The Second Wave Women’s Movement (1960s-1980s)

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This is the inaugural issue of Ms. Magazine from 1972. How many of those article headlines apply to us today in 2021?

Photo Credit: Preview issue of Ms. Magazine, Spring, 1972, Liberty Media for Women, LLC.: Missvain/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 4.0

Women’s Equality Day is today and we want to celebrate!

It’s been a slow-going process for us to gain equality and even more slow-going to define for ourselves what that really means. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines equality as “the state of being equal” (not very helpful, is it?) The word “equal” is defined as “of the same measure, quantity, amount, or number as another”. So equality is about sameness, right? It’s no wonder why many women (including one of my favorite musical artists, Kate Bush) mistake feminism for “wanting to be just like men”.

But from the beginning of its roots, the women’s movement was never about being “the same as men”. Suffragists wanted the vote (which they got in 1920) not because they wanted to think and act just like men, but because they wanted a say in public policies that affected them specifically, such as property laws, sanitary childbirth methods, and respect for their womanly virtues. 

But what’s more ironic is second-wave feminists defined equality as anything but sameness. The movement was, in fact, a highly personal one. It’s no wonder the feminist slogan became “the personal is political”. It grew out of mid-century women’s realization they were not living in a vacuum. Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique (which I talk more about here), was inspired by personal stories of the women she interviewed for women’s magazines in the 1950s, suburban housewives who had every material comfort but had lost their voices and their souls in the bargain. Again and again, Friedan heard tales of discontentment, anger, oppression, and guilt from these women which mirrored her own feelings. When the book was published, other women gathered in consciousness-raising groups and shared stories with one another. It was their desire to seek change for themselves and their sisters that sparked the movement.

In essence, the second-wave feminist movement begins where the suffragists left off. Suffragism (the right to vote) was what Victorian and Progressive Era women needed, a voice in the public sphere. Second-wave feminists of the 1960s took that voice to the next level. They identified issues affecting all women and lobbied for changes. For example, at the top of their agenda list was workplace discrimination. 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. This was a political stand, to be sure, but it was also a highly personal one that affected individual women’s lives.

Another issue of concern to women at this time was 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. They helped put the decision to “fulfill a woman’s role” (in conventional terms) in the hands of women and not men.

The second-wave women’s movement wasn’t all roses and chocolate, though. Within the movement, women didn’t always agree on what they should be fighting for. For example, Friedan became the first president of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966 but stepped down four years later because she felt the increasing radical views coming from younger feminists didn’t gel with her own. NOW felt Friedan’s fight for working women wasn’t as high on the feminist agenda as she thought it should be.

In addition, women of color saw the movement dominated by middle-class white women and the issues most relevant to them 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. Other women as well, such as working-class and LGBT women, pointed out the exclusion of issues more intimately related to them for those that affected their white, middle-class, educated sister more.

These omissions are, in fact, what the third-wave feminist movement (roughly, from the late 1980s to today) is about. That movement expands not only to all issues affecting all women personally but around the globe, which is why the movement has also been called “global feminism”.

How did the women who preceded the second-wave feminist movement feel in their lives? Read my book Lessons From My Mother’s Life to find out.  

Come join me for a peek into the corners of history! Curious about those nooks and crannies you can’t find in the history books? Are you more a people lover than a date or event lover when it comes to history? Then you’ll love the Resilient History Newsletter! Plus, when you sign up, you’ll get a prequel to my Waxwood Series for free! Here’s where you can sign up.

Do you think the “personal is political” approach still exists among the younger generation of women fighting for their rights in the 21st century? Let me know in the comments!

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Author: tammayauthor

As soon as Tam May started writing at the age of fourteen, writing became her voice. She writes historical women’s fiction and historical cozy mysteries. She loves to take readers into the nooks and crannies of the past, and she wants to inspire readers with her resilient and autonomous female characters. Most of her fiction is set in and around the San Francisco Bay Area because she fell in love with the city and found her independence and writing voice when she lived there in the 1990s. Her book Lessons From My Mother’s Life debuted at #1 in its category on Amazon. She’s also published a Gilded age family saga set among San Francisco’s Nob Hill elite titled the Waxwood Series which follows the Alderdices as they discover their place amidst revolutionary changes and shifting values in the last decade of the 19th century. Tam’s current project is a historical cozy mystery series titled The Paper Chase Mysteries. The series takes place in Northern California at the turn of the 20th century and features amateur sleuth and epistolary expert Adele Gossling, a progressive and independent young woman whose talent for solving crimes comes into direct conflict with her new community apt to prefer the previous era's angel in the house to the current century’s New Woman. Tam lives in Texas but calls San Francisco and the Bay Area “home”. When she’s not writing, she’s reading classic literature, watching classic films, cross-stitching, or cooking yummy vegetarian dishes.