RCASA Friday Facts: Feminism in America: a Retrospective Part 2

In Friday Facts, Sexual Assault Awareness on July 8, 2011 at 8:00 am


The second wave of feminism came as a response to the experiences of women after World War II. The late 1940s post-war boom, an era characterized by an unprecedented economic growth, a baby boom, suburban expansion, and the triumph of capitalism, encouraged a patriarchal family life. This life was clearly illustrated by the media of the time; for example television shows such as Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver idealized domesticity, placing women in a closed sphere where they were only expected to fulfill the roles of housewives and mothers.

Although not popularized until 20 years later, in her work The Second SexSimone de Beauvoir examined as early as 1949 the notion of women being perceived as “other” in the patriarchal society. She went on to conclude that male-centered ideology was being accepted as a norm and enforced by the ongoing development of myths, and that the fact that women are capable of getting pregnantlactating, and menstruating is in no way a valid cause or explanation to place them as the “second sex.”


Second-wave feminists see women’s cultural and political inequalities as inextricably linked and encourage women to understand aspects of their personal lives as deeply politicized and as reflecting sexist power structures. The feminist activist and author Carol Hanisch coined the slogan “The Personal is Political“, which became synonymous with the second wave.[



In 1963, in her bestselling book The Feminine MystiqueBetty Friedan explicitly objected to the mainstream media image of women, stating that placing women at home limited their possibilities, and was a waste of 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.

Though it is widely accepted that the movement lasted from the 1960s into the late 1990s, the exact years of the movement are more difficult to pinpoint and are often disputed. The movement is usually believed to have begun in 1963, when “Mother of the Movement” Betty Friedan published her bestseller, The Feminine Mystique and President John F. Kennedy‘s Presidential Commission on the Status of Women released its report on gender inequality. The report, which revealed great discrimination against women in American life, along with Friedan’s book, which spoke to the discontent of many women (especially housewives), led to the formation of many local, state, and federal government women’s groups as well as many independent women’s liberation organizations. Friedan was referencing a “movement” as early as 1964.

The movement grew with legal victories such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Griswold v. Connecticut Supreme Court ruling of 1965; in 1966 Friedan joined other women and men to found the National Organization for Women.

1966: The National Organization for Women (NOW) is Founded

Photo: Library of Congress.

Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique (1963) took on “the problem that has no name”–the cultural gender roles, workforce regulations, government discrimination, and everyday sexism that had left women subjugated at home, at church, in the workforce, in educational institutions, and in the eyes of their government.

In 1966, Friedan co-founded NOW–the first and still the largest major women’s liberation organization.

But there were early problems with NOW, most notably Friedan’s opposition to lesbian inclusion (which she referred to in a 1969 speech as “the lavender menace”). In 1977, Friedan repented of her past heterosexism and embraced lesbian rights as a non-negotiable feminist goal. It has been central to NOW’s mission ever since.


Amongst the most significant legal victories of the movement after the formation of NOW were a 1967 Executive Order extending full Affirmative Action rights to women, Title IX and the Women’s Educational Equity Act (1972 and 1974, respectively, educational equality), Title X (1970, health and family planning), the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (1974), the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, the illegalization of marital rape (although not illegalized in all states until 1993]), the legalization of no-fault divorce (although not allowed in all states until 2010 ), a 1975 law requiring the U.S. Military Academies to admit women, and many Supreme Court cases, perhaps most notably Reed v. Reed of 1971 and Roe v. Wade of 1973. However, the changing of social attitudes towards women is usually considered the greatest success of the women’s movement.


By the early 1980s, it was largely perceived that women had met their goals and succeeded in changing social attitudes towards gender roles, repealing oppressive laws that were based on sex, integrating the “boys’ clubs” such as Military academies, the United States armed forcesNASA, single-sex colleges, men’s clubs, and the Supreme Court, and illegalizing gender discrimination. However, in 1982 adding the Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution failed three states short of ratification.


ERA: Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Second-wave feminism was largely successful, with the failure of the ratification of the ERA the only major legislative defeat. Efforts to ratify it have continued, and twenty-one states now have ERAs in their state constitutions. Furthermore, many women’s groups are still active and are major political forces. Today, more women earn bachelor’s degrees than men, half of the Ivy League presidents are women, the numbers of women in government and traditionally male-dominated fields have dramatically increased, and in 2009 the percentage of women in the American workforce temporarily surpassed that of men. The salary of the average American woman has also increased over time, although as of 2008 it is only 77% of the average man’s salary.  Whether this is due to discrimination is very hotly disputed; feminist groups maintain that it is.



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