America in the 1970s

The activism of the 1960s continued into the '70s, particularly for women and other minorities. As the war in Vietnam came to an end, new social causes came to the fore, especially environmentalism. The country celebrated the first “Earth Day” on April 22, 1970, and while the environmental movement was successful in raising awareness about the need to protect the environment, it did not win all of its political battles. Activists triumphed, for instance, when plans for SST (Supersonic Transport) planes were scrapped because of noise pollution and danger to the ozone level. However, they were unable to prevent construction from starting on the Trans‐Alaska Pipeline in 1973. Besides continued activism on several fronts, the United States also faced significant changes in its demographic portrait because of the economic problems the country faced and changes in immigration laws.

The women's movement. Women continued to campaign, with mixed success, for both political and economic equality through such organizations as the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the National Women's Political Caucus (1971). In 1972, Congress approved the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which stated that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex.” The constitutional amendment was quickly approved by 28 states before determined opposition mounted, and it failed to win ratification by the required three‐fourths of the states. Meanwhile, in the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, the Supreme Court struck down laws in 46 states that limited a woman's access to abortions in the first three months of pregnancy. Those opposed to abortion began to organize as the “Right‐To‐Life” movement, pushing for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. Congress cut off Medicaid funding for most abortions in 1976, limiting the access of poor women to the procedure.

Economic equality of the sexes still proved an elusive goal. Even as women moved into nontraditional jobs and many companies established new job‐training programs and opened day care centers for working mothers, disparities in pay for men and women doing the same job remained significant. Businesswomen pointed to the existence of a “glass ceiling,” meaning that women could go so far up the corporate ladder but no farther. At the same time, gender stereotyping began to wane. The use of gender‐neutral terms for certain jobs became part of the American lexicon — policemen became police officers, firemen became fire fighters, mailmen are now mail carriers, and stewardesses are flight attendants.

The status of minorities. With Jim Crow discrimination essentially eliminated through civil rights legislation and court decisions, the issue for minorities in the 1970s was how to combat inequality not rooted in laws and how the impact of past discrimination could be remedied. Desegregation efforts in public education shifted from the South to the urban North, where housing patterns resulted in all‐minority inner‐city schools. The reliance on busing to achieve racial balance in Los Angeles and Boston generated considerable controversy, and the Supreme Court ruled in 1974 that requiring the transfer of students from city to suburban schools to achieve integration was unconstitutional. Through affirmative action programs, employers were expected to make every effort to hire and promote minority workers, and a similar approach was taken to increase minority enrollment in higher education. Critics maintained that such programs were tantamount to reverse discrimination, or discrimination against the dominant group in the population, especially white males. In 1978, the Supreme Court limited the use of numerical quotas but recognized that race could be used as one of the factors in admissions policies of colleges and universities. The case involved a white applicant who was not accepted to a medical school that set aside a specific number of places for nonwhite candidates.

Among minorities, Mexican‐American and Native‐American groups especially achieved significant advances in the '70s. The Mexican‐American‐based United Farm Workers, for example, won an important victory in 1975 when California required growers to collectively bargain with the elected representatives from the union. Additionally, La Raza Unida (The United People) party, which was founded in Texas in 1970, promoted Mexican‐American candidates for political office in the Southwest and West. Meanwhile, in 1973, Native Americans occupied Wounded Knee, South Dakota, the site of the last confrontation between the Sioux and the Army in 1890. Although the occupation attracted headlines, the government was already making considerable changes in its Native‐American policy. Nixon rejected “termination” in favor of supporting tribal autonomy, and as a result, the Indian Self‐Determination Act (1974) gave the tribes control over federal‐aid programs that benefited them. The tribes also became more active in legal action pressing for the treaty rights to land, mineral resources, water, and fisheries.

Demographic changes. The 1980 census revealed that the composition and distribution of American society was changing. First, the growth rate of the population during the '70s was one of the lowest in U.S. history; the baby boom was clearly over. Divorce became more and more common, as did “nonfamily” households in which people lived together who were not related. The population was getting older, and the mandatory retirement age had been raised from 65 to 70 in 1978. New York State actually lost population during the decade, and population growth was extremely modest in the industrial states of the East and Midwest, causing them to be known as the Rust Belt. In contrast, populations in the Sun Belt — Florida, Texas and the Southwest, and California — grew considerably.

The Immigration Act of 1965 had ended the national‐origins system that had been in place since the 1920s, favoring Northern and Western Europeans. It had also ended the race‐based restrictions on immigration from Asia, and these changes in the law were immediately reflected in the '70s statistics that showed the overwhelming majority of legal immigrants to the United States coming from Asia and Latin America. The fall of South Vietnam created a refugee crisis of major proportions, and 500,000 South Vietnamese entered the country in the last half of the decade. As was historically the case, economic conditions in immigrants' native countries and the opportunities offered by the United States were the factors that triggered the movement of peoples from around the world. The same factors accounted for increasing illegal immigration during the decade, particularly from Mexico and Central and South America, a trend that continued into the 1980s.