In today’s post, Center for Women’s History intern Lauren Schaffer interviews Fordham University professor Kirsten Swinth about her new book, Feminism’s Forgotten Fight: The Unfinished Struggle for Work and Family. Out now from Harvard University Press, Feminism’s Forgotten Fight “resurrects the comprehensive vision of feminism’s second wave” and “spotlights concerns not commonly associated with the movement of the 1960s and 1970s.” These included “job protection for pregnant women and federal support for childcare” (all quotations from the publisher’s page). In this interview, Schaffer asks Swinth about how she came to write this book, what she learned while doing it, and how she hopes the history of this “forgotten fight” might influence women workers and activists today.
Center for Women’s History: Why did you decide to take on this project? What about the history of families and working mothers during the second wave interested you?
Kirsten Swinth: I was working on a cultural history of working mothers in the United States and feminist activism on the topic of work and family kept leaping out at me. I uncovered so much that it needed a book all of its own.
I was also troubled by repeated accusations in the media that feminists had failed women by ignoring the family. Even in the scholarship on the movement, that truism had not really been refuted. I wanted to correct the record and present an unfamiliar story of the movement that is surprisingly relevant today.
CWH: In the book, you argue that the failures of the second wave can be attributed to the opponents of feminism, rather than feminists themselves. Why do you think that feminists are often blamed for what their movement did not achieve?
KS: I think that the second-wave movement gets blamed for several reasons. The first is because the media entrenched a myth about the activism of the 1960s and 1970s very early on. That myth said that feminists fought for individual women to “have it all”—careers, family, and a full public life, just like men have always had—while burying the core feminist demand for society and workplaces to change to make that possible.
Second, the kinds of changes feminists envisioned in intimate relationships, society, and policy were radical for their time. They proposed replacing a deeply-felt belief about what was right, normal, and natural in American men’s and women’s roles: men as breadwinners and women as homemakers. Their goals for change sparked a highly successful opposition movement that we call the “pro-family” movement. That movement allied with the conservatives, who helped elect Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980 and really stalled out the changes that feminists sought.
Finally, in the conservative atmosphere of the 1980s, some feminists ignored and downplayed their previous activism on work and family, while others saw fighting for work and family issues as playing into the hands of a conservative defense of “the family.” Those struggles of the 1980s made it difficult to hold on to the breathtaking and expansive vision feminists had articulated in the 1960s and 1970s.
CWH: What was that vision?
KS: Feminist activists in the 1960s and 1970s had a rich, comprehensive vision of change that they saw as fundamental to full equality for women. The changes they wanted stretched from intimate relationships and families to society and workplaces.
They envisioned changing marriage into a partnership, sharing childcare and housework, and forging new models of fatherhood. Their vision also extended into society: They fought for rights for poor mothers on welfare so that they could do the work of caring for their children, so that not only middle-class and wealthy women would have that option. They also demanded universal, 24-hour childcare—as a service, like libraries and public schools—so women could have care when they worked night shifts or assistance when they wanted to be involved in their communities.
Feminists’ vision went beyond society to workplaces, where they fought to protect the rights of working mothers and pregnant workers, and to create real part-time and flexible job opportunities.
Feminists’ comprehensive vision of change thus reached from the private lives of home and family to the public worlds of society and workplaces. It brought under its umbrella the needs of poor women, ordinary working women (including paid domestic workers in homes), and professional women of all races. Whether moderate liberals or radicals, black or white, feminists of all backgrounds shared in advancing elements of this overarching dream of transformation.
CWH: Feminists are still attacked today for ignoring the needs of homemakers. But you show that that’s an unfair charge. What did second-wave activists do for homemakers?
KS: This was one of the most fun chapters of the book to write because I uncovered so many ways that feminists fought to recognize the value of housework. Feminist economists argued that housework should be included in the gross national product. A wages-for-housework movement led by socialist feminists called for wages from the government for homemakers in order to recognize the value of their labor. Feminist activists and legislators fought to reform Social Security benefits and marital property rights so homemakers would not be impoverished at divorce or widowhood.
My favorite example is from a Doonesbury cartoon that is reprinted in the book. Two next-door neighbors develop a scheme to clean each other’s house and be paid by the other’s husband. They get some Social Security benefits and a tax deduction for their cleaning supplies, while their husbands learn the value of their labor. “It’s got to be illegal,” says D.J. Mark in the cartoon. “Not yet,” quips his correspondent.
CWH: Are there any big takeaways from Feminism’s Forgotten Fight for our readers looking around at the challenges we still face today?
KS: I hope readers of the book find in it a vision worth resurrecting. Feminists of the 1960s and 1970s had a comprehensive understanding that started from the most basic building blocks of personal relationships and ended with essential changes in society. I think their vision is worth adding to the feminist revival we have seen since the election of Donald Trump and the #MeToo movement.
There was a newspaper story recently documenting how mothers in America think it is all on them, as individuals, to deal with work and family. Feminists knew otherwise. They knew that society needed to take action—and they had a vision of what that action might be. Looking back at their ideas can help us rekindle a feminist fight for our own time.
Top image credits: Women’s Strike for Equality, 1970. Eugene Gordon Photograph Collection, New-York Historical Society Library.