By Louise Bernikow
Friday, October 1, 2004
October 1969: Feminists Spank Spock
(WOMENSENEWS)--Dr. Benjamin Spock revolutionized child care in 1946 with "The Commonsense Book of Baby and Child Care," in which the pediatrician urged mothers to trust their own instincts instead of deferring to rigid rules and authoritarian doctors.
The book sold millions of copies, year after year. By 1967, with the United States at war in Vietnam, Dr. Spock urged resistance to the "illegitimate authority" of the military draft. He opposed nuclear proliferation. He was arrested often. A real hero. With one exception.
The exception was women. Feminists, whose Second Wave movement was just beginning, found much to critique in Dr. Spock's espousal of rigid sex roles. The care-giver in his writing was always "mother;" the child was "he." Child-raising and housework were women's work. His popular advice column for Redbook magazine warned young mothers not to do otherwise.
But in October 1969, that magazine carried a letter of protest from 25 leading feminists. The idea, they wrote, that women were most suited to "care of husband, care of home and care of children" was "insulting, anti-woman and scientifically false."
While Dr. Spock became even more prominent in burgeoning movements for peace, "no nukes" and abortion rights--the Nixon White House called the young rebels "a Spock-marked generation"--feminists kept up the critique. Women in those progressive movements continued to raise his consciousness.
It began to have an effect. By 1976, Spock's book carried a preface saying that he had revised his text "to eliminate the sexist biases of the sort that help to create and perpetuate discrimination against girls and women." In following decade, Spock began alternate between "she" and "he" when referring to a child. He also acknowledged the "help" of his wife, Betty, whose invisible contributions to his work had been seen by many as another form of sexist bias. Ms. Magazine included him as a hero of the women's movement. Dr. Spock died in 1998, and his book is now in its seventh edition.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called "The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.