Do you think the women's movement is stronger or weaker today than it was in the 1970s? In what ways?

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kateanswers eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Second Wave of feminism in the United States began in the 1960s and persisted throughout the next two decades. At this time, women championed the right to work outside the home for equitable pay, reproductive rights, and raised awareness about the prevalence of sexual assault and domestic abuse. I think that in some small ways, the feminist movement of today is stronger, but it is not quite the same as the atmosphere and activism of the mid-century.

Technology has had a huge impact on women's movements around the world as social media, email, and the ability to create public webpages enables people to spread awareness much more easily and quickly. Not only is it possible to share information relating to women's issues, the internet and social media can offer a private safe space for personal expression for those who are unable to be open about their gender, sexuality, or social concerns in other realms of life. Though technology makes it easier to facilitate this kind of interaction, current women's issues are surprisingly not at the forefront of social awareness. It is as though current advocates for women have traded public attention for the security online advocacy and awareness-raising offers. With that in mind, I think it really speaks to how hard Second Wave Feminists had to work to be out in public advocating for women in a pre-digital age.

In some ways technology can help to organize women's advocacy groups or offer support communities, but these are often long-distance and loosely connected. In the 1960's and 1970's, organization was much more community-based, with women and their allies advocating in their own cities and states to address the problems they faced. This hands-on and lived form of activism sought to address and eradicate institutionalized sexism at all levels of society. In contrast, many women and their allies today are encouraged to raise awareness and advocate "from a distance," by casting their vote, donating to a women's shelter, or signing a petition as opposed to working in-person to remedy the issues in their particular community.

Much of the attitude towards women's movements in the United States today is part of the aftermath of Second Wave Feminism. After the two decades or so of loud, visible protesting and rebellion, women's issues kind of faded into the background of American culture. There is a cultural assumption that the fight is over, women achieved equality in the 1970's and it's all fine now. I would even go so far as to say there is an apathy in current attitudes towards women's activism because "gender equality" was attained years ago, despite the persistent wage gap.

In some ways, it could be said that Third (and Fourth, if you call our present era such) Wave Feminists cannot see the forest for the trees. The Third Wave brought individualized experiences to the forefront of social awareness, emphasizing intersectionality of race, biological sex, bodily ability, and class and how these identities compound gendered experiences. Much of the literature on women's advocacy from the 1990's onward has focused on these nuanced experiences of womanhood, which does enrich the purpose of feminist advocacy, but it poses the risk of losing sight of overarching, systemic issues. While it is important to address the ways institutionalized oppression manifests itself in intersectional experiences, social advocacy- much like an emergency room- should seek to remedy the biggest issues first. There have been attempts to redirect social attention towards issues like the wage gap and unrealistic beauty standards for all women while validating more nuanced identities, but this has not received anything like the attention Second Wave activists received. 

In sum, current women's movements are enabled by technology, at the penalty of functioning in a disembodied space. The Second Wave Feminists had no choice to advocate anywhere but in person, fully embodied, working in a web of local-to-global activism. The issues of Second Wave Feminism were made visible to all, and though this laid the foundation for emerging Third (and Fourth) Wave Feminists, globalization and technology have had major impacts on how women's movements are organized and perform. Another way to put it might be to say that while it is very difficult to ignore a protest happening in your street, it is easy to close out of a browser window detailing the struggles women face today.