Learn about the emergence of the American Indian Movement, the gay rights movement, and second-wave feminism.
- In the late 1960s and 1970s, Native Americans, gay men, lesbians, and women organized to change discriminatory laws and pursue government support for their interests, a strategy known as identity politics.
- These groups, whose aims and tactics posed a challenge to the existing state of affairs, often met with hostility from individuals, local officials, and the US government.
- Identity politics describes political movements or actions intended to further the interests of a particular group, based on culture, race, ethnicity, religion, sex, gender, or sexual orientation.
Identity politics in a fractured society
The political divisions that plagued the United States in the 1960s were reflected in the rise of identity politics in the 1970s. As people lost hope of reuniting as a society with common interests and goals, many focused on issues of significance to the subgroups to which they belonged, based on culture, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, and religion.
Native American protest
During this period, many Native Americans were seeking to maintain their culture or retrieve cultural elements that had been lost. In 1968, a group of Native American activists, including Dennis Banks, George Mitchell, and Clyde Bellecourt, convened a gathering of two hundred people in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and formed the American Indian Movement, or AIM.
The organizers were urban dwellers frustrated by decades of poverty and discrimination. In 1970, the average life expectancy for a Native American person was 46 years compared to the national average of 69. The Native American suicide rate was twice that of the general population, and the infant mortality rate was the highest in the country. Half of all Native Americans lived on reservations, where unemployment reached 50 percent. Of Native Americans living in cities, 20 percent lived below the poverty line.
On November 20, 1969, a small group of Native American activists landed on Alcatraz Island—the former site of a notorious federal prison—in San Francisco Bay. They announced plans to build a Native American cultural center, including a history museum, an ecology center, and a spiritual sanctuary. People on the mainland provided supplies by boat, and celebrities visited Alcatraz to publicize the cause. More people joined the protestors until they numbered about four hundred.
From the beginning, the federal government negotiated with them to persuade them to leave. They were reluctant to give in, but over time, they began to drift away of their own accord. Government forces removed the final holdouts on June 11, 1971, 19 months after the occupation began.
The next major demonstration came in 1972 when AIM members and others marched on Washington, DC—a journey they called the Trail of Broken Treaties—and occupied the offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The group presented a list of demands, which included improved housing, education, and economic opportunities in Native American communities; the drafting of new treaties; the return of Native American lands; and protections for native religions and culture.
The most dramatic event staged by AIM was the occupation of the Native American community of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in February 1973. Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, had historical significance: it was the site of an 1890 massacre of members of the Lakota tribe by the US Army. The federal government surrounded the area with US marshals, FBI agents, and other law enforcement forces. A siege ensued, which lasted for 71 days. There was frequent gunfire from both sides; two Native Americans were killed, and a US marshal and an FBI agent were wounded.
The US government did very little to meet the protesters’ demands. Two AIM leaders, Dennis Banks and Russell Means, were arrested, but charges were later dismissed. The Nixon administration had already halted the federal policy of termination and restored millions of acres of tribal lands. Increased funding for Native American education, healthcare, legal services, housing, and economic development followed, along with the hiring of more Native American employees in the BIA.
During this era, the struggle for gay and lesbian rights intensified as well. Many gay rights groups were founded in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The first postwar organization for gay civil rights, the Mattachine Society, was launched in Los Angeles in 1950. The first national organization for lesbians, the Daughters of Bilitis, was founded in San Francisco five years later. In 1966, the city became home to the National Transsexual Counseling Unit, the world’s first organization for transgender people (transsexual is an older term that was used by doctors and psychologists to describe transgender people). In 1967, the Sexual Freedom League of San Francisco was born.
Through these organizations and others, gay, lesbian and transgender activists fought against the criminalization of and discrimination against their sexual and gender identities on a number of occasions throughout the 1960s. They employed strategies of both protests and litigation.
The most famous event in the gay rights movement, however, took place not in San Francisco but in New York City. Early in the morning of June 28, 1969, police raided a Greenwich Village gay bar called the Stonewall Inn. Although such raids were common, the response of the Stonewall patrons was anything but. As the police prepared to arrest many of the customers, especially transgender people and cross-dressers—who were particular targets for police harassment—a crowd began to gather. Angered by the brutal treatment of the prisoners, the crowd attacked. Beer bottles and bricks were thrown. The police barricaded themselves inside the bar and waited for reinforcements. The riot continued for several hours and resumed the following night. Shortly thereafter, the Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activists’ Alliance were formed; these organizations began to protest discrimination, homophobia, and violence against gay people, and promoted gay liberation and gay pride.
As advocacy organizations called for gay men and lesbians to come out—reveal their sexual orientation—gay and lesbian communities moved from the urban underground into the political sphere. Gay rights activists protested strongly against the official position of the American Psychiatric Association, which categorized homosexuality as a mental illness. This classification often resulted in job loss, loss of custody, and other serious personal consequences for people in the LGBT—lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender—community. By 1974, the APA had ceased to classify homosexuality as a form of mental illness but continued to consider it a “sexual orientation disturbance.”
Nevertheless, in 1974, Kathy Kozachenko became the first openly lesbian woman voted into office in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In 1977, Harvey Milk became California’s first openly gay man elected to public office. His service on San Francisco’s board of supervisors, along with that of San Francisco mayor George Moscone, was tragically cut short by the bullet of disgruntled former city supervisor Dan White.
Women's liberation in the 1970s
The feminist push for greater rights continued through the 1970s. Feminists opened battered women’s shelters and successfully fought for protection from employment discrimination for pregnant women, reform of rape laws—such as the abolition of laws requiring a witness to corroborate a woman’s report of rape—criminalization of domestic violence, and funding for schools that sought to counter sexist stereotypes of women. In 1973, the US Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade affirmed a number of state laws under which abortions obtained during the first three months of pregnancy were legal. This made nontherapeutic abortion a legal medical procedure nationwide.
Many advances in women’s rights were the result of women’s greater engagement in politics. For example, Patsy Mink, the first Asian American woman elected to Congress, was the coauthor of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, Title IX of which prohibits sex discrimination in education. Mink had been interested in fighting discrimination in education since her youth, when she opposed racial segregation in campus housing while a student at the University of Nebraska. She went to law school after being denied admission to medical school because of her gender. Like Mink, a number of other women sought and won political office, many with the help of the National Women’s Political Caucus, or NWPC. In 1971, the NWPC was formed by Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, and other leading feminists to encourage women’s participation in political parties, elect women to office, and raise money for their campaigns.
The ultimate political goal of the National Organization for Women, or NOW, was the passage of an Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA. The amendment passed Congress in March 1972, and was sent to the states for ratification with a deadline of seven years for passage; if the amendment was not ratified by 38 states by 1979, it would die. Twenty-two states ratified the ERA in 1972, and eight more ratified it in 1973. In the next two years, only four states voted for the amendment. In 1979, still four votes short, the amendment received a brief reprieve when Congress agreed to a three-year extension, but the amendment never passed due to the opposition of socially conservative grassroots organizations.
What do you think?
Read Richard Oakes's proclamation from Alcatraz Island. Why did he believe that Alcatraz was a fitting place for protest? What did he see as the major problems facing the Native American community?
How were the American Indian Movement and the gay rights movement similar to the Civil Rights Movement? How were they different?
Why do you think the Equal Rights Amendment was never ratified?
Want to join the conversation?
- i do not understand how homosexuality was qualified as a mental illness. Men can love Men and Women can love Women. Transgender people are valid. Bisexual people are not confused. As a lesbian myself, it baffles me how people were so ignorant. Some people today are still just as ignorant, hateful, homophobic and transphobic. Hate crimes and bullying are still a big issue. We need to put an end to it. It has to stop. Why are these hateful actions still being carried out?(35 votes)
- There are still people who argue that the world is flat. Opinions do not depend upon facts.(25 votes)
- How has life improved for Native Americans, Women, and members of the LGBT community improved since the Liberation movements of the 1970s?(5 votes)
- I can only really speak regarding my community but at least in California LGBTQ+ people are protected under hate crime laws now and trans people have much safer access to surgeries and hrt. There are still many issues that persisted from before these movements but on a much smaller scale and now violence and discrimination towards lgbtq+ people is a criminal offence in a few states.(10 votes)
- why were American Indian upset?(3 votes)
- American Indians were upset for a number of reasons. They suffered a great deal of discrimination through their efforts of protest Minnesota (AIM). I would imagine today American Indians are still upset. While 4 in 5 women experience violence and more than 1 and 2 women experience sexual assault and forced sexual abuse.(9 votes)
- Why did people think that being LGBTQ bad in the first place.(5 votes)
- Fear of difference. Fear of 'non breeders' in the population. Fear of what would happen to acquired property when the owner passed away.
Fear, mainly. Fear.(4 votes)
- Why did it take so long for the LGBTQ Community to stand up like why did'nt this happen sooner(0 votes)
- Ignorance and prejudice on the part of the majority population prevented things on one side, and an unjustified acceptance of shame on the other side, both prevented this from happening sooner.(5 votes)
- Why was the Equal Rights Amendment never ratified? Why don't they try to ratify it now?(2 votes)
- Constitutional amendments must be ratified by three fourths of the states. In the US, that means 38 of them. People opposing the equality of women only need to prevent 13 of the 50 states from ratifying a possible amendment, and, to date, they've been able to do that. There's a lot of anti-woman belief going on out there, especially among certain men who believe that power belongs naturally to those with a Y chromosome.(1 vote)