At a dinner table last fall, I mentioned that Women’s Strike for Peace did some extraordinary things in the early 1960s, not least helping to bring down the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). A well-known political writer sitting across from me sneered that the women in WSP were insignificant and that HUAC didn’t exist by then anyway. He was wrong on both counts, but his remark wasn’t surprising. The way people talk in decades suggests that the 1950s and ’60s never overlapped and thereby blanks out the first half of the latter decade to make the second half into “the ’60s,” that era popularly imagined as a revolutionary romp by a bunch of antiwar young men. In fact, those young men took up a revolutionary challenge raised in part by middle-aged women who launched some of the key ideas and fought some of the first battles in their defense. The radical and powerful Women’s Strike for Peace did it in the streets (and in the hearings chamber–Eric Bentley, in his history of HUAC, credits WSP with striking the crucial blow in the fall of “HUAC’s Bastille” in 1962). Jane Jacobs, Rachel Carson and Betty Friedan did it in books.

Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities appeared in 1961, Carson’s Silent Spring came out the following year and Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique appeared in 1963. These three intellectual bombs collectively assailed almost every institution in American and indeed industrial and Western society. Jacobs ripped into the reinvented postwar city, urban planners’ obsession with segregating home from work, rich from poor, urban dwellings from the street and from commerce, business from residential, people from one another, making cities over in the new image of suburbia–and by implication, the belief in progress and technology and institutional control. Carson radically questioned the faith in big science and its disastrous new solutions to age-old problems, and maybe even the old Cartesian worldview of isolated fragments, which she replaced with a precocious vision of ecosystems in which contaminants like DDT and fallout kept traveling from their origins to touch and taint everything. Friedan took on the women’s half of the American dream, gender, patriarchy and the middle-class suburban family, bringing the assault full circle. After all, the suburbanization Jacobs excoriated was designed to produce the all-too-private lives Friedan investigated. Together, these three writers addressed major facets of the great modern project to control the world on every scale, locating it in the widespread attacks on nature, on women and on the chaotic, the diverse, the crowded and the poor. Their work transformed our perceptions of the indoor world of the home, the outdoor world of cities and the larger realm of the biosphere, opening vast new possibilities for social transformation.

It’s true, as some critics have argued, that Jacobs, Carson and Friedan mostly avoided a deeper systemic analysis. Yet such an effort is implicit in Friedan’s constant references to the marketers and advertisers who wish to keep women as good consumers, in Jacobs’s scorn for top-down solutions and grand-plan developers, in Carson’s condemnation of the chemical manufacturers and pest-prone monocropping of agribusiness. Silent Spring declares, “There is still very limited awareness of the nature of the threat. This is an era of specialists, each of whom sees his own problem and is unaware of or intolerant of the larger frame into which it fits. It is also an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged.” Rereading their books, I wonder if they didn’t name the beast because their old-left contemporaries who did proffered such an unappealing alternative to corporate capitalism and were being persecuted for doing so. Or perhaps they just weren’t interested in that kind of broad prescription–their books, after all, were broad enough.

What’s more, the standard-issue socialism of the era was far less radical than the ostensible “reformism” of these three writers, insofar as it accepted the premises of a civilization that was flawed from birth. Lurking as an unexpressed and possibly inexpressible idea in these three books is a searching critique of industrial civilization as a whole, and maybe some other aspects of Western civilization all the way back to when Adam blamed Eve. If they failed to join the revolution of their time, they laid the groundwork for the far grander one that was coming: the one rethinking nature, agriculture, food, gender, sex, race, domestic life, home and housing, transportation, energy use, environmental ideas, war, violence and a few other things–the one that has made it possible to question every authority and tradition.

Death and Life and Silent Spring are still magnificent, still readable, though only the former seems contemporary. Jacobs’s book describes with brilliant specificity what works and what doesn’t in cities, in language that is fearless and crisp as a trumpet blast: “The pseudoscience of city planning and its companion, the art of city design…have not yet embarked on the adventure of probing the real world.” She describes the social ecology of cities, enumerating what generates safety, pleasure, liveliness, complexity, civilization as an everyday outdoor experience. Many concessions have been made to her hugely influential arguments–the building of Le Corbusier-style housing projects for the poor has more or less ceased, and my own city, San Francisco, has made a number of decisions one suspects she approves, such as rebuilding an earthquake-damaged stretch of elevated highway as a broad surface street with pedestrian amenities.

But much of what she describes as wrong is still wrong, and places like Las Vegas and Phoenix seem to have devoted themselves to defying her every insight and prescription. Often viewed as conservative for its lack of enthusiasm for big government, Death and Life was not about the virtues of free enterprise but of local control. What it celebrated most was life in public, the everyday life of the streets that seven years later would become the extraordinary life of the streets in protest, demonstration and revolt, in Prague, in Paris, in Mexico City and in cities and on campuses across the United States. (Jacobs was so opposed to the Vietnam War she moved her family to Toronto, getting her draft-age sons out of the reach of the Army.)

Carson’s book is extraordinary to revisit. To read its early passages is like listening to God call the world into being during the days of its creation, even if this is only the world of environmental ideas: A passage here evokes issues taken up by Alfred Crosby in Ecological Imperialism, one there recalls Vandana Shiva’s critiques of biotechnology, another seems to prefigure Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, another Sandra Steingraber’s Living Downstream, and her strong clear voice is still audible in Terry Tempest Williams’s environmental writing. Carson wasn’t the first to come to grips with many of these environmental crises looming at the end of the 1950s; her brilliant achievement in Silent Spring was to synthesize technical information hitherto unavailable to the general public and to make that newly awakened public understand and care.

The book had a colossal impact from the beginning and is often credited with inspiring the DDT ban that went into effect nationwide in 1972. Though some now challenge the relationship between DDT and eggshell-thinning in wild birds, species from brown pelicans to bald eagles and peregrine falcons have rebounded from the brink of extinction since the ban. Conservatives like Michael Crichton prefer to blame Carson and environmentalists for “millions of deaths” from malaria, but the ban was never applied worldwide and DDT is still used selectively overseas (Carson pointed out that since mosquitoes quickly develop resistance to DDT, as insects do to many other pesticides, the stuff is hardly a cure-all). But picking on Carson over DDT misses the point that she was the first to describe the scope of the sinister consequences of a chemical society, the possibility that, with herbicides, pesticides and the like, we were poisoning not just pests, or pests and some songbirds and farmworkers, but everyone and everything for a very long time forward. As one chapter opening puts it, “For the first time in the history of the world, every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death.” Still true. And if the particulars of the chemicals identified by Carson have changed enough that her book no longer has the currency Jacobs’s does, that may be one measure of its success. Another is the far greater environmental literacy of the public, the necessary precursor to any broad environmental movement.

In The Feminine Mystique Friedan, who died earlier this year at age 85, described an array of nebulous social forces–women’s magazines, Freudian psychology, politicians’ speeches, advertising and more–pressuring and persuading women to be stay-at-home mothers, producing the baby boom and consuming household and beauty products and demeaning, demoralizing ideas about their capabilities. Her job was hardest of all, because these forces weren’t technically coercive; to prove that they were, she had to argue against the powerful facade of contented domesticity, a facade not only men but many women were (and are) bent on preserving. Simply by demonstrating the forces that had pushed women back into the home after the war and into a more retrograde version of female identity, Friedan was digging deep and fighting hard; if her book now seems overly focused on middle-class married white women with kids, it carved out wholly new territory to think about what we might nowadays call the production of identity and the possibility of resistance.

In many respects, The Feminine Mystique seems dated now. Friedan’s background in psychology seems to have made her susceptible to a lot of the era’s clucking over “delinquency,” homosexuality, adultery and promiscuity, as though she were witnessing the first stirrings of what would become feminist and sexual revolutions without seeing the implications. Nor does she question the foundations (if not the delights) of marriage, affluence or suburbia. Still, there are fleeting moments when she recognizes the links between the “feminine mystique” and consumer capitalism, as in her observation that “in the suburbs where most hours of the day there are virtually no men at all…women who have no identity other than sex creatures must ultimately seek their reassurance through the possession of ‘things.'”

Friedan’s inchoate solution to “the problem that has no name” seems to be that these educated middle-class women need careers or some kind of intellectual stimulation, a solution far less profound than her analysis of the problem, and one that overlooked the women who were already invading politics. In The Feminine Mystique she said of the 1950s, “It was easier to look for Freudian sexual roots in man’s behavior, his ideas, and his wars than to look critically at his society and act constructively to right its wrongs.” Of course, Friedan would go on to think more radically about what women’s lives could become and what we could change, and of course in writing for women’s magazines and then taking up a five-year residence at the New York Public Library’s Allen Room, where she wrote her landmark book, she was having more of a career than she let on–not to mention a history of youthful activism in left and labor politics that she seldom discussed.

Jacobs and Carson were also working–the former as an editor at Architectural Forum, the latter as an independent writer. Indeed, they and the WSP activists seem like the women Friedan imagined but did not actually portray in her book. Married with three children, Jacobs continued a professional life of writing, engaging in the world of ideas and, by the time her book appeared, fighting Robert Moses’s plan to put an expressway through Greenwich Village’s Washington Square. Indeed, she was able to shame the nation’s anointed urbanist, Lewis Mumford, into supporting the cause, even though he had just patronized her book in The New Yorker as “Mother Jacobs’s Home Remedies” and reduced her description of the rich social life an urbanite might experience on the street to “the little flirtations that season a housewife’s day.”

Sexism in those days went around undisguised; Time magazine, in the course of asserting that DDT posed no human health problems, brazenly portrayed “Miss Carson” as “hysterically overemphatic” with a “mystical attachment to the balance of nature,” her book as an “emotional and inaccurate outburst.” Carson, who never married but raised a couple of nieces and a great-nephew, had been a successful scientist and writer within the federal government before she became an independent full-time and bestselling author in 1952. Silent Spring was published in September 1962. The Cuban missile crisis began a month later, and for a while people in the United States thought they wouldn’t have the luxury of dying slowly from chemicals, rather than suddenly from bombs.

A year earlier, the United States and the Soviet Union had decided to resume nuclear testing after an informal three-year moratorium. In response, six women met in Washington, DC, and began to organize what became, on November 1, 1961, a nationwide strike of tens of thousands of women in sixty cities across the country–mostly married-with-children middle-class white women whose radical potential would grow with the decade. The aboveground tests were already known to create radioactive clouds that drifted over the earth, dropping radioactive byproducts as they went. Strontium 90 was seeping into mother’s milk and thereby into newborn children; the weapons that were supposed to protect civilians in case of an all-out war were routinely contaminating them. Using their status as middle-class moms as a shield, WSP activists plunged into the fray, taking risks no one else had dared, refusing to screen out potential communists and reaching out to women in the USSR. Within a couple of years, they had helped bring into being the Limited Test Ban Treaty (an achievement acknowledged by UN chief U Thant and President Kennedy) and made a mockery of HUAC’s anticommunist inquisitions. In early 1964, they were among the first to oppose the Vietnam War.

Epochal insurrection was breaking out all over during what is often seen as the nation’s most repressive era. The civil rights movement was in full swing (though the contributions of key players like Ella Baker and Rosa Parks would be marginalized and/or downplayed). In the 1950s the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis organized, respectively, gays and lesbians; the Daughters held their first national conference in San Francisco in 1960, the year students and labor protested HUAC’s anti-educator hearings in that city in one of the first confrontations that looked like “the ’60s.” Tom Hayden spent the summer of 1960 with students in SLATE, the Berkeley student activists’ organization, and brought what he learned back to Michigan and Students for a Democratic Society. The history of SDS is well-enough known at this point; that WSP was working side by side with SDS on antidraft and antiwar organizing has been airbrushed out of history’s official portrait. But the later ’60s only reaped what the more daring had sown at the beginning of the decade. And among the most visionary sowers were those women whose achievements as books and bans and changed roles are still here.

An e-mail arrived as I was finishing this essay, detailing the work of four or five women researching and deploying new bioremediation technologies in the cleanup of New Orleans’ toxic residues. Based at the Common Ground community center, these women are scientists, environmentalists and urban activists all at once, and the e-mail goes on to describe them conferring while a young man reads a book to three girls in daycare. It’s hard to imagine this guerrilla cleanup team now without Carson, Friedan and Jacobs then. “Only a book” is a popular epithet, implying that writing always takes place on the sidelines, but these three make it clear that books can change the world.