Press Releases: Historiography Edition
Hippies, Housewives, and a Homegrown Revolution: The Social and Gender History of Rosen’s The World Split Open
Women’s History, Gender History, Social History, Cultural History
Citation for First Edition/Printing
Rosen, Ruth. The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.
Ruth Rosen, The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America (New York: Penguin Books, 2000).
Historian and professor of gender history at the University of California at Davis Ruth Rosen authored this expansive and encompassing book on the modern women’s movement in the United States, of which she herself was a participant and activist. This second wave of feminism, growing out of the discontent of housewives in the 1950s and taking hold of young women in the late 1960s, was responsible for radical changes in American family dynamics, gender roles, political discourse, and social relationships. Rosen discusses the grassroots beginnings of this movement, which are accentuated by extensive quotes and testimony not only from movement leaders, but from women at all levels of participation. By drawing on both expert and civilian insight, Rosen provides more than a glimpse into the reality of popular, domestic, and political culture in the US in the 1950s and beyond.
Rosen begins with a discussion of the circumstances that ultimately led to the beginning of the women’s liberation movement. During the second World War, women had been free to, and even expected to, join the workforce as the country’s men were on the front in Europe. After the conclusion of the war, however, most women found themselves back in their traditional roles as housewives and mothers, losing what seemed to be the most economic and social freedom they’d ever been allowed. They were expected to take care of all domestic and parental duties, and expected to be happy in this, their natural role. When activist Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963, arguing against the notion that all (or even most) women could be content with this limited freedom, women were “challenged to live an examined and purposeful life.”[i] Over the next two decades, the women’s liberation movement took off across the country, forcing Americans to face the institutional and cultural beliefs that they’d accepted for so long, and leading to such changes as national abortion access, the sexual revolution, passage and enforcement of Title XII (making it illegal for employers to discriminate based on race or gender), criticism of advertisement and film, and other revolutionary amendments to the country’s view on women.
The World Split Open relies heavily on witness and activist testimony. Rosen goes into great detail on not only the movement’s achievements, but of the effects of these achievements on women in America. This technique shows an importance of “history from below,” an essential quality of studies in social history. Studying history from below places the focus on ordinary people, rather than the actions of “great men.”[ii] This method grew out of the Marxist and social historians of the 1950s and ‘60s, making Rosen’s use of it within The World Split Open especially meaningful, as the subject of her work takes place during this time. Because of the local and initially-unorganized structure of the women’s liberation movement, utilizing testimony from individuals over governmental or otherwise heavily-structured organizations evokes a more intimate and resonating emotion.
Rosen also includes methods of cultural history, as she describes the fashion, trends, and popular culture coinciding with the women’s movement and its preceding organizations. She details such movements as the counterculture or “hippie movement” of the late 1960s, which provided a sort of gender equality in that participants of either gender preferred sex and psychedelic drugs to work or overt political action.[iii] She also discusses the inner-workings of radical activist groups such as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which, while led by leftists and instrumental in the fight for civil rights in the early 1960s, subjected women to gender discrimination and sexual exploitation.[iv] By including descriptions of life within these specific cultural groups, as well as that of housewives prior to the movement, Rosen creates a certain explanation for the movement’s importance and the tenacity and fervor of the women responsible for it.
One major critique may be that Rosen seems to gloss over the experiences of Black women, inside or outside of the movement. One review on Goodreads, posted by user “Tope,” reads, “Rosen focuses almost exclusively on white, middle-class feminism and has very little to say about black or Chicana women’s movements.”[v] This is an interesting exclusion by Rosen, as this criticism is one that has been brought up against the movement itself in recent years. Along these same lines, her narrative doesn’t seem to include lesbians, outside of a short discussion of the movement’s odd and sometimes hostile treatment of them. While Rosen is very detail oriented in other aspects of the book, the book is lacking overall in the area of sexual or racial diversity.
Impact on Historiography
The World Split Open is important in that, through numerous quotes and detail, it rallies against the derisive and disingenuous belief the public has associated with feminism, especially in the last two decades. By employing the testimony of a variety of women – some married, some divorced, some mothers, some childless – Rosen is able to derail the idea that feminism and gender activism must be based around hatred of men. And she does so with the methods of social history, tying it in seamlessly with the historiography of gender history. It is also revolutionary in that it dives far beyond the surface of both liberal and radical feminism, becoming the first book to do so.[vi] Jessica Weiss, historian at the California State University Hayward, says, “Rosen’s contribution is the telling of these stories side by side with attention to the diversity within each movement so that one senses the snowballing of feminist momentum in the 1960s.”[vii]
The World Split Open breaks stereotypes not only of feminist activists, but of feminist writing, progressing the field of gender history in the face of growing societal backlash. It provides a researched, comprehensive, and enveloping history not only of the women’s liberation movement, but of American culture from the 1950s and beyond.
[i] Ruth Rosen, The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America (New York: Penguin Books, 2000), 6.
[ii] “History From Below,” Institute of Historical Research, University of London, 2008, https://archives.history.ac.uk/makinghistory/themes/history_from_below.html. Accessed 19 November 2022.
[iii] Rosen, The World Split Open, 125.
[iv] Rosen, The World Split Open, 105-110.
[v] Tope, “The World Split Open, Review,” Goodreads, 20 November 2007.
[vi] Jessica Weiss, “Weiss on Rosen, ‘The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America,’” Humanities and Social Sciences Online, February 2002.