Uneasy Alliances: Women’s Organizing in the 1970s

Recent histories of the 1970s emphasize “fracture”: the collapse of the industrial economy and liberal social welfare programs, and the rise of neoliberalism. These works depict social movements as similarly fractious, divided by internal and external forces and declining in their influence. While acknowledging the myriad factors that militated against working-class organizing in these years, our panel argues that these new challenges generated new coalitions. Women’s activism, in particular – too often remembered as narrowly white and middle-class – stretched across boundaries of class, race, and ideology to challenge inequalities in the 1970s.

Our papers explore the alliances that activists forged in several campaigns, and the central role that women played in class-based organizing efforts. We examine the efforts of working-class women of color to win political power and social democratic policies after the 1960s through both majoritarian populist organizing and a more narrowly class-based “poor people power” approach; community-based paraprofessional educators, primarily working-class mothers, joining locals of the American Federation of Teachers; New Left activists working with feminist, labor, and pro-life organizations to boycott Nestle; and divorced women seeking alliances with both women on welfare and the Republican Party as they fought for legislation improving their access to social insurance benefits. We examine the difficulty of sustaining such alliances and tensions within them, but we emphasize the creative ways in which activists came together as the postwar liberal consensus came apart.

These papers offer a broad view of working-class politics, combining insights from histories of labor, feminism, welfare rights, and civil rights, as well as work on the state’s role in shaping social movements. Each paper illuminates the unlikely coalitions that emerged amid the uncertainty of the decade. Together, they challenge the narrative of fractured activism in the 1970s.

Lisa Levenstein will serve as the panel’s chair and commentator.

About the Kalmanovitz Initiative

Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor develops creative strategies and innovative public policy to improve workers’ lives in a changing economy.