Women's Movement: Second Wave/Feminism (1963- )

A new wave of feminist activism began in the 1960s with the aim of increasing women’s opportunities and freedoms not just through legislation but also by challenging the social and cultural factors that combined to confine women to their traditional domestic role. Liberal, socialist, and radical wings worked together and separately on a wide range of issues. In addition to numerous locally based organizations and programs, including feminist writing in a variety of formats, national events such as debates, conferences, and marches were used to raise awareness. Despite its undeniable success, ideological divisions within the movement led to increased tension, leaving the feminist movement vulnerable to attack. A backlash of antifeminist propaganda from the media and right-wing politicians began in the 1980s, and was particularly effective in the United States. Attention continues to be focused on issues such as pay inequalities, childcare provision, and abortion rights, but liberal, individualistic politics have increasingly replaced collective activism and calls for radical change among feminists in Britain and the United States.

The feminist movement effectively began in the United States with the publication of Betty Friedan’s (1921- ) book The Feminine Mystique (1963), which argued that the ideal of the happy housewife and mother was a damaging propaganda myth. Friedan became a figurehead for liberal feminism in the United States as the leader of the National Organization for Women (NOW), which was formed in 1966 to lobby for women’s civil rights. Since NOW’s members were typically middle-class, middle-aged, and financially successful, an array of other mass-membership organizations geared to the needs of specific groups of women not represented by NOW were quickly formed. Although The Feminine Mystique became an international best-seller and manifesto for the movement, liberal feminism remained weaker in Britain. Although the movement that emerged in

Britain from 1968 to 1970 shared many of the same issues, aims, and key texts with the feminist movement in the United States, it was more closely linked to socialist and Marxist groups of the New Left. However, both liberal and socialist feminists used the same type of propaganda methods. Viewing debates, conferences, marches, and articles in journals as the most effective way to educate the public and influence politicians, feminists used these tactics to lobby for important legislation. In particular, they focused on employment and pay issues, childcare, and matters related to sex discrimination and childbearing. In the United States the campaign for state ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) drew large numbers of women into political activism. In Britain the Sex Discrimination Act (1975) was preceded by much lobbying and pressure-group activity. Radical feminists’ suspicions of male-dominated institutions inclined them to bypass the mainstream political system. Known as “women’s liberation,” radical feminism first developed in the United States and Britain in the 1960s among a group of young women involved in a series of protest movements that challenged social norms and traditional values. Women began forming their own organizations to address their role and status both within these movements and in society in general, applying the same tactics of social agitation. In the United States involvement in the civil rights movement was particularly important in raising women’s awareness of individual rights.

Radical feminists viewed sexual relations as the main cause of inequality and advocated a broader rejection of conventional gender roles. In 1968 feminists in the United States protested at the Miss World pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey, by “trashing” such accoutrements of femininity as girdles, bras, and mascara, which they deposited in a bin. The publicity this attracted gave women’s liberation immediate renown. However, the media transformed the episode into a mythic “bra-burning” event that for years remained the dominant cultural signifier of feminism, perpetuating the representation of feminists as “unfeminine” and unattractive and making many women reluctant to call themselves feminists. There was selective picketing of sex shops and movie theaters showing pornographic films, as well as strikes by female workers in the United States. However, the tactics involving civil disobedience used by militant Edwardian feminists in their campaign for woman suffrage were far from typical of second-wave feminism. Small consciousness-raising groups, intentionally designed to avoid the formal hierarchical structures typical of male politics, became a hallmark of women’s liberation. Sharing their experiences of sexism in these groups proved an effective way of increasing individual women’s awareness of feminist issues. A variety of grassroots projects, such as establishing women’s safe houses and health centers, also drew women into the movement. Radical feminists launched their own magazines for women, such as Spare Rib in Britain and Ms. in the United States, as an alternative to the male-dominated mainstream press. Women’s writing—including journalism, polemics, fiction, and women’s history—was one of the foremost vehicles for the women’s movement. Significant works included The Female Eunuch (1970) by the Australian-born Ger-maine Greer (1939- ).

Feminism became almost fashionable during the 1970s, with a number of government-backed propaganda initiatives, such as the International Woman’s Year in 1975. In 1977 the largest convention of women was held in the United States in Houston, Texas, under government sponsorship. However, increased links with mainstream politics intensified the movement’s ideological divisions and internal disputes, with the result that it became increasingly diversified and ultimately ceased to exist as a national movement. In the 1980s feminism was scape-goated by the media, as well as by the right-wing political parties that had been returned to power, as responsible for all kinds of negative social change and moral decay. The backlash was stronger and more effective in the United States, particularly in the anti-abortion movement. At the same time, however, women adopted an increasingly positive stance toward the political system and organized to increase their representation.

In the 1990s it was argued that we had entered a “postfeminist” age. Films and advertisements increasingly portrayed women as assertive and empowered, and women’s studies courses were replaced by gender studies, encouraging a tendency to assume gender equality. A men’s movement developed, with books by such male authors as Neil Lyndon’s (1946- ) No More Sex War (1992). Lyndon questioned the historical assumptions underpinning feminism; however his argument was reduced by critics into a crude claim that men had now become the victims. A number of pressure groups were formed to address men’s lack of rights, especially in the area of child custody. Naomi Wolf’s (1962- ) book The Beauty Myth (1990) and Susan Faludi’s (1959- ) Backlash (1992) were particularly influential in documenting how the legal and social gains previously made by the women’s movement were now being eroded. Wolf argued that beauty had replaced domesticity as patriarchy’s latest propaganda weapon against women. Feminism had successfully convinced women that they were not obliged to adopt traditional roles, but women’s time, money, and emotional energy were now being consumed by attempts to conform to the media ideals of beauty with which they were surrounded. Faludi pointed to continuing inequalities between the sexes, such as unequal pay and employment opportunities, that were not being addressed as a result of “antifeminist” trendy media stories. In recent years much of the discussion has moved beyond the issue of equal rights and into territory that remains controversial even among feminists. Increased attention has been focused on the dilemmas posed by women’s entry into the labor market, in particular how best to combine independence with domesticity. By the end of the 1990s it had become fashionable to portray the women’s movement as confused and uncertain as to its future direction. However, despite its decline as an organized national movement, individual women and specific campaigns continue to address feminist issues.

Next post:

Previous post: