Women’s Liberation

The Women’s Liberation Movement in Boston began in an era of elevated consciousness about an array of civil rights issues. At the dawn of the 1960s, there was a growing gap between a prevailing ideology of the contented housewife in a traditional domestic role and the reality of increasing numbers of women in the workforce who faced discrimination in pay and advancement because of their gender. In the mid-1960s, the country was riveted by political activists, first battling for the civil rights for African Americans, then demonstrating against the Vietnam War. Women learned from these radical criticisms of society and began to adopt their rhetoric and methods toward issues of women’s rights.

Beginning in 1967, groups of newly politicized women in Boston were gathering informally for discussion about women’s issues. In 1969, many of these women organized a conference at Emmanuel College with over 500 attendees. The conference spawned the formation of more formal women’s organizations in Boston, such as Bread and Roses, the first socialist women’s organization in the United States. Like their sisters across the U.S., Boston female activists in Bread and Roses advocated for a number of concerns, such as abortion and other reproductive rights, child care, equal employment, laws against discrimination, and to prevent violence against women. In a dramatic climax to the group’s search for a meeting space, Bread and Roses seized an unoccupied building owned by Harvard University in 1971. The women held the building for ten days, offering free classes and childcare before they were forced out. Sympathetic individuals donated $5,000, and Bread and Roses bought a house at 46 Pleasant Street in Cambridge. They opened the Women’s Center in 1972, the longest running women’s center in the U.S.

Within the walls of the Women’s Center, many Boston feminists came together to work for better lives and a better society. As the Women’s Center has advertised, “The struggle to gain control of all aspects of our lives—our bodies, our jobs, our social roles, and our creativity—is the struggle of every woman.” Projects and services have included emotional and reproductive counseling, groups fighting against rape or violence towards women, discussion groups for lesbians and women dealing with incest, and informational resources for welfare, career placement, and women’s issues.
Some of the projects developed into independent organizations, such as the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, Finex House, Incest Resources, and Transition House. Women from Bread and Roses also established the Women’s School in 1971 as an alternative source of feminist education, with classes on anti-racism, auto mechanics, writing, art, growing up female, international women’s struggles, lesbianism, and Marxism.

Boston women empowered themselves to take action in other settings as well. In Cambridge, the group Female Liberation began to publish The Second Wave Magazine: A Magazine for the New Feminism in 1971. It included news stories, poetry, fiction, graphics, and articles that expressed a wide range of feminist viewpoints. Throughout Boston in the early 1970s, female students pressed colleges and universities to develop courses and majors devoted to women’s history and literature.
In 1974, students at Northeastern’s Women’s Center began a Women’s Studies Project to publish a list of classes, library materials, and resource people for NU students interested in women’s studies. In the late 1970s, women from the Abortion Action Coalition organized marches, protests, and letter writing campaigns to oppose restrictions to abortion laws. These are just a few examples of how Boston women fought in many spheres for liberation, respect, and equality.

This exhibit celebrates the choices and actions of women in Boston, fighting for justice for women and expressing pride in the female experience. It focuses on the political and social causes of female activists, and women’s evolving consciousness of their female identity.

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