It is difficult to truly comprehend how the “sexual revolution” and early feminism changed society, both at the time and in terms of gender equality today. The reality is that gender roles play enormous parts in virtually all behaviors, from the most casual social intercourse to what career women may reasonably hope to seek in a patriarchal culture. Nonetheless, there is a widespread belief existing today that real gender equality is generally in place, notwithstanding some lingering bias. The sexual revolution beginning in the 1960s has eventually broken down the barriers confining women in all areas of the society, just as the laws have been amended to end gender discrimination. Those remaining issues of bias aside, it is believed that men and women today relate in ways reflecting genuine equality.
Some of this is certainly true, as the later decades of the 20th century did indeed bring about vast changes in sexual roles and gender perceptions. However, gender equality as such may be illusory, and simply because men and women still struggle to understand just what gender translates to, both individually and socially. In insisting upon equality, women have actually gone further in misinterpreting gender itself. In the following, the actual progress of equality will be pointed out, which will then lead to discussions of the problems beneath that equality and postfeminism as arising to reveal the inherent problems in perceived equality. These points in succession will support one view: the benefits of the sexual revolution are real, but the greater reality is that true gender equality cannot exist because genders are essentially complementary, and not equal.
The efforts and duration of the sexual revolution of the 1960s have brought about valuable changes in regard to job discrimination and perceptions regarding the abilities of women. In these decades views traditionally hold that marriage and motherhood are the ideal occupations for women, underwent profound change and women became empowered to take on roles beyond the home. The post-World War II years saw a kind of fierce domesticity taking hold in the United States and an embracing of traditional gender roles and values. The upheavals of the 1960s, however, including the Civil Rights and early feminist movements, created change, and of a kind directly translating to employment and commerce. More women took jobs outside the home in the 1960s and 1970s, and of kinds previously restricted to women. By 1970, over 39 percent of all women were working outside the home, a figure that will steadily increase over the next few decades. At the same time, legislation compelling more equal pay lagged behind; working women in the 1970s earned less than 60 percent of what men took home in similar occupations. By the 1980s, this grew to 68.7 percent, and women in the 1990s were earning about 73 percent of a male’s income (Schaffner 603). The trajectory here clearly indicates that, at least in certain, tangible ways, women were nearing equality in the workforce. It is important as well to note that, even if the laws trailed the actions in terms of equity, they nonetheless adhered to the same course of improvement. Women then and today may then reasonably claim that the sexual revolution had, at least in regard to job opportunity, a positive impact in promoting gender equality.
Even as this progress was occurring, however, there were forces in play blatantly defying gender equality, and likely reflecting cultural ideas about gender not so easily altered. The reality of women entering the workforce in greater numbers is undeniable, but there was as well an equally evident opposition in place and one seemingly growing in proportion to the advances women were making. It may be argued, in fact, that the legislation noted as trailing behind the employment ratios was a reflection of cultural ideologies defiant to gender equality. If more women were working in the 1960s and 1970s, they were nonetheless victims of harassment and denied opportunity on a widespread level (Banks, Banks 6). Perhaps more than anything, the feminist activism of the 1970s illustrates how prevalent sexual harassment of working women was in these years and despite that increased female workforce. Several organizations of women were formed to investigate such harassment, but most disbanded due to difficulties in obtaining testimony from victimized women. The Alliance Against Sexual Coercion (AASC), founded in 1976, became aware through anonymous calls of harassment often going to outright rape (Baker 41), and this was at the same time national publications like Ms magazine was featuring articles on the subject and generating stories in publications like The New York Times. The more investigation was conducted, the more it appeared that the “equality” of employment was merely setting the stage for the debasing of women, or at least an insistence on their vulnerability. It may be perceived that this offensive reality was, in a sense, a repercussion of the novelty of feminism and gender equality. Nonetheless, the reality remains that sexual harassment of working women has never appreciably waned, as far as research reveals. Three decades after women were breaking through employment barriers in the 1960s, there was a barrage of harassment charges leveled at high-ranking federal officials (Baker 172). It continues today, and this is a powerful evidence of a cultural “block” to gender equality that goes beyond the pragmatics of employment. Put another way, it is reasonable to conclude that the ongoing sexual victimization of working women indicates a male dissatisfaction with their presence so profound, it takes the form of demeaning and outright criminal behavior.
Perhaps nothing more strongly emphasizes that gender equality as such is illusory than the rise of postfeminism. As it is well-known, the “women’s liberation” movements arising in the 1960s and 1970s evolved into feminism, which is essentially an ideology promoting complete gender equality. This was a radical process in a traditional patriarchy like the U.S. and the results, as seen, were mixed. The emergence of postfeminism in the 1980s then came as a controversial force, and was and is seen by many feminists as an unconscionable retreat from the pursuit of gender equality. This is unjust and inaccurate. Postfeminism exists, not as a refutation of feminism, but as a more expansive approach to all the cultural, political and theoretical aspects of gender (Genz 6). That some of this reflects a backlash to feminism is inevitable. Even women supporters of feminism were, by the 1980s, increasingly disenchanted with what they perceived to be as unrealistic expectations placed upon them. They believed that they were expected to be full “women” in the traditional senses of nurturing, yet they also were compelled to achieve the career successes of men not subject to such definitions. There was a growing resentment among women and one removed from male resentment regarding working women, that they were being denied satisfactions perhaps “built into” the female gender, and denigrated by feminism as weakness (Genz 54). Consequently, the mere presence of postfeminism indicates that the gender equality so desired by the sexual revolution of the 1960s is a matter not nearly so easily resolved and that the actual nature of what gender means, to both individual and culture, is a complex and still largely unknown area.
To assert that the sexual revolution brought about true gender equality is to ignore fundamental issues rooted in gender itself. It is also to ignore the clear and telling consequences of the process itself. As women were empowered to join the workforce, for example, so was there an aggressive resentment demonstrated in the form of harassment, which continues today. Then, and most importantly, women have increasingly turned to postfeminism simply because they have perceived that the true realities of gender, roles, and choice are too complex to be addressed by an idea of “equality.” Feminism itself, which may be viewed as the foundation of proposed gender equality, is not an ideology that has ever been fully defined as such (Genz 4). While fair treatment and opportunity are essential for a civilized society, it is ultimately irrational to believe that the layered and largely unknown forces of male and female gender may be equalized. Some advances created by the sexual revolution are real, but the greater reality remains that true gender equality cannot exist because genders are essentially complementary, and not equal, forces.
- Baker, C. N. The Women’s Movement Against Sexual Harassment. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Print.
- Banks, J. A., & Banks, C. A. M. Multicultural Education: Issues and Perspectives. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2009. Print.
- Genz, S. Postfeminism: Cultural Texts and Theories. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009. Print.
- Schaffner, H. A. Work in America: An Encyclopedia of History, Policy, and Society, Vol. I. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2003. Print.