6.6 Civil Rights

Postwar Society

In the 1960s and 1970s, a number of “rights” revolutions arose around the world. The most famous of these revolutions is the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, but other rights revolutions included student movements, feminism, gay rights, and many others.

Key Takeaways

As you watch these film clips, consider the following:

  • What caused the dramatic changes in sexual mores, the strong push for women’s rights, and the student protests of the 1960s and 1970s? What short and long term effects did each have on Western society?
  • Why did the Green Movement gain such attention and respect during this period? To what extent were its successes due to leadership from within and what to circumstances outside?
  • Explain how modern movements in the arts and philosophy reflect both the uncertainty and the courage to experiment of the recent decades.
  • Examine the question of whether modern technology has improved human life more than it has threatened human existence.

One movement of particular importance to emerge from the protest culture of the late 1960s was second-wave feminism (the first was that of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). In 1949, Simone de Beauvoir, one of the seminal existentialist philosophers mentioned above, wrote an enormous (over 1,000 pages long) book about the status of women in Western societies. Titled The Second Sex, the book argued that throughout the entire history of Western Civilization, women had been the social and cultural “other,” always the secondary and exceptional variety of person compared to the default: men. In other words, when men wrote about “human history” they were actually writing about the history of men, with women lurking somewhere in the background, having babies and providing domestic labor (in English, consider phrases like “since the dawn of mankind” or “man’s relationship with nature” – the implication is that men are the species).

Likewise, historically, every state, empire, and nation in history had been controlled by men, and women were legal and political non-entities until the twentieth century. Thus, as described by Beauvoir, it was not just that men dominated, patronized, and often violently abused women, it was that to be a woman was to be the exception to every kind of political theory, philosophy, and history ever conceived of. Women were, in a sense, not really part of history. Beauvoir critiqued that non-status in Second Sex, writing from an existential perspective in which everyone’s freedom and choice was at the heart of human existence. While she did not set out to start a political movement per se – her political involvement in the 1950s and early 1960s was focused on decolonization and a kinship with Marxism – The Second Sex would go on to be the founding document of the second wave of feminism later in the decade.

From the end of World War II until the late 1960s, there were only small feminist movements in most western countries. While women had won the vote after the war (with some exceptions such as Switzerland), and most of the other legal goals of first-wave feminism had been achieved as well, the postwar social order still operated under the assumption that women were to focus on domestic roles. Women were taught as girls that the world of politics and paid work was for men, and that only in motherhood and marriage could a woman find fulfillment. In the process, women as a social category were largely cut off from the sense of political solidarity that had sustained first-wave feminism a generation earlier.

The problem for women in the postwar period, however, was widespread dissatisfaction and unhappiness with the social role into which they were forced, along with both overtly sexist laws and oppressive cultural codes. To cite a few examples, it was perfectly legal (and commonplace) for men to discriminate in hiring and workplace practices based on a woman’s appearance – flight attendants (“stewardesses” in the parlance of the time) were routinely fired at age 30 for being too old to maintain the standards of attractiveness enforced by airlines.

Pregnancy was also grounds for termination, and unmarried women were generally paid fair less than men since it was assumed they would eventually marry and quit their jobs. White women in the United States made 60% of the earnings of men doing the same work, with black women earning a mere 42%. Rape charges were routinely dismissed if a victim had “asked for it” by being alone at night or being “inappropriately” dressed, and there was no legal concept of marital rape. Domestic violence remained commonplace, and husbands were generally only held accountable by the law if the violence seemed excessive from the perspective of police and judges. In short, while the first-wave feminist movement had succeeded in winning key legal battles, a vast web of sexist laws and cultural codes ensured that women were held in precisely the “secondary” position identified by Beauvoir.

In response, starting in the mid-1960s, the second-wave feminist movement came into existence to combat precisely these forms of both legal and cultural oppression and discrimination. Beauvoir herself joined the French Women’s Liberation Movement, joining many women who were one-third of her age at that point (she was in her 60s at the time). Likewise, in the United States, second-wave feminism was often referred to as the “Women’s Lib” movement, with comparable movements emerging across the western world.

Leffler, Warren K. "Women's Liberation March." August 26, 1970.
Leffler, Warren K. “Women’s Liberation March.” August 26, 1970. Library of Congress. Wikimedia. September 29, 2016.

Everywhere that second-wave feminism emerged as a movement, its goals were the creation of laws that expressly forbid sexual discrimination in the workplace and schools and a broader cultural shift that saw women treated as true social equals of men. This latter focus on equitable culture distinguished it from first-wave feminism, which while certainly cognizant of sexist cultural norms, had rarely called for true gender equivalence between men and women.

For second-wave feminists, the movement was not simply about women having access to the same forms of employment and equal wages as men (although those were obviously very important goals), but about attacking the sexual objectification and sexual double standards to which women were held. For instance, why were promiscuous women the subject of shaming and mockery, while promiscuous men were celebrated for their virility? The essential injustice of sexual double standards was a key issue that second-wave feminists raised.

While the battle for sexual equality is obviously far from over, second-wave feminism did achieve many important goals. Legally, many countries adopted laws banning discrimination based on gender itself, as well as age and appearance. Laws pertaining to both sexual assault and domestic violence were often strengthened and more stringently enforced. Culturally, sexual double standards, the objectification of women, and prescribed female social roles were all called into question. As with racism, the numerous forms of sexism embedded in Western culture all too frequently weathered these feminist assaults, but arguably they did weaken as compared to the past.


It cannot be overstated how much cultural change occurred in the decades following World War II. Perhaps the most important changes had to do with the extension of liberal democratic ideas to their logical conclusion: everyone in a democracy was supposed to have equal rights, to be treated with essential dignity, and to possess the right to protest the conditions of their education, employment, or even their simple existence (in the case of women facing misogyny and harassment, for example). The legacy of the cultural revolution of that began with the youth movement of the 1960s remains strong to the present day. 


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PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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