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“It’s a Wonderful Life:”…or, What If Second-Wave Feminism Had Never Been Born?

War is hell. The culture war is no exception—and the funny bone is usually the first casualty. The recent talk about abortion and contraception got me thinking, what would the world look like, if second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s had never happened? I (humorously) revise the classic Christmas movie to find out (oh, I think that our heroine, Second Wave, must be in a same-sex marriage…)

We join “It’s a Wonderful Life” already in progress:

 Second Wave is tottering suicidally on the icy bridge.

She can’t take any more of the brow-beating by Santorum, Rush, and the manners-challenged Trolls of the “Comments” sections. They all want her to jump, because then they can cash in her insurance policy in lieu of having to raise taxes on a billionaire and, well, just because they hate her guts.

 Even her friends—younger, third-wave feminists—don’t seem to respect her. She bums them out by talking about power and subordination when they want to talk about things like choices,  strip-clubs-as-sexual-liberation, lipstick, and how Disney Princess merchandise is actually liberating.

 Her bumbling guardian angel—Gloria—stands there:

Gloria: It’s ridiculous of you to think of killing yourself because of Rick Santorum! You just don’t know all that you’ve done. Why, if it hadn’t been for you—

Second Wave: Yeah, if it hadn’t been for me, everybody’d be a lot better off.

Gloria:  So you still think killing yourself would make everyone feel happier, eh?

Second Wave: I suppose it would have been better if I’d never been born at all.

Gloria: You’ve got your wish. You’ve never been born. You don’t exist. No worries, no obligations… No war on birth control or compulsory trans-vaginal pre-abortion probes, no Presidential election…. You’re now in Retroville.

Second Wave: Why, you mean Bedford Falls.

Gloria: No, I mean Retroville.

Second Wave: Don’t you think I know where I live? And, Mr. Retro is the richest and most feminist-hating man in Bedford Falls… Why would the town have his name?…


Second Wave stops first in what she knew as a combination bar and gluten-free, fat-free, sugar-free, all-vegan café, called Marleni’s Place.

“Marleni’s a friend of mine,” Second Wave explains proudly to Gloria. “She was one of the first women to get an MBA at Harvard.”[1]

“Hello, Nick,” Second Wave greets the bartender amiably. “Hey, where’s Marleni? Your boss. Where is she?”

 “Look, I’m the boss…,” Nick growls at Second Wave. Then he pauses. “Marleni…. are you talkin’ about that big-boobed waitress that I canned because she wouldn’t sleep with me?”

 “You can’t do that!” Second Wave gasps at Nick’s transformation into a jerk. “It’s—it’s sexual harassment!”

“Is that what you pixies call a sex life? Hey, look, we serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast. And we don’t need any characters around to give the joint atmosphere. Is that clear?”

Meanwhile, a pathetic drunk is getting kicked out of the bar. 

Second Wave: Isn’t that Mr. Gower, the druggist?

Nick: You know, that’s another reason for me not to like you. That rum head spent years in jail for killing a girl in a botched back-alley abortion.

Second Wave: Back alley??  

Gloria: You see, Second Wave, you were not there to make and keep abortion legal, to stop Mr. Gower from putting that poison into the capsule, when he performed that illegal one.

Second Wave: Why, this ought to be Marleni‘s place….

 And then Nick kicks them out on their butts, too.


Gloria: You’ve been given a great gift. A chance to see what the world would be like without you.

Second Wave, dumbfounded:  I’m going home and see my family.

 She wanders in the direction of home.

Second Wave: Hey, listen, that’s Violet Bick! I know that girl!

 Violet’s looking terrible, all tattered and bruised. She got a bad reputation as a teenager, and, since then, the boys harass her, and her boyfriends abuse and mistreat her, like she has no worth, all because she’s not a virgin, and flunked the abstinence-only class at school.

Second Wave: Violet, what happened to you? Let’s go to one of the 2,000 domestic violence shelters in this country.Let’s call the police, or one of the1,100 rape crisis lines.Let’s get a judge to issue a Temporary Restraining Order.What are you doing, walking the streets like this?

Violet, snarling: Take a walk yourself. Beat it.

There isn’t any escaping her reputation. She’s ruined in Retroville. Violet should have taken Foster Friess’ weird abstinence tip from that MSNBC interview…

Gloria: The reform of state rape laws in the 1970s because of the National Rape Task Force at NOW.… The feminist campaign against ‘blaming the victim,’ requiring a corroborating witness, introducing the victim’s sexual history in court, or only prosecuting if the woman had physically resisted… All those feminist books like Rape: How to Avoid it and What to Do if You Can’t, and Against Our Will…Take Back the Night walks, to remove the shame… Legal provisions against marital rape…[2]The attention to the sexual abuse of girls and boys… And the legal recognition of male rape victims…[3] None of those things happened, Second Wave. Because you’ve never been born.


Second Wave’s seen enough. She finds Ernie, the cabdriver.

Second Wave: Ernie, take me home. I’ve gone off my nut.

 As they drive around town, things aren’t as she remembers.

Second Wave: Where did the Planned Parenthood move to?

Ernie: The Planned and what?

Second Wave: The Planned Parenthood. It was up there.

Ernie: Ohhh… That. They went out of business years ago.  I know–Everything’s shot in this town. Where do you live?

Second Wave: Aw, now, doggone it, Ernie, don’t you start pulling that stuff. You live in Bailey Park with your wife and kid. That’s right, isn’t it?

Ernie: You seen my wife?

Second Wave: Seen your wife! I’ve been to your house a hundred times. You have this great family. You just drive a cab for extra money. You’re a stay-at-home dad and raise your kids. You hang out at the pool with stay-at-home moms, and it works out great. Your wife’s a star English professor. You have one of the happiest families around…

Ernie, miserably: Look, bud, what’s the idea?  I’m not some unemployed bum fruit who does women’s work like raise kids and keep house! You saying I can’t earn a living like a man? I live in a shack in Retro’s Field and my wife– She ran away three years ago and took the kids… She didn’t want the housewife life. She wanted a career. But it’s not how it’s done.”

Gloria:  You see, Second Wave, you weren’t around to modernize marriage, to challenge gender roles, or to inspire the attitude that husbands and wives could both work, or that either one could raise the children. And those “50/50” marriages you read about? Never took off.

 Strange, isn’t it? Each person’s life touches so many other lives…Your sister, Helen–

Second Wave: My sister Helen went to war! She got the Army’s first Silver Star to a woman for direct combat action![4]

Gloria: No. Helen wasn’t there to fight for us, because you weren’t there to fight for her, for women in the military. That 1975 legislation you advocated for, that opened the military academies to women? Never happened.[5]

And it’s not just the famous examples. There are so many women scientists, parents, inventors, and entrepreneurs. They’re all here to help us, partly because you made their paths easier, or possible.  


Finally, Second Wave asks the fateful question. “Tell me where my wife Mary is.”

“I’m not supposed to tell.”

“Please, Gloria, tell me where she is.”

“You’re not going to like it.”

“Where is she?”

 “She’s…  an old maid. She never married. She wasn’t interested in men, and you weren’t here….Her life is really sad.”

“B-b-but…… being a single woman is the new happy thing! It’s … this big yuppie trend. There was a whole article about it in the Atlantic. Women like being single, they have great lives! Where’s Mary, where is she?” Second Wave asks, frantically.

“She’s just about to close up the library.”

“The LIBRARY? She’s a… a… rocket scientist!” Like Mae Jemison… like Sally Ride… Like Eileen Collins…”[6] Second Wave’s voice falters, in despair.

“No, Second Wave, that’s what she wanted to be. But Title IX (1972), which prohibited sex discrimination in education and paved the way for women’ s parity in athletics and professional schools, never happened.[7] The education opportunities weren’t there.

“And you weren’t there to mobilize for the enforcement of sex discrimination provisions after 1964, when Title VII of the Civil Rights Act passed.[8]  The career opportunities weren’t there.”

“Mary doesn’t have a great life like that yuppie Atlantic article told you, because you weren’t there…”

“Get me back,” Second Wave pleads. “Get me back. I don’t care what happens to me…. I don’t care if there’s an ugly culture war. I don’t care if people call me a Commie, Nazi, Fascist, Radical, Hippie, and Terrorist all at the same time.  “Please, God, just let me live again…”


And at this moment, Second Wave is delivered miraculously back into the arms of Bedford Falls, her familiar, post-feminist world.

“Hello, Bedford Falls!!!!” Second Wave exclaims. 

“Merry Christmas, movie house (…and Planned Parenthood)!”

“Merry Christmas, emporium (…and Domestic Violence Shelter)!”

Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan… with nondiscriminatory lending practices, and a highly-paid female manager!”

“Hey! Merry Christmas, Mr. Retro!” Second Wave yells as she throws a snowball at Retro’s office.

“Happy New Year to you…in jail,” he intones. “Go on home. They’re waiting for you… They’re all ready to deport you to a social conservative re-education camp in a church basement in Mississippi.”

Second Wave finds her way back home. As Retro promised, the bank examiner, and Mary, are waiting.

The bank examiner says, “I’ve got a little paper here.”

“I’ll bet it’s a warrant for my arrest… or, maybe, a right-wing blog that lances a carbuncle of putrescence at me and tells me to go bake cookies and move to Canada! Isn’t it wonderful?!”

“Reporters?” Second Wave continues, “I bet they’re here to pronounce feminism dead—for the 20th time!!!! Merry Christmas!”

“Mary!  Oh, look at this wonderful old drafty house. Let me touch you. Oh, you’re real!”

“Well, well, come on, come on downstairs, quick. They’re on their way,” Mary says.

“What’s happening?”

“Mary did it!” says Uncle Billy. “She told some people you were in trouble and then, they scattered all over town collecting votes, and volunteers, for the 2012 elections. They realized how much they owed you.”

“They didn’t ask any questions,” Uncle Billy continues, “they just said: If Second Wave is in trouble, count me in.”

And the citizens of Bedford Falls who had better lives because of Second Wave filed in, to cast a vote, make a modest donation, speak out, and organize.

“Mr. Gower!”

“I made the rounds of all my charge accounts,” the pharmacist says. “Every woman who owed me money for her uncovered birth control prescriptions!”


“I’m not going to leave town. I changed my mind. I don’t have to, since I’m not being called a slut and getting beaten on, all because of you.”

“I wouldn’t have a roof over my head and gotten a loan if it wasn’t for you, Second Wave, or…”

be a doctor…

have domestic violence shelters…

girls’ soccer…

a rape crisis line…


So you see, Second Wave, it’s been a wonderful life. A success story. You weren’t perfect. You weren’t even always right. But it’s a story of jagged, forward motion, for men and women.

I think you’re a victim of your success. You made such fast progress in transforming the boardrooms, classrooms, courtrooms, and bedrooms that people who came after you can’t remember what existed before.

And did anyone really believe that sexism, sexual violence, inequality, or stereotypes were going to get entirely “solved” in four decades? Or that the changes wouldn’t occasionally create new, collateral problems along the way that need to be tackled?  Those problems, and our mistakes, are small prices to pay for the enjoyment of agency, opportunity and personal liberty.

I’ll still take you over Pottersville, any day.

[1]               The first 8 women were admitted to Harvard’s business school in 1965.One out of every 11 adult women is an entrepreneur in the United States. Women business owners contribute to the employment of 18 million Americans.

[2]               In 1979, only five states (Oregon, Iowa, Nebraska, New Jersey and Delaware) had statutes to prosecute husbands who raped their wives. With the growth of the feminist movement, by 1985, an additional 18 states recognized marital rape through new laws or new precedent-setting court decisions and 15 more states had the matter under consideration. When Congress approved stricter federal rape laws in 1986, they also abolished the marital rape exemption.

[3]               At the grassroots, an especially in the feminist hub communities of New York City and Berkeley, California, the second-wave feminist movement dramatically revised cultural ideas of rape, and the legal and social response to it.  The anti-rape movement reoriented cultural understanding of rape from a crime of uncontrolled male desire to a crime of violence. The New York Radical Feminists held the first “speak out” on rape in early 1971, attended by 300 people who shared heretofore hidden experiences with violence and raise attention to the issue. In 1972 the Washington, DC Rape Crisis Center and other local feminist centers against rape put together information about women staying safe and lobbied for rape crisis lines and legal and medical resources. NOW led the way in working on legislative reform at the national level, and helped all 50 states change and modernize their laws in the 1970s. The most common revisions in rape law include: raising the age of consent from 10 to 12 (it’s higher today in most states); making inadmissible the victim’s past sexual history or reputation in the court; and dismissing the need for a corroborating witness, or physical resistance, to prove rape. If the victim hadn’t consent, whether or not she had fought off her assailant physically, then that constitutes rape.

[4]               Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester was the first woman to earn the Silver Star for direct combat action in 2005.

[5]               After hearings before the House Armed Services Committee in 1974, Congress passed legislation to open the U.S. military academies to women in 1975. In the U.S. Army, after the Vietnam draft ended, the all-volunteer force opened to women in 1973. In 1976, 120 women entered the military academy and joined the class of 1980. By 1978 men and women were training in the same basic training units. Women flew helicopters for the first time in armed combat in Grenada (1983), and six years later, Capt. Linda Bray became the first women to lead US troops in combat (Panama). Rebecca Marier was West Point’s first female valedictorian in 1995. By 2002 women were 15 percent of the Army. Influenced by the women’s rights movement, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt issued many mandates for equality—“Z-grams”—in the early 1970s to expand women’s role in the Navy. Four female officers were the first selected for flight training in 1973, and 81 women joined the Naval Academy in 1976. The “Women on Ships” program began in 1978. In the Gulf War, women were 15% of naval personnel.

[6]               Eileen Collins was the first space shuttle commander in the NASA program, when she helmed Discovery in 1995. Sally Ride was the first American women in space. She earned her Ph.D. in Astrophysics at Stanford, and was one of the 1,000 women who applied to NASA for the space shuttle program. Mae Jemison is a renowned African American astronaut and physician.

[7]              Title IX of the Education Amendment passed in June of 1972. It prohibits discrimination in schools and in school athletics. By 2001, because of Title IX, enrollment in women’s athletic programs and professional schools had skyrocketed.  Before Title IX, 7 percent of high school athletes were women. In 2001, that number was 42 percent. There have been problems with Title IX compliance guidelines, however, since some universities have disbanded smaller athletic programs to achieve parity, and schools with football programs and teams, with over 50 male players, have had trouble getting a numerical “balance” in athletic participation.

Today, women constitute a slight majority in both medical and law schools, and have parity with men in most graduate school programs (In contrast: In the pre-feminist days of 1956, the number of women graduated from all U.S. law schools combined would have fit comfortably in a large Starbucks). Women constitute 30 percent of all MBA students. 

At the undergraduate level, women now slightly outnumber men in college enrollment and completion. African American women, in particular far surpass their male peers in educational attainment—a cause for celebration of women’s achievement as well as serious concern for the dramatic gap in outcomes between males and females, and why it exists.

[8]    February 8, 1964 was called “the ladies’ afternoon” in the U.S. House of Representatives. On this day, representatives amended Title VII of the proposed Civil Rights Act to prohibit sex discrimination in all employment contracts. “We made it! God bless America!” a woman cheered from the House gallery after the amendment passed, 168 to 133.  Women had just joined the Civil Rights Act through a story of political machination by women’s rights advocates and embattled Southern segregationists that the Supreme Court would later call “bizarre.”

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The Congressional debate over the Civil Rights Act was the longest and one of the most contentious in history. In the waning days of debate, and in what was intended as a last-ditch effort to derail the bill, Virginia representative Howard Smith introduced an amendment prohibiting “sex discrimination” to peals of laughter. He intended that this complicating absurdity might scuttle the entire bill, otherwise destined to pass. But diametric political positions can circle the globe and eventually converge.

A vanguard of women representatives, led by the feisty and prescient Michigan representative Martha Griffiths, seized the opportunity to use the legislation like a Trojan horse to smuggle equal rights for women into law. What Smith introduced as a farce they embraced as opportunity.

Women would have to mobilize themselves at the grassroots, and against indifference and derision, to salvage sex discrimination legislation from the “limbo of silly, obsolete laws that litter the federal statute books.” In the summer of 1965, Washingtonians chortled over Playboy bunny jokes at cocktail parties. An airline personnel executive fretted over Title VII in the Wall Street Journal, “what are we going to do when a gal walks into our office, demands a job as an airline pilot and has the credentials to qualify? Or what will we do when some guy comes in and wants to be a stewardess?”Amid concerns about the Vietnam draft and the end to sex quotas,Harvard Law School dean Nathan Pusey complained, “we shall be left with the lame, the blind, and women.”

The EEOC’s first commissioner, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr., was a “young pugilist.” He began his tenure vowing to enforce the civil rights law targeted against race with an aggressive, “two-fisted” strategy, while hoping to disregard sex discrimination as a politically whimsical, Civil Rights grace note. Reported the Wall Street Journal, “how “large a gain women will make in winning more and better jobs will depend on how actively they themselves push for new positions. [EEOC] officials say they’re presently inclined to give the new sex regulations a very lenient interpretation.” Not seeing much passion among women for equality, the Journal reassured worried readers that “the Playboy bunny is safe.”

One or two women mavericks in the Federal government had a different idea. Perhaps, as the irrepressible Griffiths speculated, the EEOC should enforce the entire civil rights law, and “not just the parts [they] agree with.”

The EEOC may not have cared about women, but women cared about it. In 1965, fully 25 percent of the EEOC’s initial 8,854 complaints came from working women. Women filed complaints about help wanted ads that specified, “males only.” Stewardesses filed complaints about losing their jobs due to marriage. Significantly, many of these initial complaints emanated from women in blue collar or service industry jobs, but a vanguard of women educated in the professions would lead the charge to enforce sex discrimination laws. The New York Times quoted Yale-educated lawyer Pauli Murray in an article on lackluster EEOC enforcement. Author Betty Friedan, who had just published the incendiary expose on suburban malaise and the “mad housewife” syndrome afflicting well-educated, bored suburban wives, read the article, and gave Murray a call. One relationship at a time, women exiled from political power and professional networks were beginning to find each other.

Friedan and Murray concluded that they needed an organization to push EEOC enforcement—something like the NAACP, but for women.  The National Organization for Women (NOW), according to Murray, was formed in 1966 through the leadership of “business and professional women” who had languished without institutional or legal support for their careers. EEOC commissioner Hernandez finally had some organizational muscle behind her. This “second wave” of feminism was the progeny, she once reminisced, of “bureaucratic neglect. Reluctantly pregnant with sex discrimination responsibility as a result of the rape by Representative Howard Smith the EEOC went into hard labor and became the disinterested [sic] parent of NOW and many other feminist groups which sprang up in the decade between 1965 and 1975.”

One by one, local groups and plaintiffs challenged discriminatory practices and cracked many if not all glass ceilings in employment. They ended the “all-male” shuttle flights on United Airlines, the sex segregation of journalists and the National Press Club, and all-male executive tracks in corporate America. Today, Pew research finds that men stand to gain more from marrying college-educated women than vice versa. And in many cases, women have not only achieved parity in the professions, but have made the most of all of their opportunities, and have better prospects even in traditionally male occupations than their male peers. In contrast, A 1963 study asked 430 law firms to rate which characteristics they evaluate most positively and negatively. At that time, being Jewish, Black, or female were all consistently rated negatively, but women drew the most negative reactions of all, after “incompetents.”


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