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Feminism, Second Wave

Feminism, Second Wave


Second Wave feminism applies to the womens movement that began at the end of 1963 and extended into the 1980s. First Wave feminism addressed employment, marriage laws, and education and later came to embrace the voting rights movement. Second Wave feminists went further to address the issues of equality of the sexes in the workplace, a womans right to choose, feminine sexuality, and a furthering of political action to bring womens issues in a patriarchal society to light.

The starting point of the Second Wave is usually considered to be a 1963 report from the Committee on the Status of Women (CSW), which was begun by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and which she chaired until her death in 1962. The committee found that women were not being treated equally in the workplace and recommended mandatory fair hiring and pay, maternity leave for mothers, and affordable child care. Based on these recommendations, the Equal Pay Act was passed by Congress on June 10, 1963, making it illegal to pay women less for doing the same jobs as men.

Yet the womens movement at that time was relatively quiet. Most women were locked into traditional roles of wife, mother, nurse, teacher, secretary, and other feminine activities without the possibility of individual advancement or achievement. Then Betty Friedan, a New Jersey work-at-home journalist and mother, wrote The Feminine Mystique (1963) and her words sparked many more women into realizing that they wanted the freedom to control their own destinies. Friedan wrote about her own life and the frustrations that many other women were feeling about patriarchal attitudes regarding their roles. She equated American women with the inmates of Nazi concentration camps and evoked strong emotions in men and women, both pro and con. The book became a best seller, and the battle for equality of the sexes was reignited.

A major milestone in the womens movement was the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made gender and racial discrimination in the workplace illegal. At the same time, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was established to investigate complaints and impose penalties on those not acting in accordance with the law. Title VII meant that women no longer would have to resign themselves to working as nurses or secretaries because they could not get into medical school or become business executives, though the atmosphere was slow to change.

In 1966, at the Third National Conference of the Commission on the Status of Women, a new organization was formed. Friedan was furious over the governments failure to enforce Title VII, and she invited a few women from the conference to her hotel room. She wanted to discuss stronger options than merely passing a resolution to recommend enforcement, and the women at the meeting decided instead to form their own organization, dedicated to the attainment of full equality for women. Friedan christened it the National Organization of Women (NOW) and the group drafted a statement of purpose.

In March 1969 New York journalist Gloria Steinem realized that the womens movement was not just for unhappy housewives when she attended a rally to speak out on abortion. It had been organized by the newly formed radical feminist group the Redstockings, and the meeting was standing room only. As women spoke about their own bad experiences, Steinem realized that she had felt the same anxieties over having had an abortion herself, and she identified with them. She immediately assumed responsibility in the cause of a womans right to choose.

Steinem traveled around the country with a speaking partner, usually a woman of color, to address those who thought the movement was only for white middle-class women. The pair encouraged all women to understand their rights and to take part in the movement to demand them.

Where Friedan had been considered the founder of the Second Wave movement, Steinem was certainly its messenger. One of her early appearances was in testifying before a Senate subcommittee on the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), and in 1971 Steinem used her journalistic connections to publish the first edition of Ms. magazine as a supplement to New York Magazine. In eight days, all 300,000 printed copies were sold. Ms. became the premiere forum for feminist issues and Steinem became a feminist icon.

Her testimony and that of other women helped put pressure on Congress to pass the ERA in 1972. The law was to be simple, as written by Alice Paul in 1923: Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Yet there was still a long battle, as the ERA had to be sent to all 50 states for ratification, and 38 would have to pass it before it would become law.

Legal wheels did not stop turning. Title XI of the Education Amendments banned sexual discrimination in schools, and the greatest victory was a result of the Supreme Court decision in the case of Roe v. Wade in 1973, making abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy legal. The first national convention of the National Womens Political Caucus was also held that year, as women became a force in national politics. Anne Armstrong, the first woman to hold a cabinet-level position, also became the first woman to make the keynote speech at the Republican National Convention.

The end of the Second Wave feminist movement is often seen as occurring sometime in the 1980s up to the 1990s when Third Wave feminism sprouted from an article written by Rebecca Walker, titled Becoming the Third Wave, in Ms. in January 1992. The renewed emphasis of this movement is to expand definitions of gender and sexuality, race, and class. Many in this group are disappointed that the Second Wave did not fully achieve their ideals, and this was punctuated by the failure of the ERA to be ratified by the required 38 states, though ratification is still being pursued into the twenty-first century.

However, some view feminist advancement as the cause of many societal ills. The concept of women working outside the home has become a necessity for most families, leaving children to be raised by caregivers rather than parents. Many see the decline of the family in America as a result. The openness with which homosexuality and homosexual marriage is approached in todays society seems even more threatening to those with traditional values. However, most men and women working in the area of civil rights maintain that equalityregardless of race, creed, sexual orientation, or mental or physical abilityis a natural right. Feminist movements will undoubtedly continue in various forms until this ideal has been reached.

SEE ALSO Feminism; Gender; Inequality, Political; Politics: Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, And Bisexual; Steinem, Gloria


Brownmiller, Susan. 1999. In Our Time, Memoir of a Revolution. New York: Dial.

Cohen, Marcia. 1988. The Sisterhood: The True Story of the Women Who Changed the World. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Dow, Bonnie J. 1996. Prime-Time Feminism: Television, Media Culture, and the Womens Movement since 1970. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Friedan, Betty. 1963. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Norton.

Reed, Susan E. 2000. Sisterhood Was Powerful. The American Prospect July 17.

Simon, Rita J., and Gloria Danziger. 1991. Womens Movements in America: Their Successes, Disappointments, and Aspirations. New York: Praeger.

Steinem, Gloria. 1983. Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Walker, Rebecca. 1992. Becoming the Third Wave. Ms. 21: 8687.

Patricia Cronin Marcello

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