Mass Media and the Shaping of American Feminism, 1963-1975
Mass Media and the Shaping of American Feminism, 1963-1975
By Patricia Bradley. (Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 2003. 320 pp. Cloth, $50.00, ISBN 1-57806-612-3; Paper, $20.00, ISBN 1-57806-613-1).
Reviewed by Jennifer Tomás, Binghamton University.
Patricia Bradley argues that the mass media played an important role in the making of second wave feminism. She asserts that while second wave feminists used mass media, accounting for a rapid rise to national attention, media shackled the movement with enduring negative stereotypes, arguing that media craft traditions or values, such as balance, objectivity, novelty and conflict in determining a story's newsworthiness led to an emphasis on intra-movement division and the stridency of second wave feminists. Traditional images and exemplars of women were starkly juxtaposed against women's liberationists. In the name of balance, media gave equal coverage to anti-feminist social conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly. The American audience was thus "turned off" by radical feminism, leading mainstream liberal feminists to strategically co-opt and repackage many of the ideas originated by radical feminists to adopt a more palatable media image. If you are looking for a history of the movement, you will be disappointed. This book is primarily about the way the media, including media feminists framed feminism. It privileges media packaging and public opinion over movement activism. Bradley argues the media's packaging of modern feminism was ultimately detrimental.
Bradley focuses on media events and stars. She examines how Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem were packaged by the media. Bradley suggests their leadership roles were based on media portrayal more than their feminist activism. Friedan was packaged as an abrasive, unattractive, upstart and troublemaker. Steinem was preferred by the media as a more moderate, feminine, and traditionally attractive leader for the movement despite her lack of organizational or activist track record prior to her launching of Ms. magazine. These two moderate leaders were chosen by the media because women's liberation as a movement was generally against hierarchy and opposed to the elevation of "stars." Thus, the perceived leadership vacuum was filled by the media with Friedan and Steinem.
A chapter describing craft traditions (the journalistic standards mentioned earlier) comes late but clarifies how and why the media chose certain stories. Craft traditions led the media to highlight ever more extreme actions of radical groups focusing on the conflictual and outlandish. This intensifying portrayal contributed to public weariness with "angry" women's liberationists and a catch-22 for feminists who found themselves in the untenable position of having to constantly outdo themselves to keep media attention. At the same time their sometimes dramatic strategies had an alienating impact on mainstream audiences. Feminists modeled protest actions like marches and sit-ins on Black Civil Rights strategies, but the media did not cloak feminist protest with the mantle of the moral high ground as they had those of the Civil Rights Movement. (43-46) Thus women's civil rights came up for debate in ways that Black civil rights did not.
A chapter on Ms. magazine highlights how media feminists, notably Steinem, took control of the image and content of the movement by advocating unity and sisterhood over division and difference. Their attempt to create a profitable, socially conscious media product helped Ms. become a clearinghouse for the dissemination of diverse feminist viewpoints. The result was a co-optation and repackaging of radical feminist ideas. Bradley suggests this co-optation was responsible for the filtration of feminist ideas into the mainstream but led to the demise of radical feminism. (192-93) Rather than see co-optation negatively though, it might be seen as an ultimate success. An important chapter examines the efforts of professionally active media feminists in reshaping their workplace, their industry, and media portrayals of women. They used Title VII, the EEOC, and court "Petitions to Deny" licenses to broadcasters on the grounds that unequal employment and representation of women in the media violated broadcasters' legal obligation to serve the public as a whole.
Examining the media's treatment of second wave feminists, Bradley takes as her subjects those feminists who deployed the media most actively or were subjected to the media's craft. It is not a comprehensive look at what was an extremely diverse, diffuse, and widespread social movement that went beyond formulaic media portrayals of feminists.
Nevertheless, Bradley makes an important contribution. Her observation that the media had a huge impact on public perceptions of the Second Wave is certainly accurate. On the other hand, just because the media portrayed the modern women's movement in a certain way doesn't mean that portrayal was accurate or adequate. This fact gets lost somewhat in the book. Media and media feminists shaped the portrayal of the movement to be sure, but to give primacy to the spin-doctors over the historical actors and ideas themselves should make one uneasy. While Bradley focuses on mass media (large circulation newspapers, magazines, and television), she gives only a nod to the plethora of independent feminist publications of the period that played an important role in disseminating the messages of women's liberation at a grassroots level. They get short shrift here because of the focus on mass media.
The book suffers from careless copy editing, with errors like "pubic" instead of "public" and the identification of important labor feminist Esther Peterson as "Estelle" Peterson. Occasionally the book is simply illogical or inaccurate such as when Bradley asserts that "the second wave does not remain in the popular consciousness."[Note 1] The book could give the impression that the only important feminists at work during the period were media feminists. It offers a compelling window into the media's role in shaping popular conceptions of social movements, but if it were the only book one were to read on the second wave, the reader would come away with a distorted image of the movement. A narrow focus on media representations of second wave feminism, even those orchestrated by major figures like Friedan and Steinem, runs the risk of reifying stereotypes and solidifying in national memory a very narrow understanding of the second wave. Still, Bradley offers a worthwhile contribution to the literature that straddles, although sometimes shakily, the fields of media history and women's history.
Jennifer Tomás is a Doctoral student at SUNY Binghamton specializing in 19th and 20th century U.S. Women and Gender. Her dissertation examines the role of a distinct women's history professional subculture in facilitating the development of the field of U.S. Women's history between 1960 and 1990.
[page [NA], note 1] 1 For example she asserts on p. 273 that historians of the second wave have "not noted" the famous "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match as an important media event. Sara Evans and Ruth Rosen are just two examples of historians who have done so. Also she says the ERA failed in part because of opponents' "delineation of potential outcomes…[such as] the connection to support for abortion." (271) While pro-choice was associated with the ERA and inspired opposition, holding up fear of legalized abortion as a potential outcome of ERA is illogical since abortion had already been made legal by Roe v. Wade in 1973. [return to text]