The contemporary women movement began in the late 1960s. Many women who participated in the movement had also worked in earlier movements, where they had often been relegated to menial tasks, such as photocopying and answering phones. Some began to protest these roles and to question the traditional roles for women in U.S. society. During the 1950s and early 1960s, society pressured women to marry, have children, and then remain at home to raise those children. The prevailing view was that women abilities in the workplace and in public life were limited by their physical fragility and by their roles as mothers. Women were expected to stay at home and to depend on men to provide their financial support.
As a result, women were routinely excluded from high status or well-paying jobs. They had only gained the vote in 1920 and had little voice in the nation political and economic life. In 1963 The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan, was published and became a best-seller. This book spoke to many women dissatisfactions with the role that society expected of them. The book encouraged women to work for change.
One of the movement first successes was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, among other things, outlawed discrimination based on gender. However, government officials rarely enforced the antigender discrimination provision. As a result of this official indifference, in 1966 a small group of women led by Friedan formed the National Organization for Women (NOW) to demand that the government prosecute cases of job discrimination against women.
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The women movement was not a unified force with a single ideology or goal. Some activists fought for equal job opportunities; others focused on changing relations between men and women. They questioned traditional gender roles and tried to change society view that a woman worth was based on her physical attractiveness. An important issue for many women was control over their bodies. Abortion was illegal in almost all states, rapes were rarely prosecuted, and domestic violence was widely accepted as a private matter. Some radical activists believed that American society would have to be entirely remade. They rejected what they called patriarchal values, or men values, such as competition, aggressiveness, and selfishness. They believed that women were naturally more nurturing and compassionate and advocated a society based on women values.
By the mid-1970s, feminists had achieved some change. In 1971 Congress banned discrimination against girls and women in schools. In 1973 feminist lawyers won a Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, in which the justices ruled that women had the constitutional right to choose to have an abortion. Millions of women who never attended a public demonstration used feminist rhetoric and legal victories won by women activists to create greater equality in their marriages and personal lives and to expand their economic and political opportunities.