Second-wave feminism

Second-wave feminism is a period of feminist activity and thought that first began in the early 1960s in the United States, and eventually spread throughout the Western world and beyond. In the United States the movement lasted through the early 1980s.[1] It later became a worldwide movement that was strong in Europe and parts of Asia, such as Turkey[2] and Israel, where it began in the 1980s, and it began at other times in other countries.[3]

Whereas first-wave feminism focused mainly on suffrage and overturning legal obstacles to gender equality (e.g., voting rights, property rights), second-wave feminism broadened the debate to a wide range of issues: sexuality, family, the workplace, reproductive rights, de facto inequalities, and official legal inequalities.[4] Second-wave feminism also drew attention to domestic violence and marital rape issues, establishment of rape crisis and battered women's shelters, and changes in custody and divorce law. Its major effort was the attempted passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the United States Constitution, in which they were defeated by anti-feminists led by Phyllis Schlafly, who argued as an anti-ERA view that the ERA meant women would be drafted into the military.

Many historians view the second-wave feminist era in America as ending in the early 1980s with the intra-feminism disputes of the feminist sex wars over issues such as sexuality and pornography, which ushered in the era of third-wave feminism in the early 1990s.[5][6][7][8][9]

Numerous feminist scholars, especially those from the late 20th century into the 21st century, critique the second-wave in the United States as reducing feminist activity into a homogenized and whitewashed chronology of feminist history that ignores the voices and contributions of many women of color, working-class women, and LGBT women.[10][11]


The second wave of feminism in North America came as a delayed reaction against the renewed domesticity of women after World War II: the late 1940s post-war boom, which was an era characterized by an unprecedented economic growth, a baby boom, a move to family-oriented suburbs, and the ideal of companionate marriages. This life was clearly illustrated by the media of the time; for example television shows such as Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver idealized domesticity.[12]

Before the second wave there were some important events which laid the groundwork for it. French writer Simone de Beauvoir had in the 1940s examined the notion of women being perceived as "other" in the patriarchal society. She went on to conclude that male-centered ideology was being accepted as a norm and enforced by the ongoing development of myths, and that the fact that women are capable of getting pregnant, lactating, and menstruating is in no way a valid cause or explanation to place them as the "second sex".[13] This book was translated from French to English (with some of its text excised) and published in America in 1953.[14]

In 1960 the Food and Drug Administration approved the combined oral contraceptive pill, which was made available in 1961.[15] This made it easier for women to have careers without having to leave due to unexpectedly becoming pregnant.

External video
Prospects of Mankind with Eleanor Roosevelt; What Status For Women?, 59:07, 1962.
Eleanor Roosevelt, chair of the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, interviews President John F. Kennedy, Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg and others, Open Vault from WGBH[16]

The administration of President Kennedy made women's rights a key issue of the New Frontier, and named women (such as Esther Peterson) to many high-ranking posts in his administration.[17] Kennedy also established a Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt and comprising cabinet officials (including Peterson and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy), senators, representatives, businesspeople, psychologists, sociologists, professors, activists, and public servants.[18] There were also notable actions by women in wider society, presaging their wider engagement in politics which would come with the second wave. In 1961, 50,000 women in 60 cities, mobilized by Women Strike for Peace, protested above ground testing of nuclear bombs and tainted milk.[19][20]

In 1963 Betty Friedan, influenced by The Second Sex, wrote the bestselling book The Feminine Mystique. Discussing primarily white women, she explicitly objected to how women were depicted in the mainstream media, and how placing them at home limited their possibilities and wasted potential. Friedan described this as "The Problem That Has No Name".[21] The perfect nuclear family image depicted and strongly marketed at the time, she wrote, did not reflect happiness and was rather degrading for women.[22] This book is widely credited with having begun second-wave feminism.[23]

Though it is widely accepted that the movement lasted from the 1960s into the early 1980s, the exact years of the movement are more difficult to pinpoint and are often disputed. The movement is usually believed to have begun in 1963, when "Mother of the Movement" Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, and President John F. Kennedy's Presidential Commission on the Status of Women released its report on gender inequality. The report, which revealed great discrimination against women in American life, along with Friedan's book, which spoke to the discontent of many women (especially housewives), led to the formation of many local, state, and federal government women's groups as well as many independent feminist organizations. Friedan was referencing a "movement" as early as 1964.[24]

The movement grew with legal victories such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Griswold v. Connecticut Supreme Court ruling of 1965. In 1966 Friedan joined other women and men to found the National Organization for Women (NOW); Friedan would be named as the organization's first president.[25]

Despite the early successes NOW achieved under Friedan's leadership, her decision to pressure the Equal Employment Opportunity to use Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to enforce more job opportunities among American women met with fierce opposition within the organization.[25] Siding with arguments among several of the group's African-American members,[25] many of NOW's leaders were convinced that the vast number of male African-Americans who lived below the poverty line were in need of more job opportunities than women within the middle and upper class.[26] Friedan stepped down as president in 1969.[27]

In 1963, freelance journalist Gloria Steinem gained widespread popularity among feminists after a diary she authored while working undercover as a Playboy Bunny waitress at the Playboy Club was published as a two-part feature in the May and June issues of Show.[28] In her diary, Steinem alleged the club was mistreating its waitresses in order to gain male customers and exploited the Playboy Bunnies as symbols of male chauvinism, noting that the club's manual instructed the Bunnies that "there are many pleasing ways they can employ to stimulate the club's liquor volume."[28] By 1968, Steinem had become arguably the most influential figure in the movement and support for legalized abortion and federally funded day-cares had become the two leading objectives for feminists.[29]

Amongst the most significant legal victories of the movement after the formation of NOW were a 1967 Executive Order extending full affirmative action rights to women, a 1968 EEOC decision ruling illegal sex-segregated help wanted ads, Title IX and the Women's Educational Equity Act (1972 and 1974, respectively, educational equality), Title X (1970, health and family planning), the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (1974), the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, the outlawing of marital rape (although not outlawed in all states until 1993 [30]), and the legalization of no-fault divorce (although not legalized in all states until 2010 [31]), a 1975 law requiring the U.S. Military Academies to admit women, and many Supreme Court cases, perhaps most notably Reed v. Reed of 1971 and Roe v. Wade of 1973. However, the changing of social attitudes towards women is usually considered the greatest success of the women's movement. In January 2013, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that the longtime ban on women serving in US military combat roles had been lifted.[32] The US Department of Defense plans to integrate women into all combat positions by 2016.[32]

Second-wave feminism also affected other movements, such as the civil rights movement and the student's rights movement, as women sought equality within them. In 1965 Casey Hayden and Mary King published "Sex and Caste: A Kind of Memo"[33] detailing women's inequality within the civil rights organization SNCC.[34]

In June 1967 Jo Freeman attended a "free school'" course on women at the University of Chicago led by Heather Booth [35] and Naomi Weisstein. She invited them to organize a woman's workshop at the then-forthcoming National Conference of New Politics (NCNP), to be held over Labor Day weekend 1967 in Chicago. At that conference a woman's caucus was formed, and it (led by Freeman and Shulamith Firestone) tried to present its own demands to the plenary session.[36] However, the women were told their resolution was not important enough for a floor discussion, and when through threatening to tie up the convention with procedural motions they succeeded in having their statement tacked to the end of the agenda, it was never discussed.[37] When the National Conference for New Politics Director Willam F. Pepper refused to recognize any of the women waiting to speak and instead called on someone to speak about the American Indian, five women, including Firestone, rushed the podium to demand to know why.[37] But Willam F. Pepper patted Firestone on the head and said, "Move on little girl; we have more important issues to talk about here than women's liberation", or possibly, "Cool down, little girl. We have more important things to talk about than women's problems."[36][37] Freeman and Firestone called a meeting of the women who had been at the "free school" course and the women's workshop at the conference; this became the first Chicago women's liberation group. It was known as the Westside group because it met weekly in Freeman's apartment on Chicago's west side. After a few months Freeman started a newsletter which she called Voice of the women's liberation movement. It circulated all over the country (and in a few foreign countries), giving the new movement of women's liberation its name. Many of the women in the Westside group went on to start other feminist organizations, including the Chicago Women's Liberation Union.

In 1968, an SDS organizer at the University of Washington told a meeting about white college men working with poor white men, and "[h]e noted that sometimes after analyzing societal ills, the men shared leisure time by 'balling a chick together.' He pointed out that such activities did much to enhance the political consciousness of poor white youth. A woman in the audience asked, 'And what did it do for the consciousness of the chick?'" (Hole, Judith, and Ellen Levine, Rebirth of Feminism, 1971, pg. 120).[37] After the meeting, a handful of women formed Seattle's first women's liberation group.[37]

By the early 1980s, it was largely perceived that women had met their goals and succeeded in changing social attitudes towards gender roles, repealing oppressive laws that were based on sex, integrating the "boys' clubs" such as Military academies, the United States armed forces, NASA, single-sex colleges, men's clubs, and the Supreme Court, and illegalizing gender discrimination. However, in 1982 adding the Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution failed, having been ratified by only 35 states, leaving it three states short of ratification.

Second-wave feminism was largely successful, with the failure of the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and Nixon's veto of the Comprehensive Child Development Bill of 1972 (which would have provided a multibillion-dollar national day care system) the only major legislative defeats. Efforts to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment have continued. Ten states have adopted constitutions or constitutional amendments providing that equal rights under the law shall not be denied because of sex, and most of these provisions mirror the broad language of the Equal Rights Amendment. Furthermore, many women's groups are still active and are major political forces. As of 2011, more women earn bachelor's degrees than men,[38] half of the Ivy League presidents are women, the numbers of women in government and traditionally male-dominated fields have dramatically increased, and in 2009 the percentage of women in the American workforce temporarily surpassed that of men.[39] The salary of the average American woman has also increased over time, although as of 2008 it is only 77% of the average man's salary, a phenomenon often referred to as the Gender Pay Gap.[40] Whether this is due to discrimination is very hotly disputed, however economists and sociologists have provided evidence to that effect.[41][42][43]

Second-wave feminism in the U.S. coincided in the early 1980s with the feminist sex wars and was overlapped by third wave feminism in the early 1990s.

Second-wave feminists viewed popular culture as sexist, and created pop culture of their own to counteract this. Australian artist Helen Reddy's song "I Am Woman" played a large role in popular culture and became a feminist anthem; Reddy came to be known as a "feminist poster girl" or a "feminist icon".[44][45][46][47][48][49][50] "One project of second wave feminism was to create 'positive' images of women, to act as a counterweight to the dominant images circulating in popular culture and to raise women's consciousness of their oppressions."[51]

Timeline of second-wave feminism worldwide









A Women's Liberation march in Washington, D.C., 1970



The full text of the resolution reads:

Joint Resolution of Congress, 1971 Designating August 26 of each year as Women's Equality Day

WHEREAS, the women of the United States have been treated as second-class citizens and have not been entitled the full rights and privileges, public or private, legal or institutional, which are available to male citizens of the United States; and

WHEREAS, the women of the United States have united to assure that these rights and privileges are available to all citizens equally regardless of sex; and

WHEREAS, the women of the United States have designated August 26, the anniversary date of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, as symbol of the continued fight for equal rights: and

WHEREAS, the women of United States are to be commended and supported in their organizations and activities,

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that August 26 of each year is designated as "Women's Equality Day," and the President is authorized and requested to issue a proclamation annually in commemoration of that day in 1920, on which the women of America were first given the right to vote, and that day in 1970, on which a nationwide demonstration for women's rights took place. [1]

  1. ^ "Women's Equality Day". Retrieved 2012-10-31. 



Symbol used for signs and buttons by ERA opponents







The 1980s


Title IX

Main article: Title IX


One debate which developed in the United States during this time period revolved around the question of coeducation. Most men's colleges in the United States adopted coeducation, often by merging with women's colleges. In addition, some women's colleges adopted coeducation, while others maintained a single-sex student body.

Seven Sisters Colleges

Two of the Seven Sister colleges made transitions during and after the 1960s. The first, Radcliffe College, merged with Harvard University. Beginning in 1963, students at Radcliffe received Harvard diplomas signed by the presidents of Radcliffe and Harvard and joint commencement exercises began in 1970. The same year, several Harvard and Radcliffe dormitories began swapping students experimentally and in 1972 full co-residence was instituted. The departments of athletics of both schools merged shortly thereafter. In 1977, Harvard and Radcliffe signed an agreement which put undergraduate women entirely in Harvard College. In 1999 Radcliffe College was dissolved and Harvard University assumed full responsibility over the affairs of female undergraduates. Radcliffe is now the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in Women's Studies at Harvard University.

The second, Vassar College, declined an offer to merge with Yale University and instead became coeducational in 1969.

The remaining Seven Sisters decided against coeducation. Mount Holyoke College engaged in a lengthy debate under the presidency of David Truman over the issue of coeducation. On November 6, 1971, "after reviewing an exhaustive study on coeducation, the board of trustees decided unanimously that Mount Holyoke should remain a women's college, and a group of faculty was charged with recommending curricular changes that would support the decision."[164] Smith College also made a similar decision in 1971.[165]

In 1969, Bryn Mawr College and Haverford College (then all male) developed a system of sharing residential colleges. When Haverford became coeducational in 1980, Bryn Mawr discussed the possibly of coeducation as well, but decided against it.[166] In 1983, Columbia University began admitting women after a decade of failed negotiations with Barnard College for a merger along the lines of Harvard and Radcliffe (Barnard has been affiliated with Columbia since 1900, but it continues to be independently governed). Wellesley College also decided against coeducation during this time.

Mississippi University for Women

In 1982, in a 5–4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan that the Mississippi University for Women would be in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause if it denied admission to its nursing program on the basis of gender. Mississippi University for Women, the first public or government institution for women in the United States, changed its admissions policies and became coeducational after the ruling.[167]

In what was her first opinion written for the Supreme Court, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor stated, "In limited circumstances, a gender-based classification favoring one sex can be justified if it intentionally and directly assists members of the sex that is disproportionately burdened." She went on to point out that there are a disproportionate number of women who are nurses, and that denying admission to men "lends credibility to the old view that women, not men, should become nurses, and makes the assumption that nursing is a field for women a self-fulfilling prophecy".[168]

In the dissenting opinions, Justices Harry A. Blackmun, Warren E. Burger, Lewis F. Powell, Jr., and William H. Rehnquist suggested that the result of this ruling would be the elimination of publicly supported single-sex educational opportunities. This suggestion has proven to be accurate as there are no public women's colleges in the United States today and, as a result of United States v. Virginia, the last all-male public university in the United States, Virginia Military Institute, was required to admit women. The ruling did not require the university to change its name to reflect its coeducational status and it continues a tradition of academic and leadership development for women by providing liberal arts and professional education to women and men.[169]

Mills College

On May 3, 1990, the Trustees of Mills College announced that they had voted to admit male students.[170] This decision led to a two-week student and staff strike, accompanied by numerous displays of nonviolent protests by the students.[171][172] At one point, nearly 300 students blockaded the administrative offices and boycotted classes.[173] On May 18, the Trustees met again to reconsider the decision,[174] leading finally to a reversal of the vote.[175]

Other colleges

Pembroke College merged with Brown University. Sarah Lawrence College declined an offer to merge with Princeton University, becoming coeducational in 1969. Connecticut College also adopted coeducation during the late 1960s. Wells College, previously with a student body of women only, became co-educational in 2005. Douglass College, part of Rutgers University, was the last publicly funded women's only college until 2007 when it became coed.


The historiography of the United States' second-wave feminism is criticized for failing to acknowledge and analyze the multiple sites of feminist insurgencies of women of color, silencing and ignoring the diverse pre-political and political developments that occurred during this time.[176] The dominant historical narratives of the feminist movement focuses on white, East Coast, and predominantly middle-class women and women's consciousness-raising groups, disregarding the experiences and contributions of women of color, working-class and lower-class women, as well as lesbian women. Chela Sandoval called the dominant narratives of the women's liberation movement "hegemonic feminism" because it essentializes the feminist historiography to an exclusive population of women, which assumes that all women experience the same oppressions as the white, East Coast, and predominantly middle-class women.[177] This restricting view ignores the oppressions women faced determined by their race, class, and sexuality, and gave rise to women of color feminisms that separated from the women's liberation movement, such as Black feminism, Africana womanism, and the Hijas de Cuauhtémoc that emerged at California State University, Long Beach, which was founded by Anna NietoGomez, due to the Chicano Movement's sexism.

Many feminist scholars see the generational division of the second-wave as problematic. Second wavers are typically essentialized as the Baby Boomer generation, when in actuality many feminist leaders of the second-wave were born before World War II ended. This generational essentialism homogenizes the group that belongs to the wave and asserts that every person part of a certain demographic generation shared the same ideologies, because ideological differences were considered to be generational differences.[178]

Feminist scholars, particularly those from the late 20th and early 21st centuries to the present-day, have revisited diverse writings, oral histories, artwork, and artifacts of women of color, working-class women, and lesbians during the early 1960s to the early 1980s to decenter the dominant historical narratives of the second-wave of the women's liberation movement, allowing the scope of the historical understanding of feminist consciousness to expand and transform. By recovering histories that have been erased and overlooked, new forms of consciousness are created, establishing alternative registers of moral and political meaning and authority through what Maylei Blackwell termed "retrofitted memory."[179] She describes "retrofitted memory" as a form of countermemory that creates a transformative and fluid alternative archive that creates space for women's feminist consciousness within the hegemonic narratives which erase them.[179] By looking within the gaps and crevices of the second-wave, fragments of historical knowledge and memory are discovered, and new historical feminist subjects as well as new perspectives about the past emerge, forcing existing dominant histories that claim to represent a universal experience to be decentered and refocused.[180]

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