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Tidal Wave

How Women Changed America at Century's End

About The Book

Forty years ago few women worked, married women could not borrow money in their own names, schools imposed strict quotas on female applicants, and sexual harassment did not exist as a legal concept. Yet despite the enormous changes for women in America since 1960, and despite a blizzard of books that continue to argue about women's "proper place," there has not been a serious, definitive history of what happened -- until now.

Sara M. Evans is one of our foremost historians of women in America. Her book Personal Politics is a classic that captured the origins of the modern women's movement; its successor, Born for Liberty, set the standard for sweeping histories of women. In Tidal Wave Evans again sets the standard by drawing on an extraordinary range of interviews, archives, and published sources to tell the incredible story of the past forty years in women's history.

Encompassing both the so-called Second Wave of feminism's initial explosion in the 1960s and 1970s, and the Third Wave of the 1980s and 1990s, she challenges traditional interpretations at every step. She shows that the Second Wave was beset by fragmentation and infighting from the beginning; its slogan, "the personal is political," was both a rallying cry and the seed of its self-destruction. Yet the Third Wave has been surprisingly strong, and almost all women today might be thought of as feminists -- in practice if not in name.

From national events, and from leaders of institutions such as NOW and Emily's List to little-known local stories of women who simply wanted more out of their lives only to discover that they were creating a movement, Tidal Wave paints a vast canvas of a society in upheaval -- from politics to economics to popular culture to marriage and the family.

Today, Evans argues, the women's movement is as alive and vital as ever, precisely because it has enjoyed such stunning success. Though not all women are comfortable with the term "feminist," the vast majority hold jobs and enjoy previously unimaginable personal freedoms. Never before in American or world history have women experienced full and equal citizenship and opportunity. At last, the extraordinary story can be told.


Chapter One: The Way We Were; The Way We Are

The "first wave" of women's rights activism in the United States built slowly from its beginnings in the middle of the nineteenth century, finally cresting in 1920 with the passage of the nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing women the most fundamental right of citizenship, the vote. It swelled slowly and steadily, riding this single, symbolic issue. By contrast, a "second wave" of women's rights activism in the last half of the century arose almost instantly in a fast-moving and unruly storm, massive from the very outset. This driving storm, with shifting winds and crosscurrents, never focused on a single issue and sometimes seemed to be at war as much within itself as with patriarchy. Yet that storm, with all its internal conflicts, produced a tidal wave of feminism that washed over the United States and changed it forever.

It is startling to realize that in the early 1960s married women could not borrow money in their own names, professional and graduate schools regularly imposed quotas of 5-10 percent or even less on the numbers of women they would admit, union contracts frequently had separate seniority lists for women and men, and sexual harassment did not exist as a legal concept. It was perfectly legal to pay women and men differently for exactly the same job and to advertise jobs separately: "Help Wanted -- Men" and "Help Wanted -- Women."

Feminism, the broad banner under which the second wave named itself, not only shattered a set of legal structures that upheld inequalities between women and men but also challenged prevailing "commonsense" everyday practices built on the assumption that women were naturally docile, domestic, and subordinate. Should a corporate secretary also be an "office wife" who serves coffee and buys birthday presents for the boss's wife? Should etiquette demand that men hold open doors for women but not the reverse? Must women change their names upon marriage? Can men tolerate having a female boss? Can women operate heavy machinery or wield surgical knives with meticulous precision? Must women always be the ones to make and serve coffee? Would successful businessmen take legal advice from female lawyers? Can language accommodate the possibility that firemen, policemen, and chairmen might, in fact, be women? Are women's incomes, in fact, secondary? Is a woman working outside the home by definition a "bad mother"? Is a man whose income cannot support his family by definition a failure at manhood? Can rape occur within a marriage?

Many of these issues remain unresolved decades later. Certainly, ongoing inequalities and injustices, such as sexual harassment, unequal pay, job discrimination, female poverty, and restrictions on reproductive rights, are easy to document while the cultural debate on "women's place" continues apace. In many ways the legal structure has changed, but the vision of equality that undergirds those changes continues to be illusive. Women's opportunities for work and for equal compensation remain systematically limited. The structure of work outside the home and the continued expectation that women have primary responsibility for child care and housework still force mothers into impossible choices between the demands of work and of family. And in the United States, as throughout the world, women continue to face unconscionable levels of violence and harassment.

The democratic mobilization of women to challenge inequality and to claim their civic right to be full participants in making changes and solving the problems of the twenty-first century will be essential for the foreseeable future. Indeed, it has always been needed. I use the word feminism to name that mobilization and the egalitarian ideas that inspire it. The term "feminism" came into being in late nineteenth century France and was adopted by a segment of the U.S. movement for woman suffrage (the vote) in the 1910s. Those early feminists sought cultural as well as legal change. In the early 1970s, women's rights activists adopted feminism as a common label, bridging enormous ideological and strategic differences. Should women work inside existing institutions, such as the political party system, universities, and corporations, or should they create new ones? Should they prioritize economic rights, reproductive rights, or cultural change? Should they seek alliances with men? Can they work simultaneously on the problems of race, poverty, and militarism while maintaining a focus on sexual equality? The differences among feminists are so deep that some regularly challenge others' credentials as feminists. Yet the energy of the storm that drives them all comes from their shared challenge to deeply rooted inequalities based on gender.

For the purposes of this book, it makes no sense to insist on a more precise definition of the term "feminist": my focus is on the movement itself in all its diversity of ideas, constituencies, strategies, and organizations. There are, however, some distinctive characteristics of that movement as it has ebbed and flowed between the mid-1960s and the beginning of the twenty-first century. Perhaps its most distinctive characteristic has been the challenge to the boundary between the "personal" and the "political" captured in an early slogan, "The Personal Is Political." Under this banner, the movement politicized issues that had long been deemed outside the purview of "politics," including sexuality, domestic violence, and the exercise of authority within the family. It also confronted the ancient association of men and maleness with public life (politics and power) and women and femaleness with domesticity (personal life and subordination). The result was a far more radical challenge (in the sense of fundamental, going to the roots) than efforts simply to gain admission for women into the public world of civic and economic rights. It raised questions about the nature of politics and about our very understanding of maleness and femaleness with all it implies for personal relationships, sexuality, and the family, and in so doing, it questioned one of the most fundamental and intimate forms of hierarchy, one that has been used in myriad contexts to explain, justify, and naturalize other forms of subordination. The result of this feminist challenge has been a political, legal, and cultural maelstrom that continues to this day.

I argue here that the brilliant creativity and the longevity of feminism in the late twentieth century is grounded in the breathtaking claim that the personal is political. At the same time, this confluence of personal-private and public-political contained the seed of the movement's repeated episodes of fragmentation and self-destruction. On the one hand, "the personal is political" empowered both individuals and groups to challenge inequities that the culture defined as natural. Women sued corporations and unions; invented new institutions, such as havens for battered women; created journals, day care centers, and coffeehouses; ran for public office; and wrote new laws and lobbied them through. On the other hand, the linkage of personal and political led some to a search for purity, for "true" feminism in the realm of ideas and the formula for a perfectly realized feminist life. The pursuit of perfection made it difficult to entertain complexity, sliding easily into dogmatism. Differences of opinion and lifestyle betrayed the "true faith" and could not be tolerated. Thus, this is a history rife with contradiction: growth and fragmentation, innovation and internal conflict. One cannot understand it without exploring the interplay of these contradictory tendencies, because they are inextricably linked both to the movement's capacity to reinvent itself and to the necessity to do so. Repeatedly pronounced "dead," feminism in the late twentieth century has again and again risen phoenix-like in new and unexpected contexts, unnoticed by those who attended the funeral.

The origins of this deep contradiction can be located historically in the nature of women's subordination in the United States after World War II and in the political context of racial conflict and identity politics at the time of the feminist rebirth in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The creative side of the movement has flourished despite political repression, and indeed often in response to it. Fragmentation and self-destruction have also been driven at different times by economic downturns and government surveillance and infiltration and in the 1980s by a governmentally sanctioned backlash. Yet feminism is still alive and well at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Having accomplished, at least partially, many of its goals, there are many aspects of feminism that have become so much part of the mainstream (language, laws, labor force, and access to professional education) we take them for granted. In addition, current forms of feminist activism are not particularly oriented toward visibility in the sense of large public demonstrations. It is less discernible than it has been in recent decades. Such an eclipse is dangerous, however, as the history of feminist activism represents a heritage new generations need if they are to re-create it yet again.

One of the motives behind the writing of this book is my own awareness that the loss of historical memory would have far-reaching consequences. It would force future generations to invent feminism as if they had no shoulders on which to stand, repeating the unfortunate experience of many in the 1960s. It took some time for the emerging feminist movement to recover its own roots and realize that this was not the first time such issues had been raised and fought for. For example, the so-called "first wave," the fight for woman suffrage, had waxed and waned over the course of a century and in the 1910s it had blossomed into a many-sided movement that mobilized the energies of hundreds of thousands of women. In those years, women's rights gave birth to feminism's rebellious cultural criticism, although it never responded to the demands of African-American women for full inclusion. By the end of the 1930s, however, "feminism" had been marginalized into a narrow, single-issue movement for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). In the 1950s, as the generation that would initiate the "second wave" was coming of age, feminism, as either a set of ideas or a social movement, was virtually invisible. Perhaps this explains why such a large number of activists became professional historians. Certainly I am not the only historian who wishes to spare the next generation the rage we experienced about having been cut off from our own history in all its complexity.

The loss of historical memory between the great suffrage victory in 1920 and the post-World War II era has sobering parallels to the late twentieth century. The 1920s, like the late 1980s and 1990s, were a time when individualism flowered among women. In both these eras of flashy wealth, blotting out the continuing reality of desperate poverty, middle-class women gained new access to education and to a broader range of paid jobs and young women engaged in sexual experimentation and lifestyles that offered consumption as a primary form of self-expression. Women's battles, they believed, had been won. "Feminism" was a label that restricted their individuality when all they had to do was go ahead and live out their equality. As Dorothy Dunbar Bromley wrote in Harper's Magazine in 1927:

"Feminism" has become a term of opprobrium to the modern young woman. For the word suggests either the old school of fighting feminists who wore flat heels and had very little feminine charm, or the current species who antagonize men with their constant clamor about maiden names, equal rights, woman's place in the world, and many another infinitum.

In the 1920s, the white women's movement split in two. It was rent by the conflicting goals of social reformers, on the one hand, for whom women's suffrage was part of a broader agenda that ultimately shaped key aspects of the New Deal and the emerging welfare state, and the National Women's Party, on the other, which focused single-mindedly on passage of the Equal Rights Amendment to complete the process of establishing legal, constitutional equality for women. As that battle erupted again and again in the 1920s, 1930s, and into the 1940s, "women's rights" and "feminism" took on increasingly narrow and distant connotations, feeding popular images of feminists as shrill, elitist, "mannish," and antifamily. Younger women were not recruited, and by the 1950s feminism was so thoroughly marginalized that most young women were entirely unaware of it.

There are significant differences between the interwar era (1920-1940) and the last 20 years, but the similarities are striking nonetheless. The conservative attack on the women's movement has trumpeted the same themes for more than a century, warning against "mannish" women and the endangered patriarchal family. In the 1970s, aroused conservatives like Phyllis Schlafley attacked feminists as "anti-family, anti-children, and pro-abortion." She went on to characterize the new journal, Ms., as "a series of sharptongued, high-pitched, whining complaints by unmarried women. They view the home as a prison, and the wife and mother as a slave."

The Republican ascendancy led by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s endowed antifeminists like Schlafley with intellectual authority and placed people who agreed with her in major administrative posts. Writers like George Gilder, who had insisted since the early 1970s that "women's place is in the home," became intellectual insiders, blaming feminists (most of whom in his view were single mothers, lesbians, or simply unmarried) for destroying the moral fabric of America with demands for day care. Despite the Republican embrace of the traditional patriarchal family, the 1980s were also an era of rampant individualism and high consumption. Like the twenties, they were a time when educated women could experiment with newly available opportunities -- for careers as well as sexual encounters. As early as 1982, Susan Bolotin wrote in the New York Times that women then in their twenties were a "postfeminist" generation. Typically they told her, "I don't label myself a feminist. Not for me, but for the guy next door that would mean that I'm a lesbian and that I hate men." A conservative young woman, Rachel Flick, contended feminism had become "an exclusively radical, separatist, bitter movement." Young women just out of college, confident in their ability to find well-paying jobs and to make it on their own, saw feminists as shrill, bitter, ugly, and lacking a "sense of style." By 1991, Paula Kammen lamented the resulting loss to her generation, which came of age in the 1980s when "young feminists didn't seem to exist." With no access to consciousness-raising experiences or other links to prior generations, they were defenseless against the stigma of feminism. All they knew were the stereotypes: "The twisted, all-too-common logic about feminists goes like this: If you stand up for women, you must hate men. Therefore, you must be angry. Thus, you must be ugly and can't get a man anyway. Hence, you must be a dyke."

The attacks on feminism, however, were far more intense in the 1980s and 1990s than in the 1920s and 1930s. Radio talk shows, for example, fill the airwaves with venomous attacks on "femininazis" (a term coined by conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh) and use feminism as a foil for expressions of discontent about an enormous range of issues. As an indicator of the major difference between these eras, this suggests that feminism in the late twentieth century, in contrast to the 1920s and 1930s, had continued to be a powerful and ever-changing force in American life, generating new organizations, new issues, and new ideas. It would be a mistake, then, to take the critics at face value. Rather, one must read their venom as a response to something they perceive to be very powerful, and there lies a clue to the story that must now be told.

In this chapter, I describe the necessity of this history, my own argument about the nature and the trajectory of the movement from the mid-1960s to today, and my relationship to the project as both participant and historian. Chapter 2 summarizes the origins of the Second Wave, the dual vision of founders from two generations focused respectively on equality and liberation and the new political terrain created by the process of consciousness-raising. Chapter 3 explores the creative innovations of the "golden years" during which this new movement generated massive changes in laws, revived the battle for the ERA, and founded a vast array of new organizations and institutions. Chapter 4 wrestles with the realities of internal conflict and fragmentation that coexisted with the generative excitement of those early years. It argues that there are historically specific reasons that conflict intensified in the middle 1970s. Chapter 5 analyzes new aspects of the movement in the middle to late 1970s, often emerging out of conflict. The paradox of feminism becomes clearer as we analyze its continuing process of transformation and rebirth. The demise of early women's liberation produced socialist and cultural feminism and a multitude of new institutions ranging from health clinics and shelters to women's studies programs and journals. At the same time, activists in the policy arena consolidated many gains with their connections to the Carter administration (1967-1980) and shared the international ferment generated by the United Nations International Women's Year conferences. Chapter 6 challenges the story of decline in the 1980s, recognizing on the one hand the reality of backlash but on the other the revival of feminism in new forms (e.g., Emily's list) and within mainstream institutions, such as schools and churches. Chapter 7 finds feminism in the early 1990s becoming stronger as a new generation rearticulates the necessity of feminism in a world already fundamentally changed by the women's movement. Backlash against feminism, framed as an attack on "political correctness," had become an obsession for political conservatives. Feminism grew stronger in the aftermath of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, however, and it also drew strength from the massive growth of global women's rights activism in the developing world.

In the summer of 1992 at a cabin on a small lake in Ontario, I joined five other women for the second reunion of a women's liberation group that had met between 1968 and 1970 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I had just begun to think about the project that evolved into this book, so I asked permission to tape a discussion about the meaning of our shared experience both at the time and in our subsequent lives. Very quickly it became clear that Group 22 (as we called ourselves back then) had been a transforming experience even for those who participated only for a year. The spirit of Group 22 captures some of the excitement of the feminist revival in the late 1960s and was typical of many others. We believed we were changing the world and that what we did could make a difference. The group offered a new freedom from marginalization for women with aspirations for both meaningful work and motherhood. We experimented and created institutions, read about and corresponded with other groups, and in many ways changed our lives permanently.

Group 22 convened in the summer of 1968 when Paula Goldsmid and I both moved to North Carolina from Chicago, where we had met in another consciousness-raising group. I was returning to North Carolina after 9 months of immersion in the newborn women's liberation movement. Previously, as an undergraduate at Duke, I had been active in civil rights, union support, and antiwar work. It was sheer luck that I happened to be in Chicago in 1967-1968, where I stumbled into one of the founding women's liberation groups known as the West Side Group. A neophyte in these national movement networks, I remember myself as one of the silent ones in a group of powerful, brilliant women. I was a sponge, thrilled by the effortless way the movement seemed to grow as group members reported new start-ups every month and travelers from New York, Washington, Ann Arbor, Toronto, Seattle, Berkeley, and Los Angeles came through town with tales of newly forming women's liberation groups. That year in Chicago I must have joined four or five different groups as they emerged, each of which dove into the debates: Just what was the problem for women? Why were they subordinate? What kinds of activism should we initiate to bring about change? While we talked about grand strategies, we experimented with tactics: skits in laundromats and at subway stops (known as guerrilla theater), leaflets, caucuses within community organizations and unions, and special women's workshops at meetings related to the antiwar movement or civil rights. For the moment it seemed that everything worked. The response was electric. As it dawned on us that a new movement was coming into being, we had a thrilling sense that we could, in fact, make history. Women's liberation provided a space where our yen to make the world a better place felt like it had no bounds. I returned to North Carolina in the summer of 1968 with missionary fervor to build the movement. As soon as Paula arrived, we called a meeting.

When Group 22 sputtered into being in 1968, it was the first women's liberation group in North Carolina. We had no name at first, but as new groups quickly spun off or formed independently, such labels as the "single women's group" or the "older women's group" seemed clumsy. So we decided to number ourselves -- not hierarchically but randomly, choosing numbers that pleased us: 22 was Paula's favorite number. By early 1970 Group 22 had transformed itself into a children's book writing and publishing collective called Lollipop Power. As Lollipop Power, Inc., it persisted until the mid-1980s, long after most originators moved away.

The early members of Group 22 were in many ways homogeneous, brought together through friendship, school, and work networks: white, college-educated, some of us veterans of the civil rights and student movements. During 1968-1969, many came only once or twice. Those of us who stayed found something there that changed our lives in ways we had been yearning for. Like my Chicago groups, and every other consciousness-raising (CR) group around the country, we searched for ways to ask, and answer, the "big questions." Why are women's choices so limited? How do they internalize a stereotyped view of themselves? Is it biology? How can we raise children without imposing limiting stereotypes? Is it possible to redefine relationships between women and men -- marriage, sexuality, parenthood?

Some of these questions prompted action related to what quickly became a central theme of the group: how do we create new ways to raise children, for ourselves and for society? Three of us, who were pregnant when we met in the fall of 1968, planned and executed a child care cooperative in which six parents, mothers and fathers alike, took turns caring for three infants between 8:30 and 5:30 every weekday. It lasted only 1 year, but that cooperative made it possible for me to begin graduate school in the fall of 1969. Several younger women split off to form their own CR group because they found our focus on childhood socialization not "relevant" to their immediate interests. For Group 22, however, partly because most of us had, or were about to have, children, and partly because we had a high concentration of sociologists, the ways that children "learn" to be female or male became the focus. In many other consciousness-raising groups, women talked about and thought through their own socializations. Instead, we were determined to find ways to do it differently and to make it possible to liberate children from the constraints of cultural prescription. Ultimately, the need to turn that concern into action led to the creation of Lollipop Power.

Before the first meeting, all of us had already embarked on life choices very different from those of our mothers' generation. Yet more than 20 years later, participants remembered feeling that they were clueless about how to live those lives and how to deal with the internal and external criticism that seemed ubiquitous. Several described walking into their first meeting and feeling "at home" immediately. They talked about relief at experiencing social support for their efforts to combine mothering with careers. Even more important, I suspect, was that their strong-minded, outspoken, quirky individualism received affirmation in Group 22 rather than placing them on the margins. Two women, both already mothers, immediately changed their married names back to their birth names. The rest of us did not, but we cheered Linda when she created quite a fuss by refusing to register at the Chapel Hill hospital where she had gone for surgery until they agreed to list her records under her own name rather than her husband's.

Group 22 was downright evangelical. Eager to spread the movement, we helped organize new groups, organized a newsletter so that multiplying groups could stay in touch, and participated in regional gatherings and workshops. We wanted answers (imagining naively that they existed), and we plugged through a mixture of turgid sociological "sex role" literature and angry mimeographed pamphlets that circulated from group to group around the country. In the days before the internet, the inexpensive mimeograph made it easy to disseminate ideas and essays. When we read them, we joined a national conversation about just what this movement was, what kind of change it should advocate, and possible strategies for getting there. Like our sisters across the country, we wanted to change things both in our own lives (renegotiating housework and child care with male partners was a big item) and in the world. In true countercultural style, we looked for gaps where we could create counterinstitutions. Disappointed with the children's literature we knew, we started Lollipop Power and set out to write, edit, and publish our own. Three of us wrote the first three books, and we all vividly remembered that late night at the University of North Carolina campus Y when we and many friends and supporters printed, collated, and stapled our first book. The next year we waged a campaign to force the University of North Carolina to provide day care for employees and students. When that failed (despite a "baby-in" in the administration building), we founded the Community School for People Under Six, still in operation after three decades.


A look at the subjects of the first three Lollipop Power books reveals that our feminism was not markedly different from that of any liberal feminist group, though most of us thought of ourselves as radicals.8 In simple picture-book stories, we scrambled sex roles -- female heroines, moms who study, fathers who nurture -- and conveyed a broad sense that girls (and boys) could do anything they choose. Jenny's Secret Place, which I wrote, featured a 5-year-old girl who used her mother's study desk as a secret place to dream about freedom, whose father baked her birthday cake, and who shared her secret with her little brother once she fulfilled her dream of learning to ride a two-wheel bicycle. Did You Ever showed, in rhymed couplets, that whether you were a girl or a boy "you can do everything." Martin's Father described a single-parent family: a boy whose dad cooks, tucks him into bed, and takes him to day care. At first we had no prescriptions beyond our opposition to traditional sex roles.

We also knew that our experiences were not the same as those of all women, though we inevitably fell into language that presumed such commonality. Probably our greatest intolerance was toward the women we felt most judged by, those in earlier generations who, we believed, would accuse us of maternal failure for not choosing a life of total devotion to husband and children. Class difference was a major topic of discussion. We read Lee Rainwater and Mirra Komarovsky on the plight of poor and working-class housewives and told each other stories from our own backgrounds (which were considerably more varied than our current statuses, ranging from working-class ethnic immigrant to professional middle class). There were many perspectives, in fact, that we had few ways to imagine. When the Community School for People Under Six opened its doors in the fall of 1970 in the basement of a black church, the issue of race also became increasingly salient, though, to be honest, in those Black Power years we were mostly waiting for black women to tell us what to think about them. Not surprisingly, by the second or third year, Lollipop Power stories had begun deliberately to challenge the stereotypes of race and class.

Group 22 left a mark on the lives of all of its members. One founded the women's caucus of the American Statistical Association and cofounded the women's caucus of the American Public Health Association; another is a leading feminist scholar and activist in Canada; a third went on to direct the women's studies program at Oberlin and moved from there into collegiate administration; a fourth built her career founding and running day care centers. Several find little direct linkage between their feminism and their current work lives except that they treasure their own independence and believe in their right to meaningful work. Some later came out as lesbians (a topic Group 22 never got around to discussing, although its successor groups certainly did).

In our group, those of us with children thought long and hard about how to raise a new, and different, generation. We realized we were doing this without a compass. Sharing our stories two decades later, we acknowledged that we had all been humbled by the overwhelming power of culture. We asked each other sheepishly, Did your daughters get into Barbies? Did your sons play with guns? How did you get through the teen years? The answers were all over the map. It isn't that we thought we'd be doing this in a vacuum but that we simply had no inkling about how to think. Frankly, the stories we told were not so different from stories about anybody else's kids raised with a strong emphasis on tolerance and respect for others. With a sobered recognition of the role of sheer good luck, we took pleasure in describing the good people our kids have become and comfort in sharing the hard bumps along the way.

At least one member of Group 22 spoke with some bitterness about the impact of feminism on her life. She plunged into professional school, convinced that she could "do anything," but the professional path she tried did not work out successfully. She finds herself now doing work that she does not love and finding pleasure in the details of private life. Our naive search for perfection became, for her, not only "you can" but "you should" and set a standard of expectation that was, finally, undermining. For most of us, however, the legacy of this group, as of thousands of others, is one of greater freedom and new possibility.

For me, the experience in Chicago followed by Group 22 and its successor groups became a springboard into my career as a historian. The questions raised in women's groups about the origins of female subordination and the links between women's liberation and other social movements around labor, peace, and civil rights led me to challenge the knowledge I had received as an undergraduate history major and a graduate student in political science. I recalled the single class in which women were acknowledged to have some historical agency: Anne Firor Scott drew on her research on southern white women to tell us about the importance of women in Progressive Era politics and their utter invisibility in existing historical accounts. At the time I had been too busy fighting other battles to think much about the implications, but several years later that experience endowed me with an unshakable belief that we could recover the stories of women in the past. Although there were no women teaching American history at the University of North Carolina in 1969 and no courses on women's history, several other students arrived with similar questions and we discovered that self-education was entirely possible simply by writing papers on women in connection with virtually any course. Little did we know that we were part of a cohort of several thousand across the country, collectively inventing women's history as a major field of historical inquiry and women's studies as a discipline. The first Berkshire Conference on the History of Women in 1972 drew 800 participants, to the astonishment of its organizers; 2 years later more than 1,500 scholars showed up for a second Berkshire Conference.

Having worked briefly as an organizer, and inspired by the organizers I had known in Chicago, my driving questions had to do with the origins and nature of collective action for change. How is it, I wondered, that those with less power find it possible to initiate change and to act together? How do women come to see themselves as a group with the capacity to make history? I looked at bread riots and strikes, but I also studied women in the Socialist Party in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a rather transparent search for foremothers of the movement with which I identified. That led me to the subject of the dissertation I eventually wrote, Personal Politics: The Roots of Women's Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left. By the time I embarked on that project in 1972, the women's movement had become a massive and highly complex phenomenon. Its history, however, was already being told in ways I knew to be incorrect. The founding of the National Organization for Women could be recounted with ease, but the origins of the groups that called themselves women's liberation were little understood and frequently described as something like an offshoot of NOW. Among feminist radicals, anger at men on the left framed a story in which women in the student movements of the sixties were so victimized that they were virtually driven to form a separate movement. I knew that women's liberation was not an offshoot of NOW, and from my Chicago and North Carolina experiences I knew that most early feminist activists saw women's liberation as deeply rooted in their experiences in the civil rights movement and the New Left.

In Personal Politics I argued that parts of the southern civil rights movement (especially the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, SNCC) and the community organizing projects of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) provided unique opportunities for young women to learn the skills of movement building as well as a set of democratic ideas and ideals (the "beloved community" in the civil rights movement; "participatory democracy" in SDS) that enabled them to challenge the sexism they experienced in the movement and in society. Those movements, in the early years at least, were certainly less sexist than American society as a whole. And the leadership of black women in the southern movement, women like Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, and many others, provided white women reared in the domestic culture of the fifties with powerful role models. By the late sixties, however, both the civil rights and antiwar movements had adopted strongly masculine, even militaristic, language and methods of mass protest that eclipsed existing female leadership. The stage was set. Armed with hard-won skills, self-confidence, and the ideals acquired in civil rights work, groups of women began to turn these assets to their own use, frequently in response to those sparking moments when male arrogance tried to put them in their place. The parallels to the role of the abolition movement as a training ground for the first women's rights movement in the United States were extremely strong. In both cases, also, despite the intimate link between the movements for racial justice and for women's rights, the issues affecting women of color were treated as anomalies and frequently ignored. As feminism evolved in the late twentieth century, this would become both a central dilemma and a powerful theoretical concern.

Tidal Wave is in some sense a sequel to Personal Politics, although the scope is substantially different. The first book analyzed the origins of one branch of the feminist movement that exploded into being in the late 1960s; this one traces the trajectory of that broader movement across the succeeding decades with an eye to understanding the shared dynamics that underlay its immense and complex diversity. The journey toward this book has been by turns inspiring and painful. It is a history that I, and many of my readers, have lived, yet from any particular vantage point the larger picture is difficult if not impossible to imagine. My hope is to contribute to an ongoing conversation about the meanings of that larger picture, as well as to affirm for future generations that they do indeed have a history, by turns glorious and distressing, on which they can build. With this heritage, there is no question that the women's movement will continue to reinvent itself. History cannot predict when, or where, or how. It is simply a legacy, prickly and uneven and only partially understood, but nonetheless proof that women have already changed the world and that they will continue to do so.

Copyright © 2003 by Sara M. Evans

About The Author

Sara Evans is the author of Born for Liberty, a Simon & Schuster book.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (May 11, 2010)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439135532

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Los Angeles Times Readable and insightful, lively and judicious, strongly argued and open-minded, enthusiastic and critical.

Booklist Meticulously researched and with an unequivocal respect for detail and balance, Evans offers a comprehensive and compelling historical overview of the status and role of women in contemporary society.

Kirkus Reviews A well-written, critical overview of feminism's real contribution, useful and timely.

The Washington Post [Evans'] depictions...vivify, as no generalizations could, the extraordinary creative reach of the movement.

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