From Civil Rights Activists to entertainers these women leaders of the 1960s are remarkable in every way and paved the way for womanhood as we know it!
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
During the 1960s, the now iconic Ruth Bader Ginsburg faced many struggles within the patriarchal society that is the American law. In 1960, she was recommended by a Harvard Law dean to clerk for Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. However, he rejected her based on the fact that she was a woman. She faced constant difficulties because she was not a man, including being told she was going to be paid less because she was married to a man who had a good salary.
She became a law professor at Rutgers and was one of merely twenty other women who were law professors nationwide. Ruth has gained notoriety in recent years, particularly with young feminist women. She is revered as an icon, particularly for her more liberal stance within the Supreme Court.
Rosa Parks is most famous for her refusal to give up a seat on the bus to a white passenger in 1955. Rosa was actually selected to carry out this act of defiance by the local Montgomery chapter of the NAACP of which she was the secretary at the time. Other leaders at the NAACP thought she was the best candidate to get a case through to the courts, although it was ultimately another case to go through the courts and have changes made.
She did suffer as a result of her brave act and was fired from her job as a seamstress. In 1994, Rosa’s home was broken into by a drug addict who robbed her and hit her in the face. She reportedly suffered anxiety and moved into a more secure building after the incident.
An Interesting Life
In the same year, the KKK tried to sponsor a portion of the highway in Missouri which meant there would be signs with saying the KKK managed this portion of the highway. Because the state couldn’t deny them the sponsorship the legislature moved to name the portion of highway the KKK would be cleaning the Rosa Parks Highway instead, which surely the KKK wasn’t too happy about.
In 2002, she was almost evicted from her apartment after failing to pay her rent, and a collection was taken from charity. However, after it became highly publicized the building owners gave back the money and said she would be able to live rent free for the rest of her life. Her family said her money had been mismanaged over the years. After her death in 2005, she became the first woman and only the third non-governmental official to lie in honor at the Capitol Rotunda in Washington D.C.
Barbara Jordan was a leader of the Civil Rights Movement and the first African-American elected to the Texas Senate post-Reconstruction. She made a famous speech which was televised during Richard Nixon’s impeachment hearing, and the speech is often thought of as one of the best of all time.
Although Barbara never discussed her sexuality while she was alive, her partner for twenty years was a woman named Nancy Earl. She would be considered the first lesbian woman elected to Congress. While doing physical therapy in a pool in 1988, she almost drowned but was luckily found by Earl who revived her.
Shulamith Firestone was a radical feminist from Canada. She wrote many famous pieces of literature that contributed to the movement, and she was known for having an extremely fiery attitude. She is considered by many feminists to have been a revolutionary and completely integral to the movement in the 1960s.
Regarding the second wave of feminism, she said, “The end goal of feminist revolution must be, unlike that of the first feminist movement, not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself.” She came from a relatively traditional background and was the child of Jewish immigrants who had fled the Holocaust.
Pauli Murray was a Civil Rights and women’s rights activist. She was also the first Black woman to ever be ordained an Episcopalian minister. She was rejected from Harvard Law School because of her gender. She referred to sexism and women’s right’s issues as “Jane Crow”. Thurgood Marshall referred to her book States’ Laws on Race and Color as “the Bible” of the NAACP.
She also worked closely with civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King but criticized that men dominated the leadership of the majority of civil rights organizations. Pauli is an early example of a woman facing the struggles of intersectionality; being both Black and a woman left her to experience oppression on multiple levels within United States society. Wow! What an amazingly strong woman!
Diane was a Civil Rights activist who worked mostly in the realm of organizing students in the 1960s. The campaigns she organized were considered the most successful of the time. She co-founded the SNCC (Student’s Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), and was also active in many other organizations.
She famously asked the Nashville major Ben West if he thought it was okay to discriminate against someone based on their color. He answered “no,” and within one week the lunch counters in Nashville were integrated. Diane is also known for being very beautiful and even won runner-up in a beauty pageant that was leading to the competition for Miss Illinois.
Coretta Scott King
While Coretta Scott King is mostly known for being the wife of Martin Luther King Jr., she was most certainly an activist and leader in her own right. After MLK was assassinated in 1968, she took over many leadership roles left in his wake. She also integrated Woman’s rights and LGBT rights into her own causes.
Coretta had the vow about a woman obeying her husband removed from the vows she exchanged with MLK during their wedding. She was an early champion and supporter of LGBT rights and has said they have always been a part of the civil rights movement.
Inside Coretta’s Marriage to MLK
According to an expose by the LA Times, MLK had many affairs but there was one woman in particular with whom he was very close, who he saw almost daily, and with whom he allegedly had an angry argument just hours before his assassination. The identity of this mystery woman has never been revealed but is an oft-discussed secret.
Surely, the knowledge of his affairs could have been no comfort to Coretta who was saddled with the task of raising his four children after her husband was killed. While it’s easy to forget that while Martin Luther King is majorly revered as an important figure in the history of the United States, he was also a human being who acted in very human ways. And we should also remember that this in no way takes away from anything he achieved or represents. Coretta is credited as being even more and earlier of a pacifist than her husband was.
Kate Millett is a well-known feminist and women’s rights activist. She wrote the book called Sexual Politics which is considered second wave feminism’s manifest in the 1960s. She also wrote a book called The Loony Bin Trip, which is an autobiographical account of when her mother had her committed to a nursing home involuntarily when she was a young woman.
After this experience, with the aid of her lawyer, she got the Minnesota law changed so now there must be a trial before committing someone. She also identified as bisexual, having been married to a Japanese male sculptor for twenty years, she also had many relationships with women throughout her life. Kate is still alive at eighty-two years old!
Germaine is one of the most well-known feminists in the world today, she came to be one of the most well-regarded voices of the second wave of feminism in the 1960s. This Australian feminist believes in women’s liberation rather than equality with men.
She had said that she believed that trans women are not “real” women because they were born as males. When questioned by journalist Steph D’Souza she said her views in the past had been wrong but then said that she felt like it wasn’t fair that men who lived their lives as men and absorbed the privileges as men but then transitioned into women. She thinks instead people should explore the term “inter-gender” meaning neither of the genders instead of trying to absorb the other.
Bella Abzug was one of the foremost leaders of the Women’s Rights movement, she is one of the founders of the National Women’s Caucus. She was a lawyer who early on took on Civil Rights issues in the South and later served as a Congresswoman. She was sworn in by fellow activist and women’s supporter Shirley Chisholm, who was observed shouting “Give ‘em hell Bella!”
Her nickname was “Battling Bella.” She was an early supporter of gay rights and was one of the first to do so in Congress; she was also a Zionist. She continued working and traveling until her death, although towards the end of her life this work and travel was done in a wheelchair.
Flo Kennedy was a lawyer and a civil rights activist. After she was arrested in 1965, by police who did not believe she lived in her own neighborhood, she dedicated her life to civil rights. She represented jazz legends Billie Holliday and Charlie “Bird” Parker as a lawyer.
She also represented Assata Shakur and the Blank Panthers. Sometimes the phrase, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament,” is attributed to her although Gloria Steinem says it was an old Irish taxi cab driver that she and Kennedy met. In either case, it is definitely interesting to consider how the issue would be handled differently if men were the ones more directly affected.
Loudest Protest Methods!
To protest the lack of women’s restrooms at Harvard she led a mass urination on campus. Wow! Can you imagine? Another famous quote attributed to her is, “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” Kennedy was a character who often dressed in a pink cowboy hat, sunglasses, and large fake eyelashes.
She was relentless about her ideals but also often approached them with humor. Although she was married once, she stated that she didn’t believe in marriage. People magazine once described her as “The biggest, loudest and, indisputably, the rudest mouth on the battleground.”
Gloria Steinem is arguably the most famous name and face from the women’s movement of the 1960s and is even active to this very day. She wrote an article titled, “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation,” which shot her to fame. She was married to David Bale, the father of actor Christian Bale.
Steinem and Bale remained married until he died of a brain tumor in 2003. She has said, “I’m going to live to 100. I’m never going to retire. Would I retire from life? This is my life!”
Jane Fonda is Hollywood royalty and is also known for her activism during the 1960s and 1970s. In the ’70s, she famously garnered major criticism for standing against the Vietnam War, especially because she visited the city of Hanoi sitting on an anti-aircraft gun. Many viewed her as a traitor to her country.
She also supported Huey Newton and the Black Panthers during the same time period. She has continued to be active in feminist organizations and has lent her name to many causes. She has been married four times, most famously to Ted Turner, who founded CNN and famously made a $1 billion gift to the United Nations.
Josephine Baker was a very famous African American actress and singer. During the Civil Rights Movement, she refused to perform for segregated audiences. Reportedly, MLK’s wife Coretta offered her “official” leadership in the movement; however, she turned it down because she felt it would be difficult for her children.
She had a famous relationship with artist Frida Kahlo. In 1963, she also spoke at a march alongside Martin Luther King and was the only female speaker. Wow! What an amazing life!
Elaine Brown originally moved to Los Angeles to try to become a singer. With little money, she started working as a cocktail waitress at a strip club called The Pink Pussycat. She ended up having an affair with a white man named Jay Richard Kennedy who was Harry Belafonte’s manager. Kennedy was the first person to politicize her, educating her about the civil rights movement and communism.
She joined the Black Panther Party in 1968. After Huey Newton (leader of the Black Panther’s) fled to Cuba on a murder charge, he appointed Elaine to lead the party, the first and only woman to do so. She has continued to stay active in politics and even ran to be the presidential nominee of the Green Party in 2008.
Angela Davis is a very famous political activist, professor, and face of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and ’70s. She was prosecuted for her involvement in the California courthouse takeover which was an attempt to negotiate the release of the Soledad brothers. One of the Soledad Brothers, George Jackson, was Angela Davis’ longtime partner.
The shooting left four people dead, including the judge of the courtroom. She was acquitted of all charges. There have been many songs written in her honor, including “Sweet Black Angel” by the Rolling Stones, “George Jackson” by Bob Dylan, “Angela” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and many more.
Betty Friedan is probably the pinnacle of feminist fame during the 1960s. Her book The Feminine Mystique is still often quoted and was considered as the onset of the second-wave of feminism. While Betty was clearly a wonderful intellectual mind and academic, she was also apparently very moody and temperamental.
This led to her having strained relationships with others at the time including fellow famed feminists Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer. The latter wrote an essay for The Guardian, entitled The Betty I Knew in which she said, “She (Betty) would become breathless with outrage if she didn’t get the deference she thought she deserved. Though her behavior was often tiresome, I figured that she had a point. Women don’t get the respect they deserve unless they are wielding male-shaped power.”
Shirley Chisholm was a groundbreaking woman in a number of ways. Shirley was originally an educator who felt that she could do more for the community through political outreach. She was a member of the Democratic State Assembly from 1965 to 1968 and was later elected as the first Black woman in Congress.
She hired only women for her office, half of whom were African American. And although this happened in 1971, Shirley Chisholm was the first woman to run for the Democratic ticket for the President of the United States. Civil rights were still at the forefront and racial tension was very high in the ’60s and early ’70s, what an amazingly brave woman Shirley Chisholm was when trying to make a difference for the people!
Ella Baker was involved in civil rights long before the 1960s and even as a student she was involved in various protest movements. She worked with prominent organizations such as the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference).
She worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. at the SCLC before leaving to assist student activists and viewed the youth as vital to the movement, and later became one of the founders of the SNCC (The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). Although she was not seen often in the public limelight, Ella is credited for being absolutely integral to organization efforts of the time.
Conflict with MLK
She allegedly did not see eye to eye with MLK and said the “movement made Martin, and not Martin the movement.” She also urged activists to take control of the movement and not rely on a leader with “heavy feet of clay,” which many thought was referring directly to King, meaning she thought he didn’t do enough or wasn’t progressive enough.
Although the Civil Rights movement was fighting for civil rights there has often been criticism that there wasn’t enough done to also aid women’s rights as well. Did you know that in 1991 a Boston University investigatory committee discovered that MLK plagiarized his dissertation? Wow! However, they also did not recommend revoking his degree but did offer a critique.
Fannie Lou Hamer
Fannie Lou Hamer was a civil rights and voting activist. In the 1960s she was active in a number of organizations including the SNCC and served as the vice-chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the latter of which she represented during the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
She had to fight to be recognized at the convention and when she went before the Convention’s Credentials Committee she said, “Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily because we want to live as decent human beings — in America?” Her impassioned speech was televised, and President Lyndon B. Johnson even attempted to divert attention from it.
Dorothy Height was a civil rights and women’s activist. In the 1960s she organized something called Wednesdays in Mississippi which brought together black and white women to achieve a greater understanding of one another as human beings.
Many different leaders sought her out for counsel including Eleanor Roosevelt and she encouraged President Eisenhower to desegregate schools; she also encouraged President Lyndon B. Johnson to appoint African American woman to positions in government. There have been several works on her life including the musical If This Hat Could Talk which was based on her memoirs. She passed away in 2010 and President Barack Obama and wife Michelle attended her funeral.
Dolores Huerta is a famous Mexican-American Civil Rights Activist and labor leader. She co-founded the National Farmworker’s Associated (now the United Farm Workers) with the famed activist Cesar Chavez. While for most of her career she focused on worker’s right, she has also included women’s empowerment within the causes she supports and often lends her name to other causes.
She still remains active in political organizations even most recently giving a speech regarding the water protectors protest against DAPL (Dakota Access Pipe Line). In the 2014 film made about the life of Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta was played by the actress Rosario Dawson.