Mary P. Ryan


On her book Mysteries of Sex: Tracing Women and Men Through American History

Cover Interview of July 29, 2009

A close-up

The volatility and possibility of recent gender history makes Chapter Seven especially interesting to general readers.  “Where Does Sex Divide: Feminism, Sexuality and the Structures of Gender since 1960” starts with the familiar history of second wave feminism, and casts it as a story of two generations, represented by the matrons of National Organization of Women and the young radicals of the Women’s Liberation Movement.  But the gender revolution had more depth and mystery than this.  It grew out of changes in the basic structure of gender as enacted by millions of women and men: like the transformation of the labor force underway for several generations, alterations in the family cycle that offered women larger spans of time without children to care for, and the increasing cohabitation of the sexes in schools, workplaces, and sexual intimacy.  These forces came together with explosive consequences late in the 1960s.  By 1980 the age-old divide between the sexes that ordained man the breadwinner and women the housewife, had crumbled.

This chapter, like the other six, presents historical change in the actions of individuals.  The story of the late twentieth century is powerfully illustrated by Pauli Murray who made history as lawyer for the NAACP and women’s causes.  Born in 1910 she was first denied admission to the University North Carolina because of her race, then barred from admission to Harvard Law School because of her sex, and at Howard University’s law school encountered what she called “the prejudice of sex.”  Only with the second wave of feminism, to which she had contributed her legal sagacity, did Pauli Murray achieve her personal American dream.  In her seventies she rose in the pulpit of the very church where her ancestors once sat as slaves, the first African American women to be ordained an Episcopalian minister.