Women, Crisis, and a Call to the Great Communicator (1963-1980). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

Women, Crisis, and a Call to the Great Communicator (1963-1980). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

 (50,000 B.C.-A.D. 1500S) * (1451-1507) * (1400-1600s) * (1497-1608) * (1608-1733) *

 (1608-1680s) * (1636-1748) * (1749-1763) * (1763-1775) * (1776-1783) * (1787-1797) *

(1798-1812) * (1812-1814) * (1814-1836) * (1817-1842) * (1724-1857) (1834-1846) *

(1846-1860) * (1859-1862) * (1863-1876) * (1862-1878) * (1862-1891) * (1869-1908) *

(1877-1906) * (1898-1918) * (1918-1929) * (1930-1941) * (1941-1945) * (1944-1954) *

(1947-1968) * (1946-1975) * (1968-1974) * (1963-1980) * (1980-1991) * (1992—).


In This Chapter

Feminism and the fate of the ERA.

An energy crisis triggered by OPEC.

A plague of economic and social woes.

The Iran hostage crisis.

Election 1980.

 The 1960s marked a period of self-examination in the United States, an era of sometimes liberating reflection and sometimes debilitating self-doubt. During the decade, women joined African-Americans and other minorities in calling for equal rights and equal opportunity. In the course of the following decade, all Americans were forced rethink attitudes about growth, expenditure, and the natural environment as the fragility of the nation’s sources of energy was dramatically exposed. Then, in 1980, after 20 years of often painful introspection, Americans elected a president whose resume included two terms as California’s governor and a lifetime as a movie actor. His message to the nation was to be proud and feel good—a message Ronald Wilson Reagan’s fellow Americans eagerly embraced.

A Woman’s Place. The sweet land of liberty was largely a man’s world until 1920, when women, at long last, were given the constitutional right to vote. Yet that giant stride changed remarkably little about American society. The first presidential election in which women had a voice brought Warren G. Harding (1865-1923) into office, embodiment of the status quo, whose very campaign slogan promised a “return to normalcy.” No, it would take a second world war to bring even temporary change to gender roles and sexual identity in the United States.

From Rosie the Riveter to The Feminine Mystique. The national war effort spurred into action by the December 7, 1941, surprise attack on Pearl Harbor required maximum military force and maximum industrial production. But if the men were off fighting the war, who would run the factories? Women answered the call in massive numbers, invading traditionally male workplaces. Posters exhorting workers to give their all for war production often depicted a woman in denim overalls and bandana, wielding a rivet gun like an expert. She was Rosie the Riveter, symbol of American womanhood in World War II.

For most American women, the war was their first experience of life in a workplace other than the home. Women faced new responsibilities but also tasted new freedom and independence. Yet when the war ended, the women, for the most part, quit their jobs, married the returning soldiers, and settled into lives as homemakers.

Throughout the 1950s, relatively few women questioned their role in the home. With the beginning of the 1960s, however, the American economy started a gradual shift from predominantly manufacturing-based to service-based industries, and women soon began finding job opportunities in these venues. Propelled in part by the powerful advertising medium of television, the 1960s were also driven by headlong consumerism. Increasing numbers of women found it necessary (or desirable) to earn a second income for their product-hungry families.

In 1963, writer Betty Friedan sent a questionnaire to graduates of Smith College, her alma mater. She asked probing questions about the women’s satisfaction in life, and the answers she received were sufficiently eye opening to prompt her to write a book, The Feminine Mystique. Its thesis, based on the Smith questionnaire and other data, was that American women were no longer universally content to be wives and mothers. They were, in fact, often the unhappy victims of a myth that the female of the species could gain satisfaction only through marriage and childbearing. The Feminine Mystique, an instant bestseller, struck a chord that caused many women to reexamine their lives and the roles in which society had cast them.

The Power of the Pill. In 1960, shortly before Friedan’s book appeared, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the world’s first effective oral contraceptive, the birth-control pill, which was soon dubbed more simply “The Pill.” It was destined not only to bring radical change to the nation’s sexual mores—contributing to the so-called sexual revolution of the 1960s—but also to liberate women from the inevitability of life tied to the nursery. Now, a women could choose to delay having children (or not to have them at all) and use the time to establish a career.

NOW and Ms. Three years after publishing The Feminine Mystique, Friedan helped found the National Organization for Women and served as NOW’s first president. An organized feminist movement—popularly called women’s liberation or (sometimes derisively) women’s lib—crystallized around NOW. The organization advocated equality for women in a general social sense and in the workplace, liberalized abortion laws, and passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), a proposed constitutional amendment declaring that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States nor by any State on account of sex.” ERA was drafted by feminist Alice Paul (1885-1977) of the National Woman’s Party and introduced in Congress in 1923, where it was essentially ignored until NOW took up its cause in 1970.

By the end of the 1960s, the women’s liberation movement was in full swing. In 1972, journalist and feminist Gloria Steinem started Ms. magazine, which became a popular, entertaining, and immensely profitable vehicle for the feminist message.

NOW met with opposition not only from conservative men but also from many women, some of whom claimed that the feminist movement ran contrary to the natural (or God-given) order; other women feared the movement would defeminize women and lead to the disintegration of the family. By the 1970s, NOW was also under attack from more radical feminists, such as Shulamith Firestone, Kate Millet, and Ti-Grace Atkinson, for being too conservative. Nevertheless, NOW and the entire range of feminist activism have had an impact on American life. More women occupy corporate executive positions today than ever before; in state legislatures, the number of women serving doubled between 1975 and 1988; and by the late 1980s, 40 of 50 states had laws mandating equality of pay for men and women in comparable jobs.

ERA Sunset. Thanks to NOW, the Equal Rights Amendment was approved by the House of Representatives in 1971 and by the Senate in 1972. The amendment was then sent to the states for ratification, and when the necessary three-fourths majority of states failed to ratify it by the original March 1979 deadline, a new deadline of June 30, 1982, was fixed. Yet, by this date, ratification was still three states short of the 38 needed. Reintroduced in Congress on July 14, 1982, ERA failed to gain approval and was dead as of November 15, 1983.

The failure of ERA points to the limits of what the feminist movement has achieved. Despite gains, far fewer women than men hold high elective office or sit on the boards of major corporations, and despite legislation, women continue to earn, on average, significantly less than men.

A Meeting of the Sheiks. Citizens of the United States, men and women, have always cherished their liberty, and after 1908, when Henry Ford introduced his Model T, they have increasingly identified a part of that liberty with the automobile. With six percent of the world’s population, the United States consumes a third of the world’s energy—much of it in the form of petroleum. Through the 1960s, this posed little problem. Gasoline was abundant and cheap. Indeed, at the start of the decade, U.S. and European oil producers slashed their prices, a move that prompted key oil nations of the Middle East—Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, plus Venezuela in South America—to band together as the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) on September 14, 1960, to stabilize prices. (More nations joined later.) Beginning in 1970, OPEC began to press for oil price hikes, and on October 1.7, 1973, OPEC temporarily embargoed oil exports to punish nations that had supported Israel in its recent war with Egypt. Chief among the embargo’s targets was the United States.

The effects of the OPEC embargo were stunning. Not only did prices shoot up from 38.5 cents per gallon in 19 73 to 55.1 cents by June 1974, gasoline shortages were severe in some areas. Americans found themselves stuck in gas lines stretching from the pumps and snaking around the block.

Cruising full speed ahead since the end of World War II, Americans were forced to come to grips with an energy crisis, cutting back on travel and on electricity use. The public endured an unpopular, but energy-(and life-) saving 55-mile-an-hour national speed limit, in addition to well-meaning, if somewhat condescending lectures from President Jimmy Carter, who characteristically sported a cardigan sweater on TV appearances because he had turned down the White House thermostat as an energy-conserving gesture. In a modest way, Americans learned to do without, and oil consumption was reduced by more than 7 percent—enough to prompt some OPEC oil price rollbacks by the early 1980s. By this time, too, OPEC’s grip on key oil producers had slipped as various member producers refused to limit production.

Made In Japan. The energy crisis came on top of an economic crisis, characterized by a combination of inflation and recession christened stagflation (stagnant growth coupled with inflation). The crisis had begun during the Nixon-Ford years and continued into the Carter presidency. By the mid 1970s, the heady consumerism of the 1960s was on the wane, and the dollar bought less and less. To use a phrase popular during the period, the economy was in the toilet.

And so, it seemed, was the American spirit. Accustomed to being preeminent manufacturer to the world, American industry was losing ground to other nations, especially Japan. All but crushed by World War II, Japan had staged an incredible recovery, becoming a world-class economic dynamo. By the 1970s, Japanese automobiles especially were making deep inroads into the U.S. automotive market. Not only were the Japanese vehicles less expensive than American makes, they were more fuel efficient (which meant fewer dollars spent on increasing gasoline costs), and they were more dependable.

The Chrysler Corporation, smallest of the Big Three automakers (behind General Motors and Ford), found itself on the verge of bankruptcy and, in 1980, sought federal aid. The government-backed loan was ultimately paid back and the Chrysler recovery became a celebrated comeback story (the company’s CEO, Lee Iacocca, was elevated nearly to the status of American folk hero). However, the $1.5 billion bailout of America’s 17th largest corporation was as controversial as it was depressing. Patriotic Americans felt vaguely humiliated-even as more and more of them climbed behind the wheel of a Toyota or Mitsubishi.

Frightening Cities, Crumbling Bridges. Driving through an American city, circa 1975, in one of those Japanese imports could be a pretty depressing experience as well. The post-World War II building boom had developed suburban America, and throughout the 1950s, many middle-class families left the old cities for the new suburbs. The pace of this exodus accelerated following the racial violence that plagued many cities during the 1960s. Social commentators began to speak of white flight—though, in fact, the abandonment of inner city for suburb was as much a matter of economics as it was of race; middle-class blacks fled just as quickly as their white neighbors. The result was cities that rotted at their cores. With the urban economic base dramatically reduced, businesses followed residents to outlying areas, and once-vibrant downtown districts became ghetto ghost towns. Throw into this dismal mix the often-ineffective efforts of a chronically underfunded public education system plus a steady increase in the abuse of illegal narcotics, and it seemed that many U.S. municipalities had been reduced to forbidding urban jungles.

But deteriorating cities weren’t the only symptoms of a crisis in the national economy and spirit. The American infrastructure was in need of a general repair. The very roads that had carried the middle class out of the inner city were typically cratered with potholes. And a growing proportion of the nation’s bridges-physical expressions of the necessity and desire to join town to town and citizen to citizen-were failing inspection, too old, too neglected to bear the traffic for which they had been designed.

Meltdown. The single most terrifying event that suddenly and dramatically forced Americans to question their faith in U.S. technology, big business, and government regulation occurred on March 28, 1979. A nuclear reactor at the Three Mile Island electric generating plant, near the Pennsylvania capital of Harrisburg, lost coolant water, thereby initiating a partial meltdown of the reactor’s intensely radioactive core.

Nuclear energy had long been a subject of controversy in the United States. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the peaceful use of the atom was seen as the key to supplying cheap and virtually limitless energy to the nation. But by the 1970s, environmentalists and others were questioning the safety of atomic power, which was also proving far more expensive than had been originally projected. By the end of the decade, a beleaguered nuclear power industry was on the defensive. By remarkable coincidence, just before the Three Mile Island accident, a popular movie dramatized the consequences (and attempted corporate cover-up) of a nuclear power plant accident. The movie was called The China Syndrome, an allusion to the theory that a full-scale meltdown of a reactor’s core would burn so intensely that the material would, in effect, sear its way deep into the earth—clear down to China, experts grimly joked.

The movie was very much on people’s minds when a shaken Pennsylvania governor Richard Thornburgh appeared on television to warn residents to remain indoors and advised pregnant women to evacuate the area. The partial meltdown had already released an amount of radioactive gases into the atmosphere.

Although evidence exists that plant officials improperly delayed notifying public authorities of the accident, backup safety features in the plant did successfully prevent a major disaster of the proportions of the Chernobyl meltdown on April 26, 1986, in the Soviet Ukraine, which would kill 31 persons immediately and untold additional numbers later. Nevertheless, Three Mile Island seemed to many people just one more in a long string of terrible failures of American commerce, technology, and know-how.

The Ayatollah. The year 1979 brought a shock of a different kind to national pride. A revolution in Iran, led by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900-89), toppled longtime U.S. ally Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, who fled into exile in January 1979. In October, desperately ill with cancer, the Shah was granted permission to come to the United States for medical treatment. In response to this gesture, on November 4, 1979, 500 Iranians stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took 66 embassy employees hostage, demanding the return of the Shah.

While President Carter refused to yield to this demand, the Shah voluntarily left the United States in early December. Still, the hostages remained in captivity (except for 13 who were black or female, released on November 19-20). Stalemated and frustrated, President Carter authorized an army Special Forces unit to attempt a rescue on April 24, 1980. The mission had to be aborted, and although its failure did not result in harm to the hostages, it seemed yet another humiliating defeat for a battered superpower.

Not until November 1980 did the Iranian parliament propose conditions for the liberation of the hostages, including a U.S. pledge not to interfere in Iranian affairs, the release of Iranian assets frozen in the U.S. by President Carter, the lifting of all U.S. sanctions against Iran, and the return of the Shah’s property to Iran. An agreement was signed early in January 1981, but the Ayatollah Khomeini deliberately delayed the release of the hostages until January 20, the day Jimmy Carter left office and Ronald Reagan was inaugurated. Although the new president, in an act of great grace and justice, sent Carter as his special envoy to greet the returning hostages at a U.S. base in West Germany, many Americans saw the Iran hostage crisis as a failure of the Carter administration, and the release was regarded as a kind of miracle performed by the incoming president.

The Great Communicator. Depressed and downcast, a majority of the American people looked to smiling, unflappable Ronald Reagan for even more miracles. Certainly, his own life had much magic to it. Born above a grocery store in Tampico, Illinois, in 1911, Reagan worked his way through college, became a sportscaster and then an actor-less than a spectacular talent, perhaps, but with 53 films and many TV appearances to his credit, he was never out of work. Reagan left acting to enter politics with a strong stop-communism and end-big-government message. In 1966 he handily defeated incumbent Democrat Pat Brown for the governor’s office in California and served two terms, during which he made a national reputation as a tax cutter. Delivering a feel-good message to the nation and promising large tax cuts, a vast reduction in government (“getting government off our backs”), and a return to American greatness, Reagan defeated the incumbent Carter by a wide margin in 1980. Even those who bitterly opposed what they saw as a shallow conservatism admitted that Reagan deserved the title of The Great Communicator.

The Least You Need to Know

The 1960s and 1970s saw Americans reexamining themselves and struggling to redefine their nation in an effort to renew the American dream.

        Ronald Reagan took his sweeping victory over Jimmy Carter in 1980 as a mandate for a rebirth of patriotism and a revolution in economics.

Word for the Day.The rise of feminism brought many changes and proposed changes to American society, including the modification of sexist (gender-biased) language. For example, the word mankind excluded women; feminists preferred humankind. The use of Mrs. and Miss suggested to that a woman’s value was unfairly bound to her marital status (in contrast, men are addressed simply as Mr., whether married or not). The abbreviation Ms. (pronounced mizz) was widely adopted as a more equitable female counterpart to Mr.

Main Event. In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Roe v. Wade, which had its origin in a suit brought by a woman against the state of Texas for having denied her the right to an abortion. In. a 7-to-1 vote, the high court determined that women have a constitutional right to abortion during the first three months of pregnancy.

Abortion is the most controversial right women have asserted, and the Roe v. Wade decision gave rise to a so-called Right to Life anti-abortion movement. Usually motivated by religious conviction, Right to Life advocates have campaigned for a constitutional amendment banning abortion (except in cases of rape, incest, or threat to the mother’s life). In recent years, some opposition to abortion has been fanatical, leading to the bombing of abortion clinics and the murder of medical personnel.

Stats. 1993 U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics reveal continued inequality of pay for men and women. Among white adults earning hourly wages, 1,290,000 men (over age 16) earned $4.25 or less, compared with 2,177,000 women at this level.

12,415,000 men were paid $10 or more, compared with only 7,186,000 women. (Figures for blacks and those of Hispanic origin show narrower gaps between men and women at the lower range, but wider gaps at the top.)

Stats. Because OPEC nations still hold 77 percent of the world proven oil reserves, the organization will continue to remain an important force in the world’s economy.

Main Event.Americans have typically had a love-hate relationship with their nation’s greatest city, New York. But during the 1970s, Gotham became an unwilling emblem of all that was going wrong with urban America. Poverty, decay, crime, and corruption were bigger there than anywhere else and always under the national spotlight. In 1975, Mayor Abe Bearne issued the astounding statement that his city could not pay its creditors. New York City, cultural center of the nation and home of Wall Street, was broke.

President Gerald Ford did not help matters when he steadfastly resisted extending federal aid to the city to prevent it from defaulting, and the New York Daily News trumpeted an instantly famous headline: “FORD TO NY: DROP DEAD!”

Fortunately, through the efforts of Democratic leaders such as Texas representative Jim Wright, Congress voted emergency loans amounting to $2.3 billion, the city avoided bankruptcy, ultimately recovered, and paid back the loan-with interest.


Word for the Day. An ayatollah is a religious leader among the Shiite Muslims, whose religious zeal and orthodoxy is often compared to that of Christian fundamentalists.


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