The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America

The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America by Ruth Rosen, Viking, $34.95

What do young women and men know about how gender worked in the world before the modern women’s movement? Virtually nothing, history professor Ruth Rosen discovered. Her students were utterly unaware that there ever was a time when a married woman could not get credit without her husband’s signature or that newspapers ran separate help wanted ads for men (doctor, lawyer, accountant, chief) and for women (secretary, nurse, and filing clerk). The World Split Open, Rosen’s first-rate survey of the origins, impact, and aftershocks of the second wave of American feminism, reminds us, in elegant and affecting prose, of how far we have come and how far we have yet to go.

An early women’s movement activist and author of The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918, Rosen synthesizes for a broad audience existing scholarship on the origins of the women’s movement. She shows it deeply embedded in Left politics, the Civil Rights movement, and the malcontent of 1950s mothers who, knowing the idealized portraits broadcast on national television never represented their lives, aspired to other futures for their daughters. Rosen understands the distinctions among those daughters, how the timing of one’s birth fixed her experience of the second wave of feminism. Those born during World War II became the shock troops of women’s liberation and its first leaders. Their younger sisters, born right after the war, discovered feminism in college. But the youngest, those born after 1950, became privileged, “the first women to shape adult lives amid the new opportunities and burdens created by the modern feminist movement.”

Rosen chronicles the familiar (to the historian, but not to the student) turning points of the early stages of the second wave of American feminism— President Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women, The Feminine Mystique, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act which prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex, the founding of the National Organization of Women and the emergence of Women’s Liberation.

She refuses to shy away from conveying the great, and often damaging, anger that erupted among activists with different agendas and timetables for carrying out common goals. She captures splits between heterosexual and lesbian feminists, and the envy and ire provoked as the media anointed some, like Gloria Steinem, the right to speak for all.

Rosen also exposes the FBI’s infiltration of the movement. Searching for communist subversives among feminists, FBI informers reported women discussing abortion rights and birth control, and when they named names, they included activists like Elizabeth ‘Katy’ Stanton. In retrospect, it is hilarious to imagine the FBI scouring the country for the suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who died in 1902, but at the time fear of FBI agents eroded trust within the movement and contributed to its tensions.

Rosen’s sweeping narrative ignores Jewish feminism and loses historical perspective as it gets closer to the present. Nevertheless, this book renders a great service. It reports that in the early years, more than 500 feminist publications emerged, LILITH among them. Rosen reminds those of us who have read feminist literature for more than a quarter century of much that we forgot. And she teaches a new generation with no memory of a time before feminism just how modern women courageously and daringly split the world open.

Pamela S. Nadell is Professor of History and Director of the Jewish Studies Program at American University and author of Women Who Would Be Rabbis: A History of Women’s Ordination, 1889-1985, which was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award.