An “exciting and enlightening revisionist history” (Walter Isaacson, #1 New York Times bestselling author) that upends the myth of the 1950s as a decade of conformity and celebrates a few solitary, brave, and stubborn individuals who pioneered the radical gay rights, feminist, civil rights, and environmental movements, from historian James R. Gaines.
An “enchanting, beautifully written book about heroes and the dark times to which they refused to surrender” (Todd Gitlin, bestselling author of The Sixties). In a series of character portraits, The Fifties invokes the accidental radicals—people motivated not by politics but by their own most intimate conflicts—who sparked movements for change in their time and our own. Among many others, we meet legal pathfinder Pauli Murray, who was tortured by both her mixed-race heritage and her “in between” sexuality. Through years of hard work and self-examination, she turned her demons into historic victories. Ruth Bader Ginsburg credited her for the argument that made sex discrimination unconstitutional, but that was only one of her gifts to the 21st-century feminism. We meet Harry Hay, who dreamed of a national gay rights movement as early as the mid-1940s, a time when the US, Soviet Union, and Nazi Germany viewed gay people as subversives and mentally ill. And in perhaps the book’s unlikeliest pairing, we hear the prophetic voices of Silent Spring’s Rachel Carson and MIT’s preeminent mathematician, Norbert Wiener, who from their very different perspectives—she is in the living world, he in the theoretical one—converged on the then-heretical idea that our mastery over the natural world carried the potential for disaster. Their legacy is the environmental movement.
The Fifties is an “inspiration…[and] a reminder of the hard work and personal sacrifice that went into fighting for the constitutional rights of gay people, Blacks, and women, as well as for environmental protection” (The Washington Post). The book carries the powerful message that change begins not in mass movements and new legislation but in the lives of the decentered, often lonely individuals, who learn to fight for change in a daily struggle with themselves.
Historian Gaines (For Liberty and Glory) delivers a compassionate and insightful group portrait of "singular men and women" who spoke out on LGBTQ issues, women's rights, civil rights, and the environment in the 1950s. Documenting how these pioneers sowed the seeds for the political, cultural, and legal sea changes of the 1960s and '70s, Gaines spotlights Harry Hay, founder of the gay rights advocacy group the Mattachine Society; Gerda Lerner, an Austrian Jewish refugee from the Holocaust who taught the first women's history course in the U.S. at the New School in 1962; Medgar Evers, the original field secretary for the NAACP in Mississippi, whose desegregation efforts led to his murder in 1963; and cybernetics originator Norbert Wiener, who warned of "the many ways cutting-edge technologies could benefit humanity but also draw its blood." Other profile subjects include feminist Betty Friedan, conservationist Rachel Carson, and civil rights activist Robert F. Williams. Gaines provides essential historical context and vividly captures the resilience of these and other "authentic rebels" who battled the FBI, McCarthyism, the medical industry, and the Ku Klux Klan "in a time infamous for rewarding conformity and suppressing dissent." This revisionist history is packed with insights. Illus.