Second Wave Feminism: Spark of Women’s Rights Movement

Second-wave feminism concentrated on women’s equality and advancing women’s rights since the suffrage movement of the first wave.

Oct 10, 2022By Amy Hayes, BA History w/ English minor
second wave feminism women rights movement
Women’s equal rights parade by Warren K. Leffler and Thomas J. O’Halloran, 1977, via the Library of Congress, Washington DC


Four decades after first-wave feminists secured the right to vote for women with the 19th Amendment, second-wave feminism appeared to continue the fight for women’s rights. The first wave inspired a new generation of feminists to broaden their goals and focus on women’s equality in all sectors, including political, social, and civil. There was little acceptance of women’s roles outside of the domestic world. Second-wave feminism emerged as many women were tired of feeling restricted to the household and determined to break down the walls of misogyny.


Second-Wave Feminism: Influences

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Women’s rights activists picketing for suffrage by Harris and Ewing, 1917, via the Library of Congress, Washington DC


The first wave of feminism encouraged women activists from other social movements to consider their lack of involvement in politics. Many temperance advocates and abolitionists banded together with women’s rights activists to join the women’s suffrage movement. Lasting over 50 years, first-wave feminism prioritized securing women’s right to vote. Beforehand, representation of women’s rights in the political system was largely nonexistent. It was also seen as unnatural for women to want to be involved in politics; it was considered a man’s game.


Activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, and Alice Paul greatly influenced the first wave of feminism. They organized annual women’s rights conventions, launched campaigns, created petitions, and picketed their way to victory for women’s suffrage. The Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage was founded by Alice Paul in 1913 and later became the National Woman’s Party (NWP) three years later.


The NWP shifted its focus after the passage of the 19th Amendment to other women’s rights issues, including equality. Paul wanted to push for more than just the right to vote. She proposed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 1923, which would’ve removed discrimination based on sex in all legal areas. It didn’t pass but was continuously reintroduced and almost ratified during the second wave of feminism in the 1970s.


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Efforts were still made towards securing equal rights for women after the first wave fizzled out. In 1944, Representative Winifred Stanley introduced the House Resolution 5056 bill that would make it unlawful to discriminate pay based on sex. The bill would have amended the National Labor Relations Act, but it didn’t pass in Congress. The principles behind the bill reappeared during second-wave feminism in the early 1960s. Several proposals that were unsuccessful in the first wave were readdressed in the second-wave feminism movement and received more support.


Gender Roles Before the 1960s

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Rosie the Riveter poster titled “We Can Do It!” by J. Howard Miller, ca. 1942, via US Department of Defense


Upon the start of wartime production for World War II, more women were entering the workforce and were even encouraged to do so by the government. The famous image of the heroically strong but feminine “Rosie the Riveter” and her tagline “We Can Do It!” circulated across the nation. War gave women the chance to insert themselves into a male-dominated industry. This caused more confusion among women and men on what a woman’s role was in society.


A woman was seen as the caretaker of children and a homemaker who mastered the domestic world. As women took on jobs previously filled by men, it was seen as a threat. Most industries made an effort to keep a clear division between the work of a man and a woman and paid women less to establish superiority. Some women went back to filling the housewife role once the war ended, but many didn’t want to return to a life solely as a homemaker. Men who returned from the war took over most of the positions that women worked while they were gone. This left little opportunity for women to continue working outside the domestic realm.


The housewife image was amplified during the 1950s, at the height of the second Red Scare. Cold War propaganda advertised the luxuries of the American family while highlighting the evils of communism. Women were marrying out of high school and settling down to have a family by the age of 20. The social pressures to stay confined to the domestic world caused many women to become restless. They began questioning why they were dissatisfied with the homemaker role they were told was the key to a fulfilling life.


Defining a Woman: New Discussions of Feminism

betty friedan equal rights amendment second wave feminism
Betty Friedan leading a march for the Equal Rights Amendment, 1971, via WNYC Studios


Second-wave feminism wasn’t solely about achieving equality for women. It also focused on the philosophies of what it meant to be a woman in a society that had revolved around the life of a man. Women were seen as relative to men, a perspective that was introduced by the French feminist, philosopher, and writer Simone de Beauvoir. Her book titled The Second Sex, published in 1949, opened a discussion about how women had been treated and viewed, and where they stood in relation to men. Beauvoir criticizes the condescending viewpoint that a woman is not her own self as a man is. In the introduction of her book, Beauvoir states:


Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being.”


Discussions of feminism in the second wave involved more complex questions about women’s rights issues. Activist and journalist Betty Friedan is often given credit for starting second-wave feminism when she published her book The Feminine Mystique in 1963. She called the dissatisfaction of women confined to the role of homemaker “the problem that has no name” because it was a quiet, unspoken feeling many women didn’t know they had in common. Friedan became one of the most influential women’s rights activists during the second wave but mainly concentrated on advocating for middle-class white women.


Women in the Second Wave of Feminism

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National Organization for Women founders meeting at a conference in Washington DC, 1966, via Harvard Radcliffe Institute


The second-wave feminism movement involved many women activists who also participated in other social movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement, counterculture movement, and the gay liberation movement. The National Organization for Women (NOW) was formed in 1966 and became one of the largest feminist organizations from the second wave. The NOW was founded by some of the most influential women’s rights advocates in history, and the organization has remained active with over 500,000 members. Betty Friedan was elected to be the first president of the organization.


The National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) was founded in 1973 by Black feminists, including Florynce Kennedy and Margaret Sloan-Hunter. The organization was established not only to advocate for women’s rights but also for the rights of African Americans who were often overlooked by other feminist organizations at the time. Some members of the NBFO decided to break off into their own organization, known as the Combahee River Collective. It consisted of Black feminists who fought against class oppression and racism and advocated for gay rights and women’s rights.


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Women’s liberation march in Washington DC advocating for equality by Warren K. Leffler, 1970, via the Library of Congress, Washington DC


Many feminist activists fought their way through industries that consisted mostly of men. Gloria Steinem was a feminist, spokeswoman, and journalist who documented the women’s rights movement and published stories on social issues. She started her career as a journalist in New York but struggled in her male-dominated workplace. Steinem wanted to cover social and political stories but was assigned stories for the “women’s lifestyle” section.


Steinem became known after going undercover as a Playboy Bunny in Hugh Hefner’s mansion in 1963. She wrote an exposé titled “I Was a Playboy Bunny.” The assignment uncovered the mistreatment of the Playboy Bunny waitresses, including sexism and low pay. Steinem helped in the founding of New York magazine in 1968 and Ms. magazine in 1971.


Other prominent figures of the second-wave feminism movement included Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. She was the first African American woman elected to Congress. Chisholm and Steinem were both co-founders of the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC), which was created to help women become more involved in the public and political sector. The work of second-wave feminists led to great accomplishments in extending women’s rights even further.


Accomplishments of Second-Wave Feminism

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Women’s rights advocates at the Women’s Liberation Parade in New York, 1971, via National Organization for Women


Some of the accomplishments gained during second-wave feminism built a foundation for future rights for women and others. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit discrimination based upon race, color, national origin, sex, or religion. This was a big victory for the Civil Rights Movement and the second wave of feminism. The Equal Rights Amendment was reintroduced every Congressional session after it had failed to pass Congress in 1923. The amendment passed in the US House of Representatives and Senate in 1972 but didn’t meet the minimum ratification requirement of 38 states; it fell short by just three states.


Perhaps one of the biggest accomplishments during the second wave was women’s reproductive health rights. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first oral contraception in 1960. It was given the nickname “the Pill” and initially faced much backlash, causing restrictions to be put in place. For example, the Griswold v. Connecticut Supreme Court decision ruled that married couples were legally allowed to use contraceptives based on the right to privacy. This was brought before the Supreme Court due to a Connecticut law that had banned contraceptives for married couples. Eight years later, Roe v. Wade ensured that women had the right to an abortion before a fetus was considered viable, regardless of state law.


Other second-wave feminism goals for women included education and taking on leadership positions in employment in various job industries. In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled in Hishon v. King & Spaulding that gender-based discrimination against lawyers in relation to promotions to partnership positions in law firms was prohibited. This decision confirmed that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protected individuals’ rights against discrimination in employment.


The Impact of Second-Wave Feminism

women strike peace equality second wave feminism
Women’s Strike for Peace and Equality organized by the National Organization of Women by Eugene Gordon, 1970, via New York Historical Society


Second-wave feminism made leaps and bounds throughout the few decades that the movement lasted. The second wave began to fade out in the 1980s. The increase in activism from the 1950s through the ‘70s further supported advancements in civil, social, and political rights. Many of the accomplishments throughout the second wave contributed to future Supreme Court rulings and laws that benefited not only women but other individuals as well.


The third wave of feminism appeared in the 1990s to tackle issues that second-wave feminism had failed to fully address. These were mostly related to inclusivity in the feminist movement. While the second wave focused on a much broader range of issues than the first wave, it didn’t embrace all identities, whether it be gender, race, or class. Nevertheless, second-wave feminists inspired women to speak out against inequalities and expanded upon women’s rights more than ever before.

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By Amy HayesBA History w/ English minorAmy is a contributing writer with a passion for historical research and the written word. She holds a BA in history from Old Dominion University with a concentration in English. Amy grew up in the historic state of Virginia and quickly became fascinated by the intricate details of how people, places, and things came to be. She specializes in topics on American history, Ancient and Medieval England, law, and the environment.