Reading: The Women’s Movement

The feminist movement (also known as the women’s liberation movement, the women’s movement, or simply feminism) refers to a series of political campaigns for reforms on issues such as reproductive rights, domestic violence, maternity leave, equal pay, women’s suffrage, sexual harassment, and sexual violence, all of which fall under the label of feminism and the feminist movement. The movement’s priorities vary among nations and communities, and range from opposition to female genital mutilation in one country, to opposition to the glass ceiling in another.

We Can Do It! image of Rosie the Riveter showing her flexed arm muscle.

The “We Can Do It!” poster from 1943 was re-appropriated as a symbol of the feminist movement in the 1980s. [We Can Do It! Poster. Authored by: J. Howard Miller from Westinghouse. Provided by: Wikipedia. License: Public Domain]

Feminism in parts of the western world has gone through three waves. First-wave feminism was oriented around the station of middle- or upper-class white women and involved suffrage and political equality. Second-wave feminism attempted to further combat social and cultural inequalities. Third-wave feminism is continuing to address the financial, social and cultural inequalities and includes renewed campaigning for greater influence of women in politics and media. In reaction to political activism, feminists have also had to maintain focus on women’s reproductive rights, such as the right to abortion. 

First-wave feminism was a period of feminist activity and thought, that occurred within the time period of the 19th and early 20th century throughout the world. It focused on legal issues, primarily on gaining women’s suffrage (the right to vote).

During the First Wave, there was a notable connection between the slavery abolition movement and the women’s rights movement. Frederick Douglass was heavily involved in both movements and believed that it was essential for both to work together in order to attain true equality in regards to race and sex. 

The first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York (now known as the Seneca Falls Convention) from July 19-20, 1848, and advertised itself as “a convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman”. While there, 68 women and 32 men—100 out of some 300 attendees, signed the Declaration of Sentiments, also known as the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments. The principal author of the Declaration was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who based it on the form of the United States Declaration of Independence. She was a key organizer of the convention along with Lucretia Coffin Mott, and Martha Coffin Wright. Charlotte Woodward, alone among all 100 signers, was the only one still alive in 1920 when the Nineteenth Amendment passed. Woodward was not well enough to vote herself.

Second-wave feminism is a period of feminist activity and thought that first began in the early 1960s in the United States, and eventually spread throughout the Western world and beyond. In the United States the movement lasted through the early 1980s.

Whereas first-wave feminism focused mainly on suffrage and overturning legal obstacles to gender equality (e.g., voting rights, property rights), second-wave feminism broadened the debate to a wide range of issues: sexuality, family, the workplace, reproductive rights, de facto inequalities, and official legal inequalities. Second-wave feminism also drew attention to domestic violence and marital rape issues, establishment of rape crisis and battered women’s shelters, and changes in custody and divorce law. Its major effort was the attempted passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the United States Constitution, in which they were defeated by anti-feminists. 

In 1960, the Food and Drug Administration approved the combined oral contraceptive pill, which was made available in 1961. This made it easier for women to have careers without having to leave due to unexpectedly becoming pregnant. The administration of President Kennedy made women’s rights a key issue of the New Frontier, and named women (such as Esther Peterson) to many high-ranking posts in his administration.

Third-wave feminism refers to several diverse strains of feminist activity and study, whose exact boundaries in the history of feminism are a subject of debate, but are generally marked as beginning in the early 1990s and continuing to the present. The movement arose partially as a response to the perceived failures of and backlash against initiatives and movements created by second-wave feminism during the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, and the perception that women are of “many colors, ethnicities, nationalities, religions, and cultural backgrounds”. This wave of feminism expands the topic of feminism to include a diverse group of women with a diverse set of identities. 

Supplemental Materials

In 1963 Betty Friedan, influenced by Simone De Beauvoir’s book “The Second Sex,” wrote the bestselling book “The Feminine Mystique” in which she explicitly objected to the mainstream media image of women, stating that placing women at home limited their possibilities, and wasted talent and potential. The perfect nuclear family image depicted and strongly marketed at the time, she wrote, did not reflect happiness and was rather degrading for women. This book is widely credited with having begun second-wave feminism. Watch this video about the success and impact of Friedan’s book.

Watch the following documentary to learn more about how the portrayal of women and women’s roles has evolved since the 1950s.

Self-Check: Gender

You’ll have more success on the Self-Check, if you’ve completed the four Readings in this section.