|Second-Wave Feminism Source: American Pageant, 12th edition***
A well-to-do housewife and mother of seven, Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) was an unlikely revolutionary. Yet this founding mother of American feminism devoted seven decades of her life to the fight for women’s rights.
Young Elizabeth Cady drew her inspiration from the fight against slavery. In 1840 she married fellow abolitionist Henry Stanton. Honeymooning in London, they attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention, where women were forced to sit in a screened-off balcony above the convention floor. This insult awakened Stanton to the cause that would occupy her life. With Lucretia Mott and other female abolitionists, Stanton went on to organize the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. There she presented her Declaration of Sentiments, modeled on the Declaration of Independence and proclaiming that “all men and women are created equal.” She demanded for women the right to own property, to enter the professions, and, most daring of all, to vote.
As visionaries of a radically different future for women, early feminists encountered a mountain of hostility and tasted bitter disappointment. Stanton failed in her struggle to have women included in the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which granted African-Americans equal citizenship. She died before seeing her dream of woman suffrage realized in the Nineteenth Amendment (1920). Yet by imagining women’s emancipation as an expansion of America’s founding principles of citizenship, Stanton charted a path that other feminists would follow a century later.
Historians use the terms “first wave” and “second wave” to distinguish the women’s movement of the nineteenth century from that of the late twentieth century. The woman most often credited with launching the “second wave” is Betty Friedan (b. 1921). Growing up in Peoria, Illinois, Friedan had seen her mother grow bitter over sacrificing a journalism career to raise her family. Friedan, a suburban housewife, went on to write the 1963 best-seller The Feminine Mystique, exposing the quiet desperation of millions of housewives trapped in the “comfortable concentration camp” of the suburban home. The book struck a resonant chord and catapulted its author onto the national stage. In 1966 Friedan co founded the National Organization for Women (NOW), the chief political arm of second-wave feminism.
Just as first-wave feminism grew out of abolitionism, the second wave drew ideas, leaders, and tactics from the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Civil rights workers and feminists alike focused on equal rights. NOW campaigned vigorously for an Equal Rights Amendment that in 1982 fell just three states short of ratification.
Second-wave feminism also had an avowedly radical wing, supported by younger women who were eager to challenge almost every traditional male and female gender role and to take the feminist cause to the streets. Among these women was Robin Morgan (b. 1941). As a college student in the 1960s, Morgan was active in civil rights organizations like the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Civil rights activism provided Morgan with a model for crusading against social injustice. It also exposed her to the same sexism that plagued society at large. Women in the movement who protested against gender discrimination met ridicule, as in SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael’s famous retort, “The only position for women in SNCC is prone.” Morgan went on to found WITCH (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell), made famous by its protest at the 1968 Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey. There demonstrators crowned a sheep Miss America and threw symbols of women’s oppression— bras, girdles, dishcloths—into trash cans. (Contrary to news stories, they did not burn the bras.)
As the contrast between WITCH and NOW suggests, second-wave feminism was a remarkably diverse movement. Feminists in the late twentieth century disagreed over many issues—from pornography and marriage to how much to expect from government, capitalism, and men. Some feminists placed a priority on gender equality, for example, full female service in the military. Others defended a feminism of gender difference—such as maternity leaves and other special protections for women in the workplace.
Still, beyond these differences feminists had much in common. Most advocated a woman’s right to choose in the battle over abortion rights. Most regarded the law as the key weapon against gender discrimination. By century’s end radical and moderate feminists alike could take pride in a host of achievements that had changed the landscape of gender relations beyond what most people could have imagined at midcentury. Yet, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, second-wave feminists also shared the burden of understanding that the goals of genuine equality would take more than a lifetime to achieve.