Image credit: Flickr / Warren K. Leffler.

Fighting for better: activism in the ’70s

The 1970s was a cornerstone of social justice and equality. The success of the Civil Rights Movement in South Africa in the 1960s, which fought against racial discrimination and segregation, inspired marginalised groups across the world to use their voice and seek social change. This was the beginning of the ’70s social movements that would challenge ideologies, demand justice and alter the course of society, shaping the world into what it is today. 


Why were the uprisings during the ’70s unique?


In particular, these movements adopted a bold approach which did not just advocate for change but also demanded it and made it a reality. Some notable movements include the Women’s Liberation Movement, Gay Liberation Movement, and the Anti-War Movement. 

The Women’s Liberation Movement, dubbed “second-wave feminism”, was instigated in the ’60s with the creation of the National Organisation of Women, founded by Betty Frieden, along with other women’s rights activists. The movement mainly gained attention in the 70s and went on to create radical changes in favour of equal employment opportunities, reproductive rights and removal of gender stereotypes. 


Breaking Chains: The Women’s Liberation Movement


Women who had entered the workforce during World War II were expected to return to traditional domestic roles afterwards. This disjunction sparked a re-evaluation of traditional gender roles. In the ’60s and ’70s the number of women in higher education and in entering the workforce increased, which drew significant attention to systemic gender inequalities in these spheres, leading to a growing demand for equal opportunities. 

Additionally, the increase in media content disseminating feminist ideas and raising awareness around gender inequality strongly contributed to the movement’s visibility. An example is the publication of Ms. Magazine in 1972 which provided news specifically focused on female empowerment, reaching over 300,000 women in the US. Its issues covered women’s history which celebrated the achievements of women as well as some sensitive topics directly challenging stereotypes. One such example is a list of 50 well-known women who have had abortions, in order to normalise it in society. Today, content questioning degrading gender stereotypes is seen to aligned with social values, however, it was seen as a challenge to existing social values in the ’70s and a medium for introducing radical ideas.  

The movement included the formation of consciousness-raising groups, a distinctive feature considered to be the key to its success. These small, intimate gatherings allowed women to share personal experiences, and collectively identify and challenge systemic inequalities. This facilitated a sense of solidarity and empowered women to take collective action. Overall, it yielded strong legal results that protected the interests of women in society. One such milestone is the introduction of Title IX in 1972 in the United States prohibited sex-based discrimination in their federally-funded programmes, increasing access to education among women. The Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973 legalized abortion, enabling women to make decisions on their reproductive health. This also led to an increase in access to contraception and birth control pills among women and ended stigma around them. 

In recognition of the positive change inspired by the Movement, Time Magazine replaced their Man of the Year issue to Women of the Year in 1975. The article, ‘Women of the Year: Great Changes, New Chances, Tough Choices’ highlights these milestones. It stated, “They may be cops, judges, military officers, telephone linemen, cab drivers, pipefitters, editors, business executives – or mothers and housewives, but not quite the same subordinate creatures they were before.” 

Boldly Queer: The Gay Liberation Unveiled


It was not just women who fought for their rights during this period. The Gay Liberation Movement began in the 60s and continued throughout the 70s. This differed from earlier homophile movements, which focused on assimilation and presenting a more acceptable image of homosexuality to society. The new wave of activists rejected assimilationist approaches and adopted a more radical stance, demanding societal acceptance and celebration of diversity instead. This perspective was concentrated on the idea that people of the LGBT+ did not need to apologise for their sexual orientations and gender identities to receive social acceptance. 

New York City saw the First Gay Pride March on 28 June 1971 organised by the Gay Activists Alliance. In the present, even though there are multiple Pride parades across the world, little thought is given to the beginning of these demonstrations. This event solidified the concept of Pride as a public demonstration for LGBT+ rights and had a profound impact on society, inspiring many new and creative Pride celebrations to this day. In the same year, activists from the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) disrupted the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting, demanding the removal of homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This demand was officially met in 1973 and was a significant step towards destigmatising homosexuality and increasing social acceptance towards it. The movement also secured legal recognition for same-sex marriage in numerous countries, granting LGBT+ couples the same rights and benefits as heterosexual couples. Moreover, many companies began implementing inclusive policies, recognising the importance of diversity and equality in the workplace forming the basis of the protection of LGBT+ rights in corporations in the present. 

Dissenting Drums: The Beat of the Anti-War Movement


Lastly, increasing US involvement in the Vietnam War in the 60s which continued in the 70s created a strong wave of anti-war sentiment and protests demanding a peaceful resolution and withdrawal of troops from Vietnam. These were met with violence from the government under the Nixon administration resulting in several casualties. On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on students at Kent State University protesting the U.S. invasion of Cambodia following the expansion of the Vietnam War. Four students were killed, and nine others were injured. This event galvanised opposition to the war and sparked nationwide protests. Just ten days later, police opened fire on students at Jackson State College (now University) in Mississippi which further contributed to the overall climate of protest and opposition. The reaction by the government through violence, led to more ardent protests by the people. The Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), a non-profit organisation, became a prominent voice within the Anti-war Movement. In 1971, VVAW conducted the ‘Winter Soldier Investigation,’ where veterans testified about war crimes and atrocities they had witnessed or participated in during their service in Vietnam. This spread awareness of the gravity of US engagement in the war, the extent of harm caused by it and its effects on soldiers and their families, which fuelled protests. 

Ultimately, the movement successfully forced the US to withdraw from the war in 1975 following the End of Draft in 1973. Protesters expressed solidarity with the people of Vietnam and emphasised the right of self-determination for the Vietnamese people, rejecting the notion of U.S. intervention in the internal affairs of other nations. The Anti-War Movement mobilised public opinion against US intervention and neo-imperialistic policies leading to the War Powers Act in 1973, created to check on the president’s power to initiate actions without explicit congressional authorisation. As a result, US intervention in the contemporary political climate is met with higher scrutiny to avoid these past failures. 

 Undoubtedly, society has come a long way, yet it is far from perfect and there is a wide scope for improvement in terms of social and political rights for women and the LGBT+ community as well as the reduction of wars. Nevertheless, these movements were a prominent step towards change, giving us, people in the 21st century more freedom to express our opinions, escape the bounds of stereotypes and advocate for peace. But most importantly, they gave us hope – hope that change is possible so that every individual facing discrimination at the smallest level is empowered to use their voice and demand action for peace, equality and justice. Just as how people in the 60s and 70s fought for what they knew was right, we can do the same in the 21st century. 

Comments (1)

  • Amyra,
    For this activist from the 60s-70s reading a college newsletter demanding action for justice and equality is encouraging.
    I came across your publication because I am still somewhat active and am sent many mails and webs.
    I’d like to add a something to your piece. The 70s were not only inspired by the struggles for equality in South Africa but especially the civil rights and black power movements in the US, which began in the south in the 1950s. Those movements were still very much active in the 70s, which is the decade you forcus on.
    While our anti-war movement throughout the 60s-to mid-70s was huge and multi-faceted it was not our struggles that were the main cause of the end of the Vietnam+ war but their own struggles.

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