(Jan. 16, 2019) Catherine Read sits down with Cultural Archeologist Dale Brumfield, for a discussion about the history of the women’s liberation movement. As Virginia kicks off the 2019 legislative session, the Commonwealth is poised to be the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution. Brumfield provides some history and context of the movement, and what brings us to this moment in time.
Brumfield begins by sharing the history of the women’s liberation movement. It was sparked in 1968, when the leftist hippie counter-culture movement was getting started. Women were brought into the coalition, to essentially provide cover for the men when dealing with the police during protests. When marching or protesting, the men who ran the movement would put the women up front in the marches so that the police would not attack them or use tear gas. When the women started to understand the dynamics of their situation, they decided to break from the ranks and start their own movement.
During the 1968 Miss America pageant, women waged the first large group protest of the movement, coming together to denounce the entire premise of the beauty pageant. The New York Post falsely reported that women were burning their bras, when in reality they were tossing them in the ceremonial “freedom trash can”. Women in support of the women’s liberation movement were forever stereotyped as “bra-burning” radicals. The bad press was hard to shake, so the women decided to take control of their own messaging.
Marilyn Webb, a Virginian, was at the head of the movement at the time. She ambitiously founded Magic Quilt in 1968, designed to help organize the disparate women’s groups nationwide, and help mobilize and the ranks. The task proved to be too daunting, and she did not succeed in establishing Magic Quilt as the umbrella organization for the women’s liberation movement.
She did, however, successfully launch the first news magazine that was dedicated to women’s issues called “Off Our Backs”. Many people think that Gloria Steinem with Ms. Magazine was the first feminist publication of its type, but “Off our Backs” hit the printing press in 1970, several years before Ms. The magazine was meant to set the stage for, and define the narrative about, women’s issues.
Much of the coverage of the movement by the mainstream media was negative, so the purpose of the magazine was to change the tune and offer an alternative voice. At the time, Webb was unable to find anyone in Virginia to actually print the magazine, so they traveled to Atlanta to find a publisher. Off Our Backs continued publishing for 38 years, although they eventually transitioned to online publishing before closing shop in 2008. Archives of the publication can be found online.
Throughout the history of the United States, women have had to fight for equality in so many ways. From suffrage, to entering the workforce and even being able to own their own credit card without their husband’s co-signature, women have had an uphill battle every step of the way. Brumfield notes that it is challenging to maintain a movement over a long, sustained period. There are certain moments in time that spark a light to continue the fight.
Many women found the 2016 election, and the #metoo movement that followed, to be such a moment. Women have been inspired to take things into their own hands, and run for office in record numbers on the local, state and federal level. Here in Virginia, we elected three women to Congress in 2018. As women continue to get elected and hold office, he believes that progress will follow.
(update: The State Senate passed the ERA amendment on the first day of session, however the House of Delegates voted the bill down in committee, along party lines).