 as the year that saw second wave feminism get significant national media coverage for the first time. Why was this year the turning point?

Bonnie Dow: 1970 was a huge turning point because that was the year that women’s liberation became a focus for the national television network news divisions. The national print coverage had been building since 1968, and the networks finally recognized that the movement was an important story. Starting in January 1970, with the very first nightly network news story on women’s liberation activity—a protest at the Senate’s hearings on the birth control pill—the Big 3 network new divisions did more than 20 separate stories on the movement and its activities over the course of the year. This coverage made women’s liberation truly national news in a whole new way. NBC and CBS both did a multi-part series on the movement, and ABC produced a half hour documentary about it, in addition to coverage of different feminist protests.

Q: What differentiated the liberal and radical branches of the feminist movement? How were their media presences distinct?

Dow: The liberal branch of the movement, most visible through the National Organization for Women, or NOW, which formed in 1966, was interested in reforming existing institutions and in passing legislation or pursuing court cases designed to level the playing field for women. They were primarily interested in public discrimination in areas such as employment and education. The liberal branch was dominated by professional women who had experience in government, media, and politics, and they tended to be skilled in working with bureaucracy and in institutional contexts. As a result, they had a professionalized approach to handling mass media. They knew how to “work” the press, how to prepare effective messages, how to generate positive coverage, and they understood the importance of providing accessible spokespersons. In short, they saw media coverage as a useful tool for creating pressure on decision-makers, and they worked to exploit it, often quite successfully.

The radical branch, in contrast, was made up of women who were generally younger than those in the liberal branch, and many radical feminists had come to women’s liberation after working in the student, anti-war, and civil rights movements. They began to form their own groups around 1967. Generally, radical feminists were invested in revolution, not reform, and they had a goal of eliminating what were then called “sex roles,” which they saw as the root of women’s oppression. Unlike the liberals’ focus on public discrimination, radicals addressed deeply personal topics, such as sex, marriage, body image, sexual assault, and sexuality, and they often did their analysis of those issues through consciousness-raising. Radicals did not see mass media as a useful resource in the same ways as liberal feminists; they distrusted mainstream media, and they focused on developing their own independent publications to get out their message. Many had experienced the negative media treatment of other countercultural movements, and they were wary of reporters, especially men, that they thought would not understand their issues. Unlike liberal feminists, they did not try to adapt their messages to reporters. For example, most radical feminists saw hierarchy as patriarchal, thus they did not appoint leaders or spokespersons that would have made it easier for reporters to cover them. Journalists sometimes simply anointed certain radical feminists as leaders without their consent, treating them as representative voices for feminism, precisely what radicals were trying to avoid.

Q: What were some of the general trends in the portrayal of the feminist movement on network news in this era? Did network news coverage work distort the message of the movement at all?

Dow: What I found is that the network news coverage of feminism in 1970 was a contradictory mix of positive and negative reporting, although almost all of the coverage found liberal feminist issues easier to report, in the sense that those issues resonated with a public that understood demands for equality because of exposure to civil rights claims. In fact, reporters tended to rely on race/sex, racism/sexism, and feminism/civil rights analogies to make sense of feminist claims, in ways that were sometimes meant to legitimate feminism and sometimes meant to dismiss it as less important than racism. Radicals generally fared worse on television, as their claims were less familiar and more complex, and some stories were quite dismissive of radical feminism, depicting it as extremist and threatening while promoting liberal demands for equality of opportunity and wages as reasonable. Yet some reporters tried very hard not to sensationalize radical feminism, merely treating it as one facet of a diverse movement. One of the aspects of this reporting from 1970 that would surprise contemporary readers is that demands for abortion rights were generally treated as non-controversial.

One of the most interesting dimensions of the coverage from 1970 is how network news reporters used visuals. Some of the clearly negative coverage used images to make radical feminists appear wild-eyed and eccentric, generally using the camera to objectify women and to make feminist protest into a kind of spectacle while not interviewing feminists at all, as though simply seeing them in action was enough. On the other hand, some reporters used images quite strategically to offer support for feminist claims, such as by showing women capably performing the jobs that protective legislation assumed they could not do. This coverage makes very clear that the camera did important rhetorical work and was far from an “objective” reflection of what was going on. Reporters made all kinds of editing choices that made a real difference in how feminists and feminist ideas were portrayed. All news is a kind of distortion in that it always emphasizes some ideas at the expense of others. One clear example is that television coverage of the movement depicted women’s liberation as an exclusively white and middle-class affair, when women of color were active in feminism in a variety of ways.

Q: How was second wave feminism portrayed by the main stream media in comparison to the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement?

Dow: Gender made an enormous difference in reporting on women’s liberation. By that I mean that other countercultural movements had been fronted by men, and it wasn’t considered unnatural for men to be out in public making political demands. For women, in this case the middle-class white women on whom national news focused, it was very different. Reporters were fascinated by whether or not feminists were married, whether or not they “hated” men, and how they were like or unlike “ordinary” women. TV reporters commonly interviewed “ordinary women,” usually housewives, to ask them how they felt about women’s liberation, and such women generally dismissed the movement’s relevance for them.

Of course, civil rights coverage did not feature “ordinary” Black Americans dismissing the claims of the civil rights movement, but some coverage of feminism implied that since all women did not agree with feminist grievances, that those grievances must be without merit. Generally, these kinds of tactics were an indication of how unusual—and shocking—women who protested in public and made political demands were perceived to be. These women were deviant, the coverage implied, because their proper place was in the private sphere– at home, tending to their families. Although coverage of other movements had questioned the credibility of movement leaders, the questioning of feminists’ credibility as political actors was uniquely based in gender roles that held that such behavior was unseemly for women, and that feminists must be “unnatural” women who were psychologically unstable, who had been rejected by men, and who generally had personal, not political, motives for their grievances. Importantly, television news reporters and producers assumed that they were speaking to an audience of white, middle-class, and middle aged men, which made a profound difference in how they treated feminism. Male reporters in particular, even the venerable Walter Cronkite, often talked about women’s liberation as though it was bewildering and a kind of fad that would surely pass.

Q: How was coverage of the movement on TV news different from coverage in print media? What role did TV news have in shaping public opinion?

Dow: Print reporting in general was more detailed, included more interviews with movement activists—allowing feminists to speak for themselves was rarer in TV reporting—and included more context for making sense of movement issues, all of which can be traced to the greater space available in print outlets. Television news had to tell stories quickly, and often emphasized images at the expense of explanation. Another difference was that print venues were able to draw on a pool of feminist journalists, and many of the articles in newspapers and magazines in the early period I examine were written by women who were either sympathetic with the movement’s claims, or were actually active in the movement. Such journalists worked very hard to explain the movement to readers in ways that made sense, and they often published in women’s magazines, many of which (eventually) took the movement quite seriously. Thus, one of the distinctions of print coverage of the movement was that it, unlike network news coverage, often appeared in outlets that targeted women, the audience that the movement sought. Those outlets included not just women’s magazines, but also The New York Times, which did a great deal of informative and generally respectful coverage of the movement in the 1970s on their “Style” page (formerly the “Women’s” page).

How television news moves public opinion is difficult, if not impossible, to precisely measure, but the explosion in television coverage in 1970 drastically increased awareness of the women’s movement. After the August 1970 Women’s Strike for Equality, a CBS News poll found that 1 in 5 Americans over age eighteen reported that they had knowledge of women’s liberation, and interviews with movement members between 1969 and 1971 revealed that women who joined feminist groups before the end of 1969 did so because of personal contacts, but about a quarter of those who joined after 1969 attributed their interest in the movement solely to what they had learned from mass media.


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