What was the Second Wave Feminist Movement?

Women's Liberation March in Washington, D.C. in 1970

Today, feminism is an ideology/theory that most people fail to fully understand. Feminism has been described as having three separate waves. The first wave of feminism started in the mid-19th Century and culminated with the women's suffrage movement. Second wave feminism started in the late 1950s moved into the 1980s. Historians and feminist/gender scholars describe today’s feminist theory, ideology and social/political movement as the third wave of feminism. The ‘’second wave’’ of feminism started after the women were forced out of the workplace after end of World War Two and essentially ended with the failure to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Second-wave feminism splintered after criticism grew that the movement had focused on white women to the the exclusion of everyone else.

Lead up to the Second Wave

The women's movement before the 1920s was characterized by the suffrage movement that led to women gaining the right to vote. From the 1890s and early part of the 20th century, much of the women's movement focused on general societal inequalities and, such as poor working and housing conditions, while also focusing on social ills such as alcoholism and prostitution. Black women in the Southwest of the United States, during the 1930s, for instance, joined labor unions such as the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) to protest poor wages and work environments they had to endure. [1] Apart from this general social activism and gaining the right to vote, gender-specific topics, including equality in work and pay, were not major focus areas.

In the 1940s, women gained increasing employment as men left overseas to fight in World War II. In fact, it was World War II that can be argued as the major trigger for the second wave feminist movement that occurred after the war. During the war years, the labor unions that had grown in the 1930s became even stronger as women became increasingly employed, particularly in manufacturing jobs required to support the war effort. During the 1940s, new work benefits became available to women, including maternity leave, daycare, and counseling. These benefits developed more substantially in Europe, as many countries there were devastated by war, where much of the male population was reduced.[2] Nevertheless, in the United States, women's participation in the labor force in World War II created a feeling among many women, after the war ended, that they also deserved the same types of rights as men in jobs they filled. This was highlighted by the fact that many men who came back and retook their old jobs from women who were doing them during the war also were given higher salaries, further highlighting this inequality.[3]

In the 1950s, the economy began to expand and the height of the red scare or anti-communist sentiment began to diminish feminist organization. [4] However, by the early late 1950s and 1960s, as more prolonged prosperity took hold, there was greater interest to explore new ideas and movements emerged, including the civil rights movement, that began to question establish social constructs such as segregation and inequality in the work place. By the early 1960s, the social atmosphere began to be conducive for a major feminist movement.[5]

Ideology that Shaped the Movement

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

After World War II, some writers began to question how women in society were perceived and the role they played, particularly as the war had shown women made valuable contributions and in many cases performed tasks equally to me. In 1949, Simone de Beauvoir published The Second Sex, a groundbreaking book that questioned how society viewed women and the role in which they played. In her work, Beauvoir writes, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” This quote represent how society fosters the idea of what a woman should do and act, where gender roles are learned and forced upon women. [6] Where World War II showed that women could break out of their gender roles as was required; the book questioned then why should women's roles that saw them as secondary to men in the workplace and home be perpetuated when this was clearly not the case during the war.

After a period of time, the movement gained greater traction through more authors in the 1960s. Betty Friedan was perhaps one of the most influential writers at this time. After conducting a survey of her classmates, Friedan noticed that many of her classmates were unhappy in their marriages where their lives revolved around childcare and housework. This prompted her to write The Feminine Mystique in 1963 where she questioned white, middle class ideals of family life and motherhood, particularly as domestic life had stifled women and their aspirations. In her book, Friedan includes interviews with women who were unhappy in their home life, debunking the ideals of the 1950s that often showed a happy family with men at work and women focused on housework. The book fundamentally questioned if the 1950s ideals were in the best interest of women.[7]

The book and politics in the 1960s led to some initial victories for the emerging second wave women's movement. This includes the establishment of the National Organization for Women, where Friedan joined the organization, and the first great legislative victory, which was the passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963. This made it law for women to have an equal right to equal pay for the same jobs that men did. It made it now possible for women to now not be prevented from joining the labor force due to depressed wages.[8] Other changes, including the introduction of the contraceptive pill and introduction of abortion in Europe began to have political ramifications. The pill, on the one hand, allowed women to delay childbirth and establish careers in many cases. Abortion also gave women greater choices about rearing children.[9]

In 1969, Katy Millett wrote Sexual Politics and wrote about the patriarchal structure of society that controls sex, sexual expression, and ultimately politics and the narrative of political discourse. Sex and gender oppression are common because of political discourse found in society. Millets argued that before any other type of oppression existed, elite men first oppressed people based on sex and gender, extending later to race and class. [10]

In the 1970s, the second wave feminist movement expanded and continued to gain momentum. Carol Hanisch published an essay in 1970 titled "The Personal is Political.” Hanisch argued that everything was political, including division of household labor, gender roles, and other day-to-day activities. If a women decided to have an abortion and get a job as a woman in a male dominated industry, then that decision has political consequences and became politicized in society. Women had to bring their private, household problems into the public sphere because issues were politicized and had consequence far outside of an individual. [11]

One Movement or Two?

Increasingly in the 1960s and 1970s, second wave feminism diverged into two separate ideological movements: Equal rights feminism and radical feminism. Within equal-rights feminism, the objective sought equality with men in political and social spheres, where legislation and laws such as legalization of abortion and efforts to make women more established on the workforce equal to men were the primary goals. [12] Radical feminism, on the other hand, wanted much more radical change to society that fundamentally saw it as patriarchal and needed to be altered if women were to escape it oppression.[13] There were age and racial differences within the wider feminist movements at the time. The equal-rights feminists were largely white, older in age, and most came from affluent backgrounds. Radical feminists were made up younger white affluent women, and minority women of all ages who were active in the Civil Rights movement as well. [14]


Women of color found themselves underrepresented in both the racial and gender movements that were simultaneously fighting for greater equality. While Black, Latina/Chicana, Asian, and Native American women were active in feminist agendas at the time, there were tensions within the broader feminists movements because a large percentage of the leaders were white and the agenda had some stark racial contrasts. Some non-white feminists criticized the wider feminist movement for failing to be equal in the movement's representation and incorporating racial and other issues.[15]

Across the United States, minority women began the fight against racial and gender oppression by creating their own organizations. Some had already existed due to greater women participation in the workforce during the 1940s, such as the National Council of Negro Women. Other organizations developed during the 1960s and 1970s, including the Third World Women’s Alliance. The Third Women's World Alliance worked to expose the relation between race, sex, sexuality, gender, and class oppression. [16] Such views by minority women proved to be influential in the ‘’third wave’’ of feminism that emerged later in the 1970s and into today, as broader racial and social inequality issues are now incorporated by feminist movements.


The ‘’second wave’’ feminist movement proved to be a major social transition for Western countries and the United States from the 1960s and later. Major social change, such as women's participation in the labor force, and increased prosperity forced a major social awareness movement that questioned the roles of gender in society. Major works of literature began to question perceived traditional gender roles and exposed social problems created by such roles on women. Two movements emerged within the broader second wave feminist movement, which were the more mainstream and radical elements of feminism. While one worked to change society from within, using legislation and social pressure, the other, radical movement questions fundamentally if society's hierarchical and patriarchal nature were the main problem. Both these movements made major contributions, however, through their influence on society in general, where today many things we take for granted, such as women in the workforce, only became increasingly acceptable after the 1960s.

Today, a woman delaying raising a family is not often questioned by society for such a choice, but this was not the norm in the pre-1960s US and parts of Europe. Later, the merger of racial and other social inequality was seen as part of wider social struggles in society. Ultimately, the second wave feminist movement gave women the opportunity to start conversations about how their social inequality and begin to think about gender, identity, sexuality, race, and class as all equally important factors. The so-called third wave, more greatly focused on gay/lesbian and racial issues, in fact can be argued to be informed by the second wave rhetoric that had emerged late in the 1970s as race and broader social inequality issues emerged.


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  12. LeGates, Marlene. In Their Time: A History of Feminism in Western Society. New York: Routledge, 2001, 347.
  13. LeGates, Marlene. In Their Time: A History of Feminism in Western Society,. New York: Routledge, 2001, 357.
  14. LeGates, Marlene. In Their Time: A History of Feminism in Western Society. New York: Routledge, 2001, 352.
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