The Second Wave of Feminism: A Comprehensive Overview

Historical Context and Background: Second wave of feminism emerged in post world war II western world. The 1960s, 1970s and 1980s were the decades when second wave was at its peak. The phrase ‘second wave’ was coined by Journalist Martha Lear in the article titled “The Second Feminist Wave: What Do These Women Want?” During those decades, the international affairs were heavily shaped by right wing free capitalism ideology. US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher came up with policies that supported to individual choices and opposed state interference. The spillover effect of these policies was also seen in feminist circles.

Read: Understanding First Wave Feminism: Everything You Should Know

First, let us understand what were the issues during second-wave feminism.


Key Issues of Second Wave Feminism

  • Against nuclear weapons: Protested against the installation of nuclear weapons at Greenham Common, a military airbase in the UK. Their main argument was that wars are exploitative for women, and they specifically brought attention to the heinous abuse women suffer at times of war.
  • Re-examination of feminism: During this period, the foundational basis of feminism was subjected to intense scrutiny, especially in the context of sexuality, race, and gender. Earlier (during the first wave), the essentialist model of women was used to understand women as a group. According to this model, the ‘woman’ portrayed was white, upper-class, and lived in western societies. This realization led to the incorporation of local descriptions of women into feminism, thus making it multi-faceted later on.
  • Emergence of queer theory:This time, some thinkers also questioned the ideology that viewed heterosexuality as the norm and superior to same-sex sexuality. Building on feminist theories about gender, queer theorists suggested that sexuality is also socially constructed, and they encouraged the exploration of sexual identity. In 1965, the first public demonstration of gay rights activists was organized in Philadelphia and Washington. They were demanding equal rights and unbiased information be given to people about what it means to be gay rather than stereotypical, degrading narratives. Lesbian women also came to the forefront to register their existence in the feminist movement. However, mainstream feminism refused to acknowledge them. Lesbian women protested against the step motherly treatment being given to them.
  • Emergence of anti colonial strand of feminism: This trend emerged from criticism of the essentialist model of women. Thinkers who subscribed to the anti-colonial strand argued that prevalent feminism places western women at its core. They prioritize their own interests over the women of third-world countries. They analyzed indigenous women’s experiences in liberation movements and drew attention to cultural patriarchal practices forced on women like female genital mutilation and polygamy.
  • Emergence of ecofeminism/Cultural ecofeminism: This strand is rooted in spirituality, goddess worship, and nature-based religions. Its adherents, including American writer and activist Starhawk (Miriam Simos), argue that women have an intrinsic kinship with the natural environment and, as instinctive caregivers, should be at the forefront of its protection.
  • Eugenics movement: Margaret Sanger, a family planning advocate, coined the term “birth control”. She was seen as strong proponent of women’s reproductive rights. However, her stance of seeing people of certain race as undesirable in the society and preventing them from having children made her campaign quite controversial.
  • Against forced marriage: Forced marriage is a violation of human rights. In Forced marriages, the person involved has no choice in choosing their life partner. A woman who rejects forced marriage or who chooses to marry someone regarded as unsuitable can become the victim of an “honor” crime, in which she is murdered for bringing shame on the family.
  • Reproductive rights debate:This debate was based on the premise that each person has the right and responsibility to make reproductive decisions for herself and himself. This led to divided opinions. People who support abortion and women’s autonomy in making decisions came to be known as pro-choice. While the other group that uses religious and emotional justification to counter arguments in favor of abortion came to be known as Anti-choice groups, They advocated for providing sex education, as they felt it was fundamental to making informed choices in this regard. Around the same time in 1960s, approval was granted for first oral contraceptive which was direct outcome of activism of seconf wave feminists. In the Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, abortion was recognized as a constitutional right.
  • Workplace Equality:The matter of discrimination faced by women in the workplace also occupied a key place during this wave. In spite of having the same qualifications/skills/ performance levels as men, they were shown less preference during hiring, training, remuneration and promotion by their employers.

Key Figures and Their Contributions

  • In part thanks to the work of Simone de Beauvoir, feminists of the second wave began to distinguish between “sex” and “gender” when discussing the differences between men and women. Based on their insights, ‘sex’ came to be understood as biological/anatomical makeup of humans (reproductive parts with which they are born) while ‘gender’ was understood as something that was socially constructed and propagated.
  • Carol Hanisch: She is credited with coming up with the slogan “Personal is Political”. The idea behind this slogan is that every mundane dimension of women’s work in the private sphere, like household work, cooking, cleaning, unrecognized and unappreciated emotional labor in domestic life, etc., has deep and far-reaching implications in the political apparatus (who gets what and how much).
  • Betty Friedan: Her key ideas are contained in her 1963 book, “The Feminine Mystique”. The book was based on the interviews that she conducted among middle-class housewives in the USA. The prevalent belief at that time was that a woman’s happiness lies in becoming a stay-at-home mom and living in a comfortable home provided by her husband. However, Friedan’s book brought forth the deep dissatisfaction and lack of fulfillment felt by housewives. These findings made ripples in the psyche of the masses and gave much-needed recognition to the plight of women.
  • Shulasmith Firestone: Inspired by the works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, she wrote “Dialectics of Sex”. Unlike Marx and Engels, she saw sex as a principle on which society was divided between haves and have-nots. The society is not divided into economic classes but sex classes. This sex class system is at the foundation of other social institutions like politics, culture, religion, etc. The process of reproduction and the biological makeup are responsible for this inequality. During pregnancy, women are vulnerable, and human infants are also weak, which requires men to take on a dominant and protective role. Men have used this logic to subjugate women in all other dimensions of social life. To end this sex class system, it will be necessary to end the biological reproductive role of women. For that, she suggests the innovation of artificial techniques of gestation. She defends her position, saying that love will remain between two sexes but that love will not lead to the exploitation and subjugation of one by the other.
  • Adrienne Rich: She was a fierce critic of heteronormativity. In her essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Experience,” she gave the concept of “compulsory heterosexuality.” Drawing from Simone de Beauvoir’s work, she further argued that compulsory heterosexuality had been used as a tool by patriarchy and capitalism to control women. She demystified heterosexuality by calling it a social construct. She saw a solution to this in the form of the ‘lesbian continuum’. She saw lesbianism as more important than sexual preference. It stood for women who spend their emotional, romantic, and erotic energy on women and thus reject men and heterosexuality to protest against the patriarchal system.
  • Andre Lorde: She was a lesbian of color. She saw that mainstream feminism was turning a blind eye to lesbian women’s interests. This led to her joining a protest against such treatment. She registered her protest in her work titled “Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches”.
  • Kate Millet: an American feminist, came out as ‘bisexual’ in her autobiography “Flying”. She narrated her own experiences, confusions, and learnings in this book, which today serves as profound material for understanding bisexuality. She also wrote “Sexual Politics,” in which she examines how sexuality becomes a source of power in society and how it affords different rights and privileges to people who subscribe to heteronormativity and relegates others to the periphery.
  • Angela Davis: In her book “Women, Race, and Class,” she uncovered the racism and classism within the women’s suffrage movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She strongly criticized the Seneca Falls Convention (1848). Davis points out how the suffragist movement saw marriage and the exclusion of women from professional employment as concerns specific to white and economically privileged women.
  • Alice Walker and Maya Angelou: They called on black women to replace the term feminism with ‘womanism’. Alice Walker is credited with coining the term “womanism” in her book “In Search of Our Mother’s Garden: Womanist Prose.” She was inspired by Bell Hooks (1981) work “Ain’t I a woman?” which drew attention to the exclusion faced by black women in society and now in the feminist movement too. They saw that black women throughout history have been portrayed as vulgar and sexually promiscuous, as things meant for the enjoyment of white males. They were seen less than women. Thus, they stressed that before delving into the question of empowerment, we first need to restore the ‘womanhood’ of black women. They found the term feminism exclusionary to the interests of black women. Thus, they called for replacing it with womanism.
  • Chandra Talpade Mohanty: She propounded a new strand of feminism called “postcolonial feminism”. She examined how western feminists’ image of “third-world women” as poorly educated victims was stereotypical and overly simplistic.
  • Barbara Ehrenreich: American activist, gave the concept of “Pink-Collar Ghetto”. Ghetto is the term that is still used to refer to separate residential spaces for black people. The people living in ghettos are characterized by a lack of job opportunities, poverty, drug and criminal culture, etc. She highlighted how low pay and the lack of job opportunities for women have relegated women to separate spaces, which she called “pink collar ghettos”.
  • Dale Spencer: Australian feminist, published ‘Man-Made Language’. She studied the language of that time through a feminist lens. She claimed that men, in their dominant role, have created language that gives precedence to men and manly traits. For example, He is used for both he and she, and God is only talked about with the pronoun he. Not only implies that men are more powerful than women but also effectively states that men are the ‘norm’. The use of such a language paradigm creates a division between men as active and women as passive.
  • Andrea Dwarkin: was an anti-pornography activist and survivor of sexual assault and domestic violence. She felt that such violence was sexualised and normalized in pornography. She argued in her book “Pornography: Men Possessing Women”, that pornography caused men to view women as less than human. Her stance, however, has nothing to do with conservative beliefs, which see porn as a threat to good traditional values and morality. Her argument was based on the direct and indirect harm caused by pornography to women.
  • Vandana Shiva: wrote ‘Ecofeminism’ along with Maria Mies. However, the term itself was coined by French feminist Francoise d’Eaubonne in 1974 for a branch of feminism focused on ecology. The first ecofeminist conference ‘Women and Life on Earth’ was organized in the US in 1980. Eco-feminism was defined as a “women-identified movement” that sees Earth’s devastation and the threat of nuclear annihilation as feminist concerns because they are underpinned by the same “masculinity mentality” that oppresses women. Eco-feminism holds that women have a special role to play in protecting the environment and campaigning against damage to the planet. Ecofeminist such as Vandana Shiva take a more politically radical position. According to her, Science and technology are not gender-neutral. Global corporate initiatives such as the technology-driven Green Revolution reflect a dominant ideology of economic growth created by “Western technological man.”
  • Zainah Anwar co-founded “Sisters in Islam” in 1988, together with American Muslim feminist Amina Wadud and five other women in Malaysia, to promote the rights of women, challenge discrimination, and outlaw practices such as forced marriage. They, as a group, focused on progressive interpretations of the Quran as well as international human rights protocols to further their work of women’s empowerment.
  • Gayle Rubin:Rubin’s “Thinking Sex”, became a cornerstone of pro-sex feminism. Examining historical attitudes to sexuality and practices that are considered normal and practices that are outside the social norm, it also highlights the conflicting sexual mores of the time. According to her, sexual persecution should be stopped and individual expression of sexuality should be celebrated as “erotic creativity”. Sex-positive feminists did not agree on all issues, such as whether all forms of consensual sex are positive, as some sexual practices might be considered degrading to one partner.
  • Gloria Steinem:She gained nationwide attention by going undercover as Playboy Bunny. She wrote about her findings in “A Bunny’s Tale”. Her work brought attention to sexism and the lower wages given to women working at playboy clubs. She later co-founded Ms. Magazine, which became a voice for women. This is the same magazine where Rebecca Walker wrote the article titled “Becoming the Third Wave.”
  • Eve Ensler:Her book, “The Vagina Monologues,” documents the real stories of 200 women who have experienced violence. This book aims to provide recognition and support to victims of sexual and domestic violence.
  • Susan Faludi:In 1986, American journalist and feminist Susan Faludi identified an anti-feminist backlash that blamed feminism for society’s ills. Her quest began when she chose to investigate a Harvard-Yale study in Newsweek magazine that claimed the chances of marriage for college-educated single women over 30 were only 20%, and they dropped further to a mere 1.3% for women over 40. In Faludi’s analysis, these statistics were found to be holding no ground. And this pulled her into an investigation of other misleading media stories about the impact of feminism on society. She identified manifestations of anti-feminist rhetoric in the form of particular kinds of dress codes (tight body-hugging silhouettes and frills) for women in corporate settings, selling cosmetic surgery to women on the pretext of keeping their youth forever, opposition to ratification of the 1972 Equal Rights Amendment (which ensured equal rights for US citizens irrespective of sex), and attacks on women’s right to legal abortion. Faludi also criticizes the widening gender pay gap and the hypocrisy of “backlash emissaries,” who block bills to improve childcare while blaming working women for being bad mothers.
  • Peggy McIntosh:wrote an article titled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” on how she became aware of her own white privilege. She uses the metaphor of the knapsack to discuss the ways in which whiteness gives a white person helpful “tools” for life that people of color cannot access. This percolated to the recognition of other forms of privilege too, like religious privilege (if they belong to a religion practiced by the majority in a country or a state-sponsored religion), sexuality privilege (if women practice the heterosexual norm), and citizenship privilege (if they fall under the citizenship criteria laid down by any country). For example, the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019 (in India) discriminated against women on the basis of religion for the purpose of granting citizenship, etc.

Achievements of Second wave Feminism

  • Differentiated the concept of ‘sex’ as a biologically ascriptive aspect of being a male or female from the concept of ‘gender, which is more about cultural norms and is acquired through socialization and role performance.
  • Expanded women relate to issues that include prostitution, reproductive justice, domestic violence, legal inequalities, domestic life, the workplace, and sexuality.
  • Refuted the idea that only heterosexuality exists. Brought attention to the existence of deviant sexuality and promoted research on it. Thus leading to the emergence of new theories of bisexuality, queer theory, transgender theory, etc.
  • Shed light on intertwined classism and racism in first-wave feminism.
  • Black feminists suggested the term womanism instead of feminism. Feminism, according to them, represented white western upper-class women as their primary subject. They felt that black women were not even considered women in the world. Their stress on using the term “womanism” is a call to reclaim the womanhood of black women.
  • Emergence of new strands of feminism that interlinked other fields of study like ecofeminism, which related the cause of women to the environment, and the anti-colonial strand, which related women’s exploitation to the colonial system
  • Some Legislation was passed that solidified women’s positions, like the Equal Pay Act, 1963 (equal pay for equal work irrespective of gender); the Fair Labor Standards Act; Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 1964 (Employers can’t discriminate against employees on grounds of race, religion, sex, or national origin); and the Education Amendment Act, 1972 (forbade discrimination in funding on the basis of gender identity and pregnancy).
  • Feminism became an active area of academic study.

Limitations of Second wave Feminism

  • They were criticized by third-wave feminists for taking a rigid and one-dimensional stance on sex. Pornography was seen as detrimental to womanhood. Andrea Dworkin was a powerful voice against pornography. However, the third wave saw sex and women’s expression of their sexuality as empowering choices. They saw sexual freedom as a significant aspect of the personality of an empowered woman, who is well aware of her sexual expression and sexual needs.
  • Even though they tried to incorporate voices from the margins. But still, the forefront of the movement was dominated by white, upper-class women talking about the issues of other peripheral women. Thus, they were not able to build emotional connections with marginal women. Often, the second wave is accused of ignoring or silencing the struggles of ‘other’ women, like women of color and LGBTQA+.

READ: Four Waves of Feminism – Summary

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Aastha, an engineering graduate turned Sociology student, is a passionate practitioner of self-reflexivity and the Sociological Imagination. Delving deep into sociological theories, she finds joy in experiencing her own 'Eureka' moments when understanding them. Fascinated by Sociology's power to connect her to social reality and ignite her curiosity, Aastha embraces it as a source of inspiration for her writing. As she embarks on her journey as a writer, she eagerly looks forward to sharing her profound insights about Sociology and gaining valuable perspectives from other individuals.