Today in Feminist History: Support for the Feminist Movement is Growing (March 24, 1972)

March 24, 1972: According to a poll released today, American women are becoming much more supportive of the feminist movement and its goals, though many still remain skeptical.

Just a year ago, women who were surveyed for the Virginia Slims Women’s Opinion Poll by Louis Harris and Associates opposed efforts “to strengthen and change women’s status in society today” by 42% to 40%. But in this year’s survey, Harris found support had increased dramatically, with 48% in favor and just 36% opposed.

Though the women’s rights groups responsible for this changing of consciousness are not yet supported by a majority of women, opposition has decreased significantly. Last year 51% thought “few or none of these organizations” were helpful, while 34% thought they were. This year, 43% found them useful and 44% did not, with the 1% gap well within the poll’s margin of error. 

Of course, there are still attitudes that need to be changed, especially in regard to women in political life. Sixty-three percent of the women surveyed thought men were more emotionally suited to politics, though seventy-four percent believed that women in public office can be as logical and rational as men.

If given a choice between a male and a female candidate with identical qualifications and views, about 40% of women would be more likely to vote for the male candidate, while only 17% would prefer the female, and 37% said that a candidate’s sex would make no difference.

But political inequality is now being noticed, and hopefully will be challenged. By 40% to 34%, those surveyed thought there were too few women delegates at the Presidential nominating conventions, and 32% thought half the delegates should be women.

As for attaining the Presidency itself, 27% said the country will never be ready to elect a female President, but 37% believed it will happen in the next ten years. 

According to Harris, women’s political views will become increasingly decisive, especially if they vote differently from men. Women voters almost tipped the 1968 election to Hubert Humphrey, and would have done so if they had cast a majority of the votes.

In that election, 46% of women voted for Democrat Hubert Humphrey, 43% for Republican Richard Nixon and 11% for American Independent Party candidate George Wallace. Forty-four percent of men voted for Nixon, forty per cent for Humphrey, and sixteen per cent for Wallace.

At a press conference yesterday, Harris said: “It is entirely likely that women will continue to be a majority of the voting constituency for the rest of the century.”

In the words of the pollsters:

“A feminist ‘pro-change’ constituency is solidifying among specific groups of women. The most conspicuous increases in support for efforts to change women’s status have occurred among women who are single (from 53% last year to the present 67%), in the 18-29 age group (from 46% to 56%), college graduates (from 44% to 57%), and suburban residents (from 41% to 51%). Strong support for status-changing efforts persists among Blacks (62%), the divorced and separated (57%), and city residents (52%). Strongest opposition to change is found among women who are widows, over 40 and residents of rural areas. But even among these groups, opposition to feminist ideas is diminishing.” 

Among the more encouraging signs the survey found were that 48% of women now agree that: “It’s time they protested the real injustices they’ve faced for years,” with 43% disagreeing. Last year 52% rejected this view, and only 38% supported it.

But actual protesting still seems to be unpopular. Any question that involved the word “liberation,” “picket,” or “protest” drew unsympathetic responses, with only about a third favoring protests and picketing as the way to win equality, though this would still represent tens of millions of women who could potentially be recruited for actions. 

The pollsters concluded their survey results with an optimistic prediction validating the impression that feminists have made a good deal of progress, and that there will be more to come if we continue our efforts: 

“It is highly probable that women of the future will have vastly different pictures of themselves from women of today. According to the Virginia Slims study, younger women are rejecting many cherished stereotypes of their sex and frequently express opinions and life-style preferences quite different from older women.”


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.