The World Split Open

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Ruth Rosen. The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America. 2000. Reprint, New York: Penguin, 2001. $15.



In The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America, Ruth Rosen has created a comprehensive, insighful and engaging review of the women's rights movement in America during the last half of the twentieth century.

Rosen starts her narrative with a discussion of the 1963 publication The Feminine Mystique[1] by Betty Friedan,[2] which she views as a watershed in moving women's issues from the hidden corners of society out into the open, looks at how the notions of a women's proper place in society was used as a weapon in the cold war, discusses the various ways in which women began to assert themselves, and finally moves to a discussion of modern women's liberation movements which largely grew out of leftist politics, and most importantly, civil rights movement.

Despite more than one-hundred years of effort, peaking perhaps with the successful campaign for suffrage in 1920, women's role in society, as described in Betty Friedan's book, The Feminine Mystique, echoes those of the 19th century, when the "cult of true womanhood" [3] was the accepted model. In many ways, the "Feminine Mystique" was the late twentieth century version of the notion of "seperate spheres." In both women were expected to confine themselves to their duties as wife and mother. The notion that women would want anything else, or that they should be educated with any other goal in mind was viewed as abberant. Yet, like " the cult of true womanhood," the "feminine mystique" was largely a trope, which served to crush the desires and ambitions of women, and against which women in both centuries rebelled. Like women in the 19th century who became politically active in the temperance and abolition movements as a way to stretch their roles outside of the prescribed place, 20th century women began to make the change toward more enriching live long before society recognized what was happening. They began to enter the workforce in larger numbers when expectations for an acceptable standard of living became too much for one bread earner to meet. They used the challenge of Sputnik and the need to keep up with the Soviet Union as a way to get educated in math and science, and they began to rebel against societal expectations of marriage and motherhood. Unlike their counterparts in the 19th century however, who had made great advances, only to see them eroded as the 20th century progressed, women in the last half of the 20th century would continue their advance.

Ruth Rosen uses the "feminine mystique," as a marker to measure the progress women made away from its strictures. She very succinctly looks at the various ways in which the mystique was perpetuated and celebrated by society. Primarily, Rosen argues, it was used as a bulwark against communism during the cold war, and the "...belief that American superiority rested on its booming consumer culture and rigidly defined gender roles..." (Rosen, 10)By celebrating women's role as wife and mother, and most importantly, as the primary purchaser of consumer goods, the role of housewife became professionalized, and that professionalization argues Rosen, "...turned the act of consumption into a patriotic act." (Rosen, 14) This was given its most public expression during the famous "kitchen debate" between Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschchev in 1959 where Nixon "...boasted of the labor-saving devices that gave American women time to cultivate their charms as wives and to care for their children." (Rosen, 11)[4] [5]

Rosen goes on to describe the ways in which women began to move out from under the strictures of the "feminine mystique," even before it was recognized by society at large what was happening. Women, and to some extent men, began to rebel against the sexual roles society expected them to play. Women began to challenge the notion that their sexual life was there to satisfy their husbands and to bear children. "Even before the sixties," Rosen notes, " a sexual revolution simmered." (Rosen, 18) The growing use of birth control further "...ruptured the historic tie between sex and procreation." (Rosen,18) And men began to feel stifled by societies expectation of family togetherness that defined suburban life.

In the workplace too, women began to move away from the limitations of the "feminine mystique." As Rosen points out, new expectatins of living standards practically required women to work. It was no longer possible for many middle class families to live the newly expected life style imposed by post-war prosperity without two incomes. With the "official" move of the American economy to a postindustrial cast in 1956, demand for women workers became more intense. Indeed, as Rosen points out, this challenge to the feminine mystique "...came not from women bored by domestic life, but from a corporate sector that successfully drew women out of their homes and into the workforce." (Rosen, 20) The move too of America toward a technocracy, and specifically the challenge to democracy represented by the launch of Sputnik, created an opportunity for women to enter college with the goal of getting degrees in math and physics, and in moving into jobs which would aid America in its technological race against the Soviet Union.[6]

As with 19th century women who used involvement in the temperance and abolition movements to expand their political roles, 20th century women too became more politically active. But unlike their 19th century counterparts, even those such as Susan B. Anthony [7] and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, [8] whose political efforts were specifically on behalf of women, women in the last half of the twentieth century not only began to agitate on behalf of women's rights, but to do so while directly challenging the validity of the traditional roles of wife and mother.

In a chapter entitled the "Female Generation Gap," Rosen describes the various ways in which women born in the 1950's attempted to escape the examples set by their mothers. In many ways, this rebellion was the same for men and women, "both rejected the popular music of their parents, savored the riffs of jazz, and gyrated to the urgent, rythmic beat of rock 'n' roll...they criticized the excessive materialism and conformity of their parents...feared the madness of nuclear deterrance...denouced the anti-Communist obsession that led to proxy wars like...Vietnam...[and]...reproached America's poverty and racism." (Rosen, 38) The difference, Rosen points out, and what made it more difficult for young women to move out of the shadow of the expectations demanded of their mothers, was that men, while rebelling against the materialism and rigidity of their fathers, still believed in the underlying notions of fatherhood and manliness, where young women, in order to escape the example set by their mothers, were in many cases required to reject the notions of marriage and parenthood to achieve this freedom. This rebellion took many forms. Some young women pursued true educational opportunities, some pursued alternate lifestyles among the beats or as swinging singles, and some became highly politicized, using nuclear proliferation and civil rights to give birth to the feminist and women's liberation movement.

Rosen devotes part two of her book to the rising political influence of women, their success at getting legislation benficial to women through congress, the organization of the National Organization for Women (NOW), and ultimately the split between the women's movement and the traditional liberal organizations with which it had been allied.

Starting with the establishment by John F. Kennedy (for less than altruistic reasons according to Rosen), of a commission to "...explore women's status in the United States," to the passage of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination against women in employment, to passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972, Rosen recounts the success women had in advancing their cause through the levers available to them as part of the traditional left, including unions and the Democratic Party. Ultimately however when the traditional left did not take enforcement of these laws seriously, and when it became clear that men did not comprehend what equal rights meant in terms of eliminating legal distinctions based upon biological differences, that to create a true democracy society would have to "...honor the life of the family as much as it honored the life of work. Men would no longer be the frame of reference. But nor would women," the women's movement set itself adrift from the structure of the "men's" or "traditional" left, and as women and embarked on it's own journey. This departure allowed it to move in more radical directions. (Rosen,78) Even more radical elements of the movement, initially inspired by the civil rights movement, and who later became part of the "New Left," also parted ways with these organizations largely dominated by men. Ridiculed by leaders of such organizations as the Students for a Democratic Society(SDS) based upon sexual differences, convinced them they had to go their own way.

Rosen also devotes considerable attention to the backlash that was occuring in society as the women's movement gained more power and influence. The rise of such figures as Phyllis Schlafly, Richard Vigurie, Pete Coors (founder of the Heritage Foundation), and Jesse Helms, all dedicated to eliminating the right's women had gained under Title VII, Title IX, and in particular Roe vs. Wade, and to defeating the Equal Rights Amendment passed in 1972, forced movement leaders to defend what they had already won.


Jim Daniels, Fall 2005

--kjdaniels 01:13, 25 Oct 2005 (EDT)

Particularly interesting to me as one who has studied women's issues in the context of the 19th century more than the 20th, I found parts one and two, describing the roots of the modern women's movement, its rapid organization, and the reasons for its departure as a member of traditional and new left organizations particularly interesting, and that is where I will devote most of my commentary.

I chose this book because although I consider myself a "feminist," and believe in the goals of the women's movement, I had never taken the time to learn of its origins, how it orgainized itself, and how it used that structure to make such dramatic progress. In fact I have done more reading on gender roles in the 19th century than in the 20th, and I was quite interested to find that many of the same expectations society had placed on women were in place at the beginning of the modern women's rights movement. And women in both centuries had used many of the same tactics to get out from under it. But where the ground gained by women culminating in the passage of voting rights for women in 19200 had faded by the 1950's, the ground gained by women in the modern movement has not. I believe it is because modern women were willing to take a step that their 19th century counterparts were not, and that is to question, and in many cases renounce the traditional roles of wife and mother that society expected of them. Once they were able to do that, they largely freed themselves of to move in a "more" radical direction.

Lee Ann Ghajar, Fall 2005

In The World Split Open, Ruth Rosen presents a balanced view of the social and cultural changes accompanying the modern woman’s movement of the last half of the twentieth century. She presents the successes, failures, and ambivalence of the movement for gender equality and inserts her own experience into her analysis.

Rosen determined to write this book when her students eyes glazed over after she asked what changes the women’s movement—or movements—had wrought since the era of their parents. (This was in the early 1980s, and my own experience would confirm that eyes still glaze over—the women’s movement is often not considered an intrinsically hot topic.) She began making lists on the blackboard, “What stunned me was that the changes in women’s lives had been so deep, so wide-ranging, so transformative…the women’s movement…had brought about changes that these young people now took for granted.” (xiii)

The World Split Open is a synthetic narrative that contextualizes varied experiences within American political culture. Rosen demonstrates that the women’s movement was a dialogue, “Dissident movements provide a microcosmic view of the cominant cultures values, assumptions, and social structure. American political culture shaped contemporary femininism and the women’s movement, in its turn, has transformed that political culture.” (xiv)

She explores the diversity of the women’s movement, discussing how it expanded from a predominantly white, middle class movement to include new groups including labor, racial and ethnic minorities, older women—all with a different order of priorities. It was not a monolithic movement; women did not always agree on how to achieve equality or how equality ought to be interpreted. Rosen discusses both political and ideological differences and the impact of the women’s movement on individual women—an impact often of unintended consequences. In the early stages, for example,

Rosen’s broad chronology takes the women’s movement from it’s early stages during the Cold War when Betty Friedan’s publication of The Feminist Mystique was among the factors igniting public dialogue. She traces the pre-movement beginnings of changes in the roles of women in the aftermath of World War II , through growing militancy in the sixties and seventies, the belief of achievement symbolized by the Superwoman of the eighties, and then through the simultaneous and subsequent backlash promulgated both by the New Right and women themselves.

As the century ended, the battle shifted from opening doors for women to reconfiguring the family to adapt to women’s new roles and to negotiate a viable balance between family and work. While women’s opportunities had changed, their new roles were often uncomfortably comparable to putting new wine in old bottles—roles within the family and the structure of the work place remained static. They entered a workforce still defined by traditional male values. In the long run, the women’s movement gradually moved from male-female polarization to the situation where “Men and women fought together on both sides of the divide, for this was a struggle between social and cultural ideals.” ((333)

The value of Rosen’s work is, in part, the ease with which she moves from the narration of the political culture in which the women’s movement existed to the stories and statements of individual women, from leaders to grassroots. It becomes clear that issues once considered private moved into the political realm: abortion, rape, sexual harassment, abuse, and pornography.

The women’s movement touched every aspect of culture: the interpretation of history, the arts, music, politics. But like the civil rights movement, it was not without internal dissent that often threatened its effectiveness—particularly on the extreme left. Divisiveness and individual competition replaced early solidarity. Perhaps comparable to SNCC’s criticism of the iconic leadership of Martin Luther King, women criticized and ostracized other women who came to prominence. Those who married and had families were told they were not sufficiently committed to women’s liberation. Betty Friedan attacked Gloria Steinham for allegedly redirecting the movement toward moderation and capitulation—terms far from middle America’s perception of Steinham. Rosen recounts, “The movement only became more contentious as time went on. At a national women’s studies meeting in the late 1970s, I sat stunned as every group created a caucus and every caucus demanded to be heard. …the idea of difference was becoming more seductive than solidarity.” (239)

Rosen describes how the FBI and other surveillance agencies worked to heighten that atmosphere of paranoia and fear. The women’s movement fell under the umbrella of J. Edgar Hoover’s ambition to “neutralize the effectiveness of civil rights.” Rosen includes the text of FBI reports—including points of humor. The women’s movement stymied the FBI, accustomed to infiltrating recognizable and organized political movements such as the Communist party. The women’s movement, however, was fragmented and traversed a spectrum of political views from the radical Mother Jones to Redstockings, from Uppity Women to Keep on Truckin’ and the classifications of women in the movement were equally confusing. “How could any male agent—or female informant—begin to grasp the fine distinctions between … liberal feminists, radical feminists, social feminists, feminist socialist, Marxist feminists and feminist Marxists? The politics of the women’s movement flummoxed even the most experienced agents.” (246)

Rosen concludes, “ironically, the FBI searched for signs of subversion in the women’s movement but couldn’t recognize what was truly dangerous. While they looked for Communists and bombs, the women’s movement was shattering traditional ideas about work, customs, educatin, sexuality, and the family. Ultimately this movement would prove far more revolutionary than the FBI could every imagine.” (260)

The World Split Open is a valuable—and well-written, highly readable—narrative useful from high school students and beyond. The scope of cultural change is apparent, but the contextual analysis of the movement—its relationship to the broader culture and political spectrum, the internal politics and stages of growth, successes, uncertainties and failures—provides a needed clarification that the women’s movement did not operate outside the socio-political-cultural mainstream in an us-them dynamic, but profoundly changed ideas and social structure in an interactive discourse.

Bonnie Clark, Fall 2008

Ruth Rosen’s The World Split Open: How The Modern Women’s Movement Changed America is an interesting book which focuses on the experiences of white, middle-class women beginning with their participation in civil rights organizations. This provides the reader with a link between the first and second waves of the feminist or women’s liberation movement. The first wave of the women’s movement which lasted seventy-two years from 1848 until women received the right to vote in 1920 was initially part of the abolitionist movement (266). Similarly, the second wave of the women’s movement split away from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1965 when white women (and men) were no longer wanted or needed as civil rights organizers and participants (112).

There are some similarities to Sara Evans’ Personal Politics including the emphasis on white, middle-class women as organizers of the women’s movement. Rosen mentions Adalai Stevenson’s 1955 Commencement Address at Smith College in which he “explained how much young women could accomplish during this ‘historical crisis’ (the Cold War) by assuming the ‘humble role of housewife’ – which…is what most of you are going to be whether you like the idea or not just now-and you’ll like it!” (41). Evans discussed a different quote from this same speech in her book. They also both discussed Freedom Summer and women’s roles within civil rights organizations, primarily from the perspective of college educated middle class white women. Rosen admits that some activist women who were raised in working class homes were propelled into the ranks of the middle class by their college educations (46 & 230)

Rosen’s discussion of minority women is primarily in the context of the ways in which the leaders of the movement were working to improve their lives. One frequent mention of African American women involves the “double jeopardy” they experienced in “American society as women and as minorities” the intertwining issues of race and sex (33, 278, 281-282).

An interesting aspect of Rosen’s discussion occurs in Chapter 5, “Hidden Injuries of Sex” regarding women’s health issues. Rosen stated, “The women’s health movement …emphasized the specific health concerns of women” (175). The Boston Women’s Health Collective published Women and Our Bodies in 1971 and a revised version in 1973 under the new title, Our Bodies, Ourselves. The women’s health movement has initiated advocacy groups for women with breast cancer (181) and “taught many Americans…to view themselves as medical consumers” (178). Many of the health advocacy groups which exist today developed as a result of the efforts of the women’s health movement.

Some of the information Rosen provides does help to tie together various ideologies, events, movements, and eras. During the course of her discussion she mentions red-baiting, red-diaper babies, the Communist Party, civil rights, the women’s movement, and the backlash which occurred as a result of the women’s liberation movement. These topics were also mentioned in other books I have read including: Personal Politics, Civil War On Race Street, and The White South and the Red Menace. The World Split Open by Ruth Rosen provides an additional link to the themes of anticommunism, Civil Rights, Great Society and Backlash.

There are also some detrimental aspects to this book. For example, Rosen begins with a chronological presentation of events and ideologies but in the second half of the book she switches to a topic based format. Both types of format are individually easy to follow, but the midstream switch is somewhat disconcerting requiring the reader to figure out where the events fit within the established time line of the first half of the book. Additionally, Rosen’s thesis is not clear. She indicated a desire to write a history of the women’s movement after discovering in 1980 that her students had little understanding and knowledge of the women’s movement but does not elaborate further regarding her thesis. She ends Chapter 10, “Beyond Backlash” with a statement by a “nineteenth-century suffragist, Abigail Scott Duniway:

             The young women of today, free to study, to speak, to write, to choose their occupation, should remember 
             that every inch of this freedom was bought for them at a great price.  It is for them to show their gratitude 
             by helping onward the reforms of their own times, by spreading the light of freedom and truth still wider.  
             The debt that each generation owes to the past it must pay to the future.(344)

While this statement speaks about the need for the current generation to remember the past, continue the “fight” and to teach future generations, so that they too will know, remember and share the knowledge it seems to sum up Rosen’s reason for writing the book. If this is her thesis, it should have been presented in Chapter 1 rather than Chapter 10.

In “The Epilogue to the 2007 Edition” she asks, “What is the appropriate role of women in contemporary society?” (346). This question could have possibly been her thesis if she had posited the question in Chapter 1 rather than in the Epilogue to a revision.--Blclark 04:11, 20 October 2008 (UTC)

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