Culture & Conversation Media

‘The 1970s’: A Quirky, Scattershot Look Back at Feminism Four Decades Ago

Eleanor J. Bader

The collection captures the giddiness of the decade and the unbridled enthusiasm for creating new ways of being and doing.

Readers looking for a comprehensive history of the feminist social movements that existed four decades ago will not find it in The 1970s, a quirky, scattershot collection of 31 academic essays, poems, memoir fragments, fiction, and artwork published as the fall/winter edition of WSQ, formerly known as Women’s Studies Quarterly. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Like all anthologies, individual readers will likely find some contributions in The 1970s, edited by Shelly Eversley and Michelle Habell-Pallán, more alluring than others. Nonetheless, they will also walk away with a new or renewed respect for the foremothers of modern feminism, including the first Black woman elected to U.S. Congress, 1972 presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm; the Our Bodies, Ourselves collective; and those who organized festivals and conferences in order to strategize and socialize with other women and political thinkers.

The collection captures the giddiness of the decade and the unbridled enthusiasm for creating new ways of being and doing. As someone who came of age in the 1970s, I was reminded not only of the excesses of the period, but of the deeply felt thrill of creating spaces centered on women. The fact that many newly minted feminists, like me, truly believed that a social revolution was imminent sounds naïve today—and maybe even ridiculous—at the time it seemed not just possible but probable.

The 1970s captures this spirit, but as a non-linear collection does so in fits and starts. Instead, the anthology is divided into five thematic sections: Powerful Sisterhoods; Sex, Representation, and the Uses of the Erotic; New Sounds, New Sights; Form and Content: Popular Platforms; and Classics Revisited: The Equal Rights Amendment. Nearly every entry was written specifically for the collection, a fact that makes the anthology a modern-day look backward, full of both concrete information and the wisdom of hindsight.

In “Sex and the Me Decade: Sex and Dating Advice Literature of the 1970s,” Smith College Lecturer Anna E. Ward zeroes in on the changing ethos about sex, marriage, and gender that emerged thanks to the previous decade’s counterculture. The shifts, she writes, were initially apparent in the marital advice manuals that began circulating in the early 1960s and that directly acknowledged women as sexual beings. The impetus for this change was the public admission that unmarried people fooled around—a revelation credited to Helen Gurley Brown’s taboo-breaking 1962 bestseller, Sex and the Single Girl. Until then, Ward explains, all sex guides had been written by men and were exclusively addressed to husbands and their physicians.

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As the 1970s took hold, female sexual desire was finally noted and “how-to” texts were published by both mainstream print shops and newly forming feminist presses with the explicit aim of increasing female satisfaction. Feminists took the idea of female sexual agency even further, Ward writes: demanding that sex itself be seen as a political act. After all, they argued, wasn’t sexuality impacted by the gender inequities and the power imbalances that existed within many heterosexual families? If women were considered inferior to men and naturally subservient, how could this not impact one’s sex life?

So what to do?

During the 1970s, Ward explains, the primacy of the vaginal orgasm became fodder for debate, and women began to contest the many fallacies they’d been taught. Consciousness Raising [CR] groups, as they were called, formed, and, among other things, helped women understand their bodies, including the clitoris as a pleasure site. Not surprisingly, as women opened up about their sex lives, the discussion grew to include how they had been miseducated and mistreated by men. Indeed, as anger and frustration bubbled over, so did organizing. According to Ward, “Women and Their Bodies, published in 1970 and later renamed Our Bodies, Ourselves, grew out of CR sessions. In addition to the anatomy and physiology section that discussed women’s reproductive and sexual anatomy, the text devotes an entire section to sexuality. As was common at many feminist CR sessions, the text encourages women to examine their bodies, particularly their genitalia.”

A host of books, by women for women, soon emerged: Free and Female: The Sex Life of the Contemporary Woman, Woman’s Orgasm: A Guide to Sexual Satisfaction, and Sex for Women Who Want to Have Fun and Loving Relationships with Equals among them.

An even bigger shift involved the expansion of intended audience. Ward reports that ‘70s sex manuals recognized the sexualities of LGBTQ and people with disabilities, and touched upon previously ignored topics including the impact of illness, pregnancy, menopause, and aging on sexual behavior. The ways sexual abuse impacted body image and performance were also explored.

That said, Ward writes that almost all of these books were authored by straight, cis, white “experts,” who ignored the centrality of race, sexual preference, and class in the formation of sexual identity and the everyday choices that were—and still are—available to different populations. Still, she concludes that their work played a discernible role in expanding gender and sex norms throughout society, developments that prompted wider acceptance of difference overall.

Meanwhile, Canada-based writer-teacher Lise Weil’s “Beginning With O,” taken from her in-progress memoir, In Search of Pure Lust, addresses what coming out for the first time meant for her. The piece is a funny, tender, and sweet reflection on an all-women’s weekend she attended in 1977. Attentive to the over-the-top enthusiasms of the era—including an “elaborate vagina slide show presented by a tall, energetic woman with a pointer”—it beautifully captures the moment, and then some.

Like Weil, other writers move between the personal and political. In “Programas Sin Vergüenza (Shameless Programs): Mapping Chicanas in Community Radio in the 1970s”, Monica de la Torre, a PhD candidate at the University of Washington, writes about the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s attempt to diversity its staffing and programming. Part of the third section of the anthology, New Sounds, New Sights, Programas Sin Vergüenza references a 1974 survey that revealed CPB to be a bastion of whiteness.

After the survey’s findings were released, the CPB attempted to bring in new voices from the Asian, Black, and Latino communities. “Chicano sound activism,” De La Torre writes, was one of the bi-products: a way to bring a diverse Chicano population into radio broadcasting. In 1979, California’s Radio KDNA became the country’s “first, full-time Spanish-language, noncommercial radio station,” De La Torre writes. Along with KBBF FM 89.1, a Santa Rosa, California station set up by farmworkers, these community-run stations helped nonprofessionals acquire the skills to create programs explicitly directed toward low-wage workers and their families.

It did not take long for women to become immersed in them, learning production and going on air to address their concerns: relationships, poverty, child-rearing, abortion and contraceptive availability, and the lack of educational and vocational opportunities open to them. “These radio programs were powerful,” De La Torre writes, “and worked to inform women and to break the silence of discussing sex, sexuality, and reproductive rights. Rather than conducting them in private spheres, Chicanas were bringing these conversations to the public airwaves, giving women the knowledge that they may not have received elsewhere.”

Sadly—frustratingly—these heady advances were not sustained; De La Torre reports that in 2014 “people of color held just over seven percent of radio licenses while women held less than seven percent of all TV and radio station licenses.”

Unfortunately, that’s not the only place where there has been backsliding. As is obvious, feminist radio programming, especially that controlled by women of color, has fallen off since its heyday in the 70s; the Equal Rights Amendment has still not passed; abortion and contraception are still not universally accepted as social benefits; and sexism, sexual violence, and misogyny are still ubiquitous.

Equally appalling, despite some progress towards egalitarian parenting, raising kids remains a largely female responsibility—and society often pushes individual mothers to concentrate on their own families rather than on the isolating structures that make their situations more difficult. Kara Van Cleaf’s “Of Woman Born to Mommy Blogged: The Journey from the Personal as Political to the Personal as Commodity,” parses contemporary motherhood by critiquing 47 “Mommy Blogs” written between 2010 and 2013. Although there are obviously exceptions, unlike Adrienne Rich’s 1976 book, Of Woman Born, Van Cleaf writes that today’s “mommy bloggers,” everyday women writing about the challenges of motherhood, “rarely connect their feelings or experiences to gendered structures of power.” Typically, she writes, “The challenges of motherhood are overwhelmingly couched as personal problems that can be overcome by readjusting one’s mind rather than, as the feminists of the 1970s asserted, by readjusting society.”

It’s a sobering insight, and it’s impossible to read the essay and not wonder how and why this happened. Indeed, the full story of how the exuberance of the 1970s was undermined by Reaganism and the New Right remains to be written. Nonetheless, as feminists and progressives of the ‘70s used to say, la lucha continua, the fight continues. So let’s go. There’s absolutely no time to waste in organizing to build a better and fairer world.

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