The National Organization for Women was founded in 1966. A few years later, younger women formed consciousness-raising groups and held guerilla theatre actions to protest the treatment of women as sex objects. And in 1970 there was the massive Women’s Strike for Equality, an action that was the brainchild of Betty Friedan. But actual progress in women’s legal rights didn’t make much headway until the 1970s and 1980s. The legal disabilities women faced in the 1960s make for startling reading, and change came slowly. As late as 1968, most newspapers still had sex-segregated want ads that channeled women into low-paid jobs as secretaries and “gal Fridays.” Many states had "head and master" laws giving the husband final say on many family decisions. In 1970, the average female college graduate who worked full-time (and the average black male college grad too) earned less than the average white male high school graduate. The Supreme Court didn’t outlaw discrimination in promotions on the basis of gender until the 1980s. It wasn’t until 1993 that sexual harassment on the job was deemed illegal.
What is "momism" and why was it considered such a threat in the 1960s?
One of the big myths about feminism is that it downgraded the status of mothers, especially stay-at-home mothers. But in 1963, when Friedan’s book was published, only 8 states gave a full-time homemaker any legal claim on her husband’s earnings. And during the 1950s and 1960s, there were just as many prejudices against stay-at-home-moms as against career women. Sociologists and psychiatrists claimed that the power of SAHMs – “momism” – was an epidemic that threatened the very core of masculinity: Homemakers were supposedly emasculating their sons and neutering their husbands. You could hardly pick up a magazine in the 1950s and early 1960s without reading some article claiming that overbearing mothers were responsible for everything from the rise of Hitler to the fact that 2.5 million men had been found unfit to serve in the army.
This constant negativity took a huge toll. I interviewed almost 200 women for this book, and it was stunning to hear how low their self-esteem was, how little entitlement they felt to good treatment – by their husbands or by society – and how guilty they felt when they wanted something more.