History 104: Western Civilization since 1648
Lecture: Social Revolution

Sexual Revolution click here for audio

Twiggy looking slender in two-piece light blue sweater suit
Twiggy, the British model who represents the "mod" 1960s

The Sexual Revolution was tied into all the other kinds of radical social change occuring between 1965 and 1985. There was a prevailing idea among the younger generation that to have sex with whomever one wished was a right as significant as more political notions of freedom. Personal freedom in general was a rallying cry, and sexuality just another way of expressing it.

For women's sexuality, there was greater freedom in the 1960s than in any previous era (so far as we know). Popular books like Helen Gurley Brown's Sex and the Single Girl (1962) promoted greater freedom for women in choosing sexual partners and knowing their own bodies. It even promoted the idea that women should remain unmarried to protect this freedom. Although such freedom did help women in terms of sexual satisfaction, they seem throughout the 1960s to still have been treated with something less than equality. Did the mini-skirt (the ultimate style statement) and other revealing clothing represent a woman's own sexual freedom, or was it just a lure that encouraged men to treat her like an object?


old photo of the Stonewall InnIn the United States in 1969, at a gay bar in New York, police raiding and trying to make arrests faced a group of gay and transgender Americans who fought back. This event marked the beginning of the modern gay rights movement throughout the West. The Stonewall Riots were in some ways a natural result of trends that had begun in Germany in the 1890s, with Magnus Hirschfeld's Institute for Sexual Science. But Stonewall, unlike the Institute, led to an instant response from older gay groups and the formation of more. The North American Conference of Homophile Organizations created a manifesto in 1960. Here's a quotation:

We see the persecution of homosexuality as part of a general attempt to oppress all minorities and keep them powerless. Our fate is linked with these minorities; if the detention camps are filled tomorrow with blacks, hippies and other radicals, we will not escape that fate, all our attempts to dissociate ourselves from them notwithstanding. A common struggle, however, will bring common triumph.

This type of thinking put gays on the same ground as other groups trying to achieve equality during this time of social revolution.

Women's Activism

During the 1960s, numerous groups formed in the west advocating social activism. Many were

photo of Stokely Carmichael with his mouth open
SNCC's Stokely Carmichael said that “the only position for women in the movement is prone.”

modeled on the civil rights groups fighting for AfricanAmericans in the U.S. One of these, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) staged sit-ins and other acts of civil disobedience to bring black oppression to people's attention. Interestingly enough, SNCC ignored the issues of its own female members, who tried to point out that women had as few or fewer rights than blacks. Similarly, the group Students for a Democratic Society, whose goal was "participatory democracy", had all male leadership; the women made coffee. Feminists were greeted with cat-calls and derision whenever they raised the "women's issue". Fed up, women left black civil rights groups and created modern feminist organizations.

The Women's Liberation movement began in earnest during the 1960s, as women's groups protested commercial exploitation, legal and educational and vocational inequality, and laws against contraception and abortion. They criticized the gap between ideals of freedom in the U.. and western Europe and the reality of their situation. photo of Germaine Greer looking pensiveA groundbreaking book of the feminist movement was Australian/British author Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch (1970), which was translated into a dozen languages. In a 1999 interview, Greer defined a female eunuch:

A eunuch is any person who has been castrated. The female eunuch is the woman who has been castrated in order to function as the feminine stereotype. That is, the glamorous, supermenial who is expected to be all things to all men, and nothing to herself.

She considered marriage to be a form of legalized slavery. In this sense, she was (and still is) much in the tradition of Wollstonecraft and de Beauvoir, in that she sees society as suppressing and preventing the actualization of its female citizens.

By the 1970s, the women's movement had become more focused. Concerns included contraceptive rights, which were opposed by churches, the medical establishment, and public opinion. Because of feminists' efforts, contraceptives became legal in France in 1968, and in 1975 the group Choisir ("to choose") publicized the case of a 16-year-old raped girl which legalized abortion. Similar campaigns in Italy and Spain led to legal changes. Other areas were prostitutes' rights (which led to the decriminalization of prostitution in England in 1978) and sexual violence against women. On this issue, an International Tribunal of Crimes Against Women met in Brussels in 1976 with representatives from 40 nations. They campaigned for rape to be considered an act of violence (rather than sex), a view which changed popular opinion and led to harsher penalties against offenders. Lesbians tried to work within women's groups to get themselves accepted, and faced the same sort of derision as women had faced in civil rights organizations. But successes included the founding of Women's Studies in college curricula, as an extension of the notions of feminists like Simone de Beauvoir.

But during the 1980s, with the conservatism in politics on both sides of the Atlantic, many gains were reversed. Although birth control was still available, popular culture began yet again to emphasize a woman's role as mother and de-emphasize her public role. This was true despite the presence of women in politics, such as Margaret Thatcher (Prime Minister of Britain).

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