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Women’s liberation, then and nowBY: Dan Rottenberg 07.19.2011
Call me an old reactionary if it suits your purposes. But it was my generation, beginning in the late 1960s, that did the real heavy lifting of the women’s liberation movement, against much stiffer odds than feminists face today.
Feminism, from my generation to yoursDAN ROTTENBERG
My suggestion last month that women ought to take some precautions against potential male sexual predators was greeted in some quarters as the babbling of an ancient reactionary.
Several readers dismissed me as an “old man.” Madeline Schaefer, BSR’s mid-20ish associate editor, perceived a gulf between idealistic young people and older generations that “tend to understand the world as operating in a particular manner, with rules and roadblocks and countless other obstacles for living an ideal existence.” (Click here.) Reader Shawn Glazier chimed in, “I hope that by the time my six-year-old daughter grows up to be a young beautiful woman, men like you will no longer be an active part of society.” (See Letters.)
These folks are quite correct to view this issue through a generational prism, but not for the reasons they think. I would argue that it was my generation, beginning in the late 1960s, that did the real heavy lifting of the women’s liberation movement, and against much stiffer odds than feminists face today.
Newspapers, run by and for men
Imagine a world in which Margaret Chase Smith was the only woman in the U.S. Senate, and Katharine Graham was the only female chief executive of a Fortune 500 company. Imagine a world in which a female TV news anchor was as inconceivable as a female president of any university that enrolled male students. Imagine a world in which law firms and even symphony orchestras had no more than a few token women.
Until the 1970s, most Americans got their news from daily newspapers, which in nearly all cases were edited by and for men. The few women journalists employed at newspapers were consigned to the society page or the features section, where they were assigned to interview politicians’ wives (never the politicians themselves) or given demeaning “our girl” assignments (“Our girl at the circus,” “Our girl at the auto show,” “Our girl meets Cary Grant,” etc.). Women columnists were virtually unknown. Even arts and culture coverage was male-dominated.
Too frivolous for the Journal
Of the 20 or so editorial employees at the Chicago bureau of the Wall Street Journal, where I worked, only three were women: the managing editor’s secretary, the teletype operator, and a single middle-aged reporter who handled nothing but corporate earnings reports, never left the building and functioned as our de facto den mother, serving apples and cheese at staff meetings. The Journal prided itself above all on its professional image; women reporters were thought to connote frivolousness.
In those days the Chicago Sun-Times carried a daily syndicated feature that rehashed every old nightclub cliché about women drivers, women and the telephone, etc. (e.g., “2% of women are uninformed; the rest have phones”). When a female consumer reporter for Chicago Today appeared before an Illinois Senate committee, her paper published a large photo of her testifying but wrote almost nothing about her testimony, instead providing a caption describing her as “shapely Miss Witkowski, in a lavender minidress.” When the Chicago chapter of the National Organization for Women called a press conference to discuss a government policy that NOW considered discriminatory against women, the first question from the assembled reporters (all male, of course) was, “Why are all feminists ugly?”
I’ve culled these examples from a special issue on “Women and the Media” that I edited in July 1971 for the Chicago Journalism Review, a revolutionary publication launched after the 1968 Democratic convention by journalists angered at their papers’ spineless coverage of police violence against anti-war protesters and journalists alike. Instead of slinking off to drown their anger in booze, as earlier generations of journalists had routinely done, these gutsy reporters put their jobs on the line, seeking to improve their own papers by utilizing the power of embarrassment. Unlike later career-minded journalists, these contemporaries of mine— nearly all born in the early 1940s— figured that if they did the right thing, their careers would take care of themselves.
In conjunction with that special women’s issue, one of my male CJR colleagues and I donned swimsuits to pose on Chicago’s Oak Street beach for a parody of the fatuous pinup photos that even respectable newspapers routinely published on their news and sports pages in those days.
“Temperatures sizzled past the 100-degree mark in Chicago Tuesday,” read our caption, “and a pair of local 29-year-olds, Dan Rottenberg and Ken Pierce, couldn’t resist the urge to skip their Loop office jobs and frolic in the sand by Lake Michigan. ‘Who can work when it’s so beautiful out?’ asks redheaded Dan with a wink. ‘Our boss knows he can’t keep us inside on a day like this,’ adds Ken, a long-stemmed brunet. Well, boys will be boys.”
No more ‘Help wanted, female’
Thanks in part to such needling, pinup photos soon vanished from Chicago’s newspapers. As a more important direct consequence of that issue of CJR, Chicago’s four daily papers abandoned the then-widespread (and now illegal) policy of segregating “Help Wanted” ads by gender— a policy that effectively restricted working women to jobs as secretaries, waitresses and cleaning ladies.
Separate work roles for men and women surely made sense back in pre-industrial times. When men, as a natural consequence of their superior size and strength, had to spend 60 to 80 hours a week hunting animals, plowing fields, mining coal, herding sheep, whacking bulls and fighting off invaders, it was logical to assign the less physically taxing jobs— cooking, cleaning, mending, nurturing, parenting— to women. But those justifications had long since vanished by the time my generation entered the work force in the ’60s.
Why am I telling you all this? Because the struggle for justice, freedom and equality never ends. Nor does the quest for truth and understanding. Each generation must carry the torch in its own way. But whatever your method, freedom of expression— even for ideas you hate— remains the most potent tool in your arsenal.
Also, in any struggle it’s important to know your adversary. To today’s young idealists, I say: Before you lose patience with your reactionary elders, you might check out what us old duffers were doing at your age. If you did, you might find that many of us were working hard to spare you from confronting what we confronted: the face of sexism that was blandly accepted, in all its banality, for centuries before our generation came along.♦
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