On August 26, 1970, the National Organization of Women led the Women’s Strike for Equality. Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment’s ratification, it had a number of political aims, but at the forefront was inequality in the workplace. It demonstrated the centrality of work in second wave feminism, a series of demands often forgotten about today in our popular memory of the women’s movement.
By 1970, women’s advancement in the workplace simply hadn’t gotten very far. Women suffered widespread discrimination throughout the economy. First, large numbers of professional jobs were still completely closed to them. Second, even when women were hired, they usually made far less than men, both in professional jobs and blue collar jobs. Third, white collar jobs gendered as women’s work paid poorly, from telephone operator to elementary school teacher to secretary. Fourth, women suffered almost unbelievable levels of sexual harassment on the job. Fifth, women who were married with children and worked for money outside the home had a second, unpaid, job when they returned home. Sixth, because of this rampant discrimination, the millions of single mothers in the nation faced poverty. These were all issues that the feminist movement was trying to work out.
In our memory of these movements of the 60s and 70s, we tend to think they were a lot more organized and unified than they were. The feminist movement in 1970 was incredibly chaotic. There were early pioneers such as Betty Friedan who were influential, but their leadership was constantly challenged. And there were huge internal debates about the future of the movement and the issues it should work on. What was most important? Inequality within marriage? Welfare rights? Abortion? Workplace equality? Radical lesbian withdrawal from society? The Equal Rights Amendment? And who would lead this movement? Middle class white women? Women of color in the cities?
These divisions were very much real during the planning for the Women’s Strike for Equality. The idea originated with Betty Jameson Armistead, who wrote to Friedan about the need to commemorate a half-century of suffrage. Friedan proposed it to NOW, but the board was nervous about something vague they feared would embarrass their organization. NOW was fairly straight-laced at this time. It was also still a small organization, with about 5000 members. Friedan pressed ahead, eventually getting NOW on board. But there were all sorts of infighting in the planning, as various factions fought over what was important to emphasize in the action. Friedan generally won out, going for a broad-based set of issues, largely around economics (Friedan’s start in politics was as a union newspaper reporter during the early CIO days), avoiding the Redstockings and other radicals who were moving into separatism, as well as avoiding issues such as abortion and homosexuality that would soon become leading feminist issues.
Between 10,000 and 20,000 women participated in the Women’s Strike for Equality in New York on August 26, 1970. Smaller marches happened around the country–about 5000 in Boston, about 2000 in San Francisco, and around 125 in Syracuse. In Washington, female federal workers, knowing that it was illegal for them to strike, staged a teach-in around the issues that mattered to them. The various strikers had different attitudes as to what really mattered here. Some cities focused more on abortion rights, for instance. Probably 50,000 or so people marched nationally. For Friedan, the fact that this was a strike really mattered. For her, this was a one-day protest from the work where they were discriminated against every day. Her idea was that women would explicitly walk off the job to participate. She dreamed that, “the women who are doing menial chores in the offices as secretaries put the covers on their typewriters, […] the waitresses stop waiting, cleaning women stop cleaning and everyone who is doing a job for which a man would be paid more stop [working].” Or, as Friedan suggested as a slogan, “Don’t Iron While the Strike is Hot!”
It didn’t quite work that way. Of course, the media made fun of the event, as they did throughout any feminist event through the early 70s. On the other hand, the event was a major public move that made feminism mainstream and probably played an important role in the overall successes of feminism during the 1970s, even if one cannot quantify such a claim. In fact, history largely cannot and should not be reduced to what can be quantified, but I digress.
Unfortunately, women’s work experience never quite played the central role in the activist feminist movement that it could have. Even Friedan’s emphasis on it during this strike was not really deeply shared by most of the participants, except perhaps as a general feeling. That said, there’s no question that feminism has made an enormous impact on the lives of working women. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which of course Republicans hate. But the impact is everywhere. There’s never been the hard legal consequences for sexual harassment that there should be, but then serious progress has been made and reading about harassment in the workplace of the 1970s compared to today is really telling because it’s totally shocking. Women have never reached a position of true workplace equality. Maybe they never will in a deeply misogynist nation that elects Donald Trump to the Oval Office. But the Women’s Strike for Equality was a moment where the need to focus on this issue was articulated and acted upon. Fights would follow against sterilizing women workers who labored in dangerous jobs. Women within unions organized to demand recognition. Laws passed to protect pregnant women on the job. All of these achievements are part of the larger legacy of labor feminism, which continues the fight for equality on the job today.
This is the 235th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.