A Fresh Look at 1970s Feminism

Duke scholars give another look to a key moment in women's history

June 6, 2012

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in Gist from the Mill, the news magazine from the Social Science Research Institute.

Durham, NC - "A Women's Town Meeting will be held Saturday, Nov. 3, from 10 am to 4 pm at the Durham YWCA," the Durham Carolina Times reported in its Nov. 3, 1973, edition. "Workshops will include Legal and Economic Problems of Women, The Black Woman, Child Care in Durham, Women and Their Bodies, Restructuring Personal Relationships, and Women's Studies. Fifteen local women's organizations will be present to tell women about their groups. The Feminist Drama Troupe from Chapel Hill will present an original play, 'A Feminist Fairy Tale,' during lunch."

The meeting, the paper reported, will be "the first of its kind in Durham," Occurring as it did in a working-class southern town (at the time, Durham was dominated by the tobacco and textile industries) and addressing African-American women in particular, the Women's Town Meeting that took place on that November day challenges our popular image of the feminist movement of the 1970s. Also out to challenge the popular image of the movement is the Future of the Feminist 70s, a yearlong initiative of the Women's Studies Department at Duke University. Through courses, reading groups, lectures, and films, the initiative seeks to understand how some of the major interventions of the 1970s -- among them, Marxist and radical feminism, eco-feminism, and human and civil rights discourse -- continue to have an impact on feminist thought, shed light on contemporary questions, and influence the direction of feminism today.

Victoria Hesford is a postdoctoral fellow who taught Gender and Popular Culture this spring as part of the initiative. Hesford says we each have an idea of what the feminist movement in the 1970s looked like: centered on the East Coast, mainly involving white, educated, middle- and upper class women. What the Future of the Feminist 70s asks us to do is to leave our presuppositions, received wisdom, and conventional narratives behind. "With this initiative we want to look at the subject anew," said Hesford, a professor of women's and gender studies at Stony Brook University. "Because we were there or because we've heard the stories or because we've studied the movement in books, we think we know what happened. We want to set all that aside and see the feminist movement with fresh eyes, to let new connections and narratives emerge."

Another postdoctoral fellow who is participating in the initiative is Stephanie Gilmore, a professor of women's and gender studies at Dickinson College; in the fall she taught a course that examined feminism in a historical context. Enough time has passed, she said, to allow us to take a longer view of 1970s feminism and see it from a broader perspective. "The Future of the Feminist 70s is about recognizing that we need a history to understand and give context to our current activism; we need a usable past to create a future feminist movement, a movement that can sustain the things left over from the '70s," Gilmore said. Now that a historical approach is possible, questions are opened up that may have been unthinkable a generation ago. Take, for example, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The question, said Gilmore, is not only how do we still pursue an ERA, but whether we even still want to pursue an ERA. "We need a history to answer those questions."

The timing of the initiative, Gilmore said, could not be better, coming as it does "at the front end of historical and critical scholarship on the movement."

Many of the programs associated with the Future of the Feminist 70s have been offered in conjunction with the Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History and Culture. Among them is a film series. The first film that was screened was I Am Somebody (1970), which tells the story of a 1969 strike by black women hospital workers in Charleston, S.C. The curator of the series is Shilyh Warren, an adjunct professor of film studies at N.C. State University. Warren, who recently graduated from the Ph.D. program in literature at Duke, said she wanted to open with a film that overturned our popular conception of the feminist movement as white, college-educated, and northern -- and that demonstrated the movement's multifaceted character. "Here was an episode that involved black women workers in the South," she said. "Yet here was also an episode that showed that feminism was not only about women but was connected to the civil rights movement and the labor movement." 

So much of the initiative, Warren said, questions not only our understanding of the feminist movement of the 1970s but the 1970s themselves. Hesford said the '70s marked the beginning of a transition in the global economic order. "With the rise of Pinochet, Thatcherism, and neoliberal economic policies, the way capitalism happens on a global scale began to change," said Hesford, who has just completed a book titled Feeling Women's Liberation, on our collective cultural memory of 1970s feminism. A seminar at Duke University taught this past fall by Jolie Olcott (History) and Ara Wilson (Women's Studies) approached the feminist 1970s from a transnational perspective.

"There is a feminist movement today, and it has a history," emphasized Stephanie Gilmore, who is writing a book on grassroots feminist activism in the postwar period. "We don't have Sex and the City without Erica Jong and Fear of Flying. Without the feminist movement, we don't have LGBT characters and interracial romance on TV. We don't have in Ellen DeGeneres -- an out lesbian -- our go-to person for entertainment. We don't have Oprah, who many say got our last president elected. A lot of positive role-modeling we owe to the movement."