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Arts and Letters

Now Ms.

The Women of NOW: How Feminists Built an Organization That Transformed America, Katherine Turk, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, pp. 448, $32.00

50 Years of Ms., ed. Katherine Spillar, Knopf, pp. 544, $50.00


The acronym “T.E.R.F.”—trans-exclusionary radical feminist—is variously a slur or a badge of pride, depending on your views. And Britain, where I live, has for some years been known as “T.E.R.F. Island.” On my side of the pond, gender-critical feminists have racked up a series of political victories, but their American sisters seem, by contrast, few and fragmented. This has long puzzled me. Why are so many British feminists critical of gender ideology, while their American counterparts seem monolithically in favor? Two recently published books, offering complementary histories of American second-wave feminism from the sexual revolution to the present, shed light on this strange phenomenon.

The first book, 50 Years of Ms., is a “Greatest Hits” anthology culled from the venerable feminist print quarterly Ms. magazine, selected and with commentary by Katherine Spillar and the editors of Ms. It contains some five hundred-odd pages of impassioned feminist writing, interspersed with color plates, correspondence, and brief histories of important moments in the movement. The second book is Katherine Turk’s Women of NOW: How Feminists Built an Organization That Transformed America, a detailed and gripping institutional history of the National Organization for Women. Together, the two books explain why American second-wave feminism took an institutional and ideological form profoundly inimical to a realist, embodied understanding of women’s interests. And in addition to providing an origin story for America’s lack of T.E.R.F.ism, this account also gives an etiology of the modern American culture war: one that should invite questions from anyone who values freedom about the relationship between state power and the pursuit of formal equality.

It is common, especially among conservatives, to seek to explain feminism in terms of ideologies. But the women’s movement was also an effect of material changes. If the Industrial Revolution drove the first wave of feminism, then general prosperity after World War II, the growth of the “knowledge economy,” and newly legal access to birth control technologies midwifed the second. Birth control in particular promised to flatten the most irreducible difference of all between the sexes: pregnancy. The result was that in the Sixties and Seventies oral contraceptives were instrumental in enabling a massive increase in the number of American women in academia and the labor force. In this new world, much that had been settled appeared open to challenge.

There is much in Ms. to challenge the clichéd claim that everything was rosy until those hairy-legged man-haters showed up. (I dare anyone to read Nawal El Saadawi’s account of experiencing female genital mutilation as a child and still insist that sex-based oppression of women is always and everywhere a misandrist paranoia.) The articles and correspondence from the early period of Ms. reflect a new sense of both grievance and hope, characterized by what the magazine’s co-founder Jane O’Reilly in 1972 called “click!” moments: the sudden realization of a sexed asymmetry that no longer seemed to serve any obvious purpose save the subordination of women.

Early second-wavers were committed to the American ideal of universal equality. Matters of race, class, poverty, and geopolitics jostle for room with the micropolitics of housework, toys, and pronouns. Johnnie Tillmon wrote in 1972 about life as a woman of color in receipt of government welfare; the Marxist race activist Angela Davis wrote in 1975 about Joan Little, the incarcerated woman who killed a prison guard when he attempted to rape her. Lois Gould imagines—prophetically, as it turns out—raising a child without sexed pronouns. Throughout, from Davis’s totalizing vision of Marxist revolution to Janell Hobson’s grappling with the feminist import of Beyoncé, American feminism’s relation to equality, and to the market, recurs as a central ambivalence.

And second-wave feminism emerged in America alongside—and, in important ways, as a byproduct of—the struggle for racial equality. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 granted workplace protections on the basis of sex, though, ironically, it was proposed by segregationists, who found the idea of sex equality so absurd they assumed it would kill the bill. It did not; instead, it gave teeth to the emerging feminist movement. Women soon noticed the gap between what Title VII promised in theory and what women experienced in practice. The new body set up to enforce the Civil Rights Act, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, was based in the established civil rights playbook: in 1966 the attorney Dollie Lowther Robinson called for “an N.A.A.C.P. for women.”

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Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd and the author of Feminism Against Progress (Regnery, 2023).