1968: Women’s liberation takes the stage

September 14, 2018

The Miss America pageant became the well-deserved target of protests in 1968, and that was just the start for those fighting for women’s liberation, writes Elizabeth Schulte, in another installment in SW’s series on the revolutionary year of 1968.

WOMEN CHAINED themselves to a life-size Miss America puppet to symbolize their enslavement to false beauty standards.

Protesters threw their “instruments of torture to women” — high-heeled shoes, curlers, typing books, girdles, bras, false eyelashes and copies of “women’s magazines” like Ladies Home Journal and Cosmopolitan into a garbage drum labeled “Freedom Trash Can.”

Despite the rumors of “bra burning,” no foundation garments were set ablaze that day since the authorities prohibited them from setting fire to the can’s contents.

Their signs read “Every woman is beautiful,” “Let’s judge ourselves as people,” “I am a woman — not a toy, pet or mascot” and portraits of feminist heroes like Sojourner Truth and Susan B. Anthony. They crowned and paraded a sheep as the pageant winner to protest women being treated like livestock.

Fifty years ago on September 7, 1968, the media had to turn its attention to Atlantic City, New Jersey’s boardwalk outside the Miss America beauty pageant to cover the protest.

Demonstrators toss symbols of sexism into the “Freedom Trash Can”
Demonstrators toss symbols of sexism into the “Freedom Trash Can”

Inside, protesters unfurled a large banner reading “Women’s Liberation” and chanted “Freedom for women” and “No more Miss America” before they were led out by police. Another protester was later charged with disorderly conduct and “emanating a noxious odor” after she sprayed the home hair-care product Toni — a pageant sponsor — near the mayor’s box in the auditorium.

Protesters drew attention to the objectification of women’s bodies, sexist and racist conceptions of female beauty, consumerism and corporate greed, as epitomized by the pageants’ sponsors. Miss America was dubbed a “death mascot” because one of the jobs of the winner was to go to entertain U.S. troops, who were then fighting the horrific Vietnam War.

FOR MANY people in the U.S., the 1968 protest of the Miss America pageant was the big debut of the women’s liberation movement, and while a lot came before this action and much more after it, it represented a new activism among young women who were part of the larger radicalization that included the civil rights or the antiwar movements and the New Left.

The activists who made up what is thought of as the women’s movement of the 1970s would take many directions. Sharon Smith points out in Women and Socialism: Class, Race and Capital:

Unfortunately, there was no single women’s movement that represented the interests of all women in the 1960s and 1970s. Rather there were a number of different women’s movements that progressed on parallel tracks, largely separated not only on the basis of politics but also on the basis of race, sexuality and class.

1968: A Revolutionary Year

Socialist Worker contributors remember the great struggles of the revolutionary year of 1968 — and the lessons they hold for today.

While the group of women that is most associated with the gains of the women’s movement of the time was professional white women, in truth, the 1960s and 1970s was overflowing with organizing by women who do not fit into this narrow category — and neither did their demands.

Over time, activists would take different directions — for example, women of color, who organized their own group to take up the issues of racial oppression that white women’s organizations didn’t, as well as issues of sexual oppression that nationalist and anti-racist groups had yet to address.

There isn’t enough room to talk about the long-lasting contributions made during that time by those who developed an understanding of the intersection between race and gender oppression, such as the Combahee River Collective or the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse, and numerous groups organized by Black, Latina, Chicana and Indigenous women.

The movement also diverged over whether to put forward liberal or more left-wing demands. Those who identified with the fight for women’s liberation saw the limitations of the more liberal women’s rights movement, which was dominated by white middle-class women.

This left wing of the movement sought to build a bolder and unapologetic struggle for women’s liberation. Young activists organized actions intended to draw attention to women’s second-class status in society, from the lack of affordable child care, access to abortion and equal pay, to the way women are treated like either sex objects or devoted mothers and wives.

The Miss America protest was a snapshot of that kind of organizing.

INFORMED BY other movements for liberation against oppression, such as opposition to the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, women sought to assert their own struggle, even when they were initially met hostility from fellow activists.

In many cases, New Left women had to fight to get the demand for women’s liberation a hearing. In one instance, at a counterprotest of Richard Nixon’s inauguration, women who had been assigned to speak on behalf of women’s liberation were heckled by some men in the audience.

But this did not hold back young women organizing for women’s liberation.

In January 1968, the New York Radical Women (NYRW), which called the Miss America protest later that year, formed a contingent in the Jeannette Rankin Brigade antiwar march in Washington, D.C., where they brought radical demands for women’s liberation to the pacifist march against the Vietnam War.

Radical feminist groups brought outspoken support for abortion rights to the movement as a whole, with actions that highlighted the life-or-death consequences of illegal abortion.

During hearings by the New York legislature on reforming the state’s abortion law in February 1969, activists in the group Redstockings found out that the “experts” asked to testify were all men, except for a nun. They organized a leafleting outside the hearings, and inside, they disrupted the proceedings by standing up and asking, “What better experts are there on abortion than women.”

Three weeks later, the Redstockings organized their own “public hearing” at the Washington Square Methodist Church and invited women, the real “experts,” to tell their stories. During what would be become known as a “speak-out,” some 300 people turned out.

These events were repeated in city after city, as women spoke about their everyday experiences of oppression, and took what was previously considered personal and made it public and political.

Jennifer Nelson’s Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement recounts the testimony by Susan, who spoke in front of the legislative committee and then also took part the speak-out:

No legislature would recognize my right to speak as an expert because it happens right inside my body where that child grows. It happens in my body later on that I don’t want that child, and that I have to go through a period of time, in which I have no function in society.

The Redstockings not only argued that New York’s abortion laws should be repealed, but that women should be able to terminate a pregnancy at any time for any reason. They argued for free abortion so that all women could truly have reproductive freedom. They also linked the need for reproductive rights with women’s sexual liberation.

IN THE process of organizing by groups like the Redstockings, less radical women’s organizations like the National Organization for Women (NOW) were forced to take a stronger stance in support of abortion.

In 1970, women representing many different feminist organizations held a sit-in at the Ladies Home Journal.

Their demands included an end to articles about beauty tips, household hints and advice on how to make your husband happy, and made some story suggestions for a new “Women’s Liberated Journal,” including “How to Get a Divorce,” “How to Have an Orgasm” and “What to Tell Your Draft-Age Son.”

Protesters demanded more women on the editorial staff and as columnists, and also called for higher wages for women, particularly women of color.

Actions like these also played a broader role in helping to shift the movement as a whole in a more militant direction — meaning that in only a very short period of time, demands like free abortion on demand were part of the conversation.

The 1970 Strike for Women’s Equality, called by NOW, turned out some 50,000 people putting forward radical demands for free child care centers, free abortion on demand, an end to forced sterilization and equal opportunity in education and employment.

The movement would have a lasting effect in helping to transform the way that the population as a whole thought about women and their place in society.

U.S. society went from a place where marital rape was legal, a woman couldn’t apply for a credit card on her own and the term “sexual harassment” didn’t even exist to one where the concept of women’s liberation was part of the national discussion.

Further Reading

From the archives