Feminism in Literature Essay - The Feminist Movement in the 20th Century

The Feminist Movement in the 20th Century

Introduction

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.

Representative Works

Bella Abzug

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

Ti-Grace Atkinson

Amazon Odyssey (nonfiction) 1974

Boston Women's Health Book Collective

Our Bodies, Ourselves (nonfiction) 1973

Susan Brownmiller

Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape (nonfiction) 1975

In Our Time: A Memoir of a Revolution (autobiography) 1999

Shirley Chisholm

Unbought and Unbossed (autobiography) 1970

Andrea Dworkin

Pornography: Men Possessing Women (nonfiction) 1981

Susan Faludi

Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women (nonfiction) 1991

Betty Friedan

The Feminine Mystique (nonfiction) 1963

It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women's Movement (nonfiction) 1976

The Second Stage (nonfiction) 1981

Carol Gilligan

In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development (nonfiction) 1982

Germaine Greer

The Female Eunuch (nonfiction) 1970

Lucy Lippard

The Pink Glass Swan: Selected Essays on Feminist Art (criticism) 1995

Catharine A. MacKinnon

Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law (nonfiction) 1987

Kate Millett

Sexual Politics (nonfiction) 1970

Robin Morgan

off our backs [founder, with others] (periodical) 1970-

Sisterhood Is Powerful [editor] (anthology) 1970

Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Gloria Steinem, and Robin Morgan

Ms. [founders, with others] (periodical) 1972-

Camille Paglia

Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (criticism) 1990

Gloria Steinem

Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (essays) 1983

Susan Ware

Modern American Women: A Documentary History [editor] (anthology) 1969; revised edition, 2002

Naomi Wolf

The Beauty Myth (nonfiction) 1990

Fire with Fire (nonfiction) 1993

Primary Sources

National Organization For Women (N.O.W.) Statement Of Purpose (Essay Date 1966)

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...

(The entire section is 1140 words.)

Toni Morrison (Essay Date 1971)

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...

(The entire section is 3995 words.)

Roe V. Wade (Legal Decision Date 1973)

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...

(The entire section is 1832 words.)

Kate Millett (Essay Date 1998)

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...

(The entire section is 1452 words.)