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Second-wave feminism

During the 1960s, influenced and inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, women of all ages began to fight to secure a stronger role in American society.


  • During the 1960s, influenced and inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, women of all ages began to fight to secure a stronger role in American society.
  • As members of groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW) asserted their rights and strove for equality for themselves and others, they upended many accepted norms and set groundbreaking social and legal changes in motion.
  • Title VII is the section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibited discrimination in employment on the basis of gender.

From the Civil Rights Movement to Women's Liberation

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement was creating a climate of protest as activists claimed rights and new positions in society for people of color.
Women filled significant roles in organizations fighting for civil rights like the Student National Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). However, women often found that those organizations—enlightened as they might have been about racial issues or the war in Vietnam—could still be influenced by patriarchal ideas of male superiority.
Two members of SNCC, Casey Hayden and Mary King, presented some of their concerns about their organization’s treatment of women in a document entitled “On the Position of Women in SNCC,” which argued that SNCC practiced discrimination against women similar to the discrimination practiced against African Americans by whites. Stokely Carmichael, field organizer and future chairman of SNCC, joked that the position for women in the movement was “prone.”
1964 photo of Casey Hayden (right), who joined colleague Mary King in critiquing the Student National Coordinating Committee's treatment of women. Image credit: SNCC Digital Gateway
Nevertheless, the Civil Rights Movement contributed materially to women's rights. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, national origin, and religion, also prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in Title VII. Ironically, protection for women had been included at the suggestion of a Virginia congressman in an attempt to prevent the act’s passage; his reasoning seemed to be that, while a white man might accept that African Americans needed and deserved protection from discrimination, the idea that women deserved equality with men would be far too radical for any of his male colleagues to contemplate. Nevertheless, the act passed, granting broad workplace protections to women and minorities.

The Feminine Mystique and NOW

Just as the abolitionist movement made nineteenth-century women more aware of their lack of power and encouraged them to form the first women’s rights movement--sometimes called first-wave feminism--the protest movements of the 1960s inspired many white and middle-class women to create their own organized movement for greater rights--known as second-wave feminism. Many were older, married women who found the traditional roles of housewife and mother unfulfilling.
In 1963, writer and feminist Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, a nonfiction book in which she contested the post-World War II belief that it was women’s destiny to marry and bear children. Friedan’s book was a best-seller and began to raise the consciousness of many women who agreed that homemaking in the suburbs sapped them of their individualism and left them unsatisfied.
Betty Friedan was the author of The Feminine Mystique, a book that critiqued the popular 1950s notion that a woman's highest satisfaction was to be found in life as a homemaker. Friedan went out to become the first president of the National Organization for Women.
In 1966, the National Organization for Women (NOW), formed and proceeded to set an agenda for the feminist movement. Framed by a statement of purpose written by Friedan, the agenda began by proclaiming NOW’s goal to make possible women’s participation in all aspects of American life and to gain for them all the rights enjoyed by men. Among the specific goals set was the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), a proposed Constitutional Amendment guaranteeing equal rights for women. First introduced in Congress in 1923, the ERA was passed in 1972 but failed to receive the 38 state ratifications necessary to become part of the Constitution. It has yet to be adopted today.
Early members of NOW discuss the problems faced by American women. Betty Friedan is second from the left. Image credit: Smithsonian Institution Archives

The Pill

Medical science also contributed a tool to assist women in their liberation. In 1960, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the birth control pill, freeing women from the restrictions of pregnancy and childbearing. Women who were able to limit, delay, and prevent reproduction were freer to work, attend college, and delay marriage. Within five years of the pill’s approval, some six million women were using it.
The pill was the first medicine ever intended to be taken by people who were not sick. Even conservatives saw it as a possible means of making marriages stronger by removing the fear of an unwanted pregnancy and improving the health of women. Its opponents, however, argued that it would promote sexual promiscuity, undermine the institutions of marriage and the family, and destroy the moral code of the nation. By the early 1960s, 30 states had made it a criminal offense to sell contraceptive devices.

Radical feminism

More radical feminists, like their colleagues in other movements, were dissatisfied with merely redressing economic issues. They devised their own brand of consciousness-raising events and symbolic attacks on women’s oppression.
The most famous of these was an event staged in September 1968 by New York Radical Women. Protesting stereotypical notions of femininity and rejecting traditional gender expectations, the group demonstrated at the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to bring attention to the contest’s—and society’s—exploitation of women. The protestors crowned a sheep Miss America and then tossed instruments of women’s oppression, including high-heeled shoes, curlers, girdles, and bras, into a “freedom trash can.” News accounts famously, and incorrectly, described the protest as a “bra burning."

What do you think?

Do you think that second-wave feminism was a separate movement from the Civil Rights Movement, or just a different facet of it? Why?
Compare and contrast first-wave feminism (epitomized by figures like Susan B. Anthony) with second-wave feminism (epitomized by figures like Betty Friedan). What were the goals of each movement? To what extent, if at all, did either movement champion the rights of poor women or minority women?
Why do you think the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) has never been ratified?
Do you think the second-wave feminist movement achieved its goals? Why or why not?

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