July 7, 2008
By MICHAEL E. YOUNG / The Dallas Morning News
In the turbulence of 1968, with its assassinations, demonstrations
and running brawls between police and protesters, a different
movement elbowed its way into the public consciousness in the
unlikeliest of settings.
On the boardwalk in Atlantic City, outside the cavernous old
Convention Hall, a group called the New York Radical Women protested
the Miss America pageant before the nation's news media, quickly
putting "Women's Liberation" in the lexicon – and (incorrectly) "bra
The issues and arguments weren't new. Five years earlier, Betty
Friedan had published The Feminine Mystique, about the cultural
limits placed on women. NOW – the National Organization for Women –
formed in 1966.
But it took the Miss America pageant, a cultural touchstone watched
on TV by two-thirds of U.S. households, to bring Women's Liberation
into the country's living rooms.
Spinning out of civil rights groups and the New Left, what historians
now call the "second wave" of the women's movement sought legal,
economic and cultural equality. Even within the radical groups that
trained many of them, this new generation of women felt the sting of
discrimination, blocked from leadership but expected to do the
cooking, cleaning and clerical work.
Virginia B. Whitehill, a leader in local women's circles since
arriving in Dallas in 1960, said culture had specific ideas of a woman's role.
"After we came here, I worked for my husband in his office for 15
years without pay," Ms. Whitehill said. "One day I went to Jim and
said, 'I think you're exploiting me.' And he said, 'I think you're
right.' But that's what women were expected to do."
Of course, America had seen periods of women's activism long before
1968. In Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848, activists met to consider "the
condition and rights of women" and released a "Declaration of
Sentiments" modeled on the Declaration of Independence.
High on the list of wants was the right to vote, a right that took
more than 70 years to win with the 19th Amendment, the culmination of
feminism's "first wave."
The "second wave" followed in the 1960s, during a period of reform
much like the 1840s. But with the airwaves and front pages already
occupied by hippies and Yippies and an alphabet-soup of groups like
the SDS, CORE and SNCC, it took something special to make a splash.
As it turns out, that wasn't a problem.
"In the late '60s, there was a brand of militant feminism coming into
play," said Allan Saxe, who teaches political science at the
University of Texas at Arlington, "and those groups knew they had to
get people's attention."
Keenly aware of the reach of media, groups like WITCH – Women's
International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell – tweaked leading
institutions with a combination of street theater and protest.
On Halloween 1968, for example, WITCH "hexed" the New York Stock Exchange.
"It dropped 20 points," said UTA history professor Jerry Rodnitzky,
"and that's when 20 points was a big drop."
In Atlantic City, the 100 protesters crowned a sheep Miss America and
dumped symbols of "female oppression" – high heels, false eyelashes,
dish detergent, girdles and bras – into a "freedom trash can." Rumors
spread that the women set the can's contents on fire. They hadn't.
They didn't have a burn permit and the police were extremely vigilant.
But the media seized on bra burning as the female equivalent of male
anti-war protesters burning their draft cards.
Down in Dallas, Ms. Whitehill and her friends laughed off the whole notion.
"I remember most of us said we wouldn't burn our bras – we needed the
support," she joked.
Struggles in Dallas
But feminists here faced major struggles, wrote Vivian Castleberry in
her book Daughters of Dallas:
"Thousands of women moved individually and in concert to create
changes during the 1960s ... most of them within the confines of
their societal conditioning," she wrote. "They had very little
choice. The world – especially the world of Dallas – was not ready
for a revolution as can be testified by many women who came to the
city, tried to make changes quickly and left in frustration and
Some soldiered on, though – notably Maura McNiel, who tried to rally
women through various clubs and organizations.
"Women were taking care of everything in Dallas that was not
profitable and was never completed," she told them. "For diversions
we had bridge, the Bible and book reviews. What else was there?"
But in the tumultuous year of 1968, the eruption of media-minded
protests carried women's lib into every corner of the United States.
Even big business recognized the opportunity.
The most conspicuous example came from Philip Morris. In 1968, the
company introduced a new product – elegantly packaged and announced
in a series of high-style commercials and ads – called Virginia Slims
cigarettes, with the slogan, "You've come a long way, baby."
Cigarette packs already carried a watered-down warning label that
"Cigarette smoking may be hazardous to your health." So leaders in
the women's movement bristled that the Virginia Slims marketing
campaign equated cigarette smoking with equality, Dr. Rodnitzky said.
"They were saying, 'Women are equal now – we can get cancer just like men.' "