Chapter 14: Postwar Society

Once the Cold War began in 1947, Europe was just one of the stages on which it was played out around the world.  Cold War divisions were perhaps stronger in Europe than anywhere else, however, because the European subcontinent was geographically divided along the lines of the Cold War: in the west the prevailing political and economic pattern was a combination of democracy and a regulated market capitalism, while in the east it was of Soviet-dominated communist rule and command economies.  The contrast was all the more striking in that both sides of the Cold War divide began in similar circumstances – devastated by World War II – yet within a decade the west was in the midst of an unprecedented economic boom while the east remained in relative economic stagnation.

Social Democracy

In the aftermath of the war, the most important and noticeable political change in the west was the nearly universal triumph of democratic forms of government.  Whereas the democratic experiments of the interwar period had all too often ended in the disaster of fascism, stable democratic governments emerged in the postwar era that are still present today, albeit in modified forms in some cases like that of France.  All of the governments of Western Europe except Spain and Portugal granted the right to vote to all adult citizens after the war.  And, for the first time, this included women almost everywhere.  (Although one bizarre holdout was Switzerland, where women did not get the vote until 1971.)

There was a concomitant embrace of a specific form of democratic politics and market economics: “social democracy,” the commitment on the part of government to ensure not just the legal rights of its citizens, but a base minimum standard of living and access to employment opportunities as well.  Social democracy was born of the experience of the war.  The people of Europe had simply fought too hard in World War II to return to the conditions of the Great Depression or the bitter class struggles of the prewar period.  Thus, one of the plans anticipated by wartime governments in the west was recompense for the people who had endured and suffered through the war – this phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the “postwar compromise” between governments and elites on the one hand and working people on the other.

It was within the commitment to social democracy that the modern welfare state came into being.  The principle behind the welfare state is that it is impossible to be happy and productive without certain basic needs being met.  Among the most important of those needs are adequate healthcare and education, both priorities that the governments of postwar Western Europe embraced.  By the end of the 1950s, 37% of the income of Western European families was indirect, subsidies “paid” to them by their governments in the form of housing subsidies, food subsidies, health care, and education.  European governments devoted four times more income to social services in 1957 than they had in 1930.  

The results of state investment in citizen welfare were striking.  By the end of the 1960s, most Western European states provided free high-quality medical care, free education from primary school through university, and various subsidies and pensions.  In part because of the strength of postwar leftist (both communist and socialist) parties, trade unions won considerable rights as well, with workers entitled to pensions, time off, and regulated working conditions.  Thus, as the economies of the Western European states expanded after the end of the war, their citizens enjoyed standards of living higher than any generation before them, in large part because wealth was distributed much more evenly than it had ever been.

The welfare state was paid for by progressive taxation schemes and a very large reduction in military spending; one of the benefits of western Europe’s alliance with the US, and European commitment to the UN, was that it was politically feasible to greatly reduce the size of each country’s military, with the understanding that it was the US that would lead the way in keeping the threat of a Soviet invasion in check.  For instance, even as military spending skyrocketed for the US and the Soviet Union, it dropped to less than 10% of the GDP of the UK by the early 1960s and steadily declined from there in the following years.  Likewise, with the long-term trend of decolonization, there was no longer a need for large imperial armies to control colonies.  Instead, “control” shifted to a model of economic relationships between the former colonial masters and their former colonial possessions.

Also in stark contrast to the political situation of the interwar years was the power of the political center.  Simply put, the far right had been completely compromised by the disastrous triumph of fascism.  Just about all major far-right parties had either been fascistic themselves or allied with fascism before the war, and in the war’s aftermath far-right politicians were forced into political silence by the shameful debacle that had resulted in their prewar success.  Fascistic parties did not re-emerge in earnest until the 1960s, and even then they remained fringe groups until the 1990s.  

In turn, the far left, namely communists, were inextricably tied to the Soviet Union.  This was a blessing for communist parties in the immediate aftermath of the war, but became a burden when the injustices of Soviet society became increasingly well known in the west.  The problem for western communists was that communist parties were forced to publicly support the policies of the Soviet Union.  In the immediate postwar period that was not a problem, since the USSR was widely admired for having defeated the Nazis on the eastern front at tremendous cost to its people.  In the postwar period, however, the USSR quickly came to represent nothing more than the threat of tyranny to most people in the west, especially as it came to dominate the countries of the eastern bloc.  The existence of Soviet gulags became increasingly well known, although the details were often unclear, and thus western communist parties struggled to appeal to anyone beyond their base in the working class.  Around 30% of the electorate in France and Italy voted communist in the immediate aftermath of the war, but that percentage shrank steadily in the following decades.

Thus, with the right compromised by fascism and the left by communism, the parties in power were variations on the center-left and center-right, usually parties that fell under the categories of “Socialists” (or, in Britain, Labour) and “Christian Democrats.”  In turn, at least for the thirty years following the war, neither side deviated significantly from support for social democracy and the welfare state.  The ideological divisions between these two major party categories had to do with social and cultural issues, of support or opposition to women’s issues and feminism, of the stance toward decolonization, of the proper content of the state-run universities, and so on, rather than the desirability of the welfare state.

The “socialists” in this case were only socialistic in their firm commitment to fair treatment of workers.  In some cases, socialist parties held onto the traditional Marxist rhetoric of revolution as late as the early 1970s, but it was increasingly obvious to observers that revolution was not in fact a practical goal that the parties were pursuing.  Instead, socialists tended to champion a more diffuse, and prosaic, set of goals: workers’ rights and protections, support for the independence of former colonies, and eventually, sympathy and support for cultural issues surrounding feminism and sexuality.

In turn, Christian Democracy was an amalgam of social conservatism with a now-anachronistic willingness to provide welfare state provisions.  Christian Democrats (or, in the case of Britain, the Conservative “Tory” Party) tended to oppose the dissolution of empire, at least until decolonization was in full swing by the 1960s.  While willing to support the welfare state in general, Christian Democrats were staunchly opposed to the more far-reaching demands of labor unions.  Against the cultural tumult of the 1960s, Christian Democrats also emphasized what they identified as traditional cultural and social values.  Arguably, the most important political innovation associated with Christian Democracy was that the European political right wing accepted liberal democracy as a legitimate political system for the first time.  There were no further mainstream political parties or movements that attempted to create authoritarian forms of government; fascism and the war had simply been too traumatic.

The Postwar Boom and Cultural Change

With the governments of Western Europe sharing these fundamental characteristics, they sought to ease trade across their borders, forming federalist bodies meant to make economic cooperation easier.  In 1957, the governments of central continental Europe came together and founded the European Economic Community (EEC), also known as the Common Market.  They created a free trade zone and coordinated economic policies in such a manner that trade between them increased fivefold in the years that followed.  Britain opted not to join, and tellingly its growth rates lagged significantly.

Regardless, Britain joined the other western European countries in achieving unprecedented affluence by the mid-1950s.  While the memory of immediate postwar rationing and penury was still fresh, fueled by coordinated government action and Marshall Plan loans the Western European countries were able to vault to higher and higher levels of wealth and productivity less than a decade after the end of the war.  Real Wages grew in England by 80% from 1950 to 1970, French industrial output doubled between 1938 and 1959, and West Germany’s exports grew by 600% in one decade: the 1950s.  The years between 1945 and 1975 were described by a French economist as the trente glorieuses: the thirty glorious years.  It was a time in which regular working people experienced an enormous, ongoing growth in their buying power and standard of living.

With the welfare state in place, many people were willing to spend on non-essentials, buying on credit and indulging in the host of new consumer items like cars, appliances, and fashion.  In short, the postwar boom represented the birth of the modern consumer society in Europe, the parallel of that of the United States at the same time.  Increasingly, only the very poor were not able to buy consumer goods that they did not need for survival.  Most people were able to buy clothes that followed fashion trends, middle-class families could afford creature comforts like electric appliances and televisions, and increasingly working families could even afford a car, something that would have been unheard of before World War II.

Part of this phenomenon was the baby boom.  While not as extreme in Europe as in the US, the generation of children born in the first ten years after WWII was very large, pushing Europe’s population from 264 million in 1940 to 320 million by the early 1970s..  A child born in 1946 was a teenager by the early 1960s, in turn fueling the massive explosion of popular music that resulted in the most iconic musical expression of youth culture: rock n’ roll.  The “boomers” were eager consumers as well, fueling the demand for fashion, music, and leisure activities.  

Meanwhile, the sciences saw breakthroughs of comparable importance to those of the second half of the nineteenth century.  Scientists identified the basic structure of DNA in 1953.  Terrible diseases were treated with vaccines for the first time, including measles and polio.  Organ transplants became a reality in the 1950s.  Thus, life itself could be extended in ways hitherto unimaginable.  Along with the growth of consumer society, postwar Europeans and Americans alike had cause to believe in the possibility of indefinite, ongoing progress and improvement.

One stark contrast between American and European culture at this time was the dramatic differences in church attendance.  American religious culture was not significantly impacted by consumerism, while consumerism (in a way) replaced religiosity in Europe.  The postwar period saw church attendance decline across the board in Europe, hovering around 5% by the 1970s.  In an effort to combat this decline, Pope John XXIII called a council in 1958 that stretched on for five years.  Known as “Vatican II,” this council revolutionized Catholic practices in an effort to modernize the church and appeal to more people.  One of the noteworthy changes that came out of Vatican II was that the Mass was conducted in vernacular languages instead of in Latin – over four centuries after that practice had first emerged during the Protestant Reformation.

Philosophy and Art

Ironically, some of the major intellectual movements of the postwar period focused not on the promise of a better future, but on the premise that life was and probably would remain alienating and unjust.  Despite the real, tangible improvements in the quality of life for most people in Western Europe between 1945 – 1975, there was a marked insecurity and pessimism that was reflected in postwar art and philosophy.  Major factors behind this pessimism were the devastation of the war itself, the threat of nuclear war between the superpowers, and the declining power of Europe on the world stage.  New cultural struggles emerged against the backdrop not of economic uncertainty and conventional warfare, but of economic prosperity and the threat of nuclear war.

The postwar era began in the shadow of the war and the fascist nightmare that had preceded it; the British writer George Orwell noted that “since about 1930, the world had given no reason for optimism whatsoever.  Nothing in sight except a welter of lies, cruelty, hatred, and ignorance.”  Some of the most important changes in art and philosophy in the postwar era emerged from the moral exhaustion that was the result of the war, something that lingered over Europe for years and grew with the discovery of the extent of the Holocaust.  There was also the simple fact that the world itself could not survive another world war; once the Cold War began in earnest in the late 1940s, the world was just a few decisions away from devastation, if not outright destruction.

The quintessential postwar philosophy was existentialism.  The great figures of existentialism were the French writers and philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus.  Sartre and Beauvoir had played minor roles in the French Resistance against the Nazis during the war, while Camus had played a more significant role in that he wrote and edited a clandestine anti-Nazi paper, Combat.  Sartre and Beauvoir were products of the most elite schools and universities in France, while Camus was an Algerian-born French citizen who took pride in his “provincial” background.  Even before the war, Sartre was famous for his philosophical work and for his novel Nausea, which depicted a “hero” who tried unsuccessfully to find meaning in life after realizing that his actions were all ultimately pointless.

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre in a crowd during a visit to communist China.
Lifelong companions and fellow philosophers Beauvoir and Sartre.

While existentialism is a flowery word, its essential arguments are straightforward.  First, there is no inherent meaning to life.  Humans just exist: they are born, they do things while alive, then they die.  During life, however, people are forced to constantly make choices – Sartre wrote that humans “are condemned to be free.”  Most people find this process of always having to make choices frightening and difficult, so they pretend that something greater and more important provides the essential answers: religion, political ideologies, the pursuit of wealth, and so on.  Sartre and Beauvoir called this “bad faith,” the pretense that individual decisions are dictated by an imaginary higher power or higher calling.

There was no salvation in existentialism, but there was at least the possibility of embracing the human condition, of accepting the heroic act of choosing one’s actions and projects in life without hope of heaven, immortality, or even being remembered after death.  The existentialists called living in this manner “authenticity” – a kind of courageous defiance of the despair of being alive without a higher purpose or meaning.  Increasingly, the major existential philosophers argued that authenticity could also be found as part of a shared project with others, but only if that project did not succumb to ideological or religious dogmatism.  

A large part of the impetus behind not just the actual theories of the existentialists, but its popular reception, was the widespread desire for a better, more “authentic” social existence after the carnage of the war.  Appropriately, existentialism had its heyday from 1945 until about 1960.  It enjoyed mainstream press coverage and even inspired self-styled “existentialists” in popular culture who imitated their intellectual heroes by frequenting cafes and jazz clubs on the Left Bank of the Seine River in Paris.  While the existentialists themselves continued to write, debate, and involve themselves in politics (most became Marxist intellectuals and supporters of third-world uprisings against colonialism), existential philosophy eventually went out of fashion in favor of various kinds of theory that were eventually loosely grouped together as “postmodernism.”

The idea of postmodernism is complex; it is a term that has been used to describe many different things and it often lacks a core definition or even basic coherence.  That noted, the basis of postmodernism is the rejection of big stories, or “meta-narratives,” about life, history, and society.  Whereas in the past intellectuals tried to define the “meaning” of history, or Western Civilization, or of “mankind,” postmodern thinkers exposed all of the ways in which those “meanings” had been constructed, usually in order to support the desires of the people doing the storytelling.  In other words, to claim that history led inevitably to greater freedom or plenty or happiness had almost always been an excuse for domination and some kind of conquest.

For instance, during the highpoint of European imperialism, high-minded notions of the civilizing mission, the culmination of the liberal and nationalist political aspirations of the nineteenth century, and the emergence of truly modern science all coincided with the blood-soaked plundering of overseas territories.  The postmodern historical critique of imperialism was more than just an attack on Western hypocrisy, however, instead arguing that the very notion of history moving “forward” to a better future was obviously incorrect.  History, from the postmodern perspective, has no overarching narrative – things simply change, with those changes generally revolving around the deployment of social and economic power.

Perhaps the most famous and important postmodern philosopher was the Frenchman Michel Foucault.  Foucault’s work analyzed the history of culture in the West, covering everything from the concept of insanity to state power, and from crime to sexuality, demonstrating the ways that ideas about society and culture had always been shaped to serve power.  Foucault’s most evocative analyses had to do with how the definition of crime and the practices of punishment had changed in the modern world to justify a huge surveillance apparatus, one set to monitor all behavior.  In this model, “criminality” was an invention of the social and political system itself that justified the system’s police apparatus.

Postmodernism came under fire at the time, and since, for sometimes going so far as to question the very possibility of meaning in any context.  Theorists like Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida (both, again, French) argued that authorial intent in writing was meaningless, because the text became entirely separate from the author at the moment of being written down.  Likewise, both worked to demonstrate that texts themselves were nothing more or less than elaborate word games, with any implied “meaning” simply an illusion in the mind of a reader.  At its most extreme, postmodernism went a step beyond existentialism: not only was life inherently meaningless, but even a person’s intentions and actions (the only source of meaning from the existential perspective) amounted to nothing.

That being noted, much of postmodern theory was not itself pessimistic or dour.  Instead, there was often a joyful, irreverent play of ideas and words at work in postmodern thought, even if it was largely indecipherable outside of the halls of academia.  That joyful irreverence translated directly into postmodern art, which often both satirized and embraced the breakdown between mainstream culture and self-understood “avant-gardes.”  Especially during the Modernist period in the decades before and after the turn of the twentieth century, artists and writers had often staged their work in opposition to the mainstream culture and beliefs of their societies, but artists in the postmodern era could play with the stuff of the mainstream without rejecting or breaking from it.  

In turn, the iconic example of postmodern art was pop art.  The most famous pop artist was the New York-based Andy Warhol.  Pop art consisted of taking images from popular culture – in Warhol’s case, everything from portraits of Marilyn Monroe to the Campbell’s Soup can – and making it into “fine art.”  In fact, much of pop art consisted of blurring the line between commercial advertising and fine art; Warhol transformed advertising images into massive silk-screened posters, satirizing consumer society while at the same time celebrating it.

Andy Warhol's iconic painting of a can of Campbell's soup.
Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup, 1968

The Youth Movement and Cultural Revolution

What existentialism and postmodernism had in common was that, in very different ways, they critiqued many aspects of western culture, from the progressive narrative of history to traditional religious beliefs.  There is some irony in that forms of philosophy that were often radical in their orientation flourished in the midst of the growing affluence of postwar consumer society: discontentment with popular values and a demand for greater social freedom grew along with, even in spite of, the expansion of economic opportunity for many people.  Part of the explanation for the fertile reception of radical thought – very much including Marxism, which remained highly influential – was a straightforward generational clash between the members of the generation that had survived World War II and that generation’s children: the baby boomers.

Much more significant in terms of its cultural and social impact than postwar philosophy was the global youth movement of the 1960s and 1970s.  The baby boom generation came of age in the 1960s, with unprecedented numbers of young people reaching adolescence right at the height of postwar prosperity.  Enormous numbers of young people from middle-class or even working-class backgrounds became the first in their families to ever attend universities, and the contentious political climate of the Cold War and decolonization contributed to an explosion of discontent that reached its height in the late 1960s.

There were essentially two distinct, but closely related, manifestations of the youth movement of the 1960s: a largely apolitical counterculture of so-called “hippies” (a term of disparagement invented by the mainstream press; the contemporary analog is “hipsters”), and an active protest movement against various forms of perceived injustice.  Of course, many young people were active in both aspects, listening to folk music or rock n’ roll, experimenting with the various drugs that became increasingly common and available, but also joining in the anti-war movement, the second-wave feminist movement, or other forms of protest.

The album cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, featuring the Beatles surrounded by images of their heroes and influences.
The album cover from The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967.  An iconic expression of the youth culture of the day, the individuals pictured behind the band members include everyone from their fellow musical pioneer Bob Dylan to the “godfather of the beat generation,” William S. Burroughs, to the Beatles’ younger selves (on the left).

Western society faced an unprecedented problem as of the 1960s: there were more highly-educated young people than ever before.  As late as the middle of the twentieth century, the purpose of higher education was essentially to reinforce class divisions: a small elite attended university and were therefore credentialed representatives of their class interests.  In the relative social mobility brought about by the postwar economic boom, however, far more young people from non-elite backgrounds completed secondary schools and enrolled in universities.  In turn, it was often college students who formed the core of the politicized youth movement of the time: taught to think critically, globally aware, and well informed, many students subjected the values of their own society to a withering critique.  

There was much to critique.  The Cold War, thanks to nuclear weapons, threatened the human species with annihilation.  The wars associated both with it and with the decolonization process provided an ongoing litany of human rights violations and bloodshed.  The American-led alliance in the Cold War claimed to represent the side of freedom and prosperity, but it seemed to many young people in the West that American policy abroad was as unjust and violent as was Soviet policy in Eastern Europe.  On the domestic front, many young people also chafed at what they regarded as outdated rules, laws, and traditions, especially those having to do with sexuality.

A key factor in the youth movement was the American war in Vietnam.  Despite Soviet control of the Eastern Bloc, the American government was a much more visible oppressor than was the Soviet Union to the more radical members of the youth movement.  American atrocities in Vietnam were perceived as visible proof of the inherently oppressive nature of capitalism and imperialism, especially because the Viet Minh was such a relatively weak force in comparison to the American military juggernaut.  Vietnam thus served as a symbolic rallying point for the youth movement the world over, not just in the United States itself.

The focus of the youth movement, and a radical philosophical movement called the New Left associated with it, was on the life of individuals in the midst of prosperity.  Leftist thinkers came to reject both the obvious injustices of Soviet-style communism as well as the injustices of their own capitalist societies.  The key term for many New Left theorists, as well as rank-and-file members of the youth culture of the 1960s and 1970s, was “liberation” – sexual, social, and cultural.  Liberation was meant to break down social mores as much as effect political change.  For example, the idea that it was perfectly acceptable to live with a romantic partner before marriage went from being a marginalized, “bohemian” concept to one that enjoyed widespread acceptance.  

Likewise, elements of the youth movement and the New Left came to champion aspects of social justice that had often been neglected by earlier radical thinkers.  In the United States, many members of the youth movement (black and white alike) campaigned for the end of both racist laws and the inherent racism of American culture in general.  A new feminist movement (considered in more detail below) emerged to champion not just women’s rights before the law, but the idea that the objectification and oppression of women was unjust, destructive, and unacceptable in supposedly democratic societies.  In addition, for the first time, a movement emerged championing the idea that homosexuality was a legitimate sexual identity, not a mental illness or a “perverse” threat to the social order.

The youth movement reached its zenith in May of 1968.  From Europe to Mexico, enormous uprisings led mostly by college students temporarily paralyzed universities, infrastructure, and even whole countries.  What was to become the most iconic uprising against authority by the European youth movement began in a grungy suburb of Paris called Nanterre.  There, the newly-opened and poorly-designed university faced student protests over a policy forbidding male students to visit female dormitories.  When a student leader was arrested, sympathetic students in Paris occupied the oldest university in France: the Sorbonne.  Soon, the entire Latin Quarter of Paris was taken over by thousands of student radicals (many of whom flocked from outside of Paris to join the protest), wallpapering buildings with posters calling for revolution and engaging in street battles with riot police. Workers in French industry instituted a general strike in solidarity with the students, occupying their factories and in some cases kidnapping their supervisors and managers.  Students traveled to meet with workers and offer support.  At its height, French infrastructure itself was largely paralyzed.

A group of workers proudly posing in front of their occupied factory.
Leftist workers outside of their occupied factory during the Events of May.

The student movement had extremely radical, and sometimes very unrealistic, goals for itself, including everything from student-run universities to a Marxist revolution of students and workers.  The French public sympathized with the students at first, especially since it was well known that French schools and universities
were highly authoritarian and often unfair, but as the strikes and occupations dragged on, public opinion drifting away from the uprisings.  The movement ebbed by late June, with workers accepting significant concessions from business owners in return for calling off the strike.  The students finally agreed to leave the occupied universities.  In the aftermath, however, major changes did come to French universities and high schools; this was the beginning of the (relative) democratization of education itself, with students having the right to meet with professors, to question grading policies, and to demand quality education in general.  Likewise, and not just in France, the more stultifying rules and policies associated with gender and sexuality within schools and universities were slowly relaxed over time.

The “Events of May” (as they became known in France) were the emblematic high point of the European youth movement itself, at least in its most radical manifestation. The “thirty glorious years” of the postwar economic boom ended in the early 1970s, and the optimism of the youth movement tended to ebb along with it.  Likewise, the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, while understandably welcomed by the youth movement, did rob the movement of its most significant cause: opposition to the war.

That being noted, the youth movement’s legacy was profound.  While no country in the Western world witnessed a genuine political revolution along the lines imagined by radicals at the time, there is no question that Western culture as a whole became much more accepting of personal freedoms, especially regarding sexuality, and less puritanical and rigid in general.  Likewise, the youth movement’s focus on social justice would acquire momentum in the following decades, leading to the flourishing of second-wave feminism, anti-racist movements, and a broad (though far from universal) acceptance of multiculturalism and blended cultures.

Second-Wave Feminism

One movement of particular importance to emerge from the protest culture of the late 1960s was second-wave feminism (the first was that of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries).  In 1949, Simone de Beauvoir, one of the seminal existentialist philosophers mentioned above, wrote an enormous (over 1,000 pages long) book about the status of women in Western societies.  Titled
The Second Sex, the book argued that throughout the entire history of Western Civilization, women had been the social and cultural “other,” always the secondary and exceptional variety of person compared to the default: men.  In other words, when men wrote about “human history” they were actually writing about the history of men, with women lurking somewhere in the background, having babies and providing domestic labor (in English, consider phrases like “since the dawn of mankind” or “man’s relationship with nature” – the implication is that men are the species).  Likewise, historically, every state, empire, and nation in history had been controlled by men, and women were legal and political non-entities until the twentieth century.

Thus, as described by Beauvoir, it was not just that men dominated, patronized, and often violently abused women, it was that to be a woman was to be the exception to every kind of political theory, philosophy, and history ever conceived of.  Women were, in a sense, not really part of history.  Beauvoir critiqued that non-status in
Second Sex, writing from an existential perspective in which everyone’s freedom and choice was at the heart of human existence.  While she did not set out to start a political movement per se – her political involvement in the 1950s and early 1960s was focused on decolonization and a kinship with Marxism – The Second Sex would go on to be the founding document of the second wave of feminism later in the decade.

From the end of World War II until the late 1960s, there were only small feminist movements in most western countries.  While women had won the vote after the war (with some exceptions such as Switzerland), and most of the other legal goals of first-wave feminism had been achieved as well, the postwar social order still operated under the assumption that women were to focus on domestic roles.  Women were taught as girls that the world of politics and paid work was for men, and that only in motherhood and marriage could a women find fulfillment.  In the process, women as a social category were largely cut off from the sense of political solidarity that had sustained first-wave feminism a generation earlier.

The problem for women in the postwar period, however, was widespread dissatisfaction and unhappiness with the social role into which they were forced, along with both overtly sexist laws and oppressive cultural codes.  To cite a few examples, it was perfectly legal (and commonplace) for men to discriminate in hiring and workplace practices based on a woman’s appearance – flight attendants (“stewardesses” in the parlance of the time) were routinely fired at age 30 for being too old to maintain the standards of attractiveness enforced by airlines.  Pregnancy was also grounds for termination, and unmarried women were generally paid fair less than men since it was assumed they would eventually marry and quit their jobs.  White women in the United States made 60% of the earnings of men doing the same work, with black women earning a mere 42%.  Rape charges were routinely dismissed if a victim had “asked for it” by being alone at night or being “inappropriately” dressed, and there was no legal concept of marital rape.  Domestic violence remained commonplace, and husbands were generally only held accountable by the law if the violence seemed excessive from the perspective of police and judges.  In short, while the first-wave feminist movement had succeeded in winning key legal battles, a vast web of sexist laws and cultural codes ensured that women were held in precisely the “secondary” position identified by Beauvoir.

In response, starting in the mid-1960s, the second-wave feminist movement came into existence to combat precisely these forms of both legal and cultural oppression and discrimination.  Most of the women who joined the new movement were inspired by the broader anti-establishment counter culture described above, but they arrived at feminism in part because most male “rebels” were just as sexist and repressive as the conservative politicians they detested (e.g. women at gatherings of self-proclaimed revolutionaries were expected to do the dishes and clean up after the men).  Beauvoir herself joined the French Women’s Liberation Movement, joining many women who were one-third of her age at that point.  Likewise, in the United States, second-wave feminism was often referred to as the “Women’s Lib” movement, with comparable movements emerging across the Western world.


Protest march of members of the American Women's Liberation movement.
Members of the (American) Women’s Liberation Movement marching in 1970.

Everywhere that second-wave feminism emerged as a movement, its goals were the creation of laws that expressly forbid sexual discrimination in the workplace and schools and a broader cultural shift that saw women treated as true social equals of men.  This latter focus on equitable culture distinguished it from first-wave feminism, which while certainly cognizant of sexist cultural norms, had focused on overcoming the most serious legal restrictions on women rather than cultural shifts.  For second-wave feminists, the movement was not simply about women having access to the same forms of employment and equal wages as men (although those were obviously very important goals), but about attacking the sexual objectification and sexual double standards to which women were held.  For instance, why were promiscuous women the subject of shaming and mockery, while promiscuous men were celebrated for their virility?  The essential injustice of sexual double standards was a key issue that second-wave feminists raised.

The demand for sexual liberation was part of the Youth Movement in general, and members of the counterculture fought against the idea that sexuality was inherently sinful and “dirty” (an attitude that had only come of age in earnest in the nineteenth century, incidentally).  Second-wave feminists took the demand for liberation a step further and advocated for reliable, legal contraception and legalized abortion.  Both were illegal almost everywhere in the western world through the 1950s, and even in countries like Britain and the Netherlands where contraception was legally available, it was difficult to come by and associated with promiscuity.  Aided by major advances in related fields of medicine – the birth control pill was approved for contraceptive use in the United States in 1960, for example – second-wave feminists fought a successful campaign for the legalization of contraceptives and abortion by the end of the 1970s, although abortion rights remain a highly charged political issue in countries like the US.

While the battle for sexual equality is obviously far from over, second-wave feminism did achieve many important goals.  Legally, many countries adopted laws banning discrimination based on gender itself, as well as age and appearance.  Laws pertaining to both sexual assault and domestic violence were often strengthened and more stringently enforced.  Culturally, sexual double-standards, the objectification of women, and prescribed female social roles were all called into question.  As with racism, the numerous forms of sexism embedded in Western culture all too frequently weathered these feminist assaults, but arguably they did weaken as compared to the past.


It cannot be overstated how much cultural change occurred in the decades following World War II.  Perhaps the most important changes had to do with the extension of liberal democratic ideas to their logical conclusion: everyone in a democracy was supposed to have equal rights, to be treated with essential dignity, and to possess the right to protest the conditions of their education, employment, or even their simple existence (in the case of women facing misogyny and harassment, for example).  The legacy of the cultural revolution that began with the youth movement of the 1960s remains strong to the present day.


Image Citations (Wikimedia Commons):

Beauvoir and Sartre
– Public Domain
Warhol Campbell’s Soup
– Fair Use
Sgt. Pepper’s
– Fair Use
Workers May 1968
– Creative Commons, BeenAroundAWhile
Women’s Liberation
– Public Domain  




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Western Civilization: A Concise History Copyright © 2020 by Christopher Brooks is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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