Born near Fort Wayne, Ind., and raised on farms in both Ohio and Indiana, Jane Hamilton-Merritt received her B.A. and M.A. degrees from Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., and a Ph.D. in Southeast Asia Studies at Union Institute in Cincinnati, OH. She worked as a freelance war correspondent in Vietnam for six years, taught journalism at Southern Connecticut State University from 1979 to 1997, and was a visiting faculty fellow at Yale University from 1991-1992.
In 1969, she was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for a series on young soldiers and won the Inland Daily Press Association’s Grand Prize Trophy for her frontline coverage of the war in Vietnam. In 1980, her article in Reader’s Digest broke the story of chemical and biological warfare in Laos. Her highly acclaimed Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, the Americans, and the Secret War for Laos, 1942-1992 was published in 1993 by the Indiana University Press. In 1998 and 2000, Hamilton-Merritt was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her tireless efforts on behalf of the Hmong people of Laos, U.S. allies in the Vietnam War who have since been largely forgotten.
For almost 25 years Hamilton-Merritt has documented the Hmong story in books, magazines, and newspaper articles. She has testified before Congress and traveled throughout the country to raise public awareness of the plight of these former allies. She has also worked as a cultural advisor to school systems with significant numbers of Hmong refugee children and has brought an exhibit of their art and culture to museums throughout Connecticut. From 1982 to 1985 Hamilton-Merritt served as a consultant to the U.S. Department of State’s Ambassador-at-Large for Refugees. Since 1991, she has worked to stop the involuntary repatriation of Hmong political refugees from camps in Thailand back to Laos, a move she argues dooms thousands to slavery or execution. In 1997, she resigned from her tenured teaching position to work full-time for the resettlement of 20,000 Hmong living in a Buddhist compound north of Bangkok, most of whose families now reside in the U.S. She also serves as co-editor of the Vietnam War Era Classics Series.
More than a hundred individuals and organizations from several countries supported Hamilton-Merritt’s 1998 nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, including ten members of Congress and three former U.S. ambassadors. As Burke Marshall of Yale Law School wrote, “They (the Hmong) are a people who have been deeply damaged and wronged by history and by the actions of great nations…and for whom there is no compensation, no recourse except for the inexplicable intervention of the exceptional, virtually unique, voice and body of Dr. Jane Hamilton-Merritt.” Hamilton-Merritt, for her part, said that, “The nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize is, of course, a tremendous honor. It is, however, not really for me but for the tens of thousands of Hmong and other ethnic groups in Asia who, because they are voiceless, suffer silently egregious efforts to extinguish their cultures and their lives. This nomination, hopefully, will remind the world and its leaders that the plight of the Hmong and other vulnerable ethnic groups in Southeast Asia needs bold and serious attention.”
During This Time
1966 - Today: Struggle for Justice
Feminism in the late 1960s was aided by President Kennedy, who formed the President’s Commission on the Status of Women in 1961, and his successor, President Johnson, who backed passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting discrimination based on race, sex, national origin, or religion. Difficulties in implementing the law through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) led a group of women in 1966 to create the National Organization for Women (NOW), demanding “action to bring American women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now.”
A younger group called for a more radical approach to social change than simply considering what was possible to achieve politically. “Women’s liberation” demanded freedom without limitation. Some took part in consciousness-raising groups, others demonstrated against the Miss America pageant, and many discussed their expectations of mutual enjoyment of sex. They established rape crisis centers, domestic shelters, and women’s studies programs. Title IX of the federal Education Amendments Act also increased pressure on universities to hire more women faculty and expand the number of female college athletes. Activist protest among gays and lesbians, such as the Stonewall Riot, symbolized this group’s potential to resist oppression.
Under pressure, many states repealed legislation prohibiting abortion. In 1973, the Supreme Court legalized its availability to women in Roe v. Wade. Also in 1973, the Senate and the House of Representatives passed the ERA, and states began its ratification.
Yet, dissension arose in the ranks of the movement, as it had earlier after passage of the 19th amendment. Feminists disagreed as to whether pornography should be banned or protected as a form of free speech, and whether lesbian identities should be kept secret or disclosed. Black women were more concerned with poverty and welfare in their communities than with personal career advancement; for them, sterilization abuse was more important than abortion, and they were deeply insulted by attacks on the African American family as matriarchal and dysfunctional.
A backlash was growing in the 1970s, along with a New Right in politics. The ERA was defeated and opposition to abortion increased. Conflicts between pro-life and pro-choice candidates have impacted every presidential campaign since then.
Still, gains have been made in many areas. From 1960 to 2000, increasing numbers of women sought entry to higher education, and bachelor’s degrees awarded to them increased from forty to sixty percent. Definitions of marriage have changed, as when courts gave full rights and responsibilities and the name of marriage to same-sex civil unions in Connecticut in 2008. The Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991 highlighted concern about sexual harassment on the job, and the number of sexual harassment cases filed with the EEOC have increased, as have judgments in favor of the women. Finally, in 2009, women crossed the fifty percent threshold and became the majority of the American workforce. Once largely confined to repetitive manual jobs, now they are running organizations that once treated them as second-class citizens.
The Women’s Movement has changed women’s lives, influenced the economy, and made debate about their roles, family life, and sexual conventions central to national politics and American history.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.