The World Split Open
Ruth Rosen. The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America. New York and London: Penguin, 2000.
In The World Split Open Rosen argues that “it took a women’s movement to address the many ways women felt exploited, to lend legitimacy to their growing sense of injustice, and to name and reinterpret customs and practices that had long been accepted” (xii). The activity of the women’s movement in the 1960s and 1970s dramatically changed the culture and attitude of America. Rosen explores how issues of abortion, prostitution, rape, and pornography went from being “hidden injuries of sex” to heavily debated political topics. She emphasizes how science and technology played a crucial role in the movement with the Pill and abortion.
The book begins in the 1950s with Rosen discussing Harvard University’s president refusing to increase the enrollment of undergraduate female students because the school’s focus was on “training leaders.” Also, the president and university believed that a large female student presence would distract male students. At the time women found themselves slighted in other areas as well such as unequal pay, being denied bank loans, turned away from careers in radio, television, law enforcement, and other industries deemed men’s work. Public opinion concluded that rape whether it was marital, date, domestic violence, or sexual harassment was something women asked for. Women had to suffer from these undefined hidden injuries because “that’s life” (xii).
Rosen opens part one, “Refugees from the Fifties,” with a discussion of Betty Friedan’s 1963 publication, The Feminine Mystique. Rosen states that this work “had broken the silence and had begun unmasking the reality of women’s lives” (8). She uses the “feminine mystique” to measure the progress women have made. This mystique was used with the “belief that American superiority rested on its booming consumer culture and rigidly defined gender roles in Cold War politics” (10). By celebrating women as wives and mothers and the primary buyer of consumer goods, the role of housewife became professionalized. Rosen argues that this professionalization then “turned the act of consumption into a patriotic act” (14). This is largely demonstrated in the 1959 “kitchen debate” between Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschchev where Nixon “boasted of labor saving devices that gave American women time to cultivate their charms as wives and to care for their children” (10-11).
In part two “Rebirth of Feminism,” Rosen describes how Liberal Feminism gave way to the Radical Feminism movement. She argues that while there was no language to address the many concerns of women, the daughters of the fifties feared replicating their mothers, so they “entered college, bohemian adventures, love affairs, marriage, the civil rights movement, antiwar activities, and the New Left Movement” (58).
In part three, “Through the Eyes of Woman,” Rosen addresses how women experienced “conversion” from the constraints of the feminine mystique to a new consciousness of womanhood. She turns to Gloria Steinem and other women “who were older and already in the work world” when they experienced conversion (208). Rosen argues that younger women experienced a shift in their consciousness in colleges and small groups, whereas the older women experienced this while protesting the Vietnam War, supporting “La Causa” of Cesar Chavez, and when “assigned to cover a feminist event” (209). The activism of women was targeted by the FBI right along with other radical protest groups such as the American Indian Movement, the Black Panther Party, and the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
In part four, “No End in Sight,” Rosen refers to the movement as being “everywhere and nowhere” (263). At this point, she refers to feminism as “diffusion” and argues that despite this, the movement continued to change the lives of women and communities. The feminist movement moved into religious institutions and onto college campuses. During the 1970s, women of color were active in the feminist movement and defining for themselves what it entailed especially African American and Mexican American women. The “postfeminist” generation of the 1980s was reluctant to call themselves feminists. Rosen states that they were the first generation that did not have the support of a movement; however they embraced many of the goals of the movement. Many of these post-feminists were the daughters of notable feminists such as Alice Walker, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Susan Griffin.
When discussing black women’s participation in the feminist movement, many historians focus on the 1970s with the leading independent National Black Feminist Organization. Rosen demonstrates that African American women were involved in the movement before the establishment of the National Black Feminist Organization in 1973. Flora Davis argues that black feminists were working towards feminist goals well before the beginning of the white women’s movement. For Rosen, second wave feminism began with The Feminist Mystique. Becky Thompson dismisses this notion, arguing that by focusing on Friedan’s study, historians marginalize women of color. She instead retells the story from the perspective of Asian, Native American, Black, Latina, and white women. Rosen’s study shines light on the early participation of African American feminism demonstrating the ways in which black feminists defined feminism and how they carved out spaces to narrate their own oppressions in the movement.