The 1960s

Van Gosse, in Rethinking the New Left: An Interpretive History, provides a history of the movements that struggled and advocated for change between the 1950s and 1975, which are collectively termed the New Left. Gosse states that his goal “is to offer a new synthesis of older and recent scholarship on all of the movements of the New Left, stretching back to the post-World War II years, and forward into the 1970s,” (ix-x) and he argues for “a longer, broader view of what constituted American radicalism at the height of the Cold War.” (x) Gosse defines the New Left, the movement’s origins  in World War II and the early years of the Cold War, and the ties between the New Left and the Communist Part, Socialist Party, and pacifist Left of the early twentieth century. Gosse provides an excellent overview of the Civil Rights Movement, in which he details the years of community activism that occurred prior to the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 (which tied in well with Danielle McGuire’s At the Dark End of the Street), Martin Luther King’s influence on the Civil Rights movement, the rise of SNCC and mass protest, all of the significant events that occurred between 1963 through 1965, and the origins of Black Power (which complemented what we had already read in Robyn Spencer’s The Revolution Has Come). He describes the antinuclear activists; the student movements that began in Berkeley, Madison, and Ann Arbor; the beginnings of second wave feminism; and the activists that advocated for equality for gays and lesbians. Gosse breaks down the antiwar movement that emerged in reaction to American involvement in Vietnam into four sequential themes: inching into war, 1954-1964; escalation, 1965-1966; no light at the end of the tunnel, 1967-1968; and Vietnamization and polarization, 1969-1975. By doing so, Gosse demonstrates that antiwar sentiment was ubiquitous in America prior to the early years of the 1960s and extended into the mid 1970s. Gosse moves from discussing the antiwar movement to discussing Black Power and the Black Panther Party. In what I found to be the most interesting chapter–primarily because I had no knowledge of these particular movements prior to reading this work–Gosse discusses the Native American movement, the Chicano Power movement, and the Asian American and Puerto Rican movements. The Native American movement is generally agreed to have begun in 1969 when Native Americans seized the abandoned federal prison on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay, but Native Americans had been organizing campaigns to restore Indian treaty rights and fighting for sovereignty over tribal lands since the early years of the Cold War. The National Congress of American Indians was founded even earlier, in 1944, and was a moderate civil rights group focused on influencing the Bureau of Indian Affairs. After 1965 it was increasingly evident that a “New Indian” had arrived, and this was accompanied by increasing conflict on reservations and a major demographic shift towards urban areas. Following the seizure of Alcatraz, the American Indian Movement proclaimed itself to be the vanguard of Native American resistance. In 1972 the group organized a Trail of Broken Treaties Caravan, which converged on DC in the hopes of confronting the federal government. However, their actions were met with significant backlash by federal and state authorities, who mounted large, well organized legal assaults–including the arrest of almost 600 activists–to bankrupt the American Indian Movement and halt their activities. After returning to the work of second wave feminists and gay liberation, Gosse ends by discussing the affects of the New Left on American politics and society, as well as where the activists ended up following the relative success of the movements and the beginning of conservative backlash in the late 1970s and the 1980s.

In No Constitutional Right to be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship, a political and legal history, Linda Kerber examines the ways in which women fought for greater political participation under the guise of obligation. Kerber begins her study by examining the obligations of women in the Revolutionary era, which, due to coverture, were not many. Under coverture, a woman’s civic identity was transferred to her husband following their marriage, and he gained control over any of her property or money. Wives could not typically make contracts in her own name, and men had a right to sexually access his wife’s body regardless of her consent. Real estate law was one area in which land and buildings could be passed down through generations despite coverture. The latter part of the first chapter discusses women’s rights–or lack thereof–in relation to citizenship and naturalization (which complemented narratives of citizenship we’ve seen in Roediger’s Working Toward Whiteness and Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color). In the second chapter Kerber examines women’s obligation to work. Kerber examines the ways in which the obligation to work is a civic obligation framed in negative terms. The laws of domestic relations that gave husbands authority over wives also gave masters authority over their workers. Vagrancy laws did not apply to upper class women, only those of the lower classes, and a woman’s husband’s economic status made her more or less vulnerable to being identified as a vagrant. Kerber details how the end of slavery necessitated the creation of new standards of labor in the South, and the ways in which African American women had to define their labor as occurring in either the house or field until 1970. Kerber effectively demonstrates how federal institutions and policies–like the Freedmen’s Bureau and the New Deal–privileged the labor of white and African American men over that of African American women (this particular chapter meshes well with Jacqueline Jones’s work Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow).  Kerber moves on to discuss women’s representation and taxes in the nineteenth century. Prior to the Civil War women’s suffrage manifestos and petitions often linked the obligation to pay taxes with the privilege of voting. Following the end of the Civil War, that argument gained further traction. During the Gilded Age many women argued that they had the right to vote because their taxes paid for the technological civic improvements that were being created at that time. Following that, Kerber examines the fight for women to serve on juries. That right was not legal until the 1975 case Taylor v. Louisiana, which overturned Hoyt v. Florida (1961)–that ruling upheld state laws that did not make women’s jury service mandatory. In her final chapter, Kerber examines women’s integration into the armed services in America. She focuses her attention on two lawsuits that came before the Supreme Court between 1979 and 1981 that asked whether the obligation to military service is fairly distributed, and what the nation, including taxpaying nonveterans, owe to those who have served. In 1981 the Supreme Court, in Rostker v. Goldberg, held that the practice of requiring only men to register for the draft is constitutional, and the gender distinction was not a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the fourteenth amendment (In The Straight State Canaday similarly examines women’s involvement in the armed services).

Discussion questions

  1. In what ways did the reforms of the New Left challenge or alter the political structure of the US? What significant political landmarks occurred during the “long 1960s”?
  2. How did women use the idea of obligations of citizenship to argue for greater political participation? Particularly in the twentieth century, what strides were made?

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