What existentialism and postmodernism had in common was that, in very different ways, they critiqued many aspects of western culture, from the progressive narrative of history to traditional religious beliefs. There is some irony in that forms of philosophy that were often radical in their orientation flourished in the midst of the growing affluence of postwar consumer society: discontentment with popular values and a demand for greater social freedom grew along with, even in spite of, the expansion of economic opportunity for many people. Part of the explanation for the fertile reception of radical thought - very much including Marxism, which remained highly influential - was a straightforward generational clash between the members of the generation that had survived World War II and that generation’s children: the baby boomers.
Much more significant in terms of its cultural and social impact than postwar philosophy was the global youth movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The baby boom generation came of age in the 1960s, with unprecedented numbers of young people reaching adolescence right at the height of postwar prosperity. Enormous numbers of young people from middle-class or even working-class backgrounds became the first in their families to ever attend universities, and the contentious political climate of the Cold War and decolonization contributed to an explosion of discontent that reached its height in the late 1960s.
There were essentially two distinct, but closely related, manifestations of the youth movement of the 1960s: a largely apolitical counterculture of so-called “hippies” (a term of disparagement invented by the mainstream press; the contemporary analog is “hipsters”), and an active protest movement against various forms of perceived injustice. Of course, many young people were active in both aspects, listening to folk music or rock n’ roll, experimenting with the various drugs that became increasingly common and available, but also joining in the anti-war movement, the second-wave feminist movement, or other forms of protest.
Western society faced an unprecedented problem as of the 1960s: there were more highly-educated young people than ever before. As late as the middle of the twentieth century, the purpose of higher education was essentially to reinforce class divisions: a small elite attended university and were therefore credentialed representatives of their class interests. In the relative social mobility brought about by the postwar economic boom, however, far more young people from non-elite backgrounds completed secondary schools and enrolled in universities. In turn, it was often college students who formed the core of the politicized youth movement of the time: taught to think critically, globally aware, and well informed, many students subjected the values of their own society to a withering critique.
There was much to critique. The Cold War, thanks to nuclear weapons, threatened the human species with annihilation. The wars associated both with it and with the decolonization process provided an ongoing litany of human rights violations and bloodshed. The American-led alliance in the Cold War claimed to represent the side of freedom and prosperity, but it seemed to many young people in the West that American policy abroad was as unjust and violent as was Soviet policy in Eastern Europe. On the domestic front, many young people also chafed at what they regarded as outdated rules, laws, and traditions, especially those having to do with sexuality.
A key factor in the youth movement was the American war in Vietnam. Despite Soviet control of the Eastern Bloc, the American government was a much more visible oppressor than was the Soviet Union to the more radical members of the youth movement. American atrocities in Vietnam were perceived as visible proof of the inherently oppressive nature of capitalism and imperialism, especially because the Viet Minh was such a relatively weak force in comparison to the American military juggernaut. Vietnam thus served as a symbolic rallying point for the youth movement the world over, not just in the United States itself.
The focus of the youth movement, and a radical philosophical movement called the New Left associated with it, was on the life of individuals in the midst of prosperity. Leftist thinkers came to reject both the obvious injustices of Soviet-style communism as well as the injustices of their own capitalist societies. The key term for many New Left theorists, as well as rank-and-file members of the youth culture of the 1960s and 1970s, was “liberation” – sexual, social, and cultural. Liberation was meant to break down social mores as much as effect political change. For example, the idea that it was perfectly acceptable to live with a romantic partner before marriage went from being a marginalized, “bohemian” concept to one that enjoyed widespread acceptance.
Likewise, elements of the youth movement and the New Left came to champion aspects of social justice that had often been neglected by earlier radical thinkers. In the United States, many members of the youth movement (black and white alike) campaigned for the end of both racist laws and the inherent racism of American culture in general. A new feminist movement (considered in more detail below) emerged to champion not just women’s rights before the law, but the idea that the objectification and oppression of women was unjust, destructive, and unacceptable in supposedly democratic societies. In addition, for the first time, a movement emerged championing the idea that homosexuality was a legitimate sexual identity, not a mental illness or a “perverse” threat to the social order.
The youth movement reached its zenith in May of 1968. From Europe to Mexico, enormous uprisings led mostly by college students temporarily paralyzed universities, infrastructure, and even whole countries. What was to become the most iconic uprising against authority by the European youth movement began in a grungy suburb of Paris called Nanterre. There, the newly-opened and poorly-designed university faced student protests over a policy forbidding male students to visit female dormitories. When a student leader was arrested, sympathetic students in Paris occupied the oldest university in France: the Sorbonne. Soon, the entire Latin Quarter of Paris was taken over by thousands of student radicals (many of whom flocked from outside of Paris to join the protest), wallpapering buildings with posters calling for revolution and engaging in street battles with riot police. Workers in French industry instituted a general strike in solidarity with the students, occupying their factories and in some cases kidnapping their supervisors and managers. Students traveled to meet with workers and offer support. At its height, French infrastructure itself was largely paralyzed.
The student movement had extremely radical, and sometimes very unrealistic, goals for itself, including everything from student-run universities to a Marxist revolution of students and workers. The French public sympathized with the students at first, especially since it was well known that French schools and universities were highly authoritarian and often unfair, but as the strikes and occupations dragged on, public opinion drifting away from the uprisings. The movement ebbed by late June, with workers accepting significant concessions from business owners in return for calling off the strike. The students finally agreed to leave the occupied universities. In the aftermath, however, major changes did come to French universities and high schools; this was the beginning of the (relative) democratization of education itself, with students having the right to meet with professors, to question grading policies, and to demand quality education in general. Likewise, and not just in France, the more stultifying rules and policies associated with gender and sexuality within schools and universities were slowly relaxed over time.
The “Events of May” (as they became known in France) were the emblematic high point of the European youth movement itself, at least in its most radical manifestation. The “thirty glorious years” of the postwar economic boom ended in the early 1970s, and the optimism of the youth movement tended to ebb along with it. Likewise, the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, while understandably welcomed by the youth movement, did rob the movement of its most significant cause: opposition to the war.
That being noted, the youth movement’s legacy was profound. While no country in the Western world witnessed a genuine political revolution along the lines imagined by radicals at the time, there is no question that Western culture as a whole became much more accepting of personal freedoms, especially regarding sexuality, and less puritanical and rigid in general. Likewise, the youth movement’s focus on social justice would acquire momentum in the following decades, leading to the flourishing of second-wave feminism, anti-racist movements, and a broad (though far from universal) acceptance of multiculturalism and blended cultures.
One movement of particular importance to emerge from the protest culture of the late 1960s was second-wave feminism (the first was that of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). In 1949, Simone de Beauvoir, one of the seminal existentialist philosophers mentioned above, wrote an enormous (over 1,000 pages long) book about the status of women in Western societies. Titled The Second Sex, the book argued that throughout the entire history of Western Civilization, women had been the social and cultural "other,” always the secondary and exceptional variety of person compared to the default: men. In other words, when men wrote about "human history" they were actually writing about the history of men, with women lurking somewhere in the background, having babies and providing domestic labor (in English, consider phrases like “since the dawn of mankind” or “man’s relationship with nature” - the implication is that men are the species). Likewise, historically, every state, empire, and nation in history had been controlled by men, and women were legal and political non-entities until the twentieth century.
Thus, as described by Beauvoir, it was not just that men dominated, patronized, and often violently abused women, it was that to be a woman was to be the exception to every kind of political theory, philosophy, and history ever conceived of. Women were, in a sense, not really part of history. Beauvoir critiqued that non-status in Second Sex, writing from an existential perspective in which everyone's freedom and choice was at the heart of human existence. While she did not set out to start a political movement per se - her political involvement in the 1950s and early 1960s was focused on decolonization and a kinship with Marxism - The Second Sex would go on to be the founding document of the second wave of feminism later in the decade.
From the end of World War II until the late 1960s, there were only small feminist movements in most western countries. While women had won the vote after the war (with some exceptions such as Switzerland), and most of the other legal goals of first-wave feminism had been achieved as well, the postwar social order still operated under the assumption that women were to focus on domestic roles. Women were taught as girls that the world of politics and paid work was for men, and that only in motherhood and marriage could a women find fulfillment. In the process, women as a social category were largely cut off from the sense of political solidarity that had sustained first-wave feminism a generation earlier.
The problem for women in the postwar period, however, was widespread dissatisfaction and unhappiness with the social role into which they were forced, along with both overtly sexist laws and oppressive cultural codes. To cite a few examples, it was perfectly legal (and commonplace) for men to discriminate in hiring and workplace practices based on a woman’s appearance - flight attendants (“stewardesses” in the parlance of the time) were routinely fired at age 30 for being too old to maintain the standards of attractiveness enforced by airlines. Pregnancy was also grounds for termination, and unmarried women were generally paid fair less than men since it was assumed they would eventually marry and quit their jobs. White women in the United States made 60% of the earnings of men doing the same work, with black women earning a mere 42%. Rape charges were routinely dismissed if a victim had “asked for it” by being alone at night or being “inappropriately” dressed, and there was no legal concept of marital rape. Domestic violence remained commonplace, and husbands were generally only held accountable by the law if the violence seemed excessive from the perspective of police and judges. In short, while the first-wave feminist movement had succeeded in winning key legal battles, a vast web of sexist laws and cultural codes ensured that women were held in precisely the “secondary” position identified by Beauvoir.
In response, starting in the mid-1960s, the second-wave feminist movement came into existence to combat precisely these forms of both legal and cultural oppression and discrimination. Beauvoir herself joined the French Women's Liberation Movement, joining many women who were one-third of her age at that point (she was in her 60s at the time). Likewise, in the United States, second-wave feminism was often referred to as the "Women's Lib" movement, with comparable movements emerging across the western world.
Everywhere that second-wave feminism emerged as a movement, its goals were the creation of laws that expressly forbid sexual discrimination in the workplace and schools and a broader cultural shift that saw women treated as true social equals of men. This latter focus on equitable culture distinguished it from first-wave feminism, which while certainly cognizant of sexist cultural norms, had rarely called for true gender equivalence between men and women. For second-wave feminists, the movement was not simply about women having access to the same forms of employment and equal wages as men (although those were obviously very important goals), but about attacking the sexual objectification and sexual double standards to which women were held. For instance, why were promiscuous women the subject of shaming and mockery, while promiscuous men were celebrated for their virility? The essential injustice of sexual double standards was a key issue that second-wave feminists raised.
While the battle for sexual equality is obviously far from over, second-wave feminism did achieve many important goals. Legally, many countries adopted laws banning discrimination based on gender itself, as well as age and appearance. Laws pertaining to both sexual assault and domestic violence were often strengthened and more stringently enforced. Culturally, sexual double-standards, the objectification of women, and prescribed female social roles were all called into question. As with racism, the numerous forms of sexism embedded in Western culture all too frequently weathered these feminist assaults, but arguably they did weaken as compared to the past.