1964: The Radical Idea

By Anne G. Evans

“Feminism is the radical idea that women are people.” This is a quote attributed to two women, Kamarae & Treichler, that expresses the ideas that took hold in the second-wave feminism movement of the 1960s. In the 1800s, women in temperance leagues across America marched and protested for the right to vote. In the 1960s, women took feminism one step further and gained the right to work at jobs of their choice, rather than be restricted to traditional female careers.

Nineteen sixty-four was when the famous second-wave feminism book, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, came out in paperback. It was the year President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act that prohibited gender discrimination. And in 1964, the first woman (from a major political party) ran for President.

American women have many more freedoms today than fifty years ago. Thanks to activist women like Betty Friedan, women today are doctors, lawyers, scientists, and soldiers. But another movement also surfaced in the 1960s. The Free Love Movement of the 60s and 70s promised sexual pleasure without commitment. And so an entire generation of women decided to abandon the traditional sexual wisdom expressed in crass proverbs such as, “Why buy the cow, when she’s giving the milk away for free?”

Instead, this new generation of women enjoyed sexual encounters with no expectation of marriage or commitment. Men have sown their wild oats for millennia without being ostracized, so the reasoning went. An empowered woman should have that same right over her body.

But is “free love” truly a pro-woman principle? I understand the feminist movement’s push for no-fault divorce. Even in the ancient world, men could always get a divorce if they wanted one. But only a little over a hundred years ago in this nation, women who were being beaten black and blue by alcoholic husbands struggled to secure a divorce. If they did obtain a divorce, they were scorned like President Andrew Jackson’s divorcee wife.

I also understand the push to treat men and women’s sexual activities equally. Previous centuries painted a scarlet “A” on unchaste women, but allowed men to father as many illegitimate offspring as they liked—no child support required.

But who decided that “free love” would empower women? The majority of birth control options are the woman’s responsibility. If birth control fails, the woman is the one left pregnant and scared. While child support enforcement has dramatically improved since the 1800s when slave owners sold their illegitimate offspring at the auction block, many boyfriends still disappear before their child is born. Being a single mom is a strong predictor of poverty. While many cases of single motherhood are unavoidable, a surprise pregnancy from a casual sexual encounter is avoidable.

Men and women enjoy the “free love”; women pay the price. How feminist is that? While we’re on the topic, STDs exact a higher toll from women as well. Women, because of their basic anatomy, are more likely to receive STDs than pass them to a male partner.

The two forces that were emerging in 1964, second-wave feminism and “free love”, worked together at first. But now, forty years later, the diametric opposition between these two forces is being revealed. Herpes and a crash course in single motherhood from an unplanned pregnancy with a boyfriend limit a woman’s dreams and potential, not expand them. Second-wave feminists would have been wiser to create gender-equal sexual mores by pressuring men to remain chaste before and after marriage, rather than to encourage women in casual sex.