What Were the MainCauses of 'Second Wave' Feminism in America?

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Julia Slay                Sixties Special Topic IT Project

What Were the Main Causes of ‘Second Wave’ Feminism in America?

‘Women are 51% of the population. That is the only category in which they constitute 51%. In virtually every other, their share is grossly disproportionate.’

        Throughout history women have occupied the position of secondary citizens in society. The ‘first wave’ of feminism in the early 20th Century was pioneered by women and organisations such as the C.S.U. and Margaret Mead in America and the Pankhurst sisters in Britain; however women remained very much in the private sphere designated to them by Victorian ideology, made evident by the dominant image of American women as housewives and mothers above all else. During the 40’s and 50’s America was the perceived epitome of domestic calm, economic boom and political hegemony: however, as Friedan has suggested, a ‘Feminine Mystique’ pervaded this era, an intense female frustration at their roles of mothers and wives which, combined with a plethora of outside social, economic, political and demographic factors, served as the engine for the women’s movement which was to emerge in sixties America. This growing consciousness among females was coupled with the realisation that, as the above quote illustrates, there was a vast disparity between women’s position in both the public sphere and society, and men’s. This is illustrated, for example, by the fact that American men earned over double the average female wage: the minority position of women became increasingly apparent throughout the 50’s and 60’s as the percentage of women in the workforce was steadily increasing (estimated at around 37%). Indeed in sectors such as administration, they were in the majority, yet their position and importance within in was simultaneously decreasing as men increasingly filled traditionally female areas such as teaching and social work while women filled the more menial jobs. Women were lower paid, were not entitled to the same benefits as men, such as sick pay, and were subject to high levels of discrimination on the basis of gender. Mirroring the rise in women’s economic position, there was, ‘a domino effect of gender consciousness’ which many historians such as Freeman have attributed to the climate of political protest and social upheaval which dominated the Sixties; from students to the civil rights movement, women were inspired by the ability of minority groups, such as Blacks, to challenge the established order and attempt to transform society’s attitudes and perceptions. This essay will examine the causes behind this upsurge in women’s activity, which was to eventually lead to the formation of a coherent and organised women’s liberation movement which emerged towards the end of the sixties. Moreover, it will analyse in particular the impact of the ‘Feminine Mystique’ and the ideas propounded by Friedan; furthermore, an assessment of the usefulness of the internet as an historical tool will be made, and its potential for sources and historical documents examined.  


Integral to the growth of women’s consciousness and awareness of their secondary position in America was the dominant ‘domestic’ image, or the ‘myth of motherhood’ pervading the 1950’s, reflected in the ideals of society and the images propounded by the media. This dominant stereotype was prevalent across America, on the television and in women’s magazines such as McCall’s and Ladies’ Home Journal; it presented an image of a woman happy and content with her life as a suburban wife, lacking a job, intellectual merit and independence; this is an image strongly refuted by Friedan, who suggests that this did not occur naturally, and that it led to ‘American women trying to conform to the dominant image provided by the media’ and accepting their position as housewives rather than workers and public citizens. Essentially, the Victorian ideology of separate spheres was still in effect: placing women in the home, and men in the public field. The 50’s backdrop of home and family was widely accepted by society, and although this is perhaps not a phenomenon specific to America, the growth of suburban areas and importance of the media within the U.S ensured that the ‘nuclear family’ was indeed considered the norm, and as Freeman reiterates ‘the sexism of our society is so pervasive we are not even aware of all its inequalities…its activities are accepted as normal and justified with little question’. Further testimony to this is the panoply of literature available revealing the sense of fear and guilt many women felt at admitting the frustration of their lives, and the statement that ‘I want something more than my husband and my children and my home’ is representative of a growing awareness across America that the views of femininity and domesticity imposed by society, while accepted by many, were also beginning to be questioned. It was this housewife image which was to be rebelled against and refuted during the women’s liberation movement, with all its components rejected in favour of new egalitarian and libertarian ethics.

Economic developments played one of the most vital roles in the upsurge in feminist thought at the beginning of the sixties; the growing consciousness of women was, at least in part, a result of an increasing number of women entering the workplace (estimated at around 30.5% of wives in 1960), as well as an increase in the influence women held within the economy, both as workers and consumers. The ‘economic miracle’ of the 1950’s transformed the American economy to one increasingly reliant on the service sector, where women were a vital part of the workforce at around 55%, and up to 99% in other areas, such as household workers. It was their position in low paid, unskilled jobs, Dixon suggests, that ignited an awareness of the discrimination women were subject to and a realisation of their secondary status in society. American women ‘ faced a contradiction between the American dream and their daily experiences’, a fact which is reiterated by the N.O.W. poster in figure 5, exemplifying the discrimination women faced on the basis of gender, and the impact it had in igniting protest movements against it. As the American economy expanded, and demand for cheap, female labour increased, many old traditions and stereotypes were abandoned: In the sixties, wives and mothers were working, and were in a position to realise exactly how unequal their status in society was; facing lower pay and less benefits, combined with higher levels of unemployment than males in similar jobs. Women found themselves relegated to a secondary role, and the expanding economy led to underpaid, low skilled and menial jobs being filled by women. As Freeman suggests, this resulted in ‘the creation of a class of highly educated yet underemployed women’. This provoked first awareness, and then protest at women’s subordinate position in American society, articulated often through the developing professional women’s groups such as The Modern Language Association, The History Association and later, as the spread and openness of this discontent became more common, through organized women’s liberation groups such as N.O.W.. Mirroring the growth of women within the work force was their role in the emerging consumer economy as its most influential subject, the purchaser; the economic miracle of the 1950’s had come alongside an increasing consumer sector, as well as wider use of advertising to accompany America’s increasing affluence. As well as workers women became prime buyers within the market and were often the target of the expanding advertising sector, and, as Freidan discusses, married women were often the target buyers of advertisers as they often controlled the family budget and levied an enormous amount of power in the economic decisions of the household. Their increasing influence within the changing economy as both buyers and employees, helped shape ‘a new generation of women, educated to work outside the home…who’s desire for emancipation is evident’. Thus, it becomes axiomatic that the increasing number of women participating in the labour market forced a widespread realisation that women really did occupy a lower status than men in American society. Alongside this sense of inequality came a feeling of discontent, also shaped by the influential role women came to hold as buyers within the new consumer society, and the subsequent growth of feminist organisations for women to articulate this dissatisfaction.

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One factor integral to the development of a feminist consciousness in America is the radical political backdrop marked by a rising New Left and popular ideologies of libertarianism and egalitarianism, further characterised by political protest and anti-authoritarian feeling. As Marwick suggests, women can be seen as acting within this wider ideological and cultural revolution occurring throughout sixties America and into the early 70’s; indeed the presence of many other minority protesters, in particular the civil rights movement which was specific to the U.S., had a profound influence on feminist thought and organisational structure, so much so in fact, that one ...

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