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When Sexism Became a Word

1968 and Feminism

A year can only be a snapshot, an image at best partial and at worse distorting of the complex messiness of life. For me, 1968 is indubitably a very important year. I was born in September of that year and have lived my whole life with the lingering question of how 1968 matters. I take this opportunity to consider what that year meant for feminism and what feminism has meant for 1968 according to some recent historical analyses. What I want to suggest is that many historians who claim to be speaking about the legacy of 1968 still fail to ask themselves to what extent gender norms – and the rebellions against them – had a broad and long-term impact on how political activism took shape in the following half century. In rendering women a footnote in the story of 1968, these historians are simply falling into the same masculinist trap that has dominated the writing of historical analysis for too long.

In terms of what feminism has meant for 1968, as recently as 2009 historian Sara Evans decried the limited extent to which gender has become an important category of analysis. Her intervention in a six-article forum published in the most widely read historical academic journal in the world, The American Historical Review, represents strong evidence that this is in fact the case. The rest of the articles in the forum focus on specific countries, regions, or even that broadest of categories, the “international counterculture,” but all relegate discussions about women almost exclusively to footnotes or sidebars. A passing, one-sentence reference to the origins of “the women’s movement in Mexico” in 1968 seems sufficient for an article focusing on “ The Latin American Left, 1968.” Another contribution starts with a detailed reference to Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique and the type of gendered disquiet the book focused on, but promptly drops any discussion of feminism or gender analysis as it proceeds to focus on the youth movements and counterculture of that period. The forum was commissioned by the American Historical Review and peer reviewed both internally at Indiana University as well as by prominent historians elsewhere. In short, this sort of presentation of gender issues in relation to 1968 has the stamp of approval of the most important history publication and of historians calling themselves feminists.

Nor is this an isolated oversight. Another synthetic work from 2013, Europe’s 1968: Voices of Revolt, draws similar conclusions: “Given the centrality of issues of gender and sexuality to the period, there has been surprisingly little work by historians that focusses on 1968 and gender, yet even studies that pass these issues over tend to recognize that challenges to received gender roles — linked to the emergence of second-wave feminism — were among the most significant legacies of 1968.”

How can we make sense of the #MeToo moment we are experiencing now without looking to what happened in 1968? How can we make sense of the legalization of same-sex marriage, or the passage of the Title IX? How can the lawsuits brought by women in the Silicon Valley against tech industry giants, or even Black Lives Matter, be understood without looking into how feminism took shape in 1968 and how women interacted with the men who participated in the radicalization of politics and culture that year?

I don’t mean to suggest there is a direct red thread, some kind of demonstrable causality between specific events that took place in 1968 and these subsequent developments. But historians who claim to be speaking about the legacy of 1968 fail to ask themselves to what extent gender norms – and the rebellions against them – had a broad and long-term impact on how political activism took shape in the following half century. Instead, those who left the clearest evidence of their leadership in a movement who are most-studied by historians while those who left a movement, starting their own, separate paths, become re-marginalized by historians who decide their story is only a sidebar; that they are unessential to the main narrative.

Yet there is ample evidence to suggest that what many women were doing in 1968 was more radical than what most men claimed to be doing in their protests. The issue is primarily of how one understands radicalism. Like Evans, I see the type of vulnerabilities and oppression that women had to specifically overcome in 1968 as more treacherous terrain to traverse than their male co-conspirators. Of course, this picture doesn’t accurately describe every man and woman who engaged in revolutionary acts in 1968 – Betty Friedan had a much more privileged position in society than the male leaders of the Black Panthers. Yet for most women who became involved in radical politics in 1968, the price they had to pay in rejecting established gender roles was high: greater economic vulnerability, social marginalization, and rejection by their families and communities. Despite such risks, the feminist activism of 1968 galvanized many women around the world and provided powerful models for decades to come.


It is equally important to ask sharp questions about what 1968 meant for feminism and the impact women’s activism had on the societies where these actions took place. Let me start with a list of some of the major things that took place in 1968 as a way to suggest that this accumulation of acts and achievements represents a landmark not just for those women themselves, but more broadly and deeply for the societies they lived in. I focus here on events taking place in the United States and Great Britain, though similar points could be made about other parts of Europe as well as in Asia.

It was in 1968 that Mary Daly published The Church and the Second Sex, the text that put the largest religious institution in the world, the Catholic Church, on notice for its fundamental misogyny. The book has become a point of reference in the history of radical feminist critiques vis-a-vis the patriarchal foundations of most established religions. That same year Shirley Chisolm began her public quest to challenge racism and patriarchy by becoming the first African American woman elected to Congress. Only four years later, in 1972, she became the first woman to run for President as a Democrat, continuing to inspire future generations of women of color to seek public office.

It was in 1968 that the brilliant Kate Millet organized numerous protests at Columbia University while writing her dissertation, which was published as Sexual Politics two years later. This feminist foundational text continues to be an important reference point today. And that same year 850 women machinists went on strike at a Ford manufacturing plant in the U.K., prompting the passage of the Equal Pay Act in 1970.

It was in September of 1968 that Robin Morgan, Florynce Kennedy, and other members of the New York Radical Women organized a major protest against the Miss American Pageant. This protest received national press coverage and forced both feminists and mainstream media to reconsider the sorts of misogynist values the Miss America Pageant helped reinforce and promote. This protest also fueled criticisms among African American women who saw their perspectives and interests silenced by both the Pageant and the protest.

It was in 1968 that The National Organization of Women published its Women’s Bill of Rights, establishing a clear set of desiderata that ended up framing many of its activities in the next few decades. And that same year Martha Weinman Lear coined the term “second wave feminism,” in The New York Times Magazine.

It was on January 15th of 1968 that the Jeannette Rankin Brigade, a group of 5,000 women protesting the Vietnam War and led by the pacifist congresswoman Jeannette Rankin, sought to march on Capitol Hill. Although the march was stopped by the last-minute intervention of a male-dominated Congress, Rankin nonetheless presented the petition by invoking the privilege of having served in Congress – enabling her to speak directly to the House. The slogan “Sisterhood is Powerful” emerged out of this protest. Even though this development took place slightly later, the National Abortion Rights Action League was founded in February 1969 as a result of the activist fervor of 1968 and became one of the main institutional forces to lead to the passing of Roe v. Wade and, since then, the legality of abortion rights.

It was in 1968 that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that separate “wanted” employment ads for men and women were illegal. And in that same year the feminist Caroline Bird coined the word “sexism” in a speech she delivered before her Episcopalian congregation, stating, “There is recognition abroad that we are in many ways a sexist country. Sexism is judging people by their sex when sex doesn’t matter. Sexism is intended to rhyme with racism. Women are sexists as often as men.”[1] Naming the attitudes, the actions, and the stereotypes that framed so much of the culture and public policies in the United States was an important moment for taking the feminist movement to a new level of visibility, recognition, and action.

I could go on, but I hope my point is clear. The year 1968 was full of feminist fervor, and the activities women undertook that year had repercussions long into the future. By providing a new vocabulary for articulating the state of gender injustice in their society, feminists opened up new avenues for critiquing and eliminating patriarchy.

Chisolm’s campaign did not get many votes, but it certainly exposed the racist and sexist underpinnings of national politics among both men and women, as Caroline Bird astutely pointed out. The leadership positions taken by new generations of women in the Black Lives Matter movement would not have happened without the visibility of Chisolm, Florynce Kennedy, and many other African American women whose work became recognized broadly starting in 1968. Though less visible in international policy making due to their tiny presence in Congress, in 1968 women made their views against the Vietnam War known through marches and protests. The messiness of these protests, where class, race, and sexuality became points of friction, also provided powerful learning moments for how alliances needed to be constructed in the future and where the shortcomings of sisterhood lay. These divisions can be seen 50 years later, even through a sea of pussy hats.


The question to ask, then, is why a gender analysis of 1968 is still missing? Especially given the rich evidence presented by the historical record and many feminist analyses of the events, why does this gap in the cultural, intellectual, and political historiography exist? A recent book by the Princeton historian of political ideas Jan-Werner Müller offers a possible explanation.

In Contesting Democracy: Political Thought in Twentieth-Century Europe Müller describes second-wave feminism as a “real revolution,” as a radical shift in the ideas and in the behavior of feminist leaders. And indeed, all of the developments I sketched above bear out this characterization. But Müller also qualifies this revolution as not being part of “ ‘68 in a narrow sense, it was against it.” What does this statement mean?

To begin with, Müller means that 1968 was about something other than feminism, and this in a fundamental, essential, way. It is as if someone owned 1968 – and it wasn’t feminists. While I can understand why in 1968 feminists were viewed as latecomers or outsiders to that revolutionary year, I don’t believe that 50 years later this perspective can be called anything other than incomplete and myopic; in short: not very good scholarship. Because if 1968 was about exposing the establishment, what was more central to that moment than women exposing the centrality of patriarchal discourses, institutions, and policies as core elements of the establishment? What was more radical than mothers telling the U.S. government that its expenditures on military adventures in Southeast Asia represented a patriarchal distraction from engaging with broad social and economic problems at home, such as women’s access to jobs, educational opportunities, childcare, affordable housing, etc.?

But a second issue must be raised as well, and this in light of the suggestion made by Müller (and found in other similar analyses) that a set of actions that reacted against some of the 1968 movements were somehow not part of the legacy of 1968. This is a baffling assertion. It would be the same as saying that nothing that came after Marx’s writings on capitalism in response to Marx is part of the history of Marxism. It is frankly hard to fathom how such a statement can qualify as good historical scholarship published by Yale University Press. And yet Müller gets away both with stating that 1968 was revolutionary in terms of feminism and claiming that second wave feminism was not part of 1968 – and thus that he is justified in leaving the analysis of feminism completely behind for the rest of his book. It is a slight of hand that has gone unchallenged in reviews of this work.

Ultimately, the question about the place of feminism in the narratives about 1968 is inextricably connected to broader epistemological assumptions regarding primary and secondary historical events and developments. For Müller and the majority of the historians participating the American Historical Review forum discussed above, what women said, did, and the political actions in which they engaged remain “women’s movements” or “women’s issues.” In short, they remain limited and secondary. For them it is what men said that contains the fundamental historical traces these historians want to examine; what men did is more universally relevant for understanding the past – and for no reason other than the lack of self-reflexivity about these assumptions. This is a failure of both imagination and scholarship.

The time for a more holistic appreciation of 1968 – warts, misogyny, and all – has definitely come. It may even be that, as we begin to better appreciate the importance of the feminist activities during 1968, historians will finally begin to think of ‘68 as a landmark year for the struggle to eliminate fundamental political, economic, social, and cultural inequalities in the world. Because feminists certainly did.

Maria Bucur is an American-Romanian historian of modern Eastern Europe and gender in the twentieth century. She has written on the history of eugenics in Eastern Europe, memory and war in twentieth-century Romania, gender and modernism, and gender and citizenship. Her book, The Century of Women. How Women Have Transformed the World since 1990, is forthcoming from Rowman and Littlefield in May 2018. She teaches history and gender studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, where she holds the John W. Hill Professorship


[1] Caroline Bird, “On Being Born Female,” Vital Speeches of the Day, 15 November, 1968, p. 90.

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