English 456: C20 Criticism and Theory

The Three Waves of Feminism
Allison Miller, UC Irvine

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First Wave of Feminism

1845 to 1945, mostly Anglo-American and European

Women's struggles to gain equal rights with men began in the late 1700's and early 1800's when influential thinkers of the time questioned established political and religious authority and stressed the importance of reason, equality, and liberty.

Northern female "Abolitionists" (in reference to the movement to abolish slavery) link emancipation of the slaves to a greater female role in the national life. But these women tended to be somewhat conservative socially, and based their claims for a greater say in American life upon their value as mothers and homemakers.

A woman suffrage amendment was first introduced in the US Congress in 1878. It failed to pass but was reintroduced in every session of Congress for the next 40 years. "Suffrage" refers to the right to vote.

The drive towards female equality was slowed down by the ethos of "manly virtue" promoted by Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders in the 1890's up until around World War I. This manly virtue fits in with Frederick Jackson Turner's thesis about the need for America continually to redefine and renew its heroic march westwards. The Women's Movement, such as it was, had to take a back seat while Teddy and his boys forged a new Imperial America.

During World War I (1914-1918), the contributions of women to the war effort increased support for a suffrage amendment.

In 1918, the House of Representatives held another vote on the issue. Spectators packed the galleries, and several congressmen came to vote despite illness. One congressman was brought in on a stretcher. Representative Frederick C. Hicks of New York left his wife's deathbed--at her request--to vote for the amendment. The House approved the amendment, but the Senate defeated it.

In 1919, the Senate finally passed the amendment and sent it to the states for approval.

By late August 1920, the required number of states had ratified what became the 19th Amendment. The amendment says, "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex."

The 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which became law on Aug. 26, 1920, gave women the right to vote in all elections.

The Flappers of the 1920's (the Roaring Twenties) openly flaunt outdated Victorian social and sexual rules. Then comes the Great Depression from 1929-30's, and such social experiments take a back seat to widespread hardship. Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt becomes president in January, 1933.

During World War II (1939-1945), several million American women took factory production jobs to aid the war effort. But after the war ended, these women were urged to leave the work force to make room for the returning servicemen. Society encouraged women to become full-time housewives. Devotion to home and family and the rejection of a career emerged as the ideal image for women.

Second Wave of Feminism

1945-1970's, Securing basic rights: reproductive, equal pay for equal work, affordable childcare, a chance for traditionally male jobs.

1949—Simone de Beauvoir publishes The Second Sex (in French).

1950's—the Cold War with Russia and China sets in. The fifties have become known as a rather stiff period of gender and social orthodoxy, as sanctified in television programs such as Ozzie and Harriet and Leave it to Beaver. Dwight Eisenhower's presidency from 1952-60 is an age of great confidence combined with the dread of nuclear war, and the official version of the American Dream seems to be the benignly dominant, home-owning husband and his charmingly subordinate homemaker-wife, along with their 2½ obedient children. The Reader’s Digest publishes articles with titles like "Why Women Act That Way."

In Western Societies, a new wave of women's movements emerged during the 1960's. Civil rights protests in the United States, student protests around the world, and women's rebellion against the middle-class housewife's role contributed to this second wave of women's movements. Betty Friedan writes The Feminine Mystique and founds NOW, the National Organization for Women. The third wave began with women's examination of their personal lives and developed into a program for social and political change. Women's groups fought against discrimination in the workplace, where women received less pay and fewer promotions than men. They also uncovered barriers to women seeking political office and to female students striving for high academic achievement.

1973 Roe Vs. Wade, control over reproductive rights. On behalf of Jane McCorvey (alias Jane Roe), young attorneys Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington file suit in Dallas County, Texas District Attorney Henry Wade in 1970, and the case subsequently goes to the US Supreme Court, which upholds the Fifth Circuit Court's verdict in favor of female reproductive rights.

Third Wave of Feminism

70's to today.

Backlash? See Susan Faludi's Backlash: the Undeclared War Against American Women.

Debate: Some Second Wave Feminists believe that young women today are ungrateful (won't call themselves feminists) vs. some young women today who believe that inequalities no longer exist and that older feminists should stop dwelling upon difficulties.