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The Waves of Feminism

The suffrage movement was the pre-cursor to the emergence of feminism. This desire to participate in representative democracy was largely a white middle class women’s struggle for equality and a larger role in the public sphere. Immigrant and African American women were largely excluded from this fight, as they were grappling with issues that reflected their experience. The right to vote was only achieved through persistence. When, in 1916, the National Woman’s Party (NWP), urged western women to “withhold their votes from the Democrats until Wilson promised to actively back woman suffrage” a national strategy was developed.[1] This strategy, postponed by World War I, finally reached success when the 19th Amendment was finally adopted in 1920.

On the heels of the suffrage movement arose feminism. This was a cultural movement with less defined goals than suffrage. This term was imprecise, “on the one hand, feminists believed that women had all the capabilities and talents of men; on the other, they believed that women’s distinctive intelligence and powers had not been allowed to surface.”[2] This contradiction would be evident in later years in the Equal Rights Amendment arguments. One camp believed that women had fought long and hard for the protections the women had achieved, protections that based on motherhood and values society had assigned to women’s experience and were unwilling to give them up. The other camp believed that women were equal to men and should be given the rights commiserate to those enjoyed by men. But, I’m jumping ahead…

This first wave feminism saw women moving out of the domestic sphere in new and exciting ways. Working outside of the home, enjoying more sexual freedom driven by the emergence of birth control, and taking public stand against World War I as anti-war protesters. Following the War, some of these freedoms for women contracted, although for women, the genie was out of the box. Professions, like clerical work, which had previously been dominated by men, were becoming “feminized.”[3]

As with first wave feminism, the second wave was prompted by war. In the World War II era, as men went to fight in this global war, women’s lives were impacted as they were offered new opportunities for independence. Driven by a scarcity of labor, between 1940 and 1945, almost 5 million new female workers entered the labor force.[4] Even though more women went to work outside the home, the traditional notions of motherhood persisted. Following the war, women were expected to give up their new-found independence and financial security to return to their kitchens and give up their positions men as they returned from the war.

Following the war, the pendulum swing back as women’s opportunities were limited once again. Although women had achieved some net gains, women’s roles in society were still limited. Inspired by the women of the Civil Rights era, and the Black Power movement, women would soon move into the era of women’s liberation. This cultural movement, more about freeing women’s minds and less about equality with men, sought to help women explore and assume their true identities free from societal restrictions based on culture and stereotypes. One of the methods used was consciousness raising which caused deep social changes in the home and workplace. This movement was accessible to women of all races and sexual orientations. Feminism helped women to take greater control of their lives and empowered them to transform themselves from within.

Throughout the waves of feminism, there have been contradictions. The experiences of women have never been homogenous. White middle-class women’s experiences have been vastly different from immigrant or black women’s experiences. Poor and working class women of any background have had different experiences than educated or wealthy women. Feminism has never been, a movement for all women. However, successive waves of feminism have always been for women’s empowerment.

The biggest issue still facing women today is the prevalence of sexual harassment and lack of respect experienced by women on a daily basis. This is evidenced by the prevalence of accusations of sexual abuse and harassment and men’s persistent denial of wrong-doing. This sometimes subtle expression – inappropriate comments made about or directed at women, to the blatant sexual aggression by men towards women – is institutionalized in our society by the lack of equality in wages between men and women, in welfare policy and attacks on women’s health care as evidenced by the resent Republican attempts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act and eliminating coverage for pregnancy, birth control and abortion access.

DuBois, Ellen Carol and Lynn Dumenil. Through Women’s Eyes: An American History with Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016.

[1] Ellen Carol DuBois and Lynn Dumenil, Through Women’s Eyes: An American History with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016), 427.

[2] DuBois, 428.

[3] DuBois, 479.

[4] Ibid, 496.

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