Women's Movements

views updated May 14 2018

Women's Movements

Women's movements are among the most global of modern social movements. From nineteenth-century Canadian women's suffrage campaigns to recent direct actions for sustainable development in India, wherever women's movements have been established, national organizations and local grassroots groups have worked together for the interests of women and girls. Varied, even conflicting, understandings of women's interests arise from differences in gender, race, class, cultural, religion, and sexuality, as well as from global divisions of wealth and power. Nevertheless, the pervasiveness of oppression against women has led to the establishment of international women's movements with common agendas, connected to struggles for autonomy, democracy, and secure livelihoods around the world.

The goals and structures of women's movements reflect the commonalities as well as the differences among women. For example, feminist movements tend to be associated with the aspirations, and the opportunities, of middle-class women. Feminist movements include women's rights movements focusing on the goals of equal rights under the law and equal access to education, careers, and political power; women's liberation movements that challenge cultural patterns of male domination in the family and personal life through strategies that raise the consciousness of women of their own oppression, often within the context of women-only groups; Black feminist movements that address racism along with sexism; and socialist feminist movements that see women's empowerment as tied to the role of government, labor, and civil society in securing the entitlements of all citizens to equity and social security. The activists in feminine movements tend to be working-class women organizing to address problems of poverty and sexism and their devastating effects on the health and welfare of their families. Womanist, a term coined by the writer Alice Walker, refers to the confidence, strength, and wisdom of African-American women based in their cultures and long struggle to support their children and communities and to end racism and all forms of injustice.

Feminist and Feminine Movements in Brazil

Between 1964 and 1985, Brazil experienced repressive regimes and massive impoverishment along with the largest, most diverse, radical, and successful women's movement in Latin America (Alvarez 1990). Its success lay, in part, in addressing both strategic and practical gender interests. Strategic gender interests, such as overturning the gender division of labor, gaining control over one's own reproduction, and attaining legal and political equality, have emerged from various analyses of the roots of women's oppression. Health care, nutrition and shelter, potable water, and secure livelihoods, vital to the more immediate survival of women and their families, typify the practical gender interests that women would hesitate to sacrifice for more long-term strategic gender interests (Molyneux 1985). In Brazil, and Latin America generally, strategic gender interests inspire feminist movements, whereas feminine movements focus on practical gender interests (Alvarez 1990).

Mothers' Clubs, feminine movement organizations, called for childcare, health care, and affordable food and housing, and also for city services for their poor, mostly urban, neighborhoods. Middle-class, university-educated young women, including members of the militant opposition to the military government, and older professional women organized feminist movements around issues of economic discrimination against women workers, focusing their analyses on poor and working-class women.

As feminine and feminist movement organizations became increasingly militant, they created umbrella organizations for allied campaigns (e.g., the daycare movement). Feminine groups took up such issues as reproductive rights, domestic violence, sexuality, and family relations, first raised publicly by feminist groups. Both protested the crime-of-passion defense of men who had murdered their allegedly unfaithful wives.

The end of the authoritarian period in 1985 marked the beginning of antifeminist campaigns, such as opposition to women's reproductive rights and family planning. Nevertheless, women's movements continued to develop new forms, including organizations serving women's health, education, and legal needs; art and media groups; women's studies programs; women's labor union associations; and popular feminism, organized by poor and working-class women, to combine work on class and gender. Most recently, black women's organizations are challenging the interlocking oppressions of race, class, and gender oppressions. Many of these organizations participated in the first Black Women's Conference, held in Brazil in 1988 (Alvarez 1990).

Civil Rights and Women's Movements in the United States

The definition of women's interests in terms of individual rights is one that informs liberal feminism around the world and represents the mainstream of the U.S. women's rights movements. Set forth by white, propertied men to promote their interests, the rights discourse was adopted by the women's rights movement, as well as by the civil rights movement, the gay and lesbian rights movement, and most recently, the disability rights movement. The common language and philosophy of rights have facilitated cooperation and mutual progress among the various rights movements. Other groups, however, have criticized the women's rights movements because they were willing to reform the existing system rather than pushing to uproot the structures of inequality in the family and society.

The official beginning of women's rights movements is marked by the 1848 Seneca Falls women's convention and its resolutions calling for women's rights to legal adult status, access to all professions, and women's suffrage (the right to vote). Of the delegates, renowned black abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, middle-class, white, feminist foremother, argued most strongly that women needed the right to vote in order to attain their other rights. The ideals of the women's suffrage movement drew on the liberal notion of the rights of the individual. In the 1970s, this same ideal was the foundation of a renewed, but unsuccessful, campaign for an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U. S. Constitution.

Through the first wave of the women's rights movement, which ended when women gained the right to vote in 1920, through the second wave of the new women's movement, which began in the 1960s, and the contemporary third wave, women's movements in the United States have been linked to the struggles for civil rights for African Americans. The 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited sex discrimination (Giddings 1984), was particularly important. On the other hand, white women's rights activists have sometimes used overtly racist arguments to support their cause and failed to recognize how their conceptions of women's interests have been shaped by white, middle-class, and heterosexual privilege. For example, at the last meeting of the American Equal Rights Association in 1869, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony proposed a resolution opposing the fifteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which granted voting rights to Black men. This resolution and Stanton's subsequent appeals to racialist rhetoric have been interpreted as "constructing a hierarchy of rights, with those of white women on top" (Caraway 1991, p. 145).

Although the young, middle-class women of the women's liberation movement in the 1960s and 1970s, most of whom were white, did attend to racism as an issue, their small consciousnessraising groups were primarily directed towards their own personal and political concerns. Like the more mainstream National Organization for Women (NOW), founded in 1966, women's movement organizations in the late 1960s and 1970s tended to be independent of political parties and other women's organizations. Their mistrust of the state as an economic support for women and desire to set their own independent agenda may have contributed to tension between the women's liberation movement and other contemporary social movements. For example, women of color, lesbians, and working-class women organized their own women's movements (Johnson-Odim 1991).

Among these were the welfare rights movement, created by poor women for better public support for low-income families, and the Coalition of Labor Union Women, representing women in labor unions. As womanists, black feminists, and Third World feminists, women of color in the United States have developed independent movement organizations as well as multicultural coalitions. The National Black Women's Political Leadership Caucus was established in 1971 and the Organization of Pan Asian American Women in 1976 (Nelson and Carver 1994). The Indigenous Women's Network, the Center for Third World Organizing, and the National Black Women's Health Project represented U.S. women at the U.N. World Conference on Women in 1995 (Dutt 2000).

Nationalism and Women's Movements in Canada

Like most modern states, Canada shapes its national identity in the light of multinationalism. Organizing a pan-Canadian women's movement required bridging linguistic and cultural differences between French-speaking Canada, English-speaking Canada, and First Nations (indigenous nations). Although both the English and French Canadian women's movements have stressed government's role in their strategies, and both have created national umbrella organizations, their constituencies have been shaped by divergent national interests.

In English-speaking Canada, the women's movement began in the late nineteenth century, focusing on suffrage, pregnancy rights, education, and economic independence and divided by philosophies and class constituency. Nellie Mc-Clung and other, mostly middle-class, maternal feminists organized moral crusades for social reform based upon their roles as mothers of the nation, while equal rights feminists, under the leadership of Dr. Emily Howard Stowe and Flora MacDonald Denison, promoted women's equality with men. Working-class women's organizations like the Woman's Labor League of Winnipeg also supported women's suffrage as a means to improve working conditions (Adamson; Briskin; and McPhail 1988).

In Quebec, the women's movement began some thirty years later. Although Canadian women were given the right to vote in federal elections in 1918 and in the English-speaking provincial elections in the 1920s, it was not until 1940 that Quebec enfranchised women (Dumont 1992). Thus, Quebec suffrage leader Thérèse Casgrain was still active when a new women's movement arose. In 1966, she founded the Fédération des femmes du Québec (FFQ), an umbrella organization of Quebec women's groups.

At the same time, pan-Canadian women's rights organizations worked for the creation of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, which was established in 1967. In 1972, they organized the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) as an umbrella organization of established women's organizations throughout Canada.

The women's liberation movement arose in Canada in the late 1960s with younger activists from other movements for peace, health and safety, native rights, and the new left. Largely independent of political parties, many were organized into small consciousness-raising groups; single-issue regional organizations working for access to abortion, birth control, and daycare; as well as student and socialist-feminist groups. They created alternative grassroots feminist organizations—rape crisis centers, shelters, women's centers, bookstores, counseling services, and feminist cultural and artistic alternatives—and deliberately distinguished themselves from the women's rights movement (Adamson; Briskin; and McPhail 1988).

In 1980, NAC began welcoming such grassroots groups and making its leadership more representative of Canada as a whole. It made equality in the federal constitution a high priority at a time when Quebec's constitutional relationship to the rest of Canada was being contested. Thus, most English Canadian feminists accepted NAC's federal strategy, while many Quebec feminists preferred a provincial approach (Black 1992). First Nations called for Canadian women's organizations to recognize indigenous rights in land and culture as inseparable from native women's conceptions of their own interests (Monture-Okanee 1993).

Autonomous and Affiliated Women's Movements in Nigeria

African women's organizations face the strategic question of whether to affiliate with governments and political parties or organize autonomously. In the postcolonial process of state formation in Africa, women's participation has often taken the form of women's auxiliaries of national political parties or umbrella organizations, supported by the state and composed of many local and regional groups. However, pointing to such autonomous women's movement organizations as Women in Nigeria (WIN), the Women's National Coalition (WNC) in South Africa, and Action for Development (ACFODE) in Uganda, Aili Mari Tripp (2000) argues that their autonomy has made it easier for members to work together across communal identities, which, in turn, has increased their effectiveness and led more women to see value in such forms of organization.

Before the British colonized the region in 1884, Yoruba and Igbo women in southern Nigeria had powerful political roles within dual-sex systems of female and male authority. Women were part of associations that were based on trade, age, and kinship. The Women's War of 1929, in which Igbo market women protested British taxation, is a notable example of women using their traditional power against colonial rulers. Grounded in their roles as mothers and provisioners of the family, women collectively defended their complementary sphere of authority within the extended family and wider community. Women's movement organizations in Nigeria continue to value the complementarity of women's and men's interests, an idea reflected in the strategy of Nigerian women's groups to demand reserved places for women in political offices (Okonjo 1997).

Before colonization, women's associations were formed within communal groups. In 1947, during the struggles against colonialism, the first national women's organization, the National Women's Union, was established, headed by Funimilayo Ransome-Kuti (Abdullah 1995). Since Nigeria's independence in 1960, most women's associations have continued to be tied to kin, ethnic, religious, or regional groups. Many are also members of women's coalitions, most importantly, the National Council of Women's Societies (NCWS).

WIN, established in 1982, is an exception in that it is an autonomous, national, and secular women's movement organization that eschews identification with any particular ethnic, regional, or religious group. It also accepts male members, thereby distinguishing itself from the traditional dual-sex approach to politics in which women operate within their own women-only organizations. WIN's independence has allowed it to openly criticize cuts in governmental social spending, mandated by international lending agencies' structural adjustment programs (SAPs). WIN has also taken up individual cases of sexual harassment, rape, domestic violence, and sex discrimination (Imam 1997).

NCWS, founded in 1958, includes more than 300 women's groups under its umbrella and provides some government support for their activities. Its priorities are to create more economic and political opportunities for women by promoting their education and training, legal equality in the public sphere, and proportional representation. Constrained by the necessity of developing consensual goals, NCWS has not addressed the issues of child custody, property rights, marriage, divorce, and sexuality. These are seen as too threatening to men's customary authority in the family and to Islamic law (sharia), governing family law and practice in northern Nigeria (Okonjo 1994). In Nigeria, where religious divisions have fanned the flames of civil war, NCWS's strategy is understandable. However, it means that leadership for change in familial customary and religious law has come from autonomous women's organization, Nigerian representatives of transnational nongovernmental organizations, and women's human rights' organizations.

Religious Communities and Women's Movements in India

Religiously diverse, multilingual, and caste-divided India also has one of the most vibrant and many-stranded women's movements in the world. One of their priorities is challenging patriarchal religious practices, while at the same time respecting religious differences. Another is alleviating the poverty and insecurity of women and their families.

The women's upliftment phase began in the late nineteenth century, first among elite Hindu men and women and, later, Muslims. Besides emphasizing education, they called for reform of the practices of widow remarriage, polygamy, purdah (the veiling and seclusion of women), property rights, and sati (the ritual suicide of widows). Women formed their own autonomous organizations, the most important of which was the All India Women's Conference (AIWC) in 1927.

In 1934, when AIWC introduced a bill for equality in marriage, divorce, and property rights, they drew upon the nationalist rights discourse; and after independence in 1947, women were granted constitutional equality. However, the Hindu, Islamic, and other religious communities retained jurisdiction over family law (Desai 2001).

The second wave began as grass-roots organizations focused not only upon gender but also upon caste, class, and culture as roots of women's oppression. The groups in this movement were affiliated with grass-roots labor, peasant, and tribal movements as well as leftist opposition parties. Among their activities were protests by tribal women in the Toilers' Union in Maharastra against alcohol-related domestic violence and by the Chipko movement of poor women in the Himalayas to protect their forest resources and highlight women's unrecognized economic contributions. The Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA), a union of women working as street vendors and rag-pickers and in home-based industries, established the first women's bank for poor women (Desai 2001).

Sustainable, grassroots development as a priority of Indian women's movement organizations is exemplified by the organization Stree Mukti Sangharsh (Women's Liberation Struggle). They envision development that promotes equality between men and women and overcomes the economic and environmental ravages of the rural areas precipitated by large multinational corporations whose focus on short-term gains have created unsustainable forms of development (Desai 2001).

In the late 1970s, autonomous, avowedly feminist women's movements arose. Outraged by the dismissals of cases of girls raped by police and by religiously sanctioned violations of women's human rights, their campaigns refocused on violence against women, dowry deaths (the murder of brides for their dowries), sex-selective abortions, and sati (Kumar 1995).

The success of women's movement organizations has met with an antifeminist backlash, which calls upon familial, communal, and religious identities to try to push back women's gains (Kumar 1995). Since poverty and insecurity fan the flame of reactionary fears, the feminist strategy of promoting grassroots-based sustainable development is a double-edged one—it addresses both the economic independence of women and the long-term security and well-being of the whole community.

Class and Women's Movements in Denmark

Danish women's movements have placed high priority on alleviating poverty, providing social support for women and children, and promoting gender equity in the family and society. Their success is tied to working-class women's demands that the public and private sectors accommodate women's employment and family responsibilities along with middle-class women's critiques of gender discrimination and male privilege.

Education, equal access to careers and business, and property rights were all goals of the nineteenth century middle-class women's rights movement. Established in 1871, Dansk Kvindesamfund (the Danish Women's Society) is still the most prominent national women's rights movement organization. It is explicitly nonpartisan and autonomous and has followed a strategy of promoting change through legislation.

At the same time, working-class women organized to improve women's lives through the formation of labor unions and the Social Democratic Party, the architects of the welfare state. Founded in 1885, Kvindeligt Arbejderforbund (Women Workers Union) organized unskilled women workers to fight for better working conditions and wages. Through union and party affiliations, working-class women's organizations have pursued state-supported programs, such as daycare, parental leave, health care, unemployment compensation, and old-age pensions.

Beginning in the late 1960s, a new women's movement arose, the most important branch of which was RødstrømpebevÊgelsen (the Redstocking Movement). Most of the members were young, middle-class, university-educated women; many belonged to new left parties. However, they maintained the Redstockings as an autonomous socialist-feminist movement organization and criticized the state as a form of public patriarchy.

The Redstocking Movement generated a national debate about the dominance of men over women in the family, the workplace, and political arena. In so doing, they contributed to a cultural shift that led to support for quotas on political party lists, women's centers and domestic violence shelters, women's studies programs, and expanded welfare services. Another result is that the state itself is less dominated by men. Danish women now make up 37.4 percent of the parliament, second highest in the world.

Although the Redstockings opposed it, Denmark joined the European Union (EU) in 1973. The EU is a new international power center whose bureaucracy is far more distant and opaque than the Danish state. New strategies of international feminist organizing are required to address it effectively (Walter 2001).

Globalizing Women's Movements

With the growth of the globalization of the economy and the development of international trade associations and governmental organizations, women have found it increasingly useful to organize across national boundaries. The United Nations has played a major role in making women's movements international and in defining women's rights as human rights. Women have used the opportunities provided by the four U.N. World Conferences on Women (in 1975, 1980, 1985, and 1995), the official ones and the alternative NGO forums, as arenas in which they could set goals, plan, network, and inspire one another to continue their work (West 1999). They have seized upon the various U.N. accords, especially CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women), as bases for demanding national changes.

Women have established regional networks, such as Women in Law and Development in Africa (WiLDAF) to implement U.N. policies and other regional human rights charters, including the African Charter for Human and People's Rights. In these efforts the Center for Women's Global Leadership, directed by Charlotte Bunch, acted as a coordination center for international women's human rights campaigns. These have focused on sex trafficking, issues of health and reproductive rights, female genital cutting (also known as female circumcision and female genital mutilation), and violence against women.

Regional meetings, such as the biannual Encuentros held in various Latin American cities to define the issues of Latin American women's movements, have been a source of inspiration and strength for many feminist leaders (Sternbach et al. 1992). A 1984 meeting in India of women from different regions of the South led to the formation of Development Alternatives for Women for a New Era (DAWN) to focus on sustainable development to address the worsening of women's living standards as they relate to international lending policies (Stienstra 2000).

The first WAAD Conference, held in Nigeria in 1992, brought together Women in Africa, and the African Diaspora. Conference coordinator Obioma Nnaemeka (1998) affirmed, "Our faith in possibilities will clear our vision, deepen mutual respect, and give us hope as we follow each other walking side-by-side." That kind of hope, determination, and egalitarianism, so critical to the success of grass-roots women's movements, is harder to sustain in more distant and bureaucratic international women's movement organizations; but it is just as vital.

See also:Birth Control: Sociocultural and Historical Aspects; Family Roles; Gender; Gender Identity; Lesbian Parents; Motherhood; Poverty; Work and Family


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lynn walter

Women’s Movement

views updated Jun 08 2018

Womens Movement






The womens movement has often been called one of the most important social movements of the twentieth century. Its most basic goals are to improve womens social, economic, and political conditions by facilitating personal transformations, introducing new ideas to public discourse, and exerting pressure on policymakers. In addition to voting, it has been a key form of womens political participation, joined only recently by greater numbers of women in political office. Beyond these basic features, however, there is considerable diversity among specific womens movements around the world.

First, not all types of political engagement by women would be considered a womens movement. As Karen Beckwith emphasizes, the term womens movements refers to any kind of systematic organizing by women, including that of a nonfeminist nature (Beckwith 2000). Womens movements are thus distinct from women in social movements, who are female participants in social movements that may or may not focus on gender issues. They are also a broader phenomenon that includes but is not equivalent to feminist movements, which engage womenand some menthrough a more explicitly gendered lens that seeks to understand and overcome womens subordination.

Second, womens movements themselves vary enormously across countries and over time. They appear during different waves of feminism, originate in various kinds of other social movements, espouse a range of different issues of concern, and interact in numerous ways with global and regional trends. In addition, they are situated within a variety of social, economic, and political contexts that shape their emergence, development, and prospects for success. As such, many analysts are skeptical of universalizing claims about womens mobilization. When studying the womens movement, therefore, they seek to understand the diverse conditions under which women organize as womenrather than with mento achieve social, economic, and political change.


Although womens movements are not synonymous with feminist movements, the two frequently overlap. As a result, one common starting point for analyzing womens movements is to position them in relation to waves of feminism. Due to important differences in context, the timing and character of these waves vary significantly across countries. In the western world, the first wave is generally associated with the mobilization of womens groups across many countries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The main focus of these movements was to attain basic rights for women, including the right to vote, the right to employment, the right to receive equal pay, and the right to retain their own nationality upon marriage to men of other nationalities. Focused on equality, these campaigns largely sought to gain rights for women that were already guaranteed to men. However, in many cases these movements overlooked crucial issues of race and class, devoting most of their attention to rights for white and upper-class women.

The second wave of feminism, often dated in the West to the 1960s and 1970s, embraced a much wider range of theories and issues. Initially inspired by the need to dispel the feminine mystique, or the idea that women found their lifes fulfillment in being married and raising children, second-wave groups began to question womens roles in the private sphere and to point to the social construction of gender roles. Drawing on ideas introduced by writers such as Simone de Beauvoir, they made a distinction between the terms sex and gender, using sex to refer to biological differences between male and female and gender to denote social differences between masculine and feminine. Although sex and gender were related, second-wave feminists emphasized that the relationship was imperfect, as men could be feminine and women could be masculine. Womens groups developed these ideas in a number of different directions: Some stressed the universality of womens oppression, some sought to revalue the feminine, and still others aimed to break down the distinction between the public and the private through slogans such as the personal is political. Despite this diversity, the shared feature of all these efforts was to focus on women as women, rather than as individuals who aspired to a male standard.

The feminist project of defining the terms women and womens issues, however, was not without controversy. On the one hand, activists disagreed as to the coherence of women as a group. Many called attention to race- and class-based exclusions that were implicit in discourse on universal female oppression that in fact reflected the experiences of women from dominant racial and class groups. Others noted that accounts of the sexual division of labor, and especially womens experiences as mothers, tended to assume that all women were heterosexual, thus overlookingand marginalizingthe experiences of lesbians. On the other hand, feminists prioritized a wide range of womens issues that implied distinctand even conflictingvisions of the status quo and prescriptions for change. Whereas some aimed to undermine patriarchy by promoting womens status in the public sphere, others sought to foster a womens culture by revaluing womens labor inside the home, raise awareness of womens experiences through consciousness-raising, and theorize patriarchy by pointing to the power that men exercised over women through violence and coercion.

The third wave is a more contested concept, existing in an uneasy relation to the term postfeminism. Both notions are generally taken to refer to ideas that emerged in the West in the 1990s and continue to develop through the present day. This wave is largely characterized by a focus on difference, both between women and men and among women themselves. At the same time, it aims to break down binary categories by emphasizing the fluid and relational aspects of identity and experience. As such, it questions traditional approaches to conceptualizing sex and gender by exploring intersections between race, class, and gender; uncovering the assumptions of heterosexuality that underpin analysis of women in relation to men; and probing the possibility that gender may cause sex rather than sex causing gender. In this sense, the third wave incorporates a number of ideas articulated by feminists of color, lesbian feminists, and postmodern feminists. However, because these theories stress the contradictions and multiplicities inherent in definitions of women and womens issues, they have paradoxical effects on womens movements: They help build coalitions with other movements for social justice, but also undermine the prospects for mobilizing by women as women for social, economic, and political change.


Many scholars draw on the wave analogy to identify major shifts in feminist theorizing and their relation to concentrated periods of mobilization by womens groups. This approach has its critics, however, who point out that women are active politically between waves and are not always inspired initially by feminist concerns. Indeed, despite the widespread belief that womens movements emerge in cycles as women become more educated and politically informed, evidence from around the world suggests that womens movements often have their origins in various other kinds of social movements. In these cases, women gain a shared sense of gender oppression through discrimination they experience in the course of their participation in other campaigns for social justice. These include movements for civil rights, revolution, nationalism, independence, and human rights. Similar consciousness-raising also occurs in authoritarian regimes, where the creation of state-led womens organizations aims to control womens political activity but sometimes provides an official platform for womens organizing. Many womens movements nonetheless hesitate to label themselves feminist on the grounds that the term has various negative associations as bourgeois, Western, forced emancipation, and even man-hating. Further, few movements succeed at incorporating all women due to differences among women that remain important, including nationality, race, class, religion, region, language, and sexual orientation.


Given their distinct origins and relations to waves of feminism, womens movements around the world focus variously on a wide range of issues. These concerns fall into six broad categories: womens legal rights, violence against women, reproductive choice, sexual freedom, employment opportunities and discrimination, and womens political participation and representation. Legal rights include such issues as rights in marriage, the right to divorce, and the right to own and inherit property. Violence against women refers to practices such as rape, domestic abuse, female genital cutting, sexual slavery, and sex trafficking. Reproductive choice encompasses access to contraception, the right to abortion, and the right to not be subjected to forced sterilization. Sexual freedom involves the right to express ones own sexuality and claims for the same privileges conferred on heterosexual couples. Employment opportunities and discrimination include rights to equal pay, access to all jobs, provision of maternity leave, and freedom from sexual harassment. Womens political participation and representation, finally, comprise the rights to vote, join political parties, participate in civil society, and run for political office. Individual movements rarely cover all these issues, and specific movements address particular issues in a variety of different ways. In addition, some groups mobilize to preserve rather than undermine womens traditional status as mothers and inside the home.


Despite their emergence and development in specific contexts around the world, womens movements inform and reflect broader global and regional trends. Womens organizing has always had an international dimension, reaching back more than 100 years to the early suffrage campaigns and activism for world peace. In the last thirty years, however, womens movement activism has grown exponentially in relation to developments beyond national borders. At the global level, international conferences have placed new issues on national political agendas and facilitated networking among womens groups around the world, even as they have been marked in some instances by sharp conflicts among women in developed and developing nations. At the regional level, transnational organizing has become increasingly important as a means for spreading new ideas across national borders, fostering policy diffusion and solidarity among politically marginalized groups. Despite their long history, womens movements are thus constantly being reborn, reinventing themselves, and taking on new forms in order to politicize womens concerns, however these are identified and defined.

SEE ALSO Abortion Rights; Equality; Family Planning; Femininity; Feminism; Feminism, Second Wave; Gender Gap; Inequality, Gender; Interest Groups and Interests; Masculinity; Politics; Politics, Black; Politics, Gender; Politics, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and Bisexual; Reproductive Rights; Social Movements; Stepford Wives; Suffrage, Womens; Women and Politics; Womens Liberation


Alvarez, Sonia. 2000. Translating the Global: Effects of Transnational Organizing on Local Feminist Discourses and Practices. Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism 1 (1): 2967.

Basu, Amrita. 1995. The Challenge of Local Feminisms: Womens Movements in Global Perspective. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Beauvoir, Simone de. 1952. The Second Sex. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Beckwith, Karen. 2000. Beyond Compare? Womens Movements in Comparative Perspective. European Journal of Political Research 37 (4): 431468.

Friedan, Betty. 1963. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Dell Publishing.

Rich, Adrienne. 1977. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. New York: Virago.

Mona Lena Krook

Women's Movement

views updated May 18 2018


As the United States approached the age of industrial expansion in the 1800s, an increased awareness of social problems began to arise. Advocacy groups rallied for the abolition of slavery, reform in mental institutions and prisons, and equal rights for women. While these social issues gained attention, the roles of men and women began to change. The industrial age brought about a shift in family life as more married men worked in factories, which kept them away from home for 10 to 12 hours each day. Because women could not own property and were not allowed equal access to education and employment as were men, a married woman's life was limited to staying home and caring for the children, tending to household chores, and working at menial jobs. Single women were allowed to work in factories, but their wages were only half that of their male counterparts.

The movement toward equal rights was lead by Elizabeth Cady Stanton (18151902) who was born in 1815 in Johnstown, New York. Cady Stanton and her husband, Henry Brewster Stanton, a lawyer and abolitionist, attended the World Antislavery Conference in London, England, where they met other reformists such as Lucretia Mott (17931880), a Hicksite Quaker. The women, however, were not allowed to participate in the conference because they were female. On July 1920, 1848, in Seneca Falls, New York, the two women organized the first public political meeting in the United States that focused on women's rights. The meeting was attended by 240 people, 40 of them men. The Seneca Falls Convention focused on the "Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments," which was modeled after the Declaration of Independence. The document was written by Cady Stanton, Mott, Martha Wright, Mary Ann McClintock, and Jane Hunt; it included a detailed list of female oppression by men, specifically citing depriving women of the rights to vote, to own property, and to equal employment and education. The "Resolutions" included in the "Declaration of Sentiments" were approved.

In 1865 the Fourteenth Amendment was introduced to Congress which allowed African American males the right to vote but specifically excluded females. Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony 18201906), who began campaigning for women's rights with Cady Stanton in 1951, reviewed an early draft of the proposal and took issue with the term "male citizen" which had never been used before in the U.S. Constitution. While they were sympathetic to the fact that former slaves needed this ballot to protect their rights, Cady Stanton and Anthony did not support it. Despite their opposition, Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment in July 1868.

Over the next 20 years additional women's rights groups were formed and some success was attained at local levels. In 1870 women were given the right of citizenship in the Wyoming and Utah Territories and in the Washington Territory in 1883. In Michigan and Minnesota, widowed mothers of school children were given the right to vote on school issues in 1875. The same was afforded to widows in Vermont and New York in 1880.

In 1882 the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives appointed Select Committees on Woman Suffrage and, for the first time in 1886, the "Susan B. Anthony Amendment," or the woman's suffrage amendment, was debated on the Senate floor. Gradually women won the right to own property and to have professional careers but it wasn't until 1920 that the Nineteenth Amendment was passed, giving women the right to vote.

The women's movement gained momentum and made important strides toward equality during the social unrest of the 1960s when civil rights groups and Vietnam War (19641975) protesters were demanding change. In 1963 author Betty Freidan wrote the bestseller "The Feminine Mystique," which described the unhappiness of the majority of middle-class women who wanted more out of life than to be housewives. At the same time, the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women (chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt) issued a report titled American Women, which documented discrimination against women in education, employment, taxes, and the law. As a result, the Equal Pay Act (1963) was passed that required employers to provide equal wages for equal work for men and women. President John F. Kennedy (19611963) further mandated that the federal government hire "solely on the basis of ability to meet the requirements of the position, and without regard to sex." This was the government's first attempt to address women's issues since 1920.

In 1964 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), an organization developed to defend employment rights of minorities, also began to work toward securing rights for women. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was broadened to include not only discrimination in jobs based on race, creed and natural origin but also sex.

In 1966 Betty Freidan and others founded the National Organization for Women (NOW). NOW's statement of purpose was "to take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American Society NOW, assuming all privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men." The group focused on increasing the number of women in government jobs, legalizing abortion and increasing the number of day-care centers, and most of their goals were accomplished. In 1969 Betty Freidan, with author and feminist, Gloria Steinem (1934), and U.S. representatives from New York Bella Abzug (19711976) and Shirley Chisholm (19691983) formed the National Women's Political Caucus (NWPC). The group worked to increase the number of females holding political office; they were very successful in this mission during President Jimmy Carter's (19771981) administration. Smaller radical groups formed over the next 10 years that advocated for various women's rights. These groups encouraged Congress in 1974 to pass the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA), which made it illegal to deny anyone credit based on gender.

Challenging the barriers to women's rights over the years led to more opportunity and economic power for women during the latter half of the twentieth century. In the early 1990s women received 54 percent of university Bachelor's degrees and 53 percent of all Master's degrees. By the mid-1990s women continued to advance in politics as well as the workforce. In 1997 there was still a difference in pay between men and women in the same positionswomen holding mid-level jobs were still paid an average of 26-cents less per hour than their male counterparts.

See also: Fourteenth Amendment, Nineteenth Amendment, Women in the Workplace


Davis, Flora. Moving the Mountain. New York: Crowell, 1979.

Dubois, Ellen Carol, ed. Woman Suffrage and Women's Rights. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Epstein, Cynthia Fuchs. Woman's Place: Options and Limits in Professional Careers. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1970.

Flexner, Eleanor and Ellen Fitzpatrick. Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1996.

Newman, James L. "Becoming the Birthplace of Women's Rights: The Transformation of Seneca Falls, New York." Focus, Fall 1992.

Wheeler, Marjorie Spruill, ed. One Woman One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement. Troutdale, OR: NewSage Press, 1995.

womens rights movement

views updated Jun 08 2018

women's rights movement Broad term for the international movement that began in the early 19th century to promote the equality of women. Originally concentrating on women's suffrage, the movement has since worked for equality of employment opportunity and pay. See also feminism; suffragette movement

women's movement

views updated May 21 2018

women's movement This term refers to the mobilization of women around the project of changing and improving their position in society. It is often used interchangeably with ‘Women's Liberation Movement’ to describe the second wave of feminism from the 1970s onwards (the first wave being nineteenth- and early twentieth-century feminism culminating in the struggle for votes for women).

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