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Liberalism Radicalized: The Sexual Revolution, Multiculturalism, and the Rise of Identity Politics

Sexual Politics. Radical feminism, according to Sarah Evans, a student radical, one of the first historians of the movement, and today a professor at the University of Minnesota, began as a form of Mills’s personal politics that proceeded from the civil rights movement. Female civil rights workers associated Southern segregation between the races with fears of miscegenation. Hence, racism did not stand alone; it protected the entire Southern patriarchal family and culture, in which women played a traditional role. Student women who were crusading for equal rights at first accepted traditional roles in the movement—cleaning and secretarial work.

What was called “radical feminism” began as a revolt against male chauvinism within the civil rights movement. A 1964 SNCC paper noted that “this is no more a man’s world than it is a white world.” The following year, Casey Hayden and Mary King equated the “racial caste system” with “the sexual caste system.”[61] Feminist activists placed this oppression within a Marxist framework, applying colonial theory: “As we analyze the position of women in capitalist society and especially in the United States we find that women are in a colonial relationship to men and we recognize ourselves as part of the Third World.”[62]

In their fight for independence, women in all classes could find common interests and create new symbols of unity more powerful than those of American liberalism, especially the “family unit [that] perpetuates the traditional role of women and the autocratic and paternalistic role of men.” With the creation of an identity group, feminists could fracture American society, entrench a new political position, and demand new rights. An early feminist manifesto demanded state provision of birth control, abortion, and free child care.[63]

Evans recalls that in 1967, she witnessed the “creation of a new, radical feminist movement.”[64] In 1969, along with hundreds of other women all over the country, she entered graduate school “determined to study women’s history.” Women’s studies courses were first offered in 1969; degrees followed in 1970.

Feminism grew stronger as a social movement during the 1970s, expanding through “consciousness-raising” groups. Feminists won new political rights, including:


  • The 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bars discrimination in hiring on the basis of sex;
  • Title X of the Public Health Service Act (1970), which provides access to contraceptive services;
  • Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments, which bars discrimination on the basis of sex in “any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance” and that requires federal funds be allocated equally to male and female collegiate programs; and
  • The 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which barred discrimination on the basis of “pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.”


Women as a civil rights group received heightened scrutiny protection in Craig v. Boren (1976). The ACLU lawyer in that case, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who now sits on the Supreme Court of the United States, recently commented that feminism as a movement would not be over until the Supreme Court had nine female justices.[65]

The feminist movement’s concept of gender went hand in hand with the sexual revolution, which Marcuse said was essential for a political revolution: “The New Left should develop the political implications of the moral and sexual rebellion of the youth…. [W]e should try to transform the sexual and moral rebellion into a political movement.”[66] Because, as some noted, feminism crusades to end the constraints of “femaleness,” it advocates one’s right to claim any gender without discrimination.

While numerous works in the 1960s had sensationalized the “homosexual underworld,” Gore Vidal’s works gave it a human face. In The City and the Pillar (1948), he wished to show the “‘naturalness’ of homosexual relations, as well as [make] the point that there is of course no such thing as a homosexual…. [T]he word is an adjective describing a sexual action, not a noun describing a recognizable type. All human beings are bisexual.”[67]

The 1969 Stonewall Riots, in which homosexuals fought New York City police, is frequently labeled the beginning of the gay rights movement. It was commemorated the following year in the first gay pride marches in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. In 1969, Paul Goodman wrote “The Politics of Being Queer,” which identified homosexuals as another civil rights group that is politically repressed and oppressed. He begins, “In essential ways, my homosexual needs have made me a nigger.”[68] Gay, lesbian, and transgendered rights were recognized as an issue of radical solidarity. In a 1970 open letter, Black Panther Huey Newton promoted an alliance between black revolutionaries and “the Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation Movements.”[69] Sexual minorities began to crusade for civil liberties and civil rights.

The Supreme Court carved out an entirely new realm of civil liberties under the “right to privacy.” Under Ninth Amendment police powers, states had passed laws to uphold what Chief Justice Warren Burger called the “Judeo–Christian moral and ethical standards” of “Western civilization.”[70] Following the cultural shift, between 1965 and 1977, the Court replaced this “Judeo–Christian” morality with the new progressive morality.

According to the Court, the “autonomy of the person” is constitutionally respected in “decisions relating to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education.”[71] Sexually, the Court recognized new rights for married adults, single adults, and minors to buy contraception. So too was the old Judeo–Christian notion of the “person concept” replaced with the Court’s recognition of a woman’s right to an abortion.[72] The Court finally overturned sodomy laws as an unconstitutional violation of the privacy rights of consenting adults.

The Court has not altogether rejected a role for moral legislation: Sadistic acts, Justice Anthony Kennedy has recognized, deserve no constitutional protection, for they constitute “moral depravity.”[73] However, Justice Kennedy repeated the new morality, which extends individual autonomy to “consensual sexual relations conducted in private.” Such acts constitute “private conduct not harmful to others.”[74]

Sexual minorities have also been recognized as groups that require civil rights protection under the Equal Protection Clause. In 1996, the Court overturned a Colorado law banning special protections for gays and lesbians because it “named as a solitary class persons who were homosexuals, lesbians, or bisexual either by ‘orientation, conduct, practices or relationships’…and deprived them of protection under state antidiscrimination laws.” The Court recognized the motive as sadism “born of animosity toward the class of persons affected,” hence with no “rational relation to a legitimate governmental purpose.”[75] This year, the Obama Administration filed a brief arguing that California’s ban on same-sex marriage “violates the fundamental constitutional guarantee of equal protection.”[76]


When asked in 1974 whether the New Left had succeeded, Herbert Marcuse said that it had “changed the consciousness of broad sectors of the population.”[77] He was right: Over the past 50 years, neo-progressives have successfully implemented Reich’s sexual revolution and Mills’s identity politics. Race, class, and gender studies are the core of the modern liberal curriculum at public schools and universities. Today, the New Left not only controls the Democratic Party, but also has taken root broadly in upper-middle-class American culture.

Neo-progressives assent to an underlying logic for the good life and the good society, but that logic is radically different from the previous liberal morality. The cultural shift has granted all Americans unprecedented individual freedoms in sexual expression. So too has it erected a new politically correct morality along with an official narrative that highlights the West as the engine of oppression and repression.

Conservatives and old liberals who seek to oppose these changes must return to where they lost the battle: the intellectual arena. They should first begin with a genealogy of neo-progressivism to weaken the myths that sustain it. They should also take a lesson from Mills, who begged his readers to ask:

What varieties of men and women now prevail in this society and in this period?… In what ways are they selected and formed, liberated and repressed, made sensitive and blunted? What kinds of “human nature” are revealed in the conduct and character we observe in this society in this period.[78]

On such an intellectual foundation, they might successfully engage, as Mills also wrote, in the “struggles over the types of human beings that will eventually prevail.”[79]