The women's liberation movement, as it was called in the sixties and seventies, was the largest social movement in the history of the United States--and probably in the world. Its impact has been felt in every home, school and workplace, in every form of art, entertainment and sport, in all aspects of personal and public life in the United States. Like a river overflowing its banks and seeking a new course, it permanently altered the landscape.
In fact, contrary to the punditry, which claims that the women's movement is dead and that the public has turned against it, public-opinion research shows the opposite. In 1998 a Time/CNN poll found that 51 percent of Americans believe that feminists have been helpful to women; 53 percent of women that feminists are "in touch with the average American woman." A separate poll among blacks found that 65 percent think black feminists help the black community.
The movement's impact cannot be easily encapsulated. Its judicial and legislative victories include the legalization of abortion in 1973, federal guidelines against coercive sterilization, rape-shield laws that encourage more women to prosecute their attackers, affirmative action programs that aim to correct past discrimination--although not the Equal Rights Amendment, which failed in 1982, just three states short of the required two-thirds.
But the most salient accomplishments occurred not in law but in the economy and the society, involving an accumulation of changes in the way people live, dress, dream of their future and make a living. Feminists turned violence against women, previously a well-kept secret, into a public political issue; made rape, incest, battering and sexual harassment understood as crimes; and got public funding for shelters for battered women. Because of feminist pressure, changes in education have been substantial: Curriculums and textbooks have been rewritten to promote equal opportunity for girls, in the universities and professional schools more women are admitted and funded, and a new and rich feminist scholarship has, in some disciplines, overcome opposition and won recognition. Title IX, passed in 1972 to mandate equal access to educational programs, has worked a virtual revolution in sports. As regards health, for example, many physicians and hospitals have made major improvements in the treatment of women; about 50 percent of medical students are women; women successfully fought their exclusion from medical research; and diseases affecting women, such as breast cancer, now receive better funding thanks to women's efforts. In supporting families, feminists organized daycare centers, demanded daycare funding from government and private employers, developed standards and curriculums for early childhood education, fought for the rights of mothers and for a decent welfare system.
Feminists have also struggled for better employment conditions for women. They won greater access to traditionally male occupations, from construction to the professions and business. They entered and changed the unions and have been successful at organizing previously nonunion workers such as secretaries, waitresses, hospital workers and flight attendants. As the great majority of American women increasingly need to work for wages throughout their lives, the feminist movement tried to educate men to share in housework and childrearing. Although women still do the bulk of the housework and childrearing, it is also commonplace today to see men in the playgrounds, the supermarkets, PTA meetings.
Considering the enormity of these sea changes, astonishingly little has been published about this now thirty-five-year-old movement. Well-researched analyses of the movement can be counted on one hand. Part of the problem may be the movement's very success: Its achievements--the work women do, the treatment women expect, the way women express themselves--have become the very air we breathe, so taken for granted as to be invisible, and so we do not ask how they came about. Furthermore, the largest and most grassroots part of the women's movement is difficult to study precisely because it is so big, so decentralized, so varied and its records have not been systematically collected. Its lack of organizational structures and formal leadership have made it harder to appreciate the force of the movement.