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Women’s Lib: Then and Now

A founding feminist’s review of five issues that still need work

By Suzanne Braun Levine

In 1972, when I joined Ms. magazine — the exciting and very controversial new “women’s lib” publication — I had just gotten my “MRS degree,” which was considered an honor, except that being married meant that I could not get a bank loan without my husband’s signature. Also, back then, I wasn’t allowed in most restaurants wearing pants; job listings were segregated under “help wanted – male” and “help wanted – female” and I had had an illegal abortion.
So, when the Supreme Court handed down its Roe v. Wade decision on January 22, 1973, six months after I started my new job, I was personally, professionally and politically exhilarated.
And the breakthroughs kept coming.

“Stewardesses,” as they were called, were early activists; they rolled back restrictions on age and weight and marital status.

“The Year of the Woman,” 1973, ushered in change to politics-as-usual when the number of female Senators went from one to six. They joined their Congressional colleagues, including the great Bella Abzug (D-N.Y.), who ran on the slogan, “A Woman’s Place is in the House – The House of Representatives.”

And the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston, Texas, attended by 22,000 delegates, including three first ladies — Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter and Lady Bird Johnson — showed anyone who still doubted it that American women were on the move.

(MORE: At the Front Lines of the Women’s Movement)
Yes, we thought, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

And indeed today, 42 years to the day after Roe v. Wade, many demands that some predicted would end the world as we know it are now taken for granted — girls playing soccer and sharing dorm bathrooms with boys as well as women generals, firefighters, rabbis and news anchors. (One TV executive told Ms. that the public would never accept a female as a voice of authority.)

We have retrieved our history, transformed our health care, and both men and women think nothing of taking orders from a female boss.
Yet, there are some disappointing relapses. If we saw a light at the end of the tunnel all those years ago, it was because we were — as the feminist joke goes — looking in the wrong direction. The job is not done. Here are five issues we still need to work on:
Women’s Health
Our Bodies, Ourselves, the revolutionary guide for women, was published in 1973. At the time, we wouldn’t dare question a (male, of course) doctor’s decision (father knew best, and besides, he might not like us anymore if we were uppity). Since then, we have learned to research our conditions, ask questions, change doctors and stay awake during childbirth. The transformation of our role in our own health care has been dramatic and life-saving.

(MORE: Why Women Should Join Networking Groups)
But there is more to do.

Although we gained access to more and more research, much of it was based on studies conducted on men, with women factored in as if they were small men. It took way too long to discover that, for example, heart attacks present very different symptoms in women, despite the fact that heart disease is the leading cause of death among women.

In the past few years, the specialty of gender-based medicine has taken shape, and revised requirements for medical research are being implemented to study such differences. There is a light at the end of this tunnel.
Equal Pay for Equal Work
A paycheck of her own can give a woman the confidence to leave a bad marriage, pursue her talents and ambitions and live on her own. Happily, the help wanted - male, help wanted - female mindset has been almost obliterated since Bella Abzug pointed out that the only truly gender-specific jobs were “sperm donor and wet nurse.”
It took some ingenuity to break into certain fields. In most orchestras, for example, traditionally the only woman was the one who played the harp. The other instruments took too much skill and stamina, it was thought. Only after auditions were conducted behind a curtain did such assumptions dissolve.

(MORE: When Men Take Off Time for Their Family)
What hasn’t changed is the skewed salary ratio. Early on, it was 59 cents for women to every dollar earned by men. It gradually moved to around 75 cents and has since remained stuck there.
There is evidence of new forms of discrimination, too. Although women have made major gains in the technology professions, the numbers are now declining again; fewer women are employed in the field and fewer women are studying it. Also, while opening up the military to women was a major breakthrough, it released a wave of abuse that is just beginning to be discussed and dealt with. Sexual harassment on the job is one hazard that hasn’t gone away.

Support for Families
The popular TV show Modern Family, featuring a gay couple and their adopted Asian daughter, a nuclear family in which father most definitely does not know best and an intergenerational/international pair, is testimony to the reconfiguring of domestic options and opening up of roles that has taken place in my adult lifetime.

In the last decade, since I first wrote about men trying to take an active part in their children’s lives, the proportion of fathers trying to balance work and family has grown from ridicule to significance. More and more working couples are struggling to maintain a fair balance of domestic and professional commitments. But they are operating within an every-family-for-itself culture.

We have yet to catch up with other industrialized countries that support working families with such benefits as paid family leave, government-sponsored daycare and tax deductions for caregivers.
Women’s Sports and Fitness

When I heard that developing fit arms like Michelle Obama’s was the most frequently mentioned workout goal by women, I thought, “Thank you, Title IX.” Designed to prohibit sex discrimination in most federally-assisted education programs, no one ever imagined Title IX would very quickly set off a transformation of women’s sports and a redefinition of what it meant to be a girl. 


Back in the ‘70s, women athletes were few and far between. Within a few years, girls were playing in the Little League and Billie Jean King was fighting for parity in tournament winnings and beating Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes.”

Professional women's teams and Olympic stars followed. No one “runs like a boy” anymore. Girls train as hard and want to win as much as boys. They understand team spirit and losing to fight another day. Strength, once the mixed blessing for a tomboy, is something to be proud of.

But there is more to do. Now women need to help each other take pride in all the kinds of bodies — older, heavier, with a huge range of shapes — and make sure we pay as much attention to our own wellness as we do to the well-being of those we love. 

Reproductive Rights

Roe v. Wade put an end to back-alley abortions like the one I had and made it possible to make a hard choice (no one ever ended a pregnancy casually) without fearing for your life.

But it wasn’t long before a backlash to the increasing availability of the procedure began, resulting in legislation cutting Medicaid coverage for abortion, restricting access and setting unnecessary requirements on clinics and humiliating impositions on women, not to mention, pickets, bombs and assassinations.

Recently the pace of clinic closings has picked up. For example, in 2011, there were 44 clinics in Texas alone; today, the 8.6 million women of reproductive age in Texas and four of its neighbors are served by only 12 clinics in the region.

The number of deaths from botched abortions is rising, too. The back alley is back. Our biggest win has become our most intractable challenge.

My daughter — our daughters — can’t imagine what it was like when we began changing the rules. But as young women encounter the unfinished business of inequality, I am confident that they will not settle for the status quo. They are the true light at the end of the tunnel.

Suzanne Braun Levine is a writer, editor and lecturer on women, families and changing gender roles. The first editor of Ms., she is the author of books such as Can Men Have It All? and the ebook You Gotta Have Girlfriends. She is a contributor to More and blogs for, AARP, Huff/Post50 and others. Follow her on Twitter @suzanneblevine. Read More
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