CHAPTER 2 The Rising Tide of Equality and Democratic Reform

From: The 1970s

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Chapter 2 THE RISING TIDE OF EQUALITY AND DEMOCRATIC REFORM “Good morning, boys and girls!”This greeting has rung out in elementary school classrooms throughout the United States for generations.Almost no one objects.After all, sex is a biological reality. The children are boys and girls. It seems natural to call them that. But is it really natural? Children can also be categorized in many other ways using different criteria. “Good morning, tall kids and short kids!” would surely raise some eyebrows . Why call attention to people’s height, another clear biological difference? “Good morning, blacks and whites!” is unimaginable , a visible distinction freighted with an invidious past that few by the 1970s would have considered a positive way to distinguish children. Boys and girls, however, still worked. They just seemed to be naturally different, from their bodies to the clothes they wore, from the games they played to the bathrooms they used. In the early 1970s,this began to change.Young activist women challenged traditional assumptions about the core human identity of being female or being male. Bathrooms did not change (despite anti-feminist warnings), sports teams remained primarily male or female, and women not only still gave birth to children but also continued to provide the vast majority of their care. But the old idea that the biology of one’s sex determines one’s fundamental identity no longer seemed so clear. Instead, for the first time, gender—the social and cultural roles associated with a particular sex—became a crucial and widely used term, as millions of women and men began to reconsider all sorts of previously unexamined assumptions about femaleness and maleness. 74 CHAPTER 2 Part of what they realized was the inaccuracy of assuming that women and men were fundamentally different from each other— not just the other sex, but the opposite sex—and fundamentally similar to others of their same sex. Rather, male and female seemed to represent large circles that overlapped to a considerable extent, depending on the criteria being measured, instead of completely separate circles. On the wide range of human characteristics and behaviors, the biological category of sex appeared to be just one of several important variables. The implications of this kind of rethinking were enormous. The segregation by sex that had pervaded American society no longer looked so natural. In the workplace, entire categories of employment were no longer restricted to men or to women. In the field of education, schools, colleges, and facilities eliminated whole frameworks of sex discrimination. In the eyes of the law, on issues from jury duty to abortion to marital rape, women gained a new empowerment and equality. And in their personal lives, women began to alter the contours of their most important relationships, with fathers, brothers, husbands, lovers, and sons, and renegotiate the personal politics of how households operated. Longstanding assumptions about women’s roles and the meaning of femininity came under sustained assault, which necessarily raised elemental questions about men’s roles and the meaning of masculinity. Very few American families navigated the 1970s untouched by these dramatic and intimate changes. The weakening of traditional gender hierarchies marked the largest shift of the decade toward formal equality, since it encompassed slightly more than half of American citizens. But other old hierarchies also began to crumble in the 1970s as the reforming spirit of egalitarianism, spilling out from the black freedom struggle of the previous decade, seeped into almost all corners of American life. For the first time, homosexuals began to come out of the closet in large numbers. Freeing themselves from bonds of fear and loathing, they won the first scientific support for the psychiatric legitimacy of homosexuality and the first legal support for gay and lesbian civil rights. Physically and mentally disabled Americans also fought to ride the new wave THE RISING TIDE OF REFORM 75 of inclusiveness as they gained federal support for fuller incorporation of disabled students into public school classrooms. Young and old Americans pushed back against age discrimination . And a new cohort of immigrants, primarily from Asia and Latin America rather than Europe, arrived in the United States in growing numbers, ensuring that the nation would soon become an even less black-and-white society. Multiculturalism advanced . Rights were extended for the first time even to animal species, as the enthusiasm for freedom and equality reached flood tide. Calling into question assumptions about gender on which people had built their personal identities for generations was not a...


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Subject Headings

  • United States -- History -- 1969-.
  • United States -- Social conditions -- 1960-1980.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1969-1974.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1974-1977.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1977-1981.
  • United States -- Economic conditions -- 1971-1981.
  • United States -- Foreign relations -- 1945-1989.
  • United States -- Commerce -- History -- 20th century.
  • Equality -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Nineteen seventies.
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