When Feminism First Became Popular: How Mass Market Paperbacks Spread Feminism


“everywhere you turn, there is an expression of feminism on a T-shirt, in a movie, in the lyrics of a pop song, in an inspirational Instagram post, in an acceptance speech.”  Sarah Banet-Weiser Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny


Banet-Weiser’s description of the omnipresence of contemporary feminism could have been written fifty years ago.  As Bonnie Dow argued in “Watching Feminism” 1970 was “Feminism’s Pivotal Year.”  Although the movement coalesced in the late 1960s, 1970 saw a “wave of press attention” that carried women’s liberation into the mainstream (27).  Every major television network covered the August march commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of woman suffrage. That same month The Ladies Home Journal published a supplement on women’s liberation and Time magazine put Kate Millett on their cover. The following autumn, television began beaming Mary Tyler-Moore, a happily single working woman, into America’s living rooms and now-iconic monographs and anthologies became runaway bestsellers.  “Feminism was an idea whose moment had come” as Eva Figes put it in the 1986 introduction to the re-issued version of her 1970 bestseller Patriarchal Attitudes. “”all men of good will and reasonable education paid lip service, at least, to the new philosophy of sexual equality … It seemed to good to be true, and in may ways it was (6-7).”

Definitions of popular feminism vary widely. Farrell’s discussion of Ms. Magazine as a vehicle of popular culture describes it as “a shared, widely held cultural and political commitment to improving women’s lives and to ending gender domination that is both articulated and represented within popular culture” (196).  Gerhard draws attention to the role of feminist art as a process through which “feminist ideas radiated out through cultural pathways to nonactivists, becoming relevant to those lives  that cannot necessarily be documented in histories of  those devoted to  feminism’s political causes”(4) and Anthea Taylor in her analysis of feminist fiction also describes a process of “popularizing feminism” that involves “rendering it accessible for women into whose lives it may not otherwise have flowed.” (4).

What these scholarly perspectives have in common is that they stress the need to make feminism accessible, both in terms of wider availability, but also in terms of intelligibility for a broader audience.  This article takes on the most challenging of texts to enter the public realm in 1970, non fiction works published by trade presses to capitalize on the public fascination with feminism.   In 1970 alone, English language publications alone included four monographs, Sexual Politics, The Dialectic of Sex, The Female Eunuch, and Patriarchal Attitudes, and two anthologies, Sisterhood is Powerful and The Black Woman.  Some of these texts have been tied to particular ideological strands of feminism, Sexual Politics and Sisterhood is Powerful with radical feminism, for example, The Dialectic of Sex with socialist feminism while others, The Female Eunuch, remain more notorious than theoretically influential.

Each title contained its own buzzword with “sexual politics” and “sisterhood is powerful” becoming part of the common lexicon of feminism. But in more subtle ways, each author had her own way of expressing the ideas of feminism.  Computational analysis may be used to highlight the similarities and differences among these texts, to place them in a sort of conversation with one another to determine what the omnivorous reader might learn of feminism through mass market books.

As the table above of selected keywords, terms that appears more frequently in one text as compared to others, indicates, there are ways in which we can see ties between different texts based on what might be described as 1970 feminism’s view of the family. For example,  children appears in the top 25 keywords for all titles except one, while family only appears in the top 25 for half the titles, a third have marriage, and mother husband and wife appear only once each. Thus while the content around what we might loosely term the feminine mystique, borrowing the title of an earlier blockbuster, carries through to these titles,  it is not necessarily children in the context of the family and marriage, and only rarely in the context of mothering.

The sort of content analysis that keywords highlight is helpful, but it only partially draws on the strengths of computational analysis. This is because content is something readers are fairly good at sussing out. Context however is far more difficult. How precisely word choices shade meaning is not something that the average reader tracks.  Word embeddings however, which utilize the notion that “words are known by the company they keep” does precisely that.  Word embeddings might help us to understand how children are being discussed in these texts.

Other questions emerged from the similarities of these results that may also be answered by word embeddings. The keywords suggest some similarities between the Dialectic of Sex and The Female Eunuch and Patriarchal Attitudes which would likely come as something of a surprise to researchers in this field who do not traditionally place Germaine Greer alongside Shulamith Firestone. It also highlights that Patriarchal Attitudes, a book that was quite popular in the UK in its day, but has rather fallen out of fashion among historians of the movement, is deserving of a second read.

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