Patricia Bradley. Mass Media and the Shaping of American Feminism, 1963-1975. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. xviii + 322 pp. $22.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-57806-613-1; $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-57806-612-4.
Reviewed by Avital H. Bloch (Center for Social Research, University of Colima, Mexico)
Published on H-1960s (June, 2006)
The Media and the Movement
Patricia Bradley studies the connection between the mass media and the Second Wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970s with the conviction that, to a large degree, it was the media that defined the movement. Her thesis is that the close relationship between the movement and the media, the dependence on the means of communication, and the major activists being media practitioners themselves shaped feminism as a unique social movement. Much of the movement's strengths and weaknesses can be understood through the "media activism" of female journalists. The Women's Liberation Movement also sought broadcasting and the press as agents to promote its issues, using the media's own commercial and professional interests in lending them attention. By the 1980s, however, antifeminist and right-wing leaders took the initiative in using the media for the purpose of defeating the women's movement and reducing its achievements.
Thus the book looks at the entire Second Wave, and the forces that rose against it, through the prism of the media, its structure, professionals, and business interests. In the association between activism and the media, the means of mass communication shaped the feminist protest style and politics; in turn, the Second Wave also succeeded in influencing the media's values and practices. To analyze the processes by which the interaction between the media and feminism determined the movement's accomplishments and failures, Bradley focuses on major feminist leaders and what she considers significant events during two decades of progress and retreat.
Bradley begins the story of feminism and the media in 1963, when Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. The author was at once the founder of the Second Wave and a media personality, and her book--the movement's "founding document"--was a great publishing success that made its author a celebrity. Bradley tries to prove that the popularity of the book and its role as a catalyst for the women's movement were the results of the author's belief and those who followed her in the media's capacity to promote change. It was Friedan, a professional journalist in women's popular magazines in the 1950s, whose perceptions about marketing made feminism useful to the press as a "media product."
From the start, The Feminine Mystique was a mass media project based on personal advice and using popularized psychology about the widely discussed "problem" of women's unhappiness with suburban home life. The book was directed to millions of educated and affluent women who were consuming mass-produced magazines and books. Dell Books, publisher of The Feminine Mystique, was indeed a leader of the "paperback revolution" of the period. And, as Bradley explains, journalistic products such as Friedan's book served the commercial need of the media to attract female consumers.
Bradley analyzes the history of the mutual relationship between the women's movement and the media. The "human interest" angle has traditionally rested upon an interest in conflict, familiarity with the participants as celebrities, and news formats that do not disturb the status quo. Friedan's achievement was to shape a feminist message and popularize complicated ideas about contemporary society and the status of women by taking advantage of the commercial interests of the mass media and the journalistic style of popular magazines. Thus the power and influence of the book stemmed both from the critique and exploitation of the mass media.
In short, Bradley suggests that the rise of the Second Wave was largely the result of the media's wish to appeal to the demands of a massive postwar female generation, allowing them individual expression and societal inclusion. Yet the media's role proved a mixed blessing, for while it helped popularize Friedan's ideas, it also constrained the radical possibilities of the movement.
Bradley notes that the book promotion tours led to Friedan's role as the leader and founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966. Using her experience as a journalist, she ran it as a media-oriented organization which sought to use publicity and the press to change the public image of women and end sex discrimination. Both employment lawyers and media professionals occupied high-level positions with NOW. Members connected to the media were essential in gaining front-page stories and creating well-publicized campaigns. The shift of NOW to New York, the national media center, reflected this trend.
The problem with the equal rights strategy was that many of NOW's demonstrations lacked drama, which limited the interest of the press. More importantly, the organization's emphasis on privileged white women prevented the liberal movement from pursuing a more radical course. In comparison, the rising radical feminists, who came out of the male-centered New Left and split the Second Wave, focused on the repression of women and called for drastic social change.
Yet the radicals were also dependent on the media to promote their message. Even as they attacked the mainstream media, they sought to manipulate it. Using more dramatic and risky confrontations than NOW, the radicals borrowed the "agitprop" style of the New Left and organized events such as the protest against the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City in 1968. Led by Robin Morgan, one of the most prominent radical feminists and a media professional herself, it featured staged theater, printed flyers, and a firm insistence on talking to female reporters only.
Another major moment came when notable New York feminist writers and journalists, including Susan Brownmiller and Shulamith Firestone of New York Radical Women; and Ti-Grace Atkinson of Redstockings, took over the offices of the popular Ladies' Home Journal in 1970. In a sit-in style protest, they hung a "Women's Liberation Journal" banner, satirized the magazine's anti-women titles, smoked cigars, and called for the editor's resignation. In the end, the protest achieved little, but it reflected the complicated relationship between the media and the movement.
What was especially problematic for radicals was that those who stood out and were recognized by the media violated the anti-star rule, which required the rotation of media tasks among all members. But that policy inhibited the rise of a single radical leader. Frequent agitprops also led to coverage that depicted radical feminists as "bra-burners" and a "lunatic fringe." And because the media thrived on conflict, it reported widely on the movement's internal divisions, such as that between Friedan and the lesbians, or between the liberals and the leftists. In August 1970, the NOW march commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment drew 10,000 women to walk down New York's Fifth Avenue. But the media chose to focus on disunity and to publicize the lesbians who wore lavender armbands in support of Kate Millet, the famous author of Sexual Politics, after she declared to the press she was bisexual.
Thus the mainstream media increasingly reinforced stereotypes of feminists as confrontational, aggressive, unfeminine, man-haters, bitter, angry, infertile, lesbian, and asexual. Hostile headlines such as "The Feminine Mistake" soon appeared along with illustrations like the depiction of a booted woman waving a flaming bra. By the early 1970s, the Second Wave was defensive and divided.
By then, argues Bradley, the media was looking for a new star leader to displace the combative Friedan, the radicals, and the lesbians. For a short while, the media professional Germaine Greer seemed like a promising candidate, thanks to her 1970 book The Female Eunuch. But the woman who eventually succeeded Friedan was the journalist Gloria Steinem, a writer with good connections in the publishing circles of New York. In the early 1970s, the media designated her as the feminist leader even though she had few feminist credentials or achievements. But as Bradley explains, the media loved her image as a glamorous, heterosexual "American girl," making hers the face of the movement.
Steinem unified the liberal women's movement by generalizing a vision of female community and partnership between men and women. The means for achieving that was a tremendous media project: Ms. Magazine, which Steinem launched in 1972. It pioneered in encouraging women to personally participate in the journal, a media technique that created a sense of gender kinship and empowerment, overcoming differences in class, marital status, and sexual preferences. Ms. did not press for much beyond equal employment and pay. Nevertheless, the techniques it employed created a perception of personal transformation, thus functioning to normalize subversive feminism.
Bradley also investigates how feminism affected women professionals inside the media industry. She describes how feminist ideology, and Ms. itself, converted media women, instructing them in how to recognize their own situation through the stories they reported and persuading them to fight for their own rights. A belated triumph of the 1970 protest at Ladies Home Journal came in 1973, when Lenore Hershey became the first female editor of the magazine, ninety years after its founding. In general, the feminist strategy to address discrimination in pay and promotions consisted of filing official complaints and legal actions. In 1977, for example, the New York Times hired Anna Quindlen in response to a lawsuit. But not until 1987 would the paper permit the use of "Ms." for all women, instead of "Mrs." and "Miss."
In the broadcast world, NOW pushed for the hiring of more women and challenged station licenses on the grounds of discriminatory hiring practices. But it was the development in the 1970s of the novel magazine format that offered the most opportunities for women on television, as evidenced by the careers of Barbara Walters, Jessica Savitch, Jane Pauley, and others. Yet the news content remained largely unchanged, and in the 1980s the movement was co-opted when the industry refused to hire women who were not young, attractive, and slim.
In that decade, feminists were losing another fight in the media: the struggle over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The decline of the feminist movement and the rise of the antifeminist backlash prevented passage of the ERA, with conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly emerging as the single most important force in defeating the amendment. In low-tech newsletters, homemade videos, and frequent appearances on radio and television (especially in the New Right media), she successfully spread the anti-ERA message and bested NOW President Eleanor Smeal at the media game.
The book ends with an analysis of the televised Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs tennis match in 1973. Bradley portrays it as the ultimate example of how the Second Wave became a media commodity, while at the same time signaling the end of the movement as a worthwhile news story. King won the "Battle of the Sexes," which implied that women had won the struggle for equal pay and therefore no longer needed the ERA. For Bradley, this proves the liberal focus on the workplace imposed serious limits on the possibilities and future of the movement.
This book tackles an important issue. The mass media was a powerful force in postwar American life, affecting numerous political and social movements. Now that historians have written general accounts of the women's movements of the 1960s and 1970s, the time has come to narrow the focus. In that sense, Bradley's work both complements and supplements studies of African-American women in the civil rights and Black Power movements, women in the Chicana and antiwar movements, working-class women, women professionals, and women artists, as well as academics, lesbians, and conservatives. Collectively, it has become clear that the "movement" was diverse and decentralized, while the forces against which it struggled were diverse and powerful. As a result, the historical record of feminist achievements and failures is mixed and complex. This trend mirrors the scholarship on other sixties movements. As scholars like Bradley problematize the radical movements for social change, they offer critical new insights by focusing on different factors and factions.
That said, the book suffers from several shortcomings. First, it lacks a broader context of the era and of the movements other than feminism active during those decades. Nor do we get a sense of how male-dominated groups interacted with the media. The book therefore deprives us of a sharper gender analysis and a comparative perspective for understanding the women's movement's interaction with the media within the larger scope of protest. Second, Bradley distinguishes only between the NOW liberals and the radicals, failing to acknowledge the wide range of organizations and activists engaged in the day-to-day work of community organizing and mobilization. The lack of attention they received from the mainstream press merits attention. Bradley also neglects the radical feminists' alternative press, a network of small publications and journals where feminist ideas were expressed and debated. Again, the lack of attention they received might alter Bradley's argument somewhat. Third, Bradley should have mentioned the sources of twentieth-century feminism that preceded the Second Wave. Not only would she then have avoided the mistaken assumption that Friedan's movement rose out of nowhere, but she might also have explored how feminism fared in the decades before the 1960s.
In sum, students and scholars interested in the accomplishments of the women's movement outside of the media world will have to look elsewhere. Still, this book is very useful for understanding the complicated role of the media in 1960s and 1970s feminism.
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Avital H. Bloch. Review of Bradley, Patricia, Mass Media and the Shaping of American Feminism, 1963-1975.
H-1960s, H-Net Reviews.
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