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Second-Wave Feminism: History, Main Ideas, Impact

Feminism believes all sexes and genders are equal and deserve equal opportunities. As a movement, feminism is a multi-faceted series of political ideologies, economic theories, and social identities spanning hundreds of years. To demystify the movement, many experts divide feminism into four waves. The first wave, which was most active in the United Kingdom and the United States, focused on voting rights for women. The second wave, which emerged many years later, had different priorities. In this article, we’ll discuss the wave’s history, its main ideas, and its impact.

Second-wave feminism focused on the legal, economic, and social rights of women. Its top priorities included gender roles, reproductive rights, financial independence, workplace equality, and domestic violence.

History: The first and second waves of feminism

There would be no second-wave feminism without first-wave feminism. While the term was coined in 1968, first-wave feminism was active in the 19th and early 20th-century in the West. Second-wave feminism started in the 1960s.

What was first-wave feminism about?

First-wave feminism focused on legal rights, specifically the right to vote or “suffrage.” In 1848, the Seneca Falls Convention took place. There, three hundred people met to discuss gender equality and what the movement should focus on. Early on, feminism was closely tied to the temperance and abolitionist movements, but while Black activists like Fredrick Douglass and Ida B. Wells-Barnett worked with both the feminist and civil rights movements, the beliefs and interests of white women dominated first-wave feminism. In 1920, the 19th Amendment was added to the US Constitution, giving women the right to vote. In 1928, women in the UK were granted equal voting rights.

What triggered the second wave?

The “waves” metaphor is imperfect as it ignores how complex feminist movements have always been, but generally speaking, second-wave feminism kicked off in the 1960s and lasted for two decades. Thanks to the first wave, women had significantly more legal rights, such as the right to vote and property rights. However, gender inequality persisted. In 1949, French writer Simone de Beauvoir wrote the groundbreaking book The Second Sex, which challenged the idea that biology determines gender differences. She argued that social constructs of gender lead to the view that women are inferior.

The ideas in The Second Sex resonated for years in feminist circles, and in 1963, Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique. This book criticized the reigning belief that women can only be fulfilled as stay-at-home mothers and wives. In reality, many women were unhappy. While Freidan’s ideas were not new or even especially original, The Feminine Mystique had an enormous reach. Freidan and de Beauvior’s books, along with events like the availability of the oral contraceptive pill, the Civil Rights movement, and legislation like the Equal Pay Act of 1963, formed the backbone of second-wave feminism.

What were the main ideas of second-wave feminism?

First-wave feminism focused on legal rights, but what were second-wave feminists concerned about? Here are five of the movement’s central ideas:

Traditional gender roles restrict women

The suffragettes of feminism’s first wave weren’t focused on expanding gender roles or dealing with stereotypes. Most of the women were very conservative by modern standards. The belief that being a wife and mother was a woman’s ultimate purpose continued for decades. In the 1950s, women were pressured to marry, have children, and take care of the household while their husbands worked. In the United States, it even fused with Cold War propaganda, which proclaimed that the nuclear family (husband, wife, and children) was what gave America the edge over the Communists. While women could technically work (and many did, especially women of color), they were viewed as less “feminine” because of it.

Second-wave feminism challenged stereotypes and gave voice to women who weren’t fulfilled in traditional gender roles. Many sub-types of feminism emerged during this time, with some saying that women couldn’t be liberated until family, private property, and the state itself were broken down. Others advocated for less extreme ideologies, but all activists were deeply interested in analyzing how gender roles restricted women.

Reproductive rights are essential to equality

Reproductive rights were another issue first-wave feminists didn’t spend too much time on. The second wave, however, made reproductive rights one of its pillars. Agency over one’s body and the ability to make decisions regarding children, reproductive health, and more have massive consequences for a person’s life. While abortions have always been performed, they were once illegal in most places around the world. As an example, an 1861 law in the UK made performing an abortion or attempting to self-abort a crime punishable with life imprisonment.

Second-wave feminists focused on reproductive health and abortion rights. In 1960, the Food and Drug Administration in the United States approved the world’s first commercially produced birth control pill. In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution protected the right to an abortion. Across the world, feminists lobbied for laws that protected and expanded reproductive rights, circulated literature that educated women and their families, and built networks that supported reproductive health and justice.

Women deserve financial independence

The concept of credit cards, which let you buy goods and services and pay later, has been around since ancient times, but credit as we know it is fairly new. In 1950, the first universal credit card arrived courtesy of Diners Club. It was first used to pay for restaurant meals, but it soon expanded to other services. By 1953, Canada, Mexico, Cuba, and the UK accepted Diners Club member cards. American Express launched the first plastic charge card in 1958. Credit cards were convenient as they ended the need to carry cash or a checkbook everywhere. Consumers could also delay payments until they could pay off the debt.

Credit cards weren’t available to everyone when they were first launched. If a woman wanted a credit card, she needed a man to co-sign. It wouldn’t be under her name, either, even if she was the one making all the payments. Women were considered “riskier” for banks. In the US, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act in 1974 made this discrimination illegal, while the UK passed a similar law in 1975.

The workplace should be equal

Women have always worked, but their labor has historically been undervalued. They’ve also been restricted from certain careers based on education or perceived ability. During WWII, as men left their jobs to fight, women in the US and UK took their places as mechanics, engineers, and other “masculine” roles. When the war ended, many women left their jobs – or were fired – but they’d proven they could work just as successfully as men. Second-wave feminism prioritized women’s careers.

According to an archived New York Times article from 1973, women accounted for ⅔ of the gains in total US employment in the 1960s. In certain jobs, like bookkeeping, they accounted for half of the increase. They were met with sexist coworkers and bosses. The word “sex” was included in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which opened the door to lawsuits against sex discrimination in employment. Feminists still faced a battle. Until 1978, it was legal to fire a woman for getting pregnant. Second-wave feminism fought for equality and safety in the workplace through legal protections against harassment and discrimination, as well as better pay.

Domestic violence is a serious problem

For years, violence against women was not just ignored, it was normalized. A man hitting his wife for “corrective purposes” was considered his right. While excessive or disruptive violence was not encouraged, it was a community crime and not a crime against the woman herself. By 1920, all US states made wife-beating illegal, but punishments were mostly mild. By the 1960s, women had significantly more rights, but the scope and scale of domestic violence were not recognized.

Second-wave feminism drew attention to domestic violence and its many forms by opening shelters and rape crisis centers. In 1972, the first emergency rape line opened in Washington, D.C. The next year, the term “domestic violence” was used for the first time at a UK Parliament address. Feminists also pushed for changes to the law. Before the 1970s, marital rape was legal in every part of the United States. Michigan and Delaware partially outlawed it in 1974. By 1993, it was a crime nationwide.

What was the impact of second-wave feminism?

Second-wave feminism built on the legacy of the first wave to shift women’s place in society through culture, legislation, and victories in court. While the feminists of the first wave had focused on the voting and property rights of a small group of women, second-wave feminists fought to expand the definition of womanhood, ensure reproductive rights, increase financial independence, improve workplace equality, and address domestic violence.

Despite its many victories, some experts believe the work of second-wave feminism was never completed. The Equal Rights Amendment, which was first proposed in 1923, would end legal distinctions between men and women regarding employment, property, divorce, and more. It was a major focus of the second-wave feminist movement, but it ultimately did not achieve ratification. Second-wave feminism was also criticized at the time (and today) for not paying attention to the needs and struggles of women of color. Feminists like Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, and bell hooks frequently discussed this alienation, which intersected with class and sexuality, as well as race. Their work, as well as the work of many other activists, heavily informed the next phase of feminism: the third wave of the 1990s.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.