The Feminist Movement in the 20th Century: Introduction

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

THE FEMINIST MOVEMENT IN THE 20TH CENTURY: INTRODUCTION

The feminist movement in the United States and abroad was a social and political movement that sought to establish equality for women. The movement transformed the lives of many individual women and exerted a profound effect upon American society throughout the twentieth century. During the first two decades of the century, women's groups in the United States worked together to win women's suffrage, culminating in the ratification of a constitutional amendment in 1920 that guaranteed women the right the vote. During the later twentieth century, women's groups would again band together, this time to formulate and advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Though this proposed constitutional amendment ultimately failed to gain approval in the late 1970s, it became a rallying point for diverse women's groups and drew national attention to the feminist cause.

The period between 1917 and the early 1960s was marked by two world wars and a subsequent economic boom that brought many American women into the workplace, initially to provide labor during the war, and then to help achieve and maintain a new higher standard of living enjoyed by many middle-class families. However, as women joined the workforce they became increasingly aware of their unequal economic and social status. Women who were homemakers, many with college educations, began to articulate their lack of personal fulfillment—what Betty Friedan in her enormously influential The Feminine Mystique (1963) called "the problem that has no name."

Other events in the United States, notably the civil rights movement, contributed to the rise of the feminist movement. During the early 1960s, the civil rights movement gathered momentum, aided by new anti-racist legislation, and reached a major goal in 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Many feminists interpreted the ban on racial discrimination, established by the Civil Rights Act, to apply to gender discrimination as well. The student movement was also at its height in the 1960s, leading many younger citizens to question traditional social values and to protest against American military involvement in Vietnam. Feminist groups followed the example set by these movements, adopting the techniques of consciousness raising, protests, demonstrations, and political lobbying in order to further their own agenda.

The founding of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966 marked the formation of an official group to represent and campaign for women's concerns. Leaders such as Friedan, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, and Gloria Steinem pressured politicians to become aware of women's concerns and to work on legislation that would improve the quality of women's lives. At the same time, many other organizations emerged to deal with feminist causes, including the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, National Displaced Homemakers, the battered women's movement, the Women's Equity Action League, Women Organized for Employment, and Women Office Workers. In the early 1970s feminist leaders also established a detailed program of proposed political and legal reforms, and in 1975 the National Women's Agenda was presented to President Gerald Ford, all state governors, and all members of Congress. In 1977, feminists organized a National Women's Conference in Houston, where they drafted an action plan that included twenty-six resolutions; the plan was subsequently distributed to government officials to remind them of their responsibility to female constituents. NOW and the newly organized National Women's Political Caucus worked to influence politicians and legislators while continuing their effort to keep women's issues prominent in the media.

During the 1980s, American society was colored by an increasingly conservative political climate and the feminist movement experienced a backlash within their ranks and from anti-feminist detractors. Feminism had always been criticized for being a predominantly white, upperclass movement and for its failure to adequately understand and represent the concerns of poor, African-American, and Hispanic women. The movement had already splintered in the 1970s along the lines of liberal feminists, who focused on the rights of women as individuals; radical feminists, who aligned themselves with revolutionary groups, viewing women as a disenfranchised class of citizens; and lesbians, who had been very much a part of the early feminist movement, but now found more in common with the gay liberation movement. Legislative gains achieved in the 1970s—notably Congress's passing of the ERA amendment and key judicial decisions, chief among them Roe v. Wade, which guaranteed women's reproductive rights—were under attack by conservative and religious antiabortion coalitions and an organized anti-ERA effort led by Phyllis Schlafly. Some state legislatures backtracked under pressure, overturning or diluting court decisions made in the previous decade. President Ronald Reagan also made his opposition to the ERA public. Due to a combination of political and social factors, the amendment failed to pass in the individual states. In addition, some women who had subscribed to the tenets of the feminist movement now voiced their displeasure at being negatively labeled anti-male and expressed regret at the loss of personal security that traditional women's roles offer. Their concerns echoed in the neoconservative writings of authors such as Naomi Wolf, Susan Faludi, and Camille Paglia.

Nevertheless, feminists pressed on, maintaining pressure on legislators to address women's issues such as reproductive rights, pay equity, affirmative action, sexual harassment, and the handling of rape victims in the courts. In retrospect, the early 1960s has been termed the "first wave" of the feminist movement, and the activists of the 1970s and 1980s have been called the "second wave." In the 1990s there emerged a "third wave" of feminists, still concerned with many of the same problems as their predecessors, but now wishing to work from within the political and legal establishments rather than criticizing them from the outside. This mostly younger generation of feminists would also stress the need to broaden the scope of feminism, emphasizing global networking, human rights, worldwide economic justice, and issues pertaining to race, gender, and class.