Feminism’s Second Wave


The 1930s in America was a time of unprecedented policy and social reform and is often called The Progressive Era. Women’s social and political activism continued throughout this period. Even the first lady Eleanor Roosevelt set an example. During the New Deal, she was a key figure in advocating the appointment of women to positions within the administration.

However, America also saw a new emphasis on domesticity after World-War II. Thousands of women had entered the workplace in the 1940s to take over jobs that were left unfilled when many men enlisted. The women who stepped into these jobs were often making munitions and supporting the war effort. While the government actively recruited these women to take on such work in order to support the war effort, they did not do so out of a sudden interest in gender equality and they had no interest in permanently changing women’s economic roles; their entry was seen as a temporary and necessary solution. (If war often creates unusual opportunities for women to transcend or escape traditional gender norms, its climate and aftermath can just as easily work to reinforce a reliance on such roles. Consider our traditional war narratives: men fighting bravely on the frontlines, women “protected” on the homefront.)

"Rosie the Riveter," first published in 1942, remains a cultural icon and is often seen as a symbol of women's economic empowerment.

“Rosie the Riveter,” first published in 1942, remains a cultural icon and is often seen as a symbol of women’s economic empowerment, especially among working class feminists.

When American soldiers returned after WWII, women were almost uniformly fired and forced out of the jobs they had learned and worked at for years in order to give these jobs “back” to men returning from military service (and not necessarily the same men who had held them before the war). Women were expected to return to their private sphere and their duties of domestic chores and child-raising – and to do so without complaint – but the opportunity to be part of the labor force left an impression and a desire to be an equal part of the national work force.

Second wave feminism was a reaction to this post-war obsession with the ideal of the contented housewife and suburban domesticity, a lifestyle that often isolated women and severely limited their choices and opportunities.

This 1960s-era ad from Hoover draws on the ubiquitous image of the "happy" housewife Betty Friedan discusses in "The Problem That Has No Name" from her famous book The Feminine Mystique.

This 1960s-era ad from Hoover draws on the ubiquitous image of the “happy” housewife Betty Friedan discusses in “The Problem That Has No Name” from her famous book The Feminine Mystique.

The popular television show Mad Men and its characters may be fiction, but its portrayal of sexism and racism in the 1960s workplace is especially powerful. Below is a clip of Joan Holloway (the office manager/head secretary at the Madison Avenue advertising agency Sterling-Cooper) showing new secretary Peggy Olson the ropes on her first day at the office. Notice that Joan’s advice to Peggy has largely to do with how to please the men in the office, not how to further her own career or fulfill her own ambitions.


Feminism’s second wave began in the early 1960s; Betty Friedan is often credited with starting this wave of the feminist movement with the publication of her book The Feminine Mystique in 1963. Friedan herself was influenced by the French feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir and her book The Second Sex (1949), which argues against psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s claim that “anatomy is destiny”; that is, the belief that one’s biological sex automatically determines one’s role in society.

For the first time, the government, led by President John F. Kennedy, also issued the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women (chaired by former first lady and activist Eleanor Roosevelt), which concluded that women did experience discrimination in American life (visibility!).

In addition, radical feminist activist Robin Morgan and the members of the organization New York Radical Women protested the Miss America Pageant in 1968, which made headlines across the country.

Feminists protest outside the 1968 Miss American Pageant, comparing the national pastime of judging women’s bodies to judging livestock.

Women hold protest signs at the 1968 Miss America Pageant.

When the movement began, it was first called Women’s Liberation (or, derogatorily, Women’s Lib) and its participants were sometimes referred to patronizingly as Women’s Libbers or, later, bra burners. (Contrary to popular belief, second wave feminist activists did not protest patriarchy by burning their bras.)


In general, the second wave and their activist efforts focused not just on legal barriers to civil equality, as the first wave had largely done, but also examined social inequalities. Second wave feminists:

  • Spanned the period between the 1960s and roughly the late 1980s.
  • Focused on discussing and changing a broad range of pubic and private injustices, including: discriminatory laws and policies, sexuality and sexual identity; marriage and child-rearing; workplace environment; reproductive rights; and violence against women (rape and battering).
  • Questioned the very structures of power (e.g., government, labor, education, and religion) that continued to perpetuate legal and social inequalities for both women and people of color.
  • Were more conscious of parallels between sexism and racism (what we now call ” intersectionality”).
  • Were often simultaneously active in the Civil Rights Movement. Some activists also collaborated on behalf of gay rights.
  • Were also often involved in the Peace Movement, taking part in “Ban the Bomb” protests and opposing nuclear power, militarism and imperialism, and the Vietnam War.
  • Formed local, state, and federal government groups on behalf of women as well as many independent organizations that fought for women’s, and human, rights – meaning human rights and women’s social and civil equality were now becoming a growing part of the country’s political agenda.
  • Sought to create new, more fully human and positive images of women in both pop culture and the media to fight the negative images and messages so commonly in circulation (e.g., the image of Friedan’s “happy housewife”).
  • Created their own pop culture, including music, art, writing, and film to expand the “single stories” previously heard about women and minorities.

Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” (1971) is still considered something of a Feminist anthem:



  • Submission of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to Congress. It was narrowly defeated, and in only three states, by an anti-ERA faction led by Phyllis Schlafly, who argued that passage of the amendment would mean women would be drafted into the military. (Presently, only 21 states have an ERA in their state constitutions.)
  • 1960: FDA approves the oral contraceptive pill for women.
  • 1963: Equal Pay Act.
  • 1966: Betty Friedan founds the National Organization for Women (NOW).
  • 1967: full Affirmative Action rights for women.
  • 1968: Coretta Scott King (Dr. Martin Luther King’s wife and fellow activist) assumes leadership of the African-American Civil Rights movement and expands the movement’s platform to include women’s rights.
  • 1968: Shirley Chisholm, first African-American woman elected to Congress, on Democratic ticket (she would later run for the party’s nomination for president in 1972).
  • June 1969 – Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village, NY, spark the beginnings of the Gay Rights Movement (today’s LGBTQ Rights Movement).
  • 1970: Title X, ensuring access to healthcare and family planning.
  • 1970: Lutheran Church allows women to be ordained.
  • 1970: Labor giant AFL-CIO discusses the status of women in labor unions.
  • 1972: first Women’s Studies program in the U.S.  at San Diego State.
  • 1972: passage of Title IX, ensuring equal funding for women’s opportunities in education (e.g., scholarships and sports teams).
  • 1972: Gloria Steinem founds Ms. Magazine (still in print today…and online!).
  • 1973: Roe v. Wade, the landmark case ensuring women’s access to safe and legal abortion.
  • 1974: Equal Credit Opportunity Act.
  • 1975: Military academies admit women.
  • 1978: Pregnancy Discrimination Act.


 The Feminist Movement in the U.S. worked increasingly to collaborate with African-American women and other feminists of color, as well as lesbians and gays. However, feminists were sometimes divided on issues like abortion, the role or use of pornography, and other issues surrounding sexual identity (e.g., the role of trans women in lesbian communities, or the role of lesbian women in the Feminist Movement). For example, even though Betty Friedan was largely credited with sparking the second wave, she was also notorious for coining the phrase “The Lavender Menace” to describe lesbians within the movement.


Beginning in the 1980s, heated debates, sometimes referred to as the “Sex Wars,” pitted anti-pornography feminists  against sex-positive feminists. Anti-porn feminists like writer Andrea Dworkin linked violence against women to the ubiquity of pornography and other images of male sexual domination of women, and pushed for limitations on porn. Feminists who identified themselves as sex-positive feminists argued that sex work (e.g., prostitution, stripping, pron stars, etc.) should be seen, and thus regulated as, economic labor, and that such work was not automatically degrading to women but may even be empowering at times. A great example of this is Julia Query’s documentary Live Nude Girls UNITE!, which follows the successful efforts of a group of exotic dancers to unionize the strip club at which they work. (It’s streaming on Netflix.)

Note: While the term Sex Wars implies that there are two clear-cut sides to these debates, the reality of feminists’ diverse viewpoints on these matters are in reality much more complex and no so tidily divided into warring sides. In fact, our culture’s default binary thinking (either/or, male/female, white/black…or describing everything as a war between two opposing sides) is a kind of thinking that feminists often critique as one root of problematic power relations (e.g., us vs. them) that fuel inequality and oppression.

4 thoughts on “Feminism’s Second Wave

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