By the early 1960s, women were becoming increasingly restless. Women could work for wages, and many of them did, but they faced an unexpected challenge.
Once involved in the labor market, they became impatient for some of its rewards. They demanded better wages and equal access to good jobs, full-time work with shorter hours.
They joined unions to get better contracts, and in some instances, they managed to win insurance coverage for childbirth and delivery.
But the gains were few and far between, posing more questions than answers. How long would women be willing to work without reaping some of the rewards of wage labor? How long would women be willing to work without demanding that they have access to good jobs, jobs that promised promotion? When would they become hungry for jobs commensurate with growing education levels, and at wages and salaries that acknowledged their dignity? How long would they continue to work as supplementary earners for pin money to help out the family? When would their job market gains threaten the masculinity of their breadwinner husbands? How long would women be willing to work without demanding changes in the family, for that matter? When would their continuing ambition burst the regulatory constraints of the domestic code?
There’s a conversation about discrimination and what’s the meaning of discrimination against women. Employer’s preferences, do they count as discrimination or is this just part of the culture of how things go? And it’s this conversation, which ultimately results in the addition of sex to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and to the creation of the State Commissions on the Status of Women which follow the end of the presidential commission. And of course we know that those state commissions ultimately respond to the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission and foster the creation of now, the National Organisation for Women.
Young women who sought freedom and equality for racial minorities and campaigned for social justice for the poor and opportunity for the disadvantaged could not escape seeking those things for themselves, too. Their experiences in social movements for others soon turned to questions of why they could not liberate themselves.
Every successful husband needed a wife, according to Professor Patricia Albjerg Graham, the historian and academic who herself became a wife in the 1950s. Though she herself had a PhD, she could not focus on her own work in the early years of her marriage. Instead, she put her career on hold while her husband finished his training. Events of the 1960s encouraged impatience with that way of acting and thinking.
Women, sometimes educated, sometimes ready for professions, sought to live as they chose and to construct families or not as they wished. In a movement that we call the cultural revolution, women began to reject the dictates of consumption and tradition and to assert a new value system based on freedom. They might separate themselves from their families of origin, give up excess possessions, move to communes to live lives based on sexual liberation.
We call these young people flower children. At the heart of the cultural revolution lay the goal of ending sexual repression and promoting sexual freedom. Suddenly, many of the young rejected the notion of marriage altogether, preferring instead to shed the constraints of state regulation and to raise liberated offspring.
But women of the 1960s quickly discovered that their liberation paralleled the liberation of men, who could and did exercise their freedom without taking any responsibility for the consequences of their acts. The excitement of this freedom produced babies for whom women remained primarily responsible, and liberation did little to enhance the self-esteem heterosexual women.
Rather, the absence of monogamous commitment created inordinate pressures on women who could make few demands on free men. The movement for sexual liberation had two other ongoing consequences.
The first involved the push to make birth control accessible to all women, and to decriminalize abortion. These produced the landmark court cases that permanently altered conceptions of women’s control over their own bodies. The second legitimized women’s desires to shed dependence on men by turning to other women for sexual satisfaction and for emotional and other forms of sustenance as well.
By the end of the ‘60s, notions of women-only meetings, safe spaces for women, and woman power had become part of the vocabulary. Together, these inspired notions of radical feminism, the idea that equality and freedom could be achieved only if women were released from the systemic oppression asserted by patriarchal society. Women, radical feminists argued, needed control of their own bodies and freedom from familial and cultural coercion in order to thrive. Male-dominated education, values, and culture were destined to imprison women. That could mean freeing oneself from bourgeois culture, consumer values, and capitalism, all of which were complicit in the oppression that denied women their freedom.
The struggle for justice for women extended into the heart of the family. At one level it involved women’s capacity to engage in wage work, but at another, it deeply affected their ability to establish independent lives and to maintain their own homes.
Leap with me into the 1970s, when we have the almost paradoxical situation of women, especially young women deciding that even if they wanted to live with a male or a female companion, they didn’t want to marry, they rejected marriage and fought for individual benefits, in other words, to eliminate in so many ways the assumption that a male would be the breadwinner of the family.
So on the one hand there is, I think you’d agree in the 1970s, a kind of massive rejection, or a much larger rejection of marriage, a much greater acceptance of divorce, of having children out of wedlock, and yet, a decade later, we’re into a period when gay and lesbian couples who had to be unable to marry and were then still unable to marry, seek to become part of the marriage bargain.
How are we to understand that? – Well I agree that the 1970s is really the nadir of marriage in terms of its public face and the extent of critique of marriage, of alternatives such as open marriage, swinging couples, non-marriage, cohabitation, because of the sexual revolution, all of these things become possible and seem desirable.
And only the oppressive and regulatory aspects of marriage in its history are emphasised. Not the citizenship part, so much, but the fact that marriage is a way that the state was governing couples, was prescribing roles, and was using it in punitive ways. And that it was, of course, unequal, hierarchical and oppressive.
But I think two things happened between the late 70s and the 90s. Two seemingly very opposite movements that paradoxically built toward a reevaluation, an revaluation of marriage.
And that is, on the one hand, there was a tremendous reaction against the sexual revolution and all that came (mumbles) by conservative Christians, often even angelical Christians who built many institutions, with names like focus on the family, moral majority, starting in the late 70s, who rebuilt esteem for marriage from their conservative position.
All of the values of fidelity and chastity before marriage, and husband and wifely devotion. So that was a conservative wing rebuilding of marriage values, including very old fashioned values of subordination of the wife to her husband. But including a modern value of sexual fulfillment as if it were to be that much better when crowned by belief in God.
And then on the other hand, gay and lesbian advocacy shifted a great deal after the immediate period of gay liberation and coming out to various crises that occurred in the 80s with the AIDS crisis that mostly seemed to affect gay men at the time, but then on the side of lesbians, there were many lesbians who were in couples, wanted to have babies.
The many changes of the 80s tended to lead toward more acceptance of gays and lesbians in the workforce, in families, in society in general, and the exclusion from marriage for those who had now come out and were couples seemed to stand as a really strong way in which they were second-class citizens.
This important right and institution that had been central in citizenship, they brought that back into understandings of marriage, the ways it is related to state approval as well as customary approval.
And so the advocacy for marriage of same sex couples began strongly in the 90s, and oddly, I think it is that plus the conservative wing, which these two sides were not in the least bit alike, but they each were building a new esteem for marriage and for what it stood for as renovated, whichever group was supporting it and so on.
I think it was really the state benefits implied in marriage and there are many, certainly, the 20th century built in repeated benefits for marriage and then there were mimicking of that in private arrangements, health insurance policies and so on that aren’t state generated but mimic state benefits that were simply material benefits that gay and lesbian couples realised they were being deprived of in their partnerships.
This revolution comes from many forces including civil libertarians and anti-censorship folks, and so it has the genesis of it was not single at all, and in that sense, I think this revolution was a major factor in the breaking open of marriage and the critique of marriage.
Shabir Ahmad is from Raiyar Doodhpathri
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.
The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.