When Feminism Was the Woke of Its’ Day


1970 Womens Lib illustration

Feminism sought ought to advance a deep transformation of American society and scared conservatives. “Lib Poster” Illustration from Newsweek Magazine 3/23/70 Women in Revolt

The current war on “wokeness” is reminiscent of the war on feminism waged by conservatives over 50 years ago.

Today’s right-wing is scared of woke culture that threatens to change everything beloved about American life. Like “wokeness” the right turned “feminism” into a pejorative that was synonymous with the demise of everything good about America.

“Feminist” like “woke” became shorthand for those who blindly want things to stay the way things used to be when it appears things might change. Protestors against ERA

While the women’s movement gained significant momentum thru the 1970s conservatives- both men and women- began to build a counter-narrative based on so-called American values. To conservatives’ feminism was a threat that needed to be stopped.

While women libbers were out marching, anti-feminists would roar back.

On International Women’s Day, it is worth looking back at the backlash against feminists.

Phyllis Schafly,

Phyllis Schlafly

Just as the right has demonized liberalism, so the backlash rose to convince the public that feminists were the true American scourge.

The emerging feminist movement swiftly came under attack attracting women who became part of the antifeminist mobilization. Led by Phyllis Schlafly, these were women who insisted on the unique nature of women’s identities as mothers and homemakers.

Phyllis Schlafly’s sneering portrayal of feminists would be familiar to anyone who follows the anti-woke movement today. Schlafly’s influence on the Republican Party and American politics reverberates today.

Schlafly helped make feminism a polarizing political issue, originating the idea of “family values” as a partisan divide. She and her supporters opposed politicians based on their support for abortion, gay marriage, and other issues Schlafly and her associates considered in opposition to the nuclear Christian family.

American women, Schlafly wrote, were “the most privileged” class of people ever to have lived, and the real heroes of women’s liberation were the men who’d invented the sewing machine, the automobile, and frozen food. Thanks to them, modern mothers were free to spend time enjoying their children and perhaps to take a part-time job or volunteer outside the home if they wanted more to do.

There was no real problem of inequality; instead, the “aggressive females on television talk shows yapping about how mistreated American women are” were tricking women into feeling aggrieved.

Ms. magazine, according to Schlafly, was filled with “sharp-tongued, high-pitched whining complaints by unmarried women” who “view the home as a prison, and the wife and mother as a slave.” The magazine’s subtext  was “how satisfying it is to be a lesbian.”

Now 50 years after the women’s liberation movement stormed onto the scene opening a floodgate of discourse about women’s rights, it’s déjà vu all over again.

Ironically because feminist ideas are so taken for granted, few women today think of themselves as feminists. Just as the right has demonized liberalism, so the backlash has convinced the public that feminists are the true American scourge.

The modern aversion to the word feminism and the archaic clichés of feminists as male bashing, make-up-less, angry and non-domestic are the very same stereotypes perpetuated by the media during the burgeoning women’s liberation movement of the 1970s.

Women in Revolt

1970 Women Lib Newsweek Cover Women in Revoly

Newsweek Cover March 23, 1970 “Women in Revolt” Cover Photo by Richard Ley

In 1970 as the national women’s movement gathered steam, Newsweek magazine’s all-male management decided to put feminism on their cover, featuring a lengthy article entitled  Women’s Lib: The War on “Sexism.”

A new specter is haunting America,” it announced ominously – the specter of militant feminism. Convinced they have little to lose but their domestic chains, growing number of women are challenging the basic assumptions of what they consider a male-dominated society.

1970 Womens Lib Newsweek 1970

Women’s liberation, members demand full rights for the once frail sex: A new American dream for the ’70s. Newsweek Magazine 3/23/70 Photo by Howard Harrison-Nancy Palmer

Right off the bat, the magazine offers an explanation of why a woman was writing this feature, a job usually best left to a man.

In an age of social protest the old cause of U.S. feminism has flared into new and angry life in the women’s liberation movement. It is a phenomenon difficult to cover; most of the feminists wont even talk to male journalists who are hard put in turn to tell the story with the kind of insight a woman can bring to it. For this weeks coverage Newsweek sought out Helen Dudar, a topflight journalist who is also a woman.

1970 Feminist stereotypes

1970 negative stereotypes of feminists as karate chopping, bra-burning, male-hating women in desperate need of shaving their legs still persist.

Forever solidifying the stereotype of the feminist as unattractive, combative, and a woman in need of Nair, the article offered the reader its’ own guide to spotting and identifying a feminist.

Plunging into the movement can mean a new lifestyle,” the article explains. “Some women give up make up; a lot of them fret over whether to give up depilation in favor of furry legs; A few of them are bouncy looking lot, having given up diets and foundation garments.

Femininity vs Feminism

1970s Feminism text

The image of the unattractive feminist stuck.

By mocking and dismissing the way feminist activists looked and behaved, they reinforced the same notions that sometimes sexual objectification and subordination were just fine.

1970 Germaine Greer feminist attractive

Though eager to shed many of the holdover trappings of the 1960 femininity, the backlash against feminism was filled with cautionary tales about what happens to women who are too outspoken and too much freedom. (L) Germaine Greer, an attractive Australian journalist and theorist was a major feminist voice in the 20th century who was palpable to men (R) The liberated lady could still swing to a new beat in a bra and girdle in this 1970 Maidenform Ad

The media made it pretty clear that unless you were a saucy feminist like Germaine Greer,  a libber that even men liked with her easy charm that distinguished her from her militant sisters, you could count on being pretty lonely.

You’ve Come a Long Way Baby

Vintage Virginia Slims Cigarettes Ad 1971

Vintage Virginia Slims Cigarettes Ad 1971 Women could celebrate their own slim cigarette

 And virtually all of them in the movement light their own cigarettes and open their own doors,” the article continues.

“Chivalry” is a cheap price to pay for power, one lib leader commented. In any event the small masculine niceties now appear to liberationists as extensions of a stifling tradition that overprotects women and keeps her in her place.

Male Chauvinist Pigs

vintage illustration woman secretary being gazed at by her boss

The male gaze

A favorite negative stereotype was the hostile, humorless, man-bashing, sexually uptight, karate-chopping libber who saw male chauvinism at every turn.

Newsweek explained:

Among the man things that incite movement women to fury are the liberties men take in addressing them on the street-whistles “Hey Honey” greetings, obscene entreaties.

Casual annoyances to the unenlightened, this masculine custom becomes, in the heightened atmosphere of women’s liberation, an enraging symbol of male supremacy reflecting mans expectation of female passivity and more important, his knowledge of her vulnerability.

1970 Womens Lib Karate

Photo Newsweek Magazine March 23, 1970

We will not be leered at smirked at, whistled at by men enjoying their private fantasies of rape and dismemberment, ” announced a writer in a Boston lib publication.” WATCH OUT. MAYBE YOU’LL FINALLY MEET A REAL CASTRATING FEMALE it boldly announced.

Her point was part of a plea for the study of karate a fashion that inspires men to helpless ho-ho-hos’s.

The lib view is that most girls discouraged from developing their muscles grow up soft and weak and without any defense reflexes to speak of. A little karate can go a long way in a woman’s life, according to Robin Morgan, a poet a wife a mother and the designer of the movements signet- a clenched fist within the circle of the biological symbol for female.

In the new feminist doctrine karate is not merely a physical or psychological weapon, It is also political if you agree that rape is a political act.”

Thus the karate-chopping libber became forever part of pop culture.

Hai Karate

In an odd coincidence, karate was already part of the pop culture landscape in a series of ads run by Hae Karate After Shave, but here it was the man performing karate to defend himself against his sex-crazed girlfriend ( or even his own wife ).


Hai Karate After Shave ad

Hai Karate After Shave ad 1969

Hai Karate ran a campaign offering a small self-defense instruction booklet sold with each bottle of aftershave to help wearers fend off women. The notion being that the aftershave would turn women into wild maniacs who couldn’t wait to attack you.

“New Hai Karate is so powerful it drives women right out of their minds, That’s why we have to put instructions on self-defense in every package.”

Newsweek Women in Revolt

office secretary 1970

Ironically, as Newsweek planned this issue on Women’s Lib, they were oblivious to their own staff of women in revolt.

As the rumblings of the embryonic women’s movement began to be heard in 1970, some women in the workplace began quietly grumbling too.

With the help of attorney Eleanor Holmes Norton, 46 women employees sued Newsweek Magazine for sex discrimination, charging it was a segregated system of journalism that divided the work solely on the basis of gender.

The magazine’s well-educated highly qualified women were no longer satisfied answering phones and checking facts for its male staff of writers and editors. When it came to writing they were forced to hand over their reporting to their male colleagues.

Newsweek’s News Hens Sue

Meeting secretly, the group of women teamed up with a women’s rights lawyer challenging the sex segregation jobs, becoming the first group of media professionals to sue for employment discrimination based on gender under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

The night before the issue hit the newsstands the Newsweek women sent a memo announcing a press conference.

Media savvy, the women journalists called a press conference, filing the suit on March 16, 1970 the same day their magazine ran. Crowded into a conference room at the ACLU, “Newsweek’s News Hens” as the N.Y.Daily News called them, held up a copy of their magazine whose brightly yellow cover reflected their own story: Women in Revolt.

Fifty-three years later, the fight for women’s equality remains

Copyright (©) 2023 Sally Edelstein All Rights Reserved




  1. Wild! I actually have a can of “CrazyLegs”. I’d never seen anything else about this product until now.
    It wasn’t that long ago that we considered people who were kind, considerate, thoughtful, appreciative and open-minded as moderate/conservative humans. What happened?

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m impressed that you still have a can of CrazyLegs! What is the story behind that?
      Sadly the conservative movement today bears little resemblance to those of earlier decades. As has been pointed out, Ronald Reagan would not recognize the Republican party.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have no idea what this “woke” business is other that it is used as a pejorative. I ignore people tossing the word out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Woke” has been so twisted to have lost its original meaning and bent into a slur, but its roots are Black. The word “woke” has long been used among Blacks to denote that a person should be aware of structural inequality, informed of the nuances of systemic racism, and aware of the prevalence of anti-black violence.”Woke”has been co-opted by the people who are interested in maintaining status quo.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Living as I do in mostly lily-white Western Nebraska, I’d never come across the word. In fact, as a US Army motion picture photographer who was on an otherwise all Black team, I never heard the term – this in the early 1970s when civil rights were sorting themselves out and at least one of my jobs was filming “rap sessions” of groups of soldiers representing various combinations of race, rank, and military jobs talking about race relations that were a mess in some German cities.

        Anyway, thanks for the updated meaning. That definitely is twisted out of any connection with the original one.

        Carved in Indiana limestone over the entrance to the Nebraska State Capitol are these words that have mor meaning now than when they were placed there in the 1930s: “The salvation of the state is watchfulness in the citizen”. There seems to be little watchfulness now, and the result is people like Donald Trump, Ron De Santis, and Greg Abbott gaining high office and Congress…well, what a mess!


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