Katherine Turk, PhD'11, and Alison Lefkovitz, PhD'10, complicate the history of second-wave feminism (circa 1960–80) to include poor and working-class women. The following assessment of their work is an excerpt from Sara M. Evans's "Generations Later, Retelling the Story," in The Legacy of Second-Wave Feminism in American Politics, edited by Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields (Palgreve Macmillan, 2018), 31–33:

Changes wrought by the [feminist] movement have left a swath of unresolved problems affecting the lives of large numbers of women, marked by class as well as race. Katherine Turk's study of Title VII explores some of the broader implications of the strategic shift in NOW and much of mainstream feminism toward individual opportunity as symbolized by the ERA and away from policies that acknowledge the different realities of women and men in the labor force and the family. In doing so, she also complicates the label "liberal feminist" by showing that, like self-defined radicals, liberals also wrestled with the deeper meanings of the changes they sought.

In an article in the Journal of American History Turk focuses on the Chicago branch of NOW which had built a nationally influential campaign against Sears for its practices of refusing to hire women in higher ticket sales jobs, confining them to the lowest paid clerical and retail jobs. Internal battles for the leadership of NOW in the mid-1970s, however, sidelined the Chicago group led by Mary Jean Collins and Anne Ladke. As a result, NOW became a more streamlined and centralized organization focused on the ERA, leaving local campaigns like the Sears campaign stranded. Turk follows the trajectory of NOW under the leadership of Karen DeCrow and then Eleanor Smeal away from the concerns of working women in low-paid jobs and toward an agenda emphasizing individual rights and opportunity... Doors opened to professional opportunities, but the majority of working women remain confined to the lowest wage, female-dominated (and mostly unorganized) clerical and service jobs.

Alison Lefkovitz's dissertation on marriage in the time of women's liberation bolsters Turk's conclusion that low-income and poor women have been left behind in the changes wrought by feminism... Feminists made multiple arguments about marriage in the early 1970s. Some proposed simple, formal equality while more radical critiques demanded that the institution of marriage itself be dismantled, as it could not be reformed. What is interesting here is the behavior of thousands of men and women in response to shifting legal requirements that linked no-fault divorce and state-level equal-rights amendments. Without clear intention, the new legal regime dismantled the male breadwinner/female housewife model of marriage that had been fundamental to marriage law for centuries and was the foundation for legal coverture... Men, for example, challenged the gendered premises of alimony, which soon became maintenance based on a percentage of contribution by either spouse to the household. Women achieved some legal recognition of the value of their household labor when that justified the division of household property rather than assuming that it belonged to the man.

The complex consequences of removing prescribed gender roles from the legal understanding of marriage were twofold. Anxiety about the failing family galvanized the right-wing opposition to feminism... The organized power of that reaction helps to explain the fierce resistance to gay marriage, which became in a legal sense totally logical once marriage and gender were disconnected. It also fed the refusal of policymakers to extend the recognition that women’s labor in the home has monetary value to poor women on welfare... But wages for housework never gained any traction, and poor women were left with a diminished capacity to argue effectively for their own needs.

Katherine Turk is an assistant professor of history, University of North Carolina, and Alison Lefkovitz is an assistant professor of history, Rutgers University.

Further Reading

Alison Lefkovitz, "Marriage in the Era of Women's Liberation" (PhD diss., University of Chicago, 2010).

Katherine Turk, "Out of the Revolution, into the Mainstream: Employment Activism in the NOW Sears Campaign and the Growing Pains of Liberal Feminism," Journal of American History 97, no. 2 (Sept. 2010): 399–423.

Katherine Lee Turk, "Equality on Trial: Women and Work in the Age of Title VII" (PhD diss., University of Chicago, 2011).