History 104: Western Civilization since 1648

Social Revolution

The Beatles, Let It Be (1970)
Image Map with Links
fashion sexual revolution politics rock 'n' roll postmodernism
Frank Stella, Madinat as-Salam I , 1970

All you need is love.

-- John Lennon, 1968

Politics || Sexual Revolution || Fashion || Rock 'n' Roll || Postmodernism



The political context is important for understanding the culture of the era. Map of Indochina showing North and South Vietnam, DMZ between, Laos, CambodiaIn 1965, the U.S. sent troops to Vietnam in response to the weakness of the South Vietnamese government. Vietnam, like Korea, had been divided into a communist north and a capitalist south. But there were important differences. Unlike South Korea, South Vietnam had a separate culture, based primarily on Buddhism. Also unlike Korea, Vietnam had been a colony of the French, who wanted it back after World War II. This led to a nationalist rebellion against the French, the Indochinese War, which lasted until 1954 when France (mostly using American money) had lost. The division had taken place in the aftermath of this war, at the Geneva Accords, where the nation was temporarily divided between the south, ruled by Catholic aristocrat Ngo Dinh Diem, and the north. The north was ruled by Ho Chi Minh, communist hero of nationalism against the Japanese and French. Elections were promised for 1956, but were nixed by the U.S. and Diem when they realized Ho Chi Minh's popularity would assure a communist victory. The U.S. tried to prop up Diem's government

Monk immolating himself
Quang Duc's self-immolation protesting Diem's religious persecutions

with money and thousands of "advisors", but by 1965 his regime was failing.

American troops arriving in South Vietnam discovered that they were poorly organized compared to the communist government in the north, which was continuously supplying communist Viet Cong in the south by going around the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) through Laos and Cambodia. They also discovered that many in the south didn't want the U.S. there, including Buddhist monks who burned themselves alive in protest against either Diem's government or the American presence. (In 2001, a monk did the same protesting commmunist oppression.) In addition, troops were unprepared for the guerilla warfare conducted by the communist Vietnamese, who could rely on public support. In 1968, a coordinated (and televised) Viet Cong offensive against the U.S. caused the American government to lose public support for the war. (There have since been no freely televised American military actions.)

CoFrench Poster: hand writing, conjugating the verb to participate, folllowed by ils profitent (they profit)mbining U.S. interference in Vietnam, undertaken soley to prevent the spread of communism, with repressive governments led to social revolt. In the United States, civil rights groups, radicals, and students came out against the war. But Paris was the heart of social protest, under the restrictiveness of Charles DeGaulle's governmeFrench poster Pouvoir Populaire (Public Strength)nt. DeGaulle had been commander of the Free French in World War II, and yet young people marched with posters calling him a fascist.

An entire site of European media (in English, French, German and Spanish) sorry, site removed is a good place to research the Revolutions of 1968.

One reason for all the action was the sheer number of young people, who had been born in the "baby boom" following the Second World War. Historically (here's a theme), whenever young people dominate the demographics, change moves at an increased rate. That was certainly true of the 1960s and 1970s.

photo of crowds reaching up to tank soldiers
Czechs appeal to the Soviet tank soldiers

1968 also saw events called Prague Spring, in Czechoslovakia. Political leader Alexander Dubçek believed in "communism with a human face". His government instituted freedom of speech, and autonomy for Slovaks. Limited capitalism was permitted, and ties with the Soviets were loosened. The Soviets and governments of Eastern Europe, fearing reforms would spread, stormed Prague and installed a strict communist regime, putting Dubçek in jail. This indeed killed the hopes of many wanting democratic reforms in eastern Europe.

In 1975, the last U.S. troops evacuated Saigon, the capital city of South Vietnam, as it fell to the communists. At the same time, the U.S. and Europe were experiencing massive inflation of prices. This was caused by an oil crisis in the Middle East, begun by American support for Israel in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Unemployment was rampant, and there was little money to invest in infrastructure. The result was a political move toward the right, best represented by President Ronald Reagan of the U.S. and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain in the early 1980s. In contrast to the social program funding of the 1970s, conservative governments cut social services and promised economic recovery. Calls for social reform were repressed or ignored during this crisis, and the era of Social Revolution ended.


Sexual Revolution

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

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).


Fashion (1965-85)

The Late Sixties

Fashions reflected the easing of gender restrictions, the sexuality of the youth movement, and a heightened awareness of other cultures during the 1960s.

Plastic was in, with transparent clothes part of "radical chic" for women. Here the plastic example is also a mini-skirt. Created by British designer Mary Quant, mini-skirts emerged in the 60s to become a fashion sensation, though they were worn a couple of inches shorter in Europe than in the U.S.

Nehru jacket with paisley decorationFor men, the Nehru jacket (Indian influence) was popular. This one is in paisley design, which was trendy in men's shirts. Men's fashion became pretty feminine in the late 1960s. This may have reflected a demographic trend in which there were more women than men, forcing men to dress the way women preferred in order to find mates. The loose shirts, intricate patterns, and bell-bottom pants men wore created a feminine silhouette similar to that of men in the 1690s, or any era where they had to attract women.

Photo of model in plastic mini-skirt
Cover of Beatles "Let It Be" album, showing all four

The 1970s

Men's hair finally grew long again, after about 50 years of being short. Facial hair was also back and sideburns were in. Note how the Beatles have changed from the last time you saw them (this is 1970).

photo from catalog of men in polyester pants




Platform shoes were worn by both sexes.

Seventies men's "Polyester Look". We've only seen clinging clothes for men a couple of times, and then usually only for legs. The tight physique-showing fashion indicates the continued need for men to attract women.

Women's flare pants and clinging shirts. Note the natural hair. This is the height of the women's movement, with the freedom represented in the clothing, which hadn't been this close to men's styles since World War II.


photo of wild orange platform shoes

drawing from pattern for women's flare pants

The 1980s

Women's hairstyles became shorter, encouraged by the trend-setting Princess Diana of Britain.

publicity photo of Prince Charles and Lady Diana

photo of Elvis Costello and band
British rocker Elvis Costello and band at the height of early 80s new wave fashion, showing the super-slim ties and jacket lapels, with colorful shoes. Male hair went short again in the 1980s, as it tends to in conservative times since World War I (like now).

Rock 'n' Roll

Rock 'n' Roll was the new music of the 1950s, but it achieved maturation during the 1960s and 70s. Deriving from the U.S., with its tradition of jazz and blues, rock 'n' roll had a driving beat, and many rock musicians responded to the social revolution of the time.

book Workbook document: The Beatles: Assorted Lyrics

Beatles early days, playing musicI'm going to use The Beatles as a paradigm for the development of rock during the 60s. In their early songs, like "I Want to Hold Your Hand", the "mop tops" wrote fun but clean lyrics about being in love with girls.

The Beatles: I Want to Hold Your Hand (Lyrics) click here for song: I Want to Hold Your Hand

The films they made ("A Hard Day's Night" and "Help!") also showed naughty but fun-loving young men. This was very much in the tradition of mainstream 1950s rock'n'roll. But by 1965, their music was changing. The tunes and the lyrics reflected alienation and became much more personal.

The Beatles: Eleanor Rigby (Lyrics)
Beatles Yellow Submarine cartoon image of the four, with Ringo giving a peace sign
Beatles later: photo of them with longer hair, sideburns
In 1966, they stopped performing live. They experimented with drugs like LSD, and with Indian mysticism. They visited the Maharishi Yogi in India, their hair grew longer, and their music became psychedelic. In 1968 they created a drug-trip animated feature, Yellow Submarine, a story about a voyage to find Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, a music group which has been frozen by the Blue Meanies to prevent music saving the world from evil.

The message was love and music could save the world, which fit right in with the anti-war protests of the day. Though they broke up in 1970, their last songs together combined music and peace.

Of course, there was more to music than rock. Folk music began in America and travelled to Europe. Bob Dylan was a folk music artist who focuses on social responsibility and the anti-war movement, and noted that the times were changing:

click here for song: Bob DylanBob Dylan excerpt: The Times They Are A'Changing Lyrics

phot of Baez and Dylan singing togetherJoan Baez and Bob Dylan at civil rights march in 1963

The next song is part of protest history. Early in 2003, I heard it sung at peace marches protesting the U.S. war on Iraq. Today on NPR I heard people in Hong Kong singing it in Chinese to protest Chinese oppression, so obviously some protest songs went beyond the West.

click here for song: Joan BaezJoan Baez: We Shall Overcome Lyrics

I do not mean to imply that all important protest music was American. But American protest music was innovative because the U.S. did not have the 19th century revolutionary heritage on which to draw for nationalistic songs, and "Yankee Doodle" was not really appropriate. In Paris in 1968, 50,000 people sang the Internationale, which was too radical (literally) for the U.S.

During the 1970s, American songs like "I Am Woman" and "I Will Survive" showed women becoming stronger and more independent. I'm going to skip the disco and guitar rock of the 70's, but I want you to see the reversal of feminism in this popular 80's song from Scottish pop star Sheena Easton, called 9 to 5 in Britain and Morning Train in the U.S.

click here for song: Sheena EastonSheena Easton: 9 to 5 Lyrics

By the 1980s women were either trying to be Superwoman (working outside the home and homemaking too) or, like this one, back at home waiting for her man to come. The "I Am Woman" themes of feminist 1970s music were dying.



I'm going way out on a limb here, because thousands of pages have been written about Postmodernism, and I am not a philosopher. Here I consider Postmodernism as a cultural movement that consciously rejected utopian, abstract, rational modernism. It is related to the science of the day, such as quantum physics and chaos theory, which went beyond even the predictability of Eistein's physics to accept randomness and unpredictability. Postmodernism accepts the ugly and the disorganized in a way modernism does not, and thus provided a channel of expression for subjects previously submerged in society.


One of the most important things about postmodern art is that it can be intensely political, intensely personal, or both at the same time.

Yoko Ono's exhibit: ladder on white platform, magnifying glass handing from high canvas to top of ladder

Yoko Ono's exhibit from 1966 in London was a ladder with a framed piece of paper above. As John Lennon recalled:

I climbed the ladder, looked through the spyglass, and in tiny little letters it said: YES.
So it was positive. I felt relieved. . . That YES made me stay . .

photo of John and Yoko in bed with signs behind: Hair Peace, Bed PeaceLennon stayed and they married. In 1969, they staged a "bed-in" for peace, which some have called "honeymoon as performance art". Knowing how radical the couple were, reporters thronged in hoping for something sexy, but found John and Yoko serious in discussing world peace.

Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party (1974-79) Dinner Party: photo from abovewas a huge installation piece based on one of the arts most associated with women throughout history: embroidery. Chicago called it a "reinterpretation of The Last Supper from the point of view of those who've done the cooking throughout history." It contains place settings for women important throughout history, with additional names from each era embroidered on the tablecloths. It was a feminist statement, designed to educate as well as intrigue. The place settings caused as much controversy as Chicago's choice of females, since the plates contained differently-designed abstract work that all resembled female genitalia.

Goddess setting Pisan setting Wollstonecraft setting
Place settings for the Primordial Goddess, Christine de Pisan, and Mary Wollstonecraft


I realize I have done little with film so far, except for movie star role-models of the 1920s. With the postmodern era the contributions of European and American film-makers provided a mirror on concerns ranging from the Cold War to personal inadequacy.

North by Northwest: Cary Grant running from crop-dusting plane

British director Alfred Hitchcock set ordinary people in extraordinary, and often deadly circumstances. During the 1950s and 60s, he created films which wrapped such characters in elaborate psychological plots. Mistaken identity was a common theme. One example would be North by Northwest, wherein an ordinary businessman is mistaken for a CIA agent. The hero must extricate himself from the trap and catch the real perpetrators, all while seducing the girl. In this scene, the businessman tries to see a diplomat, at whose house he was threatened the night before.

HAL disconnected by Dave in spacesuit, inside the computer
HAL gets disconnected as he relives his programming, singing "Daisy, Daisy"

Stanley Kubrick was an American author/director who filmed Nabakov's Lolita in 1962 in such a way as to get it past the censors, but his postmodern focus is more evident in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). In this film, the movie moves from prehistoric times to the future, considering space travel in broad, disconnected terms. More memorable for most people, in the latter part of the film a spaceship is run by a computer, the HAL 9000 (one letter difference from IBM), which takes over control of the ship and has to be disconnected manually and painfully by a human to prevent disaster. The film is thus considered a harbinger of the power of computers (including the computer I'm on, which doesn't always do what I tell it!).photo of Trauffaut

Francois Truffaut was at the forefront of French new wave cinema in the 50s, and became one of France's most important directors. He was a great admirer of the moral distance Hitchcock put between himself and his subjects, and indeed he wrote a study on Hitchcock which included lengthy interviews with the British director. In true postmodern style, his life and art intermingled. One film, Le Nuit Américaine (Day for Night) of 1973, is a tribute to filmmaking, starring himself as director. You get to see the backstage sniping and love affairs, as well as the techniques used to make a movie.

Italian director Federico Fellini once said "There is no end. There is no beginning. There is only the infinite passion of life." 8 1/2 photo still with woman and manAlthough his works in the 1950s were realistic, beginning in the 1960s mystical qualities entered his films. His autobiographical movie 8 1/2 (1963) features a hassled director who has lost heart on his current film but can't back out because of the money. Guido is plagued by former stars and crew who want work, and can't find a good idea for his story. He retreats into his own dreams, and his own past, especially his life as a boy and his love affairs as a younger man. In these dreams he finds the will to carry on. Considered Fellini's alter-ego, Marcello Mastroianni played the lead in many of his films.


Postmodernism in literature continued some of the internal trends of the 1960s, but also contained examinations of literature itself. The first is evident in Margaret Atwood's poem.

book Workbook document: Margaret Atwood: They Eat Out

When I read it, I imagine a couple sitting at a restaurant, and he's yakking while she's imagining stabbing him and tranforming their dinner into a gory horror movie scene under her control. It's feminist, but it's brutal. Deadly serious. And very funny. If you don't think so, try it again after hearing click here for audio of song"Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing", the song to which her horrifying scene is set.

book Workbook document: Milan Kundera: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979)

Czech writer Kundera seems to be reviewing the patterns of postmodern literature, even though this is a novel. He looks at writing in a similar way to Truffaut or Fellini lookiing at film-making, from the inside of the goldfish bowl.




All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.