Completing the Feminist Revolution

Kirsten Swinth

In the 1960s and ‘70s, feminists began to transform society. Today, we need to finish the job.

A Ms Billington, affiliation unknown, with National Organization for Women (NOW) founder and president Betty Friedan, NOW co-chair and Washington, D.C. lobbyist Barbara Ireton, and feminist attorney Marguerite Rawalt. Smithsonian / Flickr

Interview by
Micah Uetricht

Second-wave feminism doesn’t have too many defenders these days. From the left, the movement is often remembered as too white, middle class, and heterosexual; it principally functions as a warning of what feminists today shouldn’t do. From the right, the movement is seen as demanding too much for women, setting them up for disappointment by insisting they could “have it all” when, in fact, they can’t.

In Feminism’s Forgotten Fight: The Unfinished Struggle for Work and Family, Kirsten Swinth challenges both of these narratives, brings together the disparate strands of the second wave to focus on how the feminism of that era transformed women’s personal lives, upended sexist notions of biological determinism, and tried — successfully in some cases, unsuccessfully in many others — to win policies that could ease the burden of social-reproductive labor that fell disproportionately on women. Jacobin managing editor Micah Uetricht talked with Swinth about the book.


What exactly was the “forgotten feminist fight,” and what are the implications of that fight being forgotten?


The fight that was forgotten is the enormously wide-ranging, creative struggle waged by the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s on issues around what we call today “work and family.” That includes the “private sphere,” like reorganizing intimate relationships so that men and women share family labor, childcare, and house work. But it also includes making demands on the state — for example, for guaranteed incomes for mothers so that mothers (poor mothers in particular) can care for their children. And it includes making demands that workplaces be altered in ways are beneficial to women, so they could give birth to and raise children while also being full citizens in the workplace.

Because this struggle has been forgotten, we have a distorted memory of the movement, and thus a distorted history upon which to draw. These distortions go in several different directions. One of them is the idea that, in the arena of workplaces, the movement was dominated by liberal feminists who cared primarily about opening the door to women to enter workplaces and then didn’t do anything else about family-related concerns. Another story said more radical feminists ended up turning their attention primarily to issues of reproductive rights and sexual liberation. When we don’t have this full history, we don’t know some of the strategies feminists tried and the successes they achieved to guide the ongoing feminist fights. When you look at the full story of feminism in this era, you see quite a compelling, comprehensive vision of the kinds of changes we need to create an egalitarian society. Their vision is worth resurrecting, because currently, we don’t have a particularly compelling vision of what that world might look like.


I feel like most conversations today about second-wave feminism focus on everything they got wrong. The primary lesson many activists seem to take from the era is a list of mistakes that feminists or the Left or other activists today shouldn’t repeat again. Is that your sense?


That story is definitely there. I think it’s a product of a few things: one, a version of what the movement was about pushed by mainstream media, summed up in the phrase “having it all” — as if second-wave feminism was only the “lean in” movement. Because having it all was such a pithy catchphrase, and because by the late ’70s people were making a lot of money off selling this idea of how to have it all, that really took off. Other work that I’ve done looks at the transformation of that idea about having it all into a neoliberal rhetoric of choice, in particular of a mother’s choice to work or not. So, the broader vision of structural and social transformation that second-wave feminists had has been reduced to individual decisions about life management.

Ask friends about how they’re thinking about family and work. They’ll say, “I just need to make the right choices.” Getting people to talk in the structural terms that feminists were talking about in the second wave is extremely difficult today. That story got lost in the “having it all” mantra and “choice” rhetoric.

The other issue is that conservatives fought back against feminists and in many cases won. They were successful in defeating the largest aspirations of the movement. The conservative family politics of the ’80s and after have obscured the breadth and depth and radicalism of that feminist vision.

Among many young people, there’s an account of second-wave feminism as one dominated by white women who were insensitive toward and ignorant of the needs of women of color; that the movement itself was dominated by advancing the goals of middle-class, largely professional, largely white women. One of my key goals in writing this book is not to minimize the conflicts that unfolded around class and race in the movement, but also to show that there were places where alliances and coalitions formed: where African-American women were feminists and were at the forefront of the movement. I hope to reframe who counts as a second-wave feminist so that their feminist activism is not minimized or made invisible, and to recover the reality of alliance and coalition in many instances.


The shift from the feminist argument of the era you cover in the book, that women need public policies in order to achieve women’s liberation, to the “women can have it all” stuff means essentially that liberation comes through exerting superhuman personal effort. State support and social-democratic policies are nowhere to be found there.


Yes, and there is a strand of feminism, sometimes called “free-market feminism,” that unfolds in the ’80s and afterwards — Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In is a good example of that — that says, “Let’s look within the existing structures, and fight for gender equality by advising women on how to be stronger advocates for themselves and make their individual lives better.” In the last five to ten years, that’s the account of feminism that has dominated what feminism is supposed to have been since the late ’70s.

The ’80s were a very tricky time for activists in general, but especially for feminist activists. Once Ronald Reagan gets elected and the conservative movement is triumphant, feminists have to retrench and regroup, but the movement’s social momentum has slowed. They’re fighting all kinds of defensive battles on all kinds of fronts against Reagan, trying to hold onto gains that were already there. So, it’s a tough time for feminists. And family becomes a kind of dirty word on the Left. Because the politics of the Right are about the family, it becomes challenging to stake collective, social claims along those lines.


I think everyone knows that relations between men and women have shifted dramatically in the last half-century, but I was struck reading the book at just how far-reaching that transformation has been in a relatively short amount of time. How did the movement do this?


The book starts with the reconstruction of the female self. A lot of people know about the power of feminist consciousness-raising in reexamining inherited beliefs about women’s nature and appropriate sex roles for women and men. In the book, I talk about the ways that feminists campaigned to overthrow Freudian, psychoanalytic, biological-determinist, and sociological accounts of who men and women were and what their roles were supposed to be. One of the key pieces of work that feminist activists and intellectuals did was breaking down the presumptive stereotypes about what’s natural, what’s normal, what a “true woman” would do. They undercut the belief that motherhood was the natural and preeminent defining characteristic of womanhood. That process of breaking down inherited beliefs was a critical step to allow people to question roles and push the bar forward.

Then there’s a parallel movement among a small but interesting group of pro-feminist men’s liberationists, who similarly question men’s roles and identities. Together, that work sparks a whole host of discussions about who does what in the home, how we make household labor more equal, how we give value to housework. We can think about the campaigns to value housework as having a private dimension: through marriage contracts, for example, and in quite simple ways by creating shared chore lists where people write down who’s going to do what — really, for the first time.

But the valuing of housework also has a public dimension. There is the radical wages-for-housework movement, there are campaigns for the minimum wage for paid domestic workers. All of this is challenging the idea that the home is set apart from being a place of labor; it actually needs to be made visible as a place of labor, and that labor given adequate value.


In addition to these personal transformations, there are also the public policy demands. The movement put forward essentially a social-democratic agenda — sometimes explicitly. Sweden comes up several times in the book: you write in the conclusion that “Sweden and the other Scandinavian countries remain the lodestar” for the policy agenda we should be fighting for today.” Can you talk about that policy agenda, and the way the movement saw state intervention in “private life” as essential?


I think it’s fair to call it a social-democratic vision. The vision was pushed and pulled and shaped by radical feminist groups, many of whom were self-consciously socialist and Marxist. It was also pushed and shaped even by liberal feminists. They all believed that the state and society had urgent, necessary roles.

It starts with childcare. There was pretty much universal consensus among feminists across all political orientations that freely available, twenty-four-hour, community-controlled childcare should be a public good, like libraries and public schools. That was seen as absolutely foundational for true equality for women, to enable participation in the community and the workplace and politics — to enable full citizenship.

They also put forward demands like a guaranteed annual income, for which the welfare-rights movement led a nearly successful national campaign. And they staked the claim for a basic income on the argument that all mothers, whether poor or affluent, should be able to care for their children. They reframed the idea of welfare away from the notion of assistance for the deserving and needy into a basic universal right that the state should provide, to facilitate the well-being of its citizens.


You mentioned the welfare-rights movement. As we discussed before, second-wave feminism is often seen as this white women’s thing; the welfare-rights movement was something separate. But you’re including the latter as part of the narrative about the second wave. Can you talk about the relationship between the welfare-rights movement and the second wave?


Welfare-rights activists forged a black feminist outlook, rooted in their experience as black women (although the movement itself was interracial). Poor women, many of whom were living in housing projects, came to their awareness of their situation out of the broader civil rights campaign. But the National Welfare Rights Organization was founded by a man, George Wiley, and it was initially dominated by men. The women in the movement soon came to see that welfare was a distinctively women’s issue — that the men who were leading them simply weren’t acknowledging, or comprehending, or following through on the basic demands for respect and dignity which underlaid the movement in the first place.

The women who came to demand welfare rights for the recognition of mothers’ caregiving labor put forward one of the most radical visions of the period. Their challenging of the male-breadwinner / female-homemaker ideal for families, pushes the envelope further than virtually anybody else, so it’s really important to think about it as part of the feminist vision. Welfare-rights organizations forged alliances with major national women’s rights organizations and leaders like the National Organization for Women or the National Women’s Political Caucus. In the second half of the ’70s, a broader women’s anti-poverty network emerges.

There’s good reason for those activists to believe that many white women in the movement didn’t prioritize their concerns. But it’s not to say that those alliances didn’t exist, nor that there wasn’t a sense among the country’s largest feminist groups that advancement of welfare rights was an advancement of women’s interests.


Speaking of the other more mainstream feminist groups, almost every chapter starts with an anecdote about Betty Friedan. Which must have been purposeful, no? Friedan is such a villain in so many historical accounts of second-wave feminism today, someone who we have to ensure we don’t emulate and make the same mistakes as today.

 So as the reader starts every chapter in the book, you’re like, “Wait a second: Betty Friedan was actually supporting this movement? She said that in favor of welfare rights?” But the apparent contradiction resolves itself in the conclusion, where you describe Friedan taking a turn. Can you just talk about her and her trajectory?


She’s such a hard figure to make sense of, isn’t she? In many ways, you’re right. I did use her as a touchstone, because she’s a familiar figure. But I also wanted to use her as a way of talking about the misremembering.

Friedan stuck her finger in so many pies and had links to so many of the concerns that I wanted to highlight. The end of her story in the book is a bit of personal pique, a bit of generational conflict as Friedan feels herself on the outs of a movement that she saw herself starting. Really essential questions about lesbian rights were coming to the fore, and she was never particularly comfortable with those.

She wrote this odd book called The Second Stage, in which she essentially attacks the movement for failing to deal with the family. She buys into the rhetoric that Phyllis Schlafly and the conservative anti-feminist movement had been articulating about what feminists did and repeats it in slightly shocking fashion. I assume this had to do with her own prickly, demanding temperament, and her own reading of what was dominating the movement.

And Friedan’s misremembering may also be because the cumulative total of what I described in the book was hard to make visible to anyone in that moment. It really was a kind of revelation for me to see these elements of feminist activism in the sixties and seventies come together. Historians and participants in the movement all know that pieces of this work happened. They’ve all gestured at it. But I was coming at it from a whole other perspective, because I was writing about the history of working motherhood and asked the obvious question, “Well, what did feminists have to say about working motherhood?”

And I started writing, and it went on and on and on and on. So, I think I asked the question from a different angle that brought things to the fore, and together in a way that it’s not clear to me that even participants in the movement would have experienced it in that way.

The people I find most interesting in this transition period of the early 1980s, just as Friedan publishes her disavowal of the movement, are people like Donna Lenhoff, who is one of the leaders behind the passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (1978) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (1993). Somewhere between 1978 and 1985, there is a group of feminists who regroup, who remain active inside Washington, inside this increasingly formalized women’s and feminist policy network, who keep pushing when they can, even in the Republican era, on these issues, without going the direction that Betty Friedan goes. There is much they don’t win, of course, but they begin making ground across the second half of the eighties.


The obvious question that one has to ask after reading your book is: what does the second wave have to say to us today?


Workplace surveys still show that at the top of women’s concerns about the workplace are equal pay and work and family balance. Sexual harassment is a significant concern — it was close up there on the top of the list. But if you actually ask women what they care about in the workplace, equal pay and work and family issues keep rising to the top.

We need the #MeToo movement, absolutely. And we need the personal campaigns that feminists of the sixties and seventies put forward to change dynamics in intimate relationships and homes. But we also need the resurrection of the political and policy campaigns of that era. Feminists were not able to win desperately needed victories on the problem of caregiving labor, for example.

That’s a twofold problem. First, women simply carry more of the burden of unpaid caregiving labor today. Second, those who do caregiving labor for pay, which is an increasing sector of the workforce, continue to face the kind of low pay that those who did it in the 1970s faced. So there’s a really critical need to go back to those issues, to work on some of the foundational elements necessary for gender equality in the labor force as well as gender equality in society.


#MeToo seems to focus mostly on the transformation of consciousness side. Which, as you say, is important. But without the policy piece, it kind of falls into the “women can have it all” trap. In the workplace, it’s good if a woman can summon the strength to tell a sexist male coworker or a lecherous boss to fuck off. But without some kind of institutional mechanism or policies to affect those things, you’re just asking women to take on this new burden of sticking up for themselves without anything of real substance to back them up. If you have a union, for example, you can file a grievance against a sexist supervisor.

That mechanism by which you achieve gender equality, beyond your own individual ability to demand it in a very loud voice, seems to be missing.


We don’t seem to have any consensus about what kinds of mechanisms there might be at the state policy level, beyond an individual workplace. On the work and family issues, however, the mechanisms that I think about are super concrete. The three things that matter to me are paid sick days, paid family leave that in particular emphasizes the need to incorporate participation by two partners (assuming two partners are involved in the care of an infant or a newborn), and working on properly valuing and organizing paid care-labor workers.

Beyond those practical policy policies, I think we’re in a period of ongoing cultural struggle about what’s going to replace the old male-breadwinner, female-homemaker ideal. That model did a lot of things: it made it possible to demand a family wage; it provided a person to do essential labor — social reproduction — as well as nurturing and loving. It’s a struggle to say, “How are we going to win those things in our society now without repeating gender stereotypes that trap men and women in particular roles that reinforce that heteronormative model of how households should be organized?”

I think a feminist vision of the 1960s and 1970s can be a place to turn to ask ourselves about what alternatives there are — how can we envision caring for children, having households that can economically support themselves, creating a decent society. We should get rid of this whole idea of having it all and replace it with a concept of humane lives for all. This forgotten feminist fight can help us construct claims for something that would look like humane lives for all.