A People’s History of the United States

A People’s History of the United States Chapter 19 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
After 1920, women could vote alongside men. And yet, “their subordinate condition” barely changed; sexism continued to be rampant in the U.S. One of the first major disruptions in sexism in America occurred during World War Two, when women were required to work outside of the home, since many young men were fighting overseas. However, even after World War Two, women continued to hold far less political power than men—they represented fifty percent of the voting population, but less than four percent of political office-holders.
In this chapter, Zinn will capture the diversity and multiplicity of populist causes in the 1960s. He begins by discussing the feminist movement of the 1950s and 60s, noting that even after the Second World War, women often returned to the same subservient positions they’d occupied before the war. Even so, they used populist tactics to lobby society for their rights and freedoms.
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Women played a key role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. Around the same time, Betty Freidan published the feminist classic The Feminine Mystique, in which she denounced the social system that forced women to surrender their dreams and serve their husbands and children. Women of the late 1960s played key roles in demonstrating against Vietnam and fighting for Civil Rights. In 1968, a group called Radical Women protested the Miss American beauty pageant by throwing bras and beauty products into the trash.
Instead of discussing each “identity politics” movement of the 60s—women, black people, homosexuals, Native Americans, etc.— as an isolated phenomenon, Zinn makes an effort to show how these different movements worked together to further one another’s agendas. Thus, Zinn shows that women didn’t just fight for their own rights, but also for the rights of blacks, and for the end of the military draft.
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The feminist movement took a unique form among working class women. Without “talking specifically about their problems as women,” many working-class women organized neighborhood people to fight injustice and lobby for services. Many working-class female activists connected the problems of women with a need for overall social and economic change, so that the “antagonist” against which working-class feminists protested was not just “aggressive male domination,” but also “capitalism.”
While he suggests that the feminist movement was united in its opposition to societal sexism and misogyny, Zinn is careful to capture some of the diversity within the feminist movement of the 60s. Again, Zinn shows how feminists combined their fight against sexism with their opposition to the ills of capitalism and government control.
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One of the key issues of the feminist movement of the late sixties and early seventies was abortion. Women protested for their right to control their own bodies; their protests contributed to the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision, in Roe v. Wade, to legalize abortion and give women the right to decide whether or not to have a child. Women in the late sixties also began to speak openly about rape and domestic violence and to support a Constitutional amendment ensuring gender equality, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Another key aspect of the feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s was the emphasis on the female body. Influential feminist figures, such as the poet Adrienne Rich, argued that women were subjugated in part because they were stereotyped and judged for their bodies in ways that men never experienced. Rich and other feminists argued that the powerful elite used sexism as a tool to trick the people into controlling themselves: women were indoctrinated to be meek and submissive, and to teach others to be submissive, too. Therefore, by teaching women how to be revolutionary and active in society, feminism could free women (and, perhaps, all people) from the control of the state.
One of the great legacies of the feminist movement of the 1960s was to make the “personal political.” Feminists began important conversations about their right to control their own bodies and to feel safe and secure in marriage, recognizing that traditional privacy norms were furthering the evils of sexism and spousal abuse. Notice that, again, Zinn is careful to link feminism with broader-reaching, radical programs of social change. For example, he cites Adrienne Rich, who argued that feminine liberation was a precursor to overall societal liberation. In characterizing the feminist movement in such a way, Zinn gives the impression that the different persecuted groups of the U.S. looked out for one another and saw themselves as having a common enemy: the Establishment.
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The sixties also saw the beginning of a widespread movement against the prison system. There had always been prison riots in America, but in the 1960s the number and scale of these riots increased greatly. Furthermore, as countless studies have shown, poor, black, homosexual, or socially radical people were more likely to be arrested and sentenced to prison for a given crime than upper-class, white, conservative, heterosexual people, and the injustice of their sentencing prompted some convicts to become more radical in their thinking.
The prison movement is a great illustration of Zinn’s approach to studying radicalism, because prisons united disparate persecuted groups (blacks, homosexuals, immigrants, etc.) and forced them to work together. Zinn suggests that different races and demographics joined forces to fight “the man” throughout the 60s.
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One of the key prison riots of the 1970s took place in Attica Prison in 1971. There, prisoners learned that George Jackson—a Californian prisoner who’d been sentenced to ten years in jail for committing a seventy-dollar robbery, and who’d become a well-known radical writer—was shot in the back by his guards, allegedly because he was trying to escape. Enraged with the suspicious circumstances of Jackson’s murder, prisoners rose up, took guards as hostages, and took over four prison yards. One of the most striking features of the Attica uprising was the racial unity between the different inmates. After five days of waiting, the New York state government, with the full support of the Nixon administration, sent in the National Guard to attack the prisoners (who had no firearms), violently ending the uprising. Attica, Zinn concludes, marked “the caring of prisoners for one another, the attempt to take hatred and anger of individual rebellion and turn it into collective effort for change.”
George Jackson has become a legendary figure among activists and radicals. Jackson wrote many books and articles denouncing modern American society—later, he was shot by his guards, an act of brutality that many interpreted as the Establishment’s attempt to suppress an eloquent voice of the opposition. In a way, the Attica prison uprising is the perfect symbol for 60s radicalism as Zinn sees it (he’ll allude to the Attica uprising again in the final chapters of his book): the people of the United States are different from one another, but they have one thing in common, that they’re persecuted by “the man.” Thus, in Attica, different races worked together to fight guards and the institution of the prison itself.
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For much of the 20th century, it seemed that Indians wouldn't organize into social activist groups. However, in the 1960s, Indians came to the forefront of social activism. In 1961, five hundred Indian leaders met in Chicago and formed the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC). As a result of NIYC action, Indians petitioned the federal government to address the hundreds of Indian treaties that the government had broken over the last four hundred years. When the government supported the building of a dam on Seneca land, Indians cited treaties the government had signed during the George Washington administration, promising that the U.S. wouldn’t build on Seneca land. Other Indian groups organized “fish-ins,” during which Indians fished in rivers that white residents wanted exclusively for themselves.
The Native American liberation movement of the 1960s was, in many ways, the most radical social movement of the era, because, unlike many other populist causes of the time, it attacked people’s fundamental right to own their own property by arguing that American society was built on the theft of Native American lands. It’s interesting that the Native Americans protested the American government by attempting to use the government’s own treaties against it, exposing the American government as a dishonest institution.
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A key event in Indian activism of the sixties took place in 1969, when Indians, led by the Mohawk leader and professor Richard Oakes, occupied the Californian island of Alcatraz and refused to leave. Oakes read a sardonic document stating that Alcatraz should, by all rights, be an Indian reservation, since it was isolated and rocky, had no running water, and housed prisoners. After six months, federal forces physically removed the Indian occupiers.
The Alcatraz occupation of 1969 was a milestone in American radicalism, partly because Native Americans used humor and satire to mock the American government’s hypocrisy. However, the government’s response was no different than its responses to union uprisings in the 1800s: it sent in the troops.
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Indians were at the center of the anti-Vietnam movement; many who served in the war drew connections between American soldiers’ treatment of Vietnamese peasants and past soldiers’ treatment of Indians. Indians also staged protests against the holiday of Columbus Day, and lobbied history textbook companies to include more respectful accounts of Indian culture.
Zinn stresses that Native Americans didn’t only fight for their own rights—they fought against the aggression of the American government in general, and the government’s brutality to its own people and the people of Vietnam. One of the major victories of the Native American populist movement of the 1960s was to change textbooks. Even if contemporary textbooks aren’t perfect, they’re much more likely to include passages praising Native American culture.
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In 1973, armed Indians occupied the town of Wounded Knee, where, in the 19th century, American troops had massacred Indians. They declared the town “liberated” from the U.S., citing an 1868 treaty that allowed the town to remain under Indian control. Hundreds of FBI agents and marshals blockaded the town and ordered the Indians to disarm. Over the next 71 days, Indians and FBI agents fought several gun battles. Finally, the blockade ended when the U.S. government promised to “investigate Indian affairs.” Later, the government concluded that the 1868 treaty was superseded by the principal of “eminent domain.” Nevertheless, the Wounded Knee incident provoked enormous international sympathy for Indian activism.
Native Americans at Wounded Knee believed that they needed to use physical force to challenge the status quo in American society. Thus, they brought guns to the town of Wounded Knee and refused to leave. It’s hard to blame the Native Americans for their behavior, since, throughout American history, the federal government has robbed Native Americans of their lands with far worse acts of violence. During the Wounded Knee affair, the government seems to have twisted the laws to justify its illegal occupation of Native American lands.
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The sixties and seventies represented nothing less than a “general revolt against oppressive, artificial, previously unquestioned ways of living.” Sexual behaviors changed very quickly, and books and films appeared that explored sexuality in ways that hadn’t been normal before. Musicians, such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, wrote songs protesting the Vietnam War. The sixties also saw a revolution within the Catholic church: while some “old-time religious revivalists” continued to be popular, other priests spoke out against their organization’s sexism and racism.
The radicalism of the 1960s went far beyond the radicalism of earlier decades, because it challenged cultural norms and attitudes toward sex, violence, and profanity, in addition to the concrete economic forces of capitalist domination. As a result, artists played an important role in the era, teaching their admirers how to “see the world” differently. One sign of the cultural radicalism of the decade was that even the Catholic Church—one of the most conservative institutions in world history—instituted some reforms.
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In all, the sixties represented a series of widespread, rapid changes, in which Americans questioned authority of all kinds: government, business, religion, and tradition. In the seventies, the powerful elite went to work trying to restore order.
Zinn sees the 1960s as a time of widespread, radical resistance to American authority, and the 70s as the era in which American elites tried to regain their power.
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