Second Wave Feminism

Second wave feminism is a term used to describe a new period of feminist collective political activism and militancy which emerged in the late 1960s. The concept of ‘waves’ of feminism was itself only applied in the late 1960s and early 1970s and therefore its application to a previous era of female activism tells us a great deal about the dawning second wave. As Mary Evans reflects, ‘if every generation has to re-invent the wheel – or tends to believe that it has just invented the wheel – so feminism in the West in the 1960s and 1970s took some time before it recognized its history and the longevity of the struggle that it represented’ (1997: 7). Not only is the wave analogy a way of charting historical movement since feminism’s first ‘wave’, which dated roughly from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1920s, it signals a shift in the key political issues for feminist thought.

Whereas the first wave lobbied for women’s enfranchisement via the vote and access to the professions as well as the right to own property, the second wave feminists talked in terms of ‘liberation’ from the oppressiveness of a patriarchally defined society. Equality had not been achieved by enfranchisement and so it was time to reflect on life beyond the public sphere. While the struggle for the vote remained the symbolic centre of first wave feminism, arguably for second wave feminists the key site of struggle was the female body itself – its representation and the meanings attached to the bald fact of biological difference. In this light, Simone de Beauvoir’s famous declaration that ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’ (1972: 295) guided new thinking on the way gender differences were perceived as constructed so that women’s chief battle was against the ideological positioning of women as much as their material position was of crucial importance to the first wave feminists.

De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, first published in 1949 (five years after French women were first enfranchised) was an important document for modern feminists, as was Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), and second wave feminists were committed to building a body of knowledge which specifically addressed the ways in which women have historically been marginalised, both culturally and socially. Moreover, second wave feminism problematised what equality might achieve, not least because of the differing social roles women and men were still ideologically required to take, and gradually there was a greater focus on differences between men and women and the meanings attached to them. Second wave feminism often raised the possibility of enormous social change which would make existing social structures untenable, imbued as they were with patriarchal realities. These visions for social change ultimately depended on the broader lens of political allegiances – whether it be liberal, Marxist, radical and so forth. The revolutionary potential of such thought itself underscored the obstacles to realising such change, which would involve questioning the very fabric of people’s private lives and emotional investments.

As discussed in the entry on Feminism, many of the women who gave feminism its new radical impetus were refugees from New Left and civil rights political movements. These radical feminists’ decision to organise in small groups and to engage in consciousness raising, direct action and demonstrations that were more like street theatre, meant that this new brand of feminism, or the ‘women’s liberation movement’ quickly communicated itself to the public consciousness. Though many of the media dismissed these ‘women’s libbers’ as bra-burners and manhaters, the movement did seem to gain a groundswell of support from women in the USA and slightly later in Europe, from the late 1960s, and it did profoundly influence the shape of modern feminist thought much further afield.

Second wave feminism is not just about the emergence of a new radical feminism but it also marks key shifts in the politics of liberal and Marxist feminists. They too came to focus on debates which only emerged during this period and were defined much more by what Kate Millett had termed ‘sexual politics’ – such as the family, abortion, sexuality, the sexual division of labour, rape and domestic violence. For Marxist feminists in particular this meant a more marked shift from classic Marxist principles to a consideration of how gendered relations could be entered into a class based analysis of power. The idea fostered by the explosion of second wave radicalism, that anyone could ‘join’ the women’s movement, encouraged a kind of inclusiveness which prompted the emergence of all kinds of sub-groupings, many of which were established to allow critical space for lesbians, women of colour and working-class women. The strengths of the second wave are that it created the conditions within which such heterogeneity was possible; the weakness was that it still came to be marked out by an informal ‘mainstream’ of white middle-class, heterosexual women who seemed at times reluctant to give anything but token space to dissenting or critical voices.

This notion that ‘membership’ of feminism is very much a question of political choice rather than a formal matter, is crucial to the identity and shape of second wave feminism. Jo Freeman puts it thus:

Membership in the movement is purely subjective – the participants are those who consider themselves participants – and not always accompanied by membership in a small group. Some of these groups require dues or, more often, regular attendance at meetings and participation in the common tasks. These requirements are not determinant of movement participation, however, as it is easy to quit one group and join another or even start one’s own . . . Given its decentralised, segmentary, reticulate nature, the younger branch of the movement can best be described as a social system rather than a political organization. (1975: 104)

At times when it felt as if certain dominant voices were threatening to ‘hijack’ feminism for their own ends it is reassuring if also a little frustrating to remember that feminism still has no core orthodoxy and is still reinventing itself.

The view of feminism represented by Freeman is not one agreed by all. Christine Hoff Sommers in her book Who Stole Feminism? acts as if it is a movement with one rightful owner, as she tries to demonise much of the work of second wave activism – ‘credos and intellectual fashions come and go but feminism itself – the pure and wholesome article first displayed at Seneca Falls in 1848 – is as American as apple pie and it will stay’ (Sommers 1994: 275). Sommers implies here that second wave feminism derailed the ‘authentic’ movement which for her lies somewhere in feminism’s first wave with the Seneca Falls Convention and its call for suffrage. But, just as the mutability of feminism itself makes it difficult for Sommers to make the claim that feminism has been ‘stolen’, so it is difficult to accuse Sommers of anti-feminism for suggesting it.

quote-one-is-not-born-a-woman-but-becomes-one-simone-de-beauvoir-14082Although one can date the beginnings of the second wave as emerging around 1968, it is much harder to say whether it has ended or been supplanted by another wave of feminism. As we shall see in the entry on the so-called third wave, there has not been a subsequent groundswell of popular consciousness or an emerging political wing of feminism that has changed the fundamental terms of the second wave. Indeed, most commentators would agree that modern feminism lost its dynamism in the late 1980s and, although there is much evidence of effective grassroots feminist activism and support, much feminist energy has since been concentrated in the academy on women’s studies programmes. Nonetheless it is clear that third wave activism has once again moved the debate into a new territory: whereas for the second wave it was into the personal lives and relationships of women, for the third wave it is into the miasma of the mass media, celebrating its contradictions as well as its possibilities.

In the entry on first wave feminism the usefulness of the ‘wave’ analogy was questioned. When we look back at the history of the second wave it is also beguiling to see the most productive insights being produced at the ‘crest’ of the activist wave up until the early 1980s. It is important, however, to accept that our ‘memories’ of those events (whether personal or mediated through historical accounts and documents) are structured and given meaning by the whole raft of feminist theory which succeeded it. What is certain, as Linda Nicholson remarks, is that ‘something happened in the 1960s in ways of thinking about gender that continues to shape public and private life’ (1997: 1).


Source: Fifty Key Concepts in Gender Studies Jane Pilcher and Imelda Whelehan Sage Publications, 2004.

FURTHER READING There are a number of different accounts of feminism available including Tong (1989), Whelehan (1995) and Evans (1997). For a selection of key critical essays from feminism’s second wave, the collection edited by Nicholson (1997) is essential reading.

Categories: Gender Studies

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4 replies


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