For those of us who didn't grow up wearing stirrup pants and big hair, the '80s can be a bit of a mystery. What was with the pegged jeans? Were braces cool, or nerdy? Could they have contained any more stereotypes in The Breakfast Club?
So here's a quick run-down of what America was like when Le Guin gave her monumental address. It's 1983. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Star Wars: Episode V- The Empire Strikes Back were the biggest movies released in the last few years. Top Gun was still just a twinkle in a writer's eye, and Baby hadn't learned Dirty Dancing yet, so she's probably still sitting in the corner.
To continue using movie references, we're at the point in Forrest Gump when he learns Jenny has HIV. The clamor over the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975, has quieted down, paving the way for the Second Wave of Feminism to sweep the country. Bras have been burned (well, okay, rumored to have been burnt), Roe v. Wade has passed, and Sandra Day O'Conner is the first woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court.
Women are being elected into major political seats of power (Margaret Thatcher, Isabel Perón, and Indira Gandhi to name a few), books about women's rights are topping the bestseller lists, and the movement even has an anthem, the chart-topping 1971 hit "I Am Woman". So-called "power suits" are huge, because women are entering the workplace in droves, and not as secretaries or assistants, but as businesspeople in their own right. They are wearing shoulder pads, and doing aerobics, and trying to establish their own sense of (to use the term very broadly) gender identity.
But not everything is looking feminist in the world of the early '80s.
In the summer of 1982, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) finally died. Originally written in 1923, the ERA was supposed to grant equal rights for women in the Constitution, but when it came to establishing what that meant, no one could agree. After years of debate, the amendment was passed in both houses of Congress and submitted to state legislatures for ratification in 1979, where it met resistance from conservatives (namely Phyllis Schlafly). Ultimately, the amendment died when states failed to meet ratification deadlines, finally ending what could have been a crucial boon for the women's rights movement.
So when Le Guin gives her commencement speech, she's reacting to this failure. She's trying to tell the graduates that they need to start identifying with their own gender rather than trying to fit in in a man's world. She wants them to see that women's cultural and political inequalities are inextricably linked, and aspects of their personal lives are actually deeply politicized and reflect sexist power structures.
By drawing attention to these facts, and encouraging women to educate themselves on feminist perspectives, and therefore embracing the "irrational and irreparable" (56), she is trying to pave the way for women to gain equal rights in some kind of nonviolent, metaphorical coup.
Phew. Turns out there was a lot happening in '83…once you look past the weird fashion choices.