Photo Credit: Cross-stitched icon of protest from the second-wave feminist movement, originally created by Gunilla Thorgren, Swedish feminist member of “Group 8” in the 1970s, created by cross-stitch ninja: Cross-stitch ninja/Flickr/CC BY NC ND 2.0
Earlier this year, with the release of my post-World War II short story collection, I wrote a fair amount about some aspects of the second-wave feminist movement, like some of its precursors and aspects. I talked here about Betty Friedan’s 1963 ground-breaking book The Feminine Mystique, which is generally credited as the beginning of the movement. I also mentioned one of Friedan’s concepts, The Problem Problem That Has No Name, and issues women faced in the “occupation: Housewife” era (another of Friedan’s terms). Finally, I discussed consciousness-raising group, a specific and important part of the movement itself.
However, I never really dove into the movement that was very different from its precursor, women’s suffragism. By definition, the suffragist movement was about women’s right to vote, and early feminists fought for that right, which finally became nation-wide in America in 1920. But as I mention here, suffragism was not on the list of concerns for some of these early feminists — gaining recognition as equals was.
I mention this because the second-wave feminist movement begins where the suffragists left off. Suffragism (the right to vote) was what Victorian and Progressive Era feminists wanted, and women can be grateful to them today for achieving that goal. Second-wave feminists in the 1960s took that right to vote, and the political recognition that goes with it, to the next level. They identified issues affecting all women and lobbied for changes related to these issues. For example, at the top of their agenda list was workplace discrimination. Many women were still being hired for women-centric jobs, such as teachers, nurses, and office workers, jobs that stigmatized women with the Victorian separate sphere ideal of nurturers and caretakers. Issues such as affirmative action for women and abolishing segregated help wanted ads, which allowed employers to advertise jobs for women that they felt were suited to them based on gender, helped women get better jobs.
Another issue of concern to women at this time were reproductive rights. The Pill was approved by the FDA in 1961, which was a major step forward for women. It gave many women the right to hold off having children until they (and not society) were ready for them. It also meant women who preferred to focus on a career and not have children could do so.
The second-wave women’s movement, like the first, was not all roses and chocolate, though. Sometimes, within the movement, women did not agree on what causes were most relevant to them at the moment. For example, Friedan became the first president of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966 but stepped down four years later due to concerns of increasing radical views that did not gel with her own. On their part, NOW felt Friedan’s fight for working women was misplaced and not as high on the feminist agenda as she thought it should be.
In addition, women of color felt the movement dominated by middle-class white women so the issues most relevant to them were being neglected. They felt their experiences, especially with racism and classism, were overlooked and that separating discrimination by sex and by race was defeating the purpose of abolishing discrimination entirely. While there were many strong voices for women of color and their unique experiences (such as bell hooks and Angela Davis), they tended to be attached more to the civil rights movement than the feminist movement.
If you want to know more about the experiences of women in the post-war era leading up to the second-wave feminist movement, you can check out my book Lessons From My Mother’s Life.
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