Aug 28, 2020 in Analysis

Change in American Politics and Society

The period between 1950 and 1980 is one of the most transformative periods in American history. Historians often refer to it as the era of change because it was characterized by agitations for racial equality, class equality and equal treatment of the various sexes, the quest for democracy, and military conquests among others. All these events, in their unique ways, changed the American political landscape and the diverse aspects of the American society at large. They expanded the participatory space and introduced new ideological perspectives that continue to shape the U.S. residents to date. This paper investigates which between the women rights movement and the Vietnam War proved to be the greater source of change in American politics and society. Analysis indicates that the women movement had a greater impact on Americans politics and society as it not only expanded the political space for all the U.S. citizens but also encouraged equal treatment of different sexes, races, and classes in the society. 

The Women Movement

The impact of the women movement on the American political space cannot be overstated. The women movement expanded the political space for women. Before the advent of the women movement, there was extensive gender-based political marginalization. Women could not participate even in the most basic of political processes. In fact, before the movement, only the congressmen’s widows could participate in political processes, and even their participation was severely limited. Collins gives an apt example of Rosa Parks, who was barred from speaking at a political rally simply because he was a woman. Rosa Parks, a lifelong activist, had attended a community meeting in Montgomery neighborhood. However, the male leaders monopolized the podium and told her that she does not have to speak. The women rights movement advanced feminist sentiments that ultimately expanded the women’s political space. The movement made it clear that the U.S. women were not satisfied with the suffrage they enjoyed; they fancied political positions and would like to have more voice in governance. Since then, women have run for political positions with some like Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina running for the U.S. presidency; a feat that could not have been envisaged 60 years ago.

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The benefits of expanded political space trickled to the other aspects of life for both men and women. The women rights movement augmented the freedom women enjoy in the society. These freedoms subsist to date. Before the movement, women had modest liberties. For example, they required their husband’s permission to start a business, make a capital investment, and even get a bank credit card. Women could also not rent a house separate from their spouses unless the male partner consented. They were also not at liberty to wear whichever they saw fit.  Collins describes how a secretary was thrown out of the court after being deemed to have been dressed inappropriately. The women movement changed all that, affording women more freedoms and liberties. Women now have a right to self-determination. Women are not obliged to stay at home and take care of their families anymore; even men do that. Collins aptly presents the story of Phyllis Schlafly, a smart mother of six who is not governed by a man and enjoys her unlimited freedom to fend for herself and her children. She epitomizes the liberties that women enjoy today; liberties that are owed to the women movement. Today, women in America have taken responsibility for their economic and social welfare; they can wear miniskirts, exercise their reproductive rights, and have adventures of their own, independent of men. The implications of these freedoms in today’s society cannot be trivialized. The expanding space promotes democracy and the rule of law as it promotes not only the letter but also the spirit of the rights envisaged in the U.S. Constitution. 

An additional cataclysmic impact of the women rights movement is the enforcing of the equal treatment of sexes and the minorities. Before the women movement, job discrimination based on gender and ethnicity was rampant, and, curiously, acceptable. Where the women were employed to perform the same tasks as men, they were unfairly treated and remunerated as delineated in the story of the Barbara Roads, the union leader for flight attendants. There were extensive quotas and total bans that disadvantaged women and racial minorities. For instance, the admission of women into medical and law schools was limited. And even those who managed to pursue medical and law studies were ultimately restricted in practice.  Women were barred from serving on juries and performing surgeries. Gail Collins exemplifies the unequal treatment of the sexes in Earl Warren’s analogy. In the incident, Earl Warren, the Supreme Court Chief Justice, was advised in a memo to veto a proposal to have women serve on a jury because that would encourage a lax performance of their domestic duties. The women movement vouched for equity. Today, all the genders and racial communities enjoy equal treatment. Everyone has an equal opportunity to vote, join any profession he or she fancies, and even take leadership positions. Today there is an unprecedented influx of women into the U.S. workforce, a phenomenon unimaginable 60 or so years ago. Due to the achievements of the women movement, women have argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, many have become physicians performing multiple surgeries in a day, and others like Gail Collins herself have made history by assuming leadership roles that were a preserve of men.

The Vietnam War

The Vietnam War also massively impacted and inspired change in American politics and society. However, these impacts, while hardly negligible, are easily dwarfed by those of the women movement. Additionally, some of the changes negatively impacted the American society while others do not subsist to date. One of its core impacts was inspiring nationalism-oriented activism. Young Americans who felt that the Vietnam War did more harm than good to the American people demonstrated and vehemently protested against the war. A substantial number of them refused to be drafted into the military when required to enlist. Eventually, the Vietnam War would create a unique counter-culture that subsists to date. With time the counter-culture has mutated into distrust of the government, inspiring the masses to support causes that are against the establishment. 

Another noteworthy change is that the Vietnam War destroyed liberal consensus. The Vietnam War intensified the political polarization in the U.S.. Before the war, there was a substantial proportion of Americans who were ideologically neutral. They professed a mixture of both conservative and liberal views. However, the controversies that surrounded the Vietnam War deeply polarized the U.S. citizens as they could not agree on the cost-benefit analysis of the war. Most of the anti-war activists felt that the war was siphoning resources to facilitate a meaningless war. The money could have been spent on domestic priorities to improve the welfare of the U.S. citizens through rehabilitating ghettoes and providing food stamps among others. The Vietnam conflict was hugely unpopular among the U.S. citizens. During an interview with Appy, General William attributed the unpopularity to the fact that the U.S. national interests were not at stake. Ta Quang Thinh, a North Vietnam veteran who fought during the war, termed the reasons for the international community involvement in the Vietnam War as absurd. Foreigners just appeared from nowhere and forced the locals to take up arms and fight. However, while others felt that the reasons for involvement in the conflict were unjustified, others, like the then President Lyndon Johnson, viewed it as a noble cause; that the U.S. was fulfilling its role to protect the sovereignty of free nations, including Vietnam. Such reasons are still used to date to initiate wars in the Middle East as the U.S. increasingly views itself as the world’s ultimate liberator. The ideologically neutral persons at the center of the ideological spectrum gravitated to the two extremes. Suddenly there were no neutrals, there were only consistently-conservatives and consistently-liberals, and this change in American politics is still evident today.

The Vietnam War, crucially, encouraged democracy and denounced communism. The main thrust behind American’s involvement was to neutralize the effects of communism from China and Russia. It was a war against communism as the U.S. promoted liberal democracy and denounced imposed dictatorship. The war affirmed both in Vietnam and the U.S. that democracy is the best form of governance as even President Johnson would lose his presidency when the popular will of the people prevailed. 

In conclusion, it is evident that both the women rights movement and the Vietnam War had significant impacts in American politics and society. Comparing the two, though, it is apparent that the women movement inspired greater change than the Vietnam War. The women movement expanded the political space for women. Today, they not only participate in electoral processes but also run for the highest political office in the land. The women movement also fostered equal treatment of sexes and racial minorities and bestowed unimaginable freedoms to women. The Vietnam War, on the hand, inspired activism and affirmed democracy. However, its greatest impact is undesirable; it intensified the political polarization in the U.S. which is today threatening the welfare of U.S. citizens. The desirability and gravity of the changes prompted by the women movement by far outweigh those initiated by the Vietnam War.

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