Holly Kemble / Women’s Museum of California
Second Wave Feminism, also known as The Women’s Liberation Movement, was a wave of feminism from the 1960’s to the early 1980’s that rallied around women’s issues such as gender roles, marital rights, reproductive rights, domestic violence, rape, and divorce laws.
Second Wave Feminism followed a period of highs and lows for women’s equality and came to fruition nearly 40 years after First Wave Feminism. Whereas First Wave Feminism was interested in legally changing the rights of women, Second Wave Feminism sought to change how women were viewed in society.
The notion to change women’s portrayal in society came about after the 1950’s era in the United States, often referred to as the “Golden Age” or the “Fabulous 50’s.” While this era was a time of prosperity in the United States with American’s buying homes, cars, and new technologies, the 1950’s also popularized narrow views of women due in large part to the ways women were portrayed in the media. Advertisements illustrated women as perfect housewives who cooked, cleaned, and raised their kids all while looking polished in heels, dresses, and makeup. Despite the fact that women had just contributed their skills and labor to WWII, women were now expected to remain agreeable and content at home. Although women in the media appeared to abide by these expectations, many real life women chose not to.
One such woman who disagreed with society’s image of femininity was Betty Friedan. Betty Friedan was a writer, activist, and feminist who addressed her concerns with society in her best selling book, The Feminine Mystique. Written in 1963, The Feminine Mystique famously critiqued the media’s depiction of women as one that taught women to remain confined to a home and therefore debunked of their potential. The Feminine Mystique is often credited as the beginning of Second Wave Feminism because it spoke to what women had been afraid to voice for years. Friedan is quoted in the book saying that women often lay awake at night wondering, “Is this all?” and questions, “Who knows what women can be when they are finally free to become themselves?” Friedan’s writings inspired many women to proclaim their need for more and Friedan led by example to seek out more when she took over as president of the National Organization for Women (NOW).
The National Organization for Women is a feminist organization founded in 1966. The 28 founders of NOW created the organization as a way to encourage women to participate in all aspects of American society and to see themselves as equal to men. The group also came together after law enforcement chose to not enforce anti-discrimination laws. Fighting against this, NOW made it their mission to fight for reproductive health, protection against domestic violence, constitutional equality, diversity, lesbian rights, and economic justice. These issues became the basis for NOW’s civil justice and led NOW to fight for student’s rights and civil rights. While NOW’s actions were widespread, the organization is most remembered for championing The Equal Rights Amendment, which promised to end legal distinctions between men and women in issues of divorce, property, employment, and other matters. Originally written by Alice Paul during First Wave Feminism, The Equal Rights Amendment was finally passed by Congress on March 22, 1972. Although The Equal Rights Amendment failed to ever reach ratification, NOW’s actions were instrumental in Second Wave Feminism by uniting women in their quest for equal right and the rights of other marginalized groups. Due to the efforts of NOW and other women’s rights organizations, the social perception of women began to change and legislation was put in place to reflect this change.
Beginning in 1962, President John F. Kennedy started the legal fight for women’s rights when he created The Presidential Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW). Led by Eleanor Roosevelt, the PCSW researched women’s status in the United States and released an official report that found that there was gender inequality in the U.S. Following this report, the Kennedy administration advised that the way to change these inequalities was through paid maternity leave, greater access to education, and help with child care. These findings, along with the support of feminist activists such as Shirley Chisholm, made women realize that it was time for women to effect change. Chisholm, who was a leader in the feminist movement and the first African American woman elected to Congress, famously told women, “You don’t make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas.” Feminist leaders like Chisholm, as well as the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations, helped promote significant equal rights legislation during Second Wave Feminism. Some of the most momentous legal victories during Second Wave Feminism were The Equal Pay Act (1963),Title X (1970, health and family planning), Reed v. Reed (1971, equal protection),Title IX (1972, education equality), Roe v. Wade (1973, women’s right to have an abortion), and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (1978, prohibited sex discrimination on the basis of pregnancy).
Amidst the legal victories of Second Wave Feminism, it is most important to remember that Second Wave Feminism was about changing the social stigmas surrounding women. As mentioned previously, women of the 50’s were stigmatized as domestic housewives who based their lives around their children and husbands. Although this is how the media portrayed women to be, real women in the 60’s and 70’s rejected these ideas and joined together locally, as well as on the state and federal level, to gain legal victories that would benefit women to this day. No longer were women allowing themselves to be portrayed as helpless housewives. Women of the Second Wave were redefining society’s image of femininity and proving that women were independent people who were equal to men. While the legal victories were hard fought, as Germaine Greer says, “It takes a great deal of courage and independence to decide to design your own image instead of the one that society rewards, but it gets easier as you go along.” Redesigning society’s image of femininity is exactly what women did during Second Wave Feminism, and their efforts led the way for current and future women to do the same.