The Feminist Movement in the 20th Century
The feminist movement in the United States and abroad was a social and political movement that sought to establish equality for women. The movement transformed the lives of many individual women and exerted a profound effect upon American society throughout the twentieth century. During the first two decades of the century, women's groups in the United States worked together to win women's suffrage, culminating in the ratification of a constitutional amendment in 1920 that guaranteed women the right the vote. During the later twentieth century, women's groups would again band together, this time to formulate and advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Though this proposed constitutional amendment ultimately failed to gain approval in the late 1970s, it became a rallying point for diverse women's groups and drew national attention to the feminist cause.
The period between 1917 and the early 1960s was marked by two world wars and a subsequent economic boom that brought many American women into the workplace, initially to provide labor during the war, and then to help achieve and maintain a new higher standard of living enjoyed by many middle-class families. However, as women joined the workforce they became increasingly aware of their unequal economic and social status. Women who were homemakers, many with college educations, began to articulate their lack of personal fulfillment—what Betty Friedan in her enormously influential The Feminine Mystique (1963) called "the problem that has no name."
Other events in the United States, notably the civil rights movement, contributed to the rise of the feminist movement. During the early 1960s, the civil rights movement gathered momentum, aided by new anti-racist legislation, and reached a major goal in 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Many feminists interpreted the ban on racial discrimination, established by the Civil Rights Act, to apply to gender discrimination as well. The student movement was also at its height in the 1960s, leading many younger citizens to question traditional social values and to protest against American military involvement in Vietnam. Feminist groups followed the example set by these movements, adopting the techniques of consciousness raising, protests, demonstrations, and political lobbying in order to further their own agenda.
The founding of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966 marked the formation of an official group to represent and campaign for women's concerns. Leaders such as Friedan, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, and Gloria Steinem pressured politicians to become aware of women's concerns and to work on legislation that would improve the quality of women's lives. At the same time, many other organizations emerged to deal with feminist causes, including the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, National Displaced Homemakers, the battered women's movement, the Women's Equity Action League, Women Organized for Employment, and Women Office Workers. In the early 1970s feminist leaders also established a detailed program of proposed political and legal reforms, and in 1975 the National Women's Agenda was presented to President Gerald Ford, all state governors, and all members of Congress. In 1977, feminists organized a National Women's Conference in Houston, where they drafted an action plan that included twenty-six resolutions; the plan was subsequently distributed to government officials to remind them of their responsibility to female constituents. NOW and the newly organized National Women's Political Caucus worked to influence politicians and legislators while continuing their effort to keep women's issues prominent in the media.
During the 1980s, American society was colored by an increasingly conservative political climate and the feminist movement experienced a backlash within their ranks and from anti-feminist detractors. Feminism had always been criticized for being a predominantly white, upperclass movement and for its failure to adequately understand and represent the concerns of poor, African-American, and Hispanic women. The movement had already splintered in the 1970s along the lines of liberal feminists, who focused on the rights of women as individuals; radical feminists, who aligned themselves with revolutionary groups, viewing women as a disenfranchised class of citizens; and lesbians, who had been very much a part of the early feminist movement, but now found more in common with the gay liberation movement. Legislative gains achieved in the 1970s—notably Congress's passing of the ERA amendment and key judicial decisions, chief among them Roe v. Wade, which guaranteed women's reproductive rights—were under attack by conservative and religious antiabortion coalitions and an organized anti-ERA effort led by Phyllis Schlafly. Some state legislatures backtracked under pressure, overturning or diluting court decisions made in the previous decade. President Ronald Reagan also made his opposition to the ERA public. Due to a combination of political and social factors, the amendment failed to pass in the individual states. In addition, some women who had subscribed to the tenets of the feminist movement now voiced their displeasure at being negatively labeled anti-male and expressed regret at the loss of personal security that traditional women's roles offer. Their concerns echoed in the neoconservative writings of authors such as Naomi Wolf, Susan Faludi, and Camille Paglia.
Nevertheless, feminists pressed on, maintaining pressure on legislators to address women's issues such as reproductive rights, pay equity, affirmative action, sexual harassment, and the handling of rape victims in the courts. In retrospect, the early 1960s has been termed the "first wave" of the feminist movement, and the activists of the 1970s and 1980s have been called the "second wave." In the 1990s there emerged a "third wave" of feminists, still concerned with many of the same problems as their predecessors, but now wishing to work from within the political and legal establishments rather than criticizing them from the outside. This mostly younger generation of feminists would also stress the need to broaden the scope of feminism, emphasizing global networking, human rights, worldwide economic justice, and issues pertaining to race, gender, and class.
Bella! Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington (nonfiction) 1972
Paula Gunn Allen
The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Tradition (essays) 1986
Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa
This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color [editors] (anthology) 1981
Amazon Odyssey (nonfiction) 1974
Boston Women's Health Book Collective
Our Bodies, Ourselves (nonfiction) 1973
Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (nonfiction) 1975
In Our Time: A Memoir of a Revolution (autobiography) 1999
Unbought and Unbossed (autobiography) 1970
Pornography: Men Possessing Women (nonfiction) 1981
Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women (nonfiction) 1991
The Feminine Mystique (nonfiction) 1963
It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women's Movement (nonfiction) 1976
The Second Stage...
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SOURCE: National Organization for Women (N.O.W.) Statement of Purpose. 1966.
In the following statement of purpose, the founding members of N.O.W. outline their goals, emphasizing that the organization will be the voice of women seeking equality in employment, education, politics, and under the law.
We, men and women, who hereby constitute ourselves as the National Organization for Women, believe that the time has come for a new movement toward true equality for all women in America, and toward a fully equal partnership of the sexes, as part of the world-wide revolution of human rights now taking place within and beyond our national borders.
The purpose of NOW is to take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men.
We believe the time has come to move beyond the abstract argument, discussion and symposia over the status and special nature of women which has raged in America in recent years; the time has come to confront, with concrete action, the conditions that now prevent women from enjoying the equality of opportunity and freedom of which is their right, as individual Americans, and as human beings.
NOW is dedicated to the proposition that women, first and foremost, are human...
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SOURCE: Morrison, Toni. "What the Black Woman Thinks about Women's Lib." In Public Women, Public Words: A Documentary History of American Feminism, edited by Dawn Keetley and John Pettegrew, pp. 71-7. Madison, Wis.: Madison House, 1997.
In the following essay, originally published in 1971, Morrison suggests that black women's low participation in the predominantly white women's liberation movement reflects black women's distrust of white people in general, but at the same time acknowledges that this attitude is slowly beginning to change.
They were always there. Whenever you wanted to do something simple, natural and inoffensive. Like drink water, sit down, go to the bathroom or buy a bus ticket to Charlotte, N.C. Those classifying signs that told you who you were, what to do. More than those abrupt and discourteous signs one gets used to in this country—the door that says "Push," the towel dispenser that says "Press," the traffic light that says "No"—these signs were not just arrogant, they were malevolent: "White Only," "Colored Only," or perhaps just "Colored," permanently carved into the granite over a drinking fountain. But there was one set of signs that was not malevolent; it was, in fact, rather reassuring in its accuracy and fine distinctions: the pair that said "White Ladies" and "Colored Women."
The difference between white and...
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SOURCE: Roe v. Wade, 1973.
In the following excerpt from the landmark legal decision regarding Roe v. Wade, the United States Supreme Court upholds women's unconditional right to have an abortion—a right that had been denied them since the late 1800s.
The principal thrust of appellant's attack on the Texas statutes is that they improperly invade a right, said to be possessed by the pregnant woman, to choose to terminate her pregnancy. Appellant would discover this right in the concept of personal "liberty" embodied in the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause; or in personal, marital, familial, and sexual privacy said to be protected by the Bill of Rights …; or among those rights reserved to the people by the Ninth Amendment.… Before addressing this claim, we feel it desirable briefly to survey, in several aspects, the history of abortion, for such insight as that history may afford us, and then to examine the state purposes and interests behind the criminal abortion laws.
It perhaps is not generally appreciated that the restrictive criminal abortion laws in effect in a majority of States today are of relatively recent vintage. Those laws, generally proscribing abortion or its attempt at any time during pregnancy except when necessary to preserve the pregnant woman's life, are not of ancient or even of common-law origin....
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SOURCE: Millett, Kate. “How Many Lives Are Here….” In The Feminist Memoir Project: Voices from Women’s Liberation, edited by Rachel DuPlessis and Ann Snitow, pp. 493-95. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998.
In the following essay, Millett recounts the urgency, excitement, and liberating sense of purpose and solidarity experienced by women involved in the feminist movement during the 1960s.
How many lives are here, since for every woman who tells her story in feminism in this ground-breaking collection, there are a thousand others, ten thousand others. For these “representative lives” are only one sampling of a great historical wave. It came at us full tide and from all sides and swept our lives into action, sudden meaning, a transforming vitality, a consuming energy that is still unspent.
History broke over a generation of women who were changed utterly and in the process changed their own times, a change still going on around the world, change still hardly reckoned yet, a chain reaction that will set still others in motion. And it begins with such small steps: a pamphlet, an evening between friends, a challenge at a meeting, then a demonstration, then a network of consciousness-raising groups. It begins with an atmosphere arising out of the great example of the struggle for black civil rights and with the passage of a civil rights...
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SOURCE: Ferree, Myra Marx, and Beth B. Hess. "Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: Defending Gains, 1983-92." In Controversy and Coalition: The New Feminist Movement across Three Decades of Change, rev. ed., pp. 159-93. New York: Twayne, 1994.
In the following essay, Ferree and Hess explore key developments affecting the women's movement between 1983 and 1992, noting changes in strategy used to preserve gains in the areas of reproductive rights, employment law, and political life.
With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the national political agenda shifted markedly toward the Right. In the following decade, under both Presidents Reagan and Bush, many fronts on which feminist gains had been realized in the 1970s came under direct attack. Outspoken anti-feminists were appointed to the judiciary and placed in charge of civil rights enforcement; social programs benefiting poor women were cut or abandoned; and reproductive choice was openly opposed. For the New Feminist Movement, the major challenges of the 1980s included maintaining public approval for positions that a popular president and the federal government no longer supported; resisting efforts to reframe feminist concerns in hostile language; and defending feminist organizations and their members from direct, sometimes violent, attack.
In this chapter, we argue that the hostile climate in...
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SOURCE: Echols, Alice. "Nothing Distant about It: Women's Liberation and Sixties Radicalism." In Women Transforming Politics: An Alternative Reader, edited by Cathy J. Cohen, Kathleen B. Jones, and Joan C. Tronto, pp. 456-76. New York: New York University Press, 1997.
In the following essay, Echols points out how the ideology and methodology of 1960s political radicals, especially their linking of the personal and the political, directly supported and served as a model for the women's liberation movement.
On 7 September 1968 the sixties came to the Miss America Pageant when one hundred women's liberationists descended on Atlantic City to protest the pageant's promotion of physical attractiveness and charm as the primary measures of women's worth. Carrying signs that declared, "Miss America Is a Big Falsie," "Miss America Sells It," and "Up against the Wall, Miss America," they formed a picket line on the boardwalk, sang anti-Miss America songs in three-part harmony, and performed guerrilla theater. The activists crowned a live sheep Miss America and paraded it on the boardwalk to parody the way the contestants, and, by extension, all women, "are appraised and judged like animals at a county fair." They tried to convince women in the crowd that the tyranny of beauty was but one of the many ways that women's bodies were colonized. By announcing beforehand that...
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SOURCE: Bunch, Charlotte. "Women's Human Rights: The Challenges of Global Feminism and Diversity." In Feminist Locations: Global and Local, Theory and Practice, edited by Marianne DeKoven, pp. 129-46. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2001.
In the following essay, Bunch discusses some aspects of global feminism, including networking among organizations in various countries, the struggle for human rights, and the notion of equality in relation to diversity.
I want to start with a story from the first African Women's Leadership Institute that I attended in Uganda (February 1997) because it illustrates issues I want to discuss and conveys the sense of possibility that I feel about what I call global feminism. While the term global feminism is problematic, it still has resonance for many as a way of describing the growth of feminism(s) around the world over the past two decades. The African Women's Leadership Institute was organized by four young women from different countries in Africa who had attended the global leadership institutes sponsored by the Center for Women's Global Leadership each year and who have been active in the Global Campaign for Women's Human Rights.
They brought twenty-five women, ages twenty-five to forty, from eighteen countries in Africa for three weeks of intensive training in a program that was...
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Feminist Legal Battles
SOURCE: Castro, Ginette. "Feminism and the Law." In American Feminism: A Contemporary History, translated by Elizabeth Loverde-Bagwell, pp. 199-222. New York: New York University Press, 1990.
In the following essay, originally published in French in 1984, Castro details the political goals of the women's movement, including the struggle to pass the Equal Rights Amendment and efforts to ensure equality for women in the workplace.
About 1973, the liberal branch of the Women's movement began trying to establish a detailed program. This new orientation seems to us to have been a realistic adjustment to take account of two factors. First, some basis for action appeared necessary in order to enable the movement to move forward coherently and to use its energy constructively toward external goals instead of wasting it in internal quarrels. Second, it was essential to build as broad a base as possible to unify women, particularly so as to make available to the struggle the resources of nonfeminist women's organizations that had been alienated from the movement by shock actions or outrageous declarations, and that could weigh heavily in determining the outcome of the battle. The development of a platform for reform would reveal how much common interest there was between feminist and non-feminist women's organizations. Moreover,...
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SOURCE: Kaminer, Wendy. "Feminism's Identity Crisis." In Public Women, Public Words: A Documentary History of American Feminism, edited by Dawn Keetley and John Pettegrew, pp. 458-67. Madison, Wis.: Madison House, 1997.
In the following essay, first published in 1993, Kaminer charts the evolution of feminist ideas through popular culture and the media in the 1990s, noting a persistent ambivalence toward the role of women in society.
My favorite political moment of the 1960s was a Black Panther rally in a quadrangle of Smith College on a luxuriant spring day. Ramboesque in berets and ammunition belts, several young black males exhorted hundreds of young white females to contribute money to Bobby Seale's defense fund. I stood at the back of the crowd watching yarn ties on blonde pony-tails bobbing up and down while the daughters of CEOs nodded in agreement with the Panthers' attack on the ruling class.
It was all so girlish—or boyish, depending on your point of view. Whatever revolution was fomenting posed no apparent threat to gender roles. Still, women who were not particularly sensitive to chauvinism in the counterculture or the typical fraternity planned to attend graduate or professional school and pursue careers that would have been practically unthinkable for them ten years earlier. Feminism was altering their lives as much as draft...
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SOURCE: Hogeland, Lisa Maria. "Against Generational Thinking, or, Some Things That 'Third Wave' Feminism Isn't." Women's Studies in Communication 24, no. 1 (spring 2001): 107-21.
In the following essay, Hogeland explores disagreements between older feminists and third-wave feminists, asserting that their differences are political, not generational.
In the 1980s and 1990s, feminists began to worry about "the next generation" of feminism. In 1983, Ms. Magazine published a "Special Issue on Young Feminists," and the first of the several books and anthologies asserting a "third wave" of U.S. feminism uniquely the province of young women appeared in 1991 (Kamen, 1991; Wolf, 1993; Findlen, 1995; Walker, 1995; Heywood & Drake, 1997; Baumgardner & Richards 2000). In this essay, I offer two stories about my own history with generational rhetoric in order to illuminate some of the ways that it can be inflammatory and divisive. More importantly, as I will argue, the rhetoric of generational differences in feminism works to mask real political differences—fundamental differences in our visions of feminism's tasks and accomplishments. Given the uneven successes of the movement, the unevenness of change in women's lives and circumstances, the unevenness of change in institutions, such fundamental differences are inevitable. Feminists are differently situated...
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Chadwick, Whitney. "In and Out of the Mainstream." In Women, Art, and Society, pp. 297-346. London: Thames and Hudson, 1991.
Traces developments in the world of fine art as they relate to women from World War II onward.
Chafe, William H. "The Road to Equality 1962-Today." In No Small Courage: A History of Women in the United States, edited by Nancy F. Cott, pp. 529-86. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Detailed analysis of the social and historical factors that contributed to the rise of the women's movement in the 1960s and beyond.
Davis, Angela. Woman, Race, and Class. New York: Random House, 1981, 271 p.
Comments on aspects of race and class in a critique of the feminist movement.
Davis, Flora. "The Founding of NOW." In Moving the Mountain: The Women's Movement in America since 1960, pp. 49-68. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.
Examination of the social, economic, and cultural factors that provided a fertile ground for the founding of the National Organization for Women in 1966 and its chief legal victories during the next several years.
De Hart, Jane...
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The editors wish to thank the copyright holders of the excerpted criticism included in this volume and the permissions managers of many book and magazine publishing companies for assisting us in securing reproduction rights. We are also grateful to the staffs of the Detroit Public Library, the Library of Congress, the University of Detroit Mercy Library, Wayne State University Purdy/Kresge Library Complex, and the University of Michigan Libraries for making their resources available to us. Following is a list of the copyright holders who have granted us permission to reproduce material in this edition of Feminism in Literature. Every effort has been made to trace copyright, but if omissions have been made, please let us know.
Copyrighted material in Feminism in Literature was reproduced from the following periodicals:
African American Review, v. 35, winter, 2001 for "'The Porch Couldn't Talk for Looking': Voice and Vision in Their Eyes Were Watching God" by Deborah Clarke; v. 36, 2002 for "Phillis Wheatley's Construction of Otherness and the Rhetoric of Performed Ideology" by Mary McAleer Balkun. Copyright © 2001, 2002 by the respective authors. Both reproduced by permission of the respective authors.—Agora: An Online Graduate Journal, v. 1, fall, 2002 for "Virgin Territory: Murasaki Shikibu's Ôigimi Resists the Male" by Valerie Henitiuk. Copyright © 2001-2002...
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