A new book, Feminism’s Forgotten Fight, pushes back on the notion that second-wave feminists only cared about sexual liberation. They fought for family values, too.
By Ashley Fetters
I spoke with Swinth about the still-relevant lessons of second-wave feminism presented in Feminism’s Forgotten Fight. An edited and condensed version of our conversation is below.
Ashley Fetters: One of the central theses of the book is that there’s been a sort of collective amnesia around what the feminism of the 1960s and ’70s was really about. Why do you think that collective memory lapse happened, exactly?
Kirsten Swinth: I think people forgot at a specific moment in the late ’70s and the early ’80s, when a couple of things went on: First of all, it was a super low moment for the women’s movement; they’d fought for the Equal Rights Amendment and seen its heartbreaking defeat. It was a moment when conservatives were really beginning to chalk up some victories, and what we now call the “pro-family movement” was very visible and increasingly politically powerful because they backed Ronald Reagan and helped get him elected in 1980. Part of what the pro-family movement did was systematically accuse feminists in the women’s movement of betraying the family or not caring about the family, being anti-family.
Second of all, there is the fact that Betty Friedan herself was a particularly significant leader, but that she would be the one to have that amnesia kind of makes sense. She was a slightly displaced leader; she was an older generation herself, alienated by a movement that was newly focused on sexual politics, particularly reproductive freedom and sexual liberation. So for her to see that as what the movement had become makes sense.
Fetters: In the research process, did you find that this forgotten aspect of feminism was hiding in plain sight and just fell out of the popular imagination, or was this all sort of obscured until you recovered it?
Swinth: I think it’s a mix of both. I rely on the work of a lot of other scholars, particularly those who have worked on the welfare-rights movement and those who’ve worked on the histories of legal feminism. But once I started asking questions and saying, Wait, isn’t there something here we aren’t seeing?, then I uncovered a bunch more research.
The research I did on feminist activism for child care—people really had dismissed feminism for not caring about child care, but that’s just not what I found when I dug into the archive. Nobody that I know of has written in the way I have about male feminists, either; there are some people who’ve written about men’s liberation [a male-driven movement that grew out of feminism and aimed to make masculinity more inclusive of gentleness and nurturing], and I draw on them, but there’s not much written about the impact of the [male] sociologists and psychologists associated with [the men’s-liberation movement at the time]. I really liked writing about Federally Employed Women [an organization founded in 1968 to advance women within the federal workforce], too, and their demands for flexible scheduling and part-time work for two reasons: They exemplify activism inside the workplace, and it was a really fascinating interracial organization inside the largest employer in the United States. So that’s just a great example of a missing piece of the history.
Fetters: Do you think we’ve made progress on valuing housework today, or have we stalled out?
Swinth: We’ve made some important progress. We value marital property at divorce [that is, a homemaker is now entitled to an equal share of a household upon getting divorced, just as a wife who works outside the home would be]. I think we’ve made some progress on access to better benefits for homemakers [for example, ever since 1977, homemakers can have their own IRAs to save for retirement independently of their spouses]. Obviously it’s fallen far short of what feminists wanted in terms of valuing unpaid homemaking labor. I’m very intrigued by the extraordinary growth in the paid-care sector today—home health aides, people who assist the disabled and the elderly, domestic workers, nannies, child-care workers. That sector of the economy continues to grow, and I think there’s a lot to be said there in terms of fighting for the valuation of—the pay for and the recognition of the significance of—this kind of labor in the economy.
Fetters: Are any of these battles feminists were waging in the 1960s and ’70s battles you think feminist activists today should focus on again?
Swinth: Paid family leave is a critical one. Paid sick days is a critical one. They’re different; paid sick days allow those who are on hourly wages to take paid leave to care for their children and other family members. And, I think, revisiting and expanding the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) so that employers are really required to do what it takes to make sure that pregnant workers aren’t discriminated against. Today the PDA has been interpreted in this relatively narrow way that says you can’t fire a pregnant worker but you don’t have to provide her with any extra accommodations on the job, like extra bathroom breaks or a bottle of water if the doctor says she needs to remain hydrated.
Another of the key visionary ones that we could turn back to is welfare-rights activists’ vision for a guaranteed income. It says that everyone in society should have a basic pillar upon which they can survive, and [it also implies] that all mothers’ caretaking is of value. We as a society need to value that caretaking; even if we’re poor, that shouldn’t mean we shouldn’t have the ability to care for our children with the time we need to care for them, the decent jobs we need to support our children. We shouldn’t be subject to wage exploitation or work such long hours that we can’t properly care for our children.
Fetters: The notion of a guaranteed income seems to have remained popular, but it’s become less strongly linked to feminism.
Swinth: I think you can make a feminist case for it. And, of course, we did have welfare-rights activists make that case in the 1960s, particularly with poor women and single mothers. The fact that people don’t associate a guaranteed income with mothers, though, is part of the legacy of the backlash against welfare that arose in the 1980s and 1990s.
Fetters: Sometimes authors who write about the history of women’s anger in politics or about the history of feminism in politics are criticized for focusing on activism as it relates to issues that affect single, childless women—and for largely ignoring feminist activism on behalf of parents and families. Do you think that’s a valid critique?
Swinth: Mothers have a lot of reasons to be angry. Survey after survey shows that for working women, the pay gap and work-family balance are the top issues of concern in the workplace, even after the #MeToo movement. They’re still coming out ahead of sexual harassment as a primary concern. So when we don’t talk about those issues, we’re missing an issue that remains central to the majority of working women.
I do think that young, childless single women have some distinctive concerns, particularly if they’re younger, about the horizon in front of them as they build professional lives. The young women I teach, and my own daughter, who’s in college, they feel very passionate about issues that are very central to feminism: sexual assault, sexual harassment, starting up careers. They’re really smart in their thinking about how these things are affected by race and class and immigrant status and sexuality. I think that’s fantastic.
I don’t think there’s any need, though, to pit these young, single women against older women and mothers. Eighty-five or 90 percent of women in the U.S. eventually do become mothers, so the vast majority of women are mothers at some point in their lives.
Fetters: I really appreciated your descriptions of the undercurrents of humor, slyness, and subversion that run through second-wave feminism. These seem to have fallen out of the historical narrative.
Swinth: It’s true. When we talk about feminism, about women and anger, throughout history, so many times things that were sly or ironic or sardonic or funny [in the moment] got construed by opponents as angry and hostile. Things lose their witty cleverness—even when the point of it was to poke holes into the assumptions that people carry around about women and their roles.
This is true of many social movements: They inspire people to be visionary and creative. As people rethink their place in the world, they renegotiate things with their partners and their children in ways that are sometimes rocky but sometimes totally awesome. They’re funny, and pissed off, and … to be able to get to read about and find and discover some of these lovely things, it was a real pleasure.