Passionate Politics: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America


I am woman, hear me roar

In numbers too big to ignore

And I know too much to go back an' pretend

'cause I've heard it all before

And I've been down there on the floor

No one's ever gonna keep me down again

Song lyrics:  “I am Woman” by Helen Reddy




The Women’s Rights Movement of the 1970s catapulted out of the rebellious sixties counterculture with ardent momentum.  By the early seventies, American women were making great strides towards political, economic, social and personal equity.  Politically, much legislation was passed in the seventies, such as Title IX, the Equal Pay Act and Educational Equity Act, which continue to guarantee freedom for American women today.  However, the mass media’s portrayal of the movement and its leadership was usually tinged with negative, demeaning commentaries and sexist stereotypes about feminism.  By the end of the 1970s, feminist leadership had fragmented and many Americans wanted to distance themselves from the Women’s Rights Movement.


Guiding Questions


What are the major political achievements of the Women’s Movement?  What role did the mass media play in constructing negative images about the movement and the word “feminism?”  What equal rights are women still trying to achieve or protect in modern America?  What are local connections to the larger movement and media coverage of national events?  Why did the Women’s Movement internally split and collapse at the end of the 1970s?


Learning Objectives


After completing the lessons in this unit, students will be able to


1.       Identify the political goals of the modern Women’s Movement.

2.       Explore the considerable progress shaped by the Women’s Movement in the political, economic, educational, and personal realm between 1970-1979.

3.      List some of the attitudes and beliefs obstructing the progress of the Women’s Rights Movement, paying special attention to the mass media’s role in constructing these images.

4.      Learn about the many leaders who inspired this movement, including Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Flo Kennedy and Kate Millet.

5.      Identify opposition to the Women’s Movement.

6.      Create awareness about the many personal freedoms which contemporary women enjoy thanks to the efforts of women in the 1970s.

7.      Identify the major achievements of the 1970s Women’s Movement such as Title IX, Roe v. Wade, Ms. Magazine and the Women’s Strike for Equality.

8.      Analyze the political, personal and social reasons why the Women’s Movement fragmented at the end of the 1970s.



Preparing to Teach this Lesson


·        Review the lesson plan.  Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful Websites. 

·        For excellent and extensive historical backgrounds reference The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America, by Ruth Rosen.

·        Watch the A&E Biography on Gloria Steinem.

·        Burn a CD copy of Helen Reddy’s song, “I am woman” to play to your students to generate a discussion before and after the unit.

·        For background information on the general scope of the Women’s Rights Movement, EDSITEment offers two companion lessons designed to supplement your classroom curriculum through organized access to archival materials

·        Who Were the Foremothers of Women’s Equality?

·        Women’s Equality: Changing Attitudes and Beliefs




Suggested Activities


1.  Political Achievements and Failures


2.  Feminist Leadership


3.  Women’s Strike for Equality


4.  Reproductive Rights


5.  Title IX


6.  Ms, magazine publicizes the personal


7.  The Mass Media and the Movement


8.  Connecting to the Past




1.  Political Achievements and Failures


The political achievements and legislation inspired and created by the Women’s Rights Movement of the 1970s is outstanding.  Feminists focused on creating laws to banish economic inequality in marriage, business, banking and credit.  The movement prompted the passing of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act and Educational Equity Act, not to mention the groundbreaking Title IX ruling in 1972.  Women also became politically active for the first time in decades creating the National Women’s Political Caucus.  Furthermore, reproductive rights, personal rights, battered women’s shelters all were also issues in which feminists passionately rallied.


To have students understand the history of the Women’s Rights Movement, go to  Click on the appropriate subtopics and answer the corresponding questions.


New Issues: Name five issues which the Women’s Movement promoted during the 1970s. 


ERA:   What did the Equal Rights Amendment propose?  Who was Phyllis Schlafly?  What happened to the ERA?


More Complex Issues Surface: Analyze the modern feminist issues and compare and contrast them to issues promoted during the 1970s.

·        Women's enrollment in military academies and service in active combat. Are these desirable?

·        Women in leadership roles in religious worship. Controversial for some, natural for others.

·        Affirmative action. Is help in making up for past discrimination appropriate? Do qualified women now face a level playing field?

·        The mommy track. Should businesses accommodate women's family responsibilities, or should women compete evenly for advancement with men, most of who still assume fewer family obligations?

·        Pornography. Is it degrading, even dangerous, to women, or is it simply a free speech issue?

·        Sexual harassment. Just where does flirting leave off and harassment begin?

·        Surrogate motherhood. Is it simply the free right of a woman to hire out her womb for this service?

·        Social Security benefits allocated equally for homemakers and their working spouses, to keep surviving wives from poverty as widows.




2.      Feminist Leadership


Feminist leaders in the 1970s Women’s Rights Movement were an intriguing array of personalities.  Their activism took various roles from organizing strikes and marches, writing books and articles to creating awareness about women’s issues.  These women ardently struggled for equal rights and forever impacted future generations with their passion and activism. 


Divide the class into small research teams of 3-4 students and assign each team one of the following feminist leaders.  Have each group focus on investigating their leader’s role in the Women’s Rights Movement of the 1970s, including activism, personal writings, public persona and legacy.  Analyze their successes in regards to Cynthia Harrison’s quote:


      They had produced legislation mandating equal treatment for women

      in education and in credit, eliminating criminal penalties for abortion,

      changing prejudicial rape laws, banning discrimination against pregnant

      women, equalizing property distribution at divorce, and offering tax

      credits for childcare.


·        Robin Morgan

·        Gloria Steinem

·        Betty Friedan

·        Shirley Chisholm

·        Bella Abzug

·        Flo Kennedy

·        Kate Millet


These feminists are nationally renowned, but to find local heroines from your own state visit:

Click on All States: Map of Birthplaces this will provide you with an Encyclopedia Britannica map.  Students may select a state to find a list of biography links for women from that state.


Reading feminist literature and musings is one way to truly capture the essence of the Women’s Rights Movement.  Have students visit the following links to gain an understanding of various social, political and personal issues that were written about in the 1970s.  Print and discuss articles.


·        “If Men Could Menstruate” by Gloria Steinem

·        “Why I Want a Wife” by Judy Syfers

·        Sexual Politics by Kate Millet

·        “Is the Women’s Movement in Trouble?” by Roberta Lynch

·        For other classic feminist writings go to:



3.      Women’s Strike for Equality


To honor the 50th anniversary of the 1920 suffrage vote, Betty Friedan organized a national “Strike for Equality.”  Feminists rallied under three central demands including the right to abortion, the right to childcare, and equal opportunity in employment and education.  Around the country, women marched, picketed, protested, held teach-ins, and rallies and produced plays and skits.  Indeed, the 1970 Women’s Strike was an outstanding success and the catalyst of the Women’s Rights Movement.


For historical background regarding this momentous event go to the following links.





To celebrate Equality Day (August 26th) with your students consider the following suggestions for integrating lessons into your curriculum.


·        Celebrate at your workplace by honoring women who have made contributions to your company or to your field

·        Celebrate at your women's club or civic organization with a luncheon, a speaker or a video

·        Decorate with timelines or posters celebrating the contributions of women to American life

·        Honor outstanding women in your community at an inspiring evening event

·        Put together a display at your local library, bookstore or community center

·        Put together a scrapbook or memory book about significant women or events for women in your community or workplace



4.  Reproductive Rights


No other element of the Women’s Rights Movement generated as much controversy as the debate over reproductive rights.  As the movement gained momentum so did the demand for birth control, sex education, family planning and the repeal of all abortion laws.  On January 22, 1973 the Supreme Court handed down the Roe v. Wade decision stating:


      We recognize the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from

      unwanted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting

      a person as the right of a woman to decide whether or not to terminate her



To help students explore the many events and legislation surrounding reproductive rights in the 1970s go to:

From there, students can click on the 1970s timeline and research national trends, Supreme Court cases and laws that impacted the Women’s Rights Movement. 


Have students read excerpts from the actual 1973 Supreme Court decision in

Roe v. Wade:


For additional historical background of the Roe v. Wade decision go to:


To examine articles focusing on the 30th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision go to the following links:


For a local connection go to the New Hampshire public radio link and access a program titled: Roe versus Wade in New Hampshire - 30 years later

Furthermore, to give students an understanding of current abortion laws in their state go to and examine individual state legislation and abortion rulings.




5.  Title IX Education Amendments


The Title IX Education Amendments passed by Congress in 1972 banned sexual discrimination in any educational institution, legally guaranteeing equality in sports, scholarship money, sports facilities and support services. 


To gain an understanding of the importance and history of Title IX, students should visit click on Issues and proceed to the Title IX link.  From there students should connect to current Title IX articles.  Have students choose one article that interests them, print and share with the class.


To help students explore the significance of Title IX in their own communities research the local newspaper coverage of the 1972 event.  Students might also examine old yearbooks to see when female sports became mainstreamed into their high school.  Promote a discussion with your students about sports equity in their school, including uniforms, sports equipment, practice fields and courts.  Examine the legality vs. reality and practice of Title IX in American high schools.


Students can look at recent controversies regarding Title IX, which in its most basic statement says, "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination under any educational programs or activity receiving federal financial assistance." (From the preamble to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.) Title IX is variously praised as the vehicle that has fostered the progress of women's athletics in the U.S. (most notably demonstrated by the performance of American female athletes at recent Olympic Games) and condemned as reverse discrimination and the death knell to many collegiate athletic programs. Using the resources of the EDSITEment-reviewed Oyez Project: A Supreme Court Multimedia Database, students can explore the historical and legal contexts of the debate over Title IX. A search of the archived cases for "Civil Rights: Sex Discrimination: Other" yields the following instances in which the Supreme Court has tackled the issue of Title IX:

·        Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education (1999)

·        NCAA v. Smith (1999)

·        Gebser v. Lago Vista Ind. School Dist. (1998)

·        Grove City College v. Bell (1984)

(Borrowed from the EDSITEment lesson plan #437, “Women’s Equality: Changing Attitudes and Beliefs”.)



6.Ms.  Magazine publicizes the personal


In 1972, Gloria Steinem launched a mainstream magazine focused on real women’s issues.  The response to Ms. Magazine was phenomenal and the preview issue sold out immediately.  To help students understand the significance of this publication during the Women’s Rights Movement read Carolyn Heilbrun’s comment:


      For women throughout the country, it was mind-blowing.

      Here was, written down, what they had not yet admitted they

      felt, had always feared to say out loud, and could not believe

      was now before their eyes, in public, for all to read.


To help students explore the continued importance of this publication, go to  Click on About and read the Ms. Herstory.  Have students answer the following questions:

·        How does the title of the magazine set it apart from other mainstream women’s magazines like Good Housekeeping, Glamour, and Ladies Home Journal?

·        Why was the content of Ms. so relevant to women’s lives in the seventies? How did the makeup of this publication differ from other women’s magazines at the time?

·        How does Ms. magazine continue to support the feminist movement and women’s issues today?  How has this magazine profoundly and permanently affected American society?


To extend this activity to current women’s issues click on Feminist Wire and have students chose a recent news article.  Students might also spend some time browsing the Ms. website and feminist Internet gateway.  Students may also want to visit the to gain an awareness of the legacy of Steinem’s creation.



6.      The Mass Media and the Movement


The mass media is a powerful force in shaping how Americans perceive national events.  Certainly the negative, condescending and biased media coverage of the 1970s Women’s Movement influenced American perceptions of feminism and female inequality and greatly shaped national attitudes about the term “feminist”. Consequently, the stubborn image of the radical, man-hating, “bra-burner” influenced many women and men to distance themselves from the movement, just as it was reaching its peak. 


       I.  Analyze This:  Historical Attitudes about Women’s Rights

Divide the class into groups and assign each team one or more of the following archival documents. Assign the documents to the groups according to your knowledge of their work styles so that each group will take about the same amount of time to finish the assignment below. It's fine for some documents to be analyzed by more than one group. Note to students the variety of media among the documents.



·        Bartholomew, Charles Lewis. "Cartoon Showing President Grover Cleveland, Carrying Book 'What I Know About Women's Clubs,' Being Chased with an Umbrella by Susan B. Anthony, as Uncle Sam Laughs in Background." Between 1892 and 1896 on America's Library, a link from the EDSITEment resource American Memory

·        Cartoon of Anthony on Famous American Trials, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library



·        Which Do You Prefer? The Home or the Street? on the Marchand Collection of the Area 3 History and Cultures Project, a link from the EDSITEment resource History Matters


Magazine Humor:

·        Homely Girls, Frank Leslie's Budget of Fun, January 1866 on the EDSITEment-reviewed website U.S. Women's History Workshop


Newspaper Article:

·        Newspaper Account of the Proceedings of the 1850 Convention from the New York Herald, Friday, October 25, 1850 (covers morning session only) on the EDSITEment resource U.S. Women's History Workshop





·        Poem: Who's to Be President? on the EDSITEment-reviewed website U.S. Women's History Workshop

·        Poem: Woman's Mission, by Ebenezer Elliot. The North Star, October 3, 1850 on the EDSITEment resource U.S. Women's History Workshop (written to defend the rights of women, this poem was also published in Frederick Douglass's newspaper, The North Star)

·        Poem: Woman's Power, by Frank J. Walters. Godey's Lady's Book, February 1850 on the EDSITEment-reviewed website Women's History Workshop.


Groups should conduct a general analysis of their documents using the Cartoon Analysis Worksheet, the Written Document Analysis Worksheet, or the Poster Analysis Worksheet, all offered by the EDSITEment resource Digital Classroom. Then students should use the handout "Nineteenth Century Attitudes Toward Women: Inferences and Evidence," on pages 1-2 of the PDF file (see Preparing to Teach This Lesson, above, for download instructions), to focus on some specific attitudes toward women. Remind students to think about the assumptions about women these various documents express. What fears of (some) men do they exploit?


Reconvene in a whole-class setting. Have student groups share their documents and the conclusions they derived from them about attitudes toward women. Did students notice any other attitudes/assumptions about women not included on the worksheet? Make a list of these attitudes.


II.  Attitudes Today


What attitudes about women are expressed in the media of today? Using the list of assumptions and attitudes completed in Part 3, above, as a starting point, students could create a form or forms for analyzing any or all of the following to gauge attitudes about women today:


*     situation comedies on network television

*     newspaper cartoons

*     television, print, or online advertisements

*     articles in women's and/or girls' magazines

*     public opinion in the local community


Each form would be a matrix listing, in the leftmost column, the specific attitude(s) for which a student should be looking while allowing spaces to the right for noting sources and evidence. Working individually or in-groups and focusing on one particular medium, students should cite specific examples they believe either perpetuate or debunk the stereotypes, assumptions, and attitudes on their list. Reconvene the class to share results orally or in written summaries and analyses of the data collected. What attitudes toward women did student research detect? Do all media express the same attitudes? Do particular media express particular attitudes? Which, if any, attitudes from the past persist?


(**Part II and I were borrowed from the EDSITEment lesson plan #437.)


3.      Contemporary Anti-Feminist Rhetoric


Have students analyze the backlash of antifeminist organizations on the Internet.  Discuss how these Websites play on past fears, prejudices and stereotypes about feminism and women’s equality.  Connect these themes to the many obstacles facing women in the 1970s Women’s Movement.


Antifeminist Sites World Wide


Anti-Feminist, Pro-Men Web Page


4.      Local Media Influences


Have students visit their local historical society or public library to research their regional newspaper.  Investigate the newspaper archives focusing on media coverage of the Women’s Rights Movement.  Students may have a particular event and date in mind or they may simply want to peruse the paper’s focus during the 1970s.   Examine how the newspaper covers feminist events and leaders. 



8.  Connecting to the Past


Herstory Interview Project: As a final assessment of this unit, have students

interview a local woman who was becoming a professional during the 1970s.  The following is a diverse list of significant women in Cheshire County, New Hampshire who continue to play an important role in their community through local government, support services, education and medicine.  Have students choose a woman to interview based on their interest in her profession.


·        Attorney Katherine Hanna

Former NH House of Representatives from Keene

Delegate to the 1974 New Hampshire Constitutional Convention

Legal Counsel to the New Hampshire Democratic Party and a delegate to three Democratic National Conventions.


·        Pat Russell

State Liquor commissioner; former Keene mayor; state representative and 12-year member of the Democratic National Committee


·        Rep. Pamela Russell Slack

Representative of the 25th NH House District (Keene)


·        Eleanor VanderHagen

Conservation Commission, Fitzwilliam, NH


·        Margaret A. Lynch

Councilor At Large - 2004 to 2005

Keene Chamber of Commerce Member: Finance, Organization and Personnel Committee 


·        Cynthia Georgina

Councilor Ward five - 2004 to 2007

Keene Chamber of Commerce Member: Municipal Services, Facilities and Infrastructure Committee


·        Sandra Gillis

Coordinator Planned Parenthood, Keene, NH


·        Helen Frink, Ph.D.

Professor of Women Studies and German, Keene State College


·        Robin Christopherson

Monadnock Center for Violence Prevention, Education Coordinator


·        Genell Mikkalson, MSN,CNM

Cheshire Medical Center, Gynecology


Students will gain an understanding and appreciation of the past by embarking on this oral history assignment.  Furthermore, linking the Women’s Movement to successful local women is an excellent way to make a deeper connection to national events.  Some possible interview questions include:


1.  What historical events of the 1970s had the greatest impact on you? 

2.  What was your attitude or understanding about such legislation as Title IX, Roe v. Wade and the Educational Equity Act?

            3.  Have you ever read or subscribed to Ms. magazine?

4.  How have ideas about women and women’s roles changed since the 1970s?  What do you think about these changes?

5.  What is easier and harder about growing up female in the world today versus the 1970s?

6.  In your opinion, has the Women’s Rights Movement make a difference in your life?




Selected EDSITEment Websites


·        Women’s Equality: Changing Attitudes and Beliefs


·        Women and Social Movements in the

United States, 1600-2000


National Women's History Project


Living the Legacy: The Women's Rights Movement,

1848 - 1998


A Short History of the Movement




Additional Information


·        Grades 11-12


·        History and Social Studies

U. S. History – Women’s Rights/History


·        Time required: 6-7 class periods (45 minutes), but lessons can be done individually without completing the entire unit


·        Skills

Historical comprehension

Historical analysis and interpretation

Information gathering and research

Critical thinking

Internet skills


·        Standards Alignment: National Council for the Social Studies


NCSS Standard #1: Culture and cultural diversity


NCSS Standard #2: Time, continuity and change


NCSS Standard #3: People, places and environments


NCSS Standard #5: Individuals, groups and institutions


NCSS Standard # 6: Power, authority, and governance


NCSS Standard # 10: Civic ideals and practices