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Second Wave of Feminism

The second wave of feminism is usually characterized as such for the galvanization of social action for women's rights. While the first wave of feminism is recognized for its achievement of women's suffrage and abolition. The second wave, in contrast, was a transformation of women’s roles in society. It is roughly estimated that the movement began in the 50s and 60s, maturing in the 70s, and its legacy paramount to modern feminist movements.

During the 50’s, societal discontent bubbled to the surface, creating the undercurrent for social change. The 60’s is perceived as the culmination of tidal sentiment for progressive political change. Still, amidst the climate of social action and screams for equality reverberating throughout the United States, women did not yet feel included in a movement that claimed to be for all. 

History of the Movement: Bubbling inequalities, the 50s and early 60s. 

The second wave of feminism was catalyzed by a series of changes in social attitudes and technological innovations in the post-war climate in the 50s. The second wave of feminism marked a change in women’s existence as social beings in society. Women were no longer confined to the home sphere and could exist more freely outside of their servicial home lives. 

Across two decades, transformations in women’s roles had immediate impacts on feminist consciousness. The legacy of WWII meant that women’s labor force participation had increased in the 1950s, and it also marked a change in women’s fertility patterns. Still, the rhetoric of the late 50s eschewed an ideology that glamorized home life. Post-war society necessitated a clear cohesion of the nuclear family sphere, which perhaps explains why Kennedy’s “Presidential Commission on the Status of Women” still held women’s role as homemakers and emphasized the importance of women’s role in “maintaining” the nuclear family. This is still how American consciousness perceives the 1950s- through White American tropes like the ‘white picket fence’ lifestyle: poofy dresses and a pie cooling by the windowsill of a suburban house. Seldom mentioned is the bubbling in tranquility with the nation's civil rights. 

Importantly, the birth control pill was approved in May of 1960, which catalyzed the first iterations of the sexual revolution. Notwithstanding that the pill was meant to be sold only to married women, its introduction to the public merged with youth movements that argued against repressive environments in Universities. Thus far, collegiate institutions professed strict in loco di parentis’ (in the place of a parent) policies- which meant that students were under strict surveillance. The availability of contraceptives gave women agency over their fertility; that meant that although the influence of the familial sphere was strong (more young girls getting married sooner), women also had fewer children. Furthermore, tricking a pharmacist into believing one is indeed a married woman must not have necessitated an intricate disguise. 

The increased interest in educating women (primarily those who were white and middle class) was supported under the guise of them becoming better wives and mothers. Even still, women’s initiation into universities allowed them to acquire knowledge similar to men's and, thus, similar skills. Women then ventured into the quite unwelcoming workforce, which, however, the hostile environment, alleviated the ‘domestic life crisis’ and elevated the consciousness of working women- who were now aware of the added discrimination the workplace had to offer. I am sure we can all recall a scene or two from Mad Men or even the 9-5 movie (which was set in the 80s) to exemplify the type of abuse women suffer in predominantly male work environments. A new phenomenon was furthermore felt by working women, the bulk of whom were married: the double shift. This phenomenon refers to the fact that working women were also expected to fulfill all the household labor in addition to holding full-time jobs. 

Different veins of the movement 

Notwithstanding the shifting expectations of women in the 50’s, the pervasive discontent and alienation women felt culminated in The Women’s Movement in the early 1960s. Much like the first wave of feminism, as women’s suffrage and abolitionist movements went hand in hand, so did this wave of feminism and the civil rights movement. The political activation of the epoch prompted the white population to critically consider their relationship to dominant institutions as a form of consciousness-raising (although feminist consciousness-raising groups did not appear until the latter parts of the 60s and early 70s). Even still, it became apparent to women across movements for social change that their experiences were pervasive and specific to their gender. In other words, they faced discrimination even within movements that stood for peace and equality. 

A group that dominated the media's attention throughout the late 60s - the hippies were part of the counterculture movement. This movement adopted passivity as a form of resistance and ‘dropped out’ of mainstream society. That did not stop mass media from sexualizing women in the movement, as a form of dissent increasingly began to be nudity. Furthermore, there were increased instances of sexual abuse within communal living structures exemplified, for example, by the Manson family. Men began to believe that being a hippie was a ploy to “get some” and not an alternative way of living. Women lived the consequences of the commercialization of the movement.

The Women’s Movement fractioned off from different student advocacy groups, given the growing awareness amongst women of the discrimination they were facing. The Women’s Movement itself was then separated into different branches, each taking different routes to provide solutions to promote women’s equality.


Women began to faction off from the larger civil rights movement and to create their own movement. Some women joined arms in creating NOW, or the Nation Organization for Women, to “ take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men” (NOW, 1968). NOW, like the Women’s Rights Movement, largely 

focused on institutional reform within existing political frameworks for gender equality. They relied, for example, on legal reforms (like the Equal Rights Amendment proposed in the late 60s) to ensure equal opportunities in education and the workplace. These feminists, usually categorized as liberal feminists, concentrated on achieving fiscal equality for women and creating gender-blind institutions where all people are given equal rights. Betty Friedan is largely considered quintessential in kicking off the Women’s Movement, for her book “The Feminine Mystique” addresses the perils of suburban white women that were hitherto silenced.

Radical Feminism/ Women’s Liberation 

Even still, feminist advocates began to see their experiences with oppression as part of an oppressive structure or as a result of their relationship with dominant institutions (that is, a woman’s relationship with a paternalistic state under patriarchy). Women who were part of the New Left forming under the ethos of “action” grew increasingly discontent with the palpable misogyny of their fellow movement men. Most notably, Marlyn Webb’s address at President Nixon’s ‘inauguration’  in 1969, in which she attempted to raise women’s issues at a protest affiliated with the anti-war movement. Webb was met with violence from the movement men in the crowd, with obscenities like “take her off the stage and fuck her” being hurled at her. Webb demonstrated the necessity for a separate movement for women, by women. Radical feminists, having been born out of a staunch socio-economic movement, sought to transform societal structures that perpetuate gender inequality. They sought to do this by challenging the patriarchal system itself, attempting to dismantle traditional gender roles and power dynamics. Radical feminism has transformed and varied greatly since then, giving rise to important ideas about the intersection of race, sex, gender, and class analyzed under a systemic framework. 

Black Feminism, Womanism 

The inertia of the student movement created a space of critical reflection where marginalized voices were amplified. Black women, part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, for example, denounced their relegation into clerical jobs within the movement.  The inclusion of Black voices in these movements began to expand social imagination about what it means to be both Black and a Woman, for example and predates the inclusion of an intersectional framework during the third wave of feminism. Feminists like Angela Davis and author Alice Walker, who penned the revolutionary book The Color Purple, not only achieved visibility for Black women in a highly repressive cultural climate but transformed feminism with their insights. 


The second wave of feminism is deemed to be so given the landslide of progress for women in a short span of time- which improved women's position from second-class citizens. Dismounting from the years of tumultuous protest for social change, feminists in the 70s engaged in organized collective action that began with ‘consciousness raising’ groups. These groups were designed, at the grassroots level, to dialogue about what it is to be a woman. The ‘silent struggle’ women had faced for years was no longer individualized; a greater number of women began realizing their experience was shared and symptomatic of an unjust system. Naturally, the interpretation of what forces at work oppressed women and in what ways varied depending on the branch of feminism. For the sake of the article, the achievements of feminism will be recounted as one, although it should be noted that feminists differed greatly in ideologies and goals amongst them (I can offer, for example, the vastly different ideologies of Kate Millet, Valerie Solanas, and Gloria Steinem). 

A landmark of the second wave of feminism is the countrywide demonstrations on August 26, 1970, following years of consciousness-raising groups and pleas for equality. The demonstrations, which occurred in over 90 US cities (the largest one occurring in New York City), had three main demands:  free and safe abortion on demand (which remained illegal and highly lethal, especially for non-white women);  no forced sterilization; free community controlled 24-hour childcare centers; and equal opportunities in jobs and education.

The second wave is mostly recognized for its achievements in fiscal rights- namely abortion. It became an increasingly dire issue, with the death toll rising. In the early 70’s, the legacy of the late 60s was felt in the existence of a myriad of women’s groups, separated by nuance in their ideologies and focus on advocacy. When it came to abortion, groups united forces, and a unified rallying cry reverberated throughout the United States: “Abortion, a woman’s right to choose!” Nancy Rosenstock writes about her experience in the Boston Female Liberation Group: 

“WONAAC reached out far and wide and gained endorsements from women who were members of NOW, Planned Parenthood, notable feminists and lawyers such as Black feminist Florynce (Flo) Kennedy, and others….. Local women’s liberation groups, campus groups, socialists, and many others all united around repealing abortion laws.” 

The united forces culminated in the Supreme Court's landmark January 1973 decision when the Supreme Court legalized abortion in the historic Roe v. Wade case- a decision which has since been reversed. 

The second wave of feminism is also credited for changing the rigidity in expectations from women in the home sphere and allowing women to enter the public sphere with more freedom (although not without struggle). Not only did women make essential strides in alleviating workplace and educational discrimination with the passage of Title IX in 1972, prohibiting discrimination against women in any educational program receiving federal funds, but women effectively raised the consciousness of a nation engrossed in patriarchy. Women’s visibility only grew and continues to mature and flourish to include more voices, giving way to the Gay Uprising and Queer issues in subsequent years.


Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope: Days of Rage (1995).

Terry Anderson, The Movement and the Sixties: Protest in America from Greensboro to Wounded Knee (1995).

Margaret L. Andersen, Thinking About Women: Sociological Perspectives on Sex and Gender (2008).

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