Part Three Women's Liberation in the News

The media’s portrayal of the Second Wave Liberation Movement definitely had an impact on Maggie May. Although national news stayed unbiased and careful to solely cover the facts, local Midwest news was not so careful, painting Feminism in a negative and downright insulting light. May most likely felt anger or disappointment by the local media’s representation of Feminism and took to properly and objectively covering the movement herself. An extremely common misconception about Feminism in its entirety is that its proponents are angry, bitter housewives too busy to tend to the children between ritual bra-burnings. In fact, the concept of burning brassieres in itself is truly and utterly false. On September 7, 1968, nearly four hundred protesting women gathered outside the Atlantic City Convention Center, where that year’s Miss America Pageant commenced. According to PBS’s American Experience:

One of the protest’s leading organizers was 27-year-old writer and editor Robin Morgan…Morgan took direct aim at what she called ‘the degrading mindless-boob-girlie symbol’ so prevalent in the media. Morgan attacked the ‘ludicrous ‘beauty’ standards we ourselves are conditioned to take seriously.’ She also attacked the pageant’s beauty standards as racist. As of 1968, no African American woman had taken a place among the contest’s finalists.

The women held signs declaring, “Let’s Judge Ourselves as People” and “Girls Crowned—Boys Killed,” the latter a direct protest of the Vietnam War that was well underway. Americans were witnessing the first televised war in its history, and with the media’s discovery of the U.S. government’s real intentions of its presence in Vietnam, the war quickly became unpopular to the public and began to divide the country.

A trashcan dubbed the “Freedom Trash Can” (See Figure 2) was set in the center of the protest, gathering the most media attention. Items such as copies of Playboy magazine, high heels, eyelash curlers, and dish washing detergent were tossed in as a symbol of the items placed upon women by American culture to oppress and essentially discriminate them (PBS). These items, along with bras, were viewed by the protestors and Feminists all over the country as “instruments of torture to women” according to Judith Duffett, whose eyewitness account of that day is illustrated in her article “As It Happened: Atlantic City Is A Town With Class—They Raise Your Morals While They Judge Your Ass.” Duffett explains:

Our goal was No more Miss America! Our objections to the Pageant, its racism (there’s never been a black contestant); …the degrading Mindless-Boob-Girlie symbol which puts women on a pedestal/auction block to compete for male approval; the consumer con game which makes Miss America a walking commercial and oppresses all women into commodity roles;…and the whole idea of beauty contests, which create one “winner” and millions of insecure, frustrated losers, who feel they must meet the imposed standards of beauty or face disaster: ‘You won’t get a man!’

In all actuality, no bras were burned at the Miss America Pageant protest, but the rumors still remain due to the false media portrayal. This became a major victory for Feminists; however, due to the high media coverage of the event, it was essentially the coverage they needed to obtain attention from the public, whether it was positive or negative. “The late 60s annual telecast of the Miss America Pageant was one of the highest-rated programs of the year, carrying nearly two-thirds of the night’s television audience. That year, with media coverage of the protest, a wider audience than ever before became aware of the Women’s Liberation Movement” (PBS).

Protestors throwing away their high heels and bras to make a statement.

As Feminism was gaining notoriety, the majority of the country recognized its existence, but failed to take these new women and their unconventional ways seriously. Nebraska, a predominantly Republican state, fell short along with the rest of the Midwest. In 1970, as Feminism was gaining momentum, the Omaha World Herald published a Magazine of the Midlands in its August 16 Sunday edition, which included an article entitled “Beauty at the Capitol.” In it, James Denney discusses the abundance of “pretty faces” working at Lincoln’s State offices using terms for the women that are anything less than laughable. Denney refers to the women as “girls” and “sweet young things,” instead of “women” or even “workers.” He also explains that the women workers were paid $300 or less per month, leading many of them to befriend one another just to make decent living arrangements. The highlight of the article, though, comes near the end when it says, “A favorite story of the last session Legislature is that a cute secretary from one of the executive departments delivered material to a senator on the legislative floor while Senator Terry Carpenter was making a speech. Her skirt was quite short and heads began turning. Carpenter is reported to have stopped his speech until the young lady left the chamber for fear the other solons would miss what he had to say” (Denney 25). James Denney referred to the women working at the Statehouse as a pack of spouse-less, child-like creatures who had nothing else to offer to the workplace than quick typing skills and a short skirt. The words “girls” and “sweet young things” used to describe them were demeaning and discriminatory; this left me wondering how many women in Omaha read this article and were outraged, or simply thought nothing of it because they were used to being called “girls” and “sweet young things.”

An ad for beauty products playing on the women’s liberation movement. Published in the Omaha World Herald in 1970.

A week later, the Omaha World Herald printed an ad for beauty products, such as skin cream, hairspray, and perfume with large, bold text at the top reading “Liberate the Way You Look!” To the right, two women carry signs, and one yells into a megaphone while her sign reads: “Beauty is Every Woman’s Right!” The ad is appalling due to its lack of sensibility and play on the Women’s Liberation Movement of that time. It suggests that women have the right to be beautiful, just as they have the right to equality in the workplace; it is inconceivable that these two concepts be interlaced just to sell lotions and perfume. The Midwest’s media portrayal in the 1960s and 1970s of the Liberation Movement is, in every sense of the word, mocking.


Up Next

Part Four Women on Strike

The Liberation Movement got its big break when a mass demonstration was organized by Betty Friedan and occurred across the country on August 26, 1970. According to a YouTube video I found of the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, the demonstrations were covered in an unbiased nature and with both sides of the story told for the country to see. Cronkite explains in his introduction that “a militant minority of women’s liberationists was on the streets across the country to demand equal employment for women, care centers for mothers, child abortions for anyone who wants them, and general equality between women and men” (CBS News). In New York City, an elderly gentleman can be seen walking past the protesting women on the sidewalk, who asks, “What do you want?” A few women shout “Equality!”, and the man’s angry response: