Has feminism been a failure, as some of its critics have charged? Did it die in the 1980s? Certainly not, writes historian Evans in this fine overview of its many achievements.
Consider, she urges, the early ’60s, when a woman could not take out a loan without her husband’s signature, when graduate schools openly imposed quotas restricting women to ten percent of the student body, when “it was perfectly legal to pay women and men differently for exactly the same job and to advertise jobs separately.” In just two decades, a committed body of women from many economic, ethnic, and political backgrounds (including a Republican activist who fondly recalled a 1977 caucus in Houston as something about which far-flung attendees now reminisce “in the same way war veterans, strangers on sight, quickly become close as they talk about Normandy, Inchon, or Hué”) joined forces to challenge separate-and-unequal policies and programs throughout society. At first, writes Evans (Born for Liberty, 1989, etc.; History/Univ. of Minnesota), these early feminists met with opposition on the part of most politicians and the media, which proved to be “condescending if not hostile,” yet they managed to hold a united front and eventually to achieve some signal victories while sustaining a few failures, such as the still-troubling defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment in Congress. By the ’80s, she observes, even against Reaganite and Christian Coalition hostility, the women’s movement had changed enough minds that “the simple appearance of a woman in a position of authority no longer provoked disbelief.” Challenges remain today, she concludes, not least of them contending with the tensions inherent in trying to balance demands for decentralized action with the need to use government “as an instrument of social policy”—female activists, Evans adds, tend far more than their male peers to view government as a positive, necessary force.
A well-written, critical overview of feminism’s real contributions, useful and timely in an age of backlash and antifederalist sentiment.