The Second Wave

“Any woman who chooses to behave like a full human being should be warned that the armies of the status quo will treat her as something of a dirty joke. That’s their natural and first weapon. She will need her sisterhood.” – Gloria Steinem

Naming the probelm, Starting the Wave

After the initial political gains and eventual backlash of the 1920s, the Great Depression put a damper on most unified feminist action; “out of necessity,” historian Rory Dicker clarifies, “most American women turned away from women’s rights activism and devoted their energies to physical survival” (Dicker). With the outbreak of WWII in the 1940s, many women entered the workforce to fil the vacancies left by men off to war—at the height of the war effort, 36 percent of adult working-age women worked outside the home (Dicker). But in the time of relative peace that followed, middle-class white women in particular began returning to primarily domestic roles, leaving the workforce in order to raise increasingly large, young families. Because this shift to domesticity was common, so too was a reaction of discontent. Many women were frustrated, though unsure of why, as they were living prosperous lives in what was supposedly “domestic bliss.” A naming of this problem—and a reignition of the women’s rights movement—came in the form of a bestselling book from a woman who notice this problem in many women she knew closely.


The Feminine Mystique

Betty Friedan’s 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, helped give shape to “the problem that has no name,” or the “housewife’s discontent.” After working on an article profiling the women she’d graduated from Smith college with in 1942, she realized many of her peers were dissatisfied with how their lives had turned out. She decided to pursue this trend in her book, where she clarified that this problem was “not a result of personal inadequacy or psychological weakness, but was caused by the cultural ideology of the feminine mystique, the belief that women shoed derive fulfillment exclusively through domesticity” (Dicker). These educated women felt under-stimulated; though The Feminine Mystique did not offer a solution, it helped explain the problem’s sources and raise awareness.

NOW’s Founding

After writing her bestselling book, Betty Friedan put her organizing and writing skills to good use by helping found the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966. Friedan helped draft the founding documents, including the organization’s original statement of purpose: “The purpose of NOW is to take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men.” NOW was established out of frustration with The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) refusal to enforce Title VII’s prohibition of sex discrimination in the workplace—it was also the first women’s rights organization founded post-suffrage (Dicker 72). Friedan was the group’s first President, and the organization became the home of liberal feminism. Because of their EEOC-focused roots, the organization focused many of its efforts on the rights of “ordinary working women” (Dicker 73). While many members were fierce supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), some members worried the language of the amendment would actually diminish protections for women workers. In 1967, NOW became the first national organization to endorse the legalization of abortion, but this caused some internal strife as well; conflicts within the NOW’s ranks led to the establishment of some more radical feminist organizations (Dicker 74-74). NOW has continued to grow over the years; the group is “the largest organization of feminist grassroots activists in the United States”.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

The fight for women’s rights was intrinsically tied to the general 1960s fight for civil rights; Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the establishment of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) were crucial to ensuring rights for women on the job. Under these pieces of legislation, women could not legally be discriminated against at work. Title VII was actually introduced by a pro-segregation congressman opposed to the passage of the Civil Rights Act—he assumed a provision against sex-based discrimination would derail the bill as a whole. In this case, inclusion gendered language was intended as a distraction, but ended up mobilizing Congresswoman Martha Griffiths from Michigan to recruit a coalition of fellow congressmembers to ensure the bill passed (Dicker). The EEOC was created to help enforce Title VII but quickly proved to be an ineffective commission, thus leading to the founding of the NOW.

Women’s Liberation

As some feminists grew increasingly radical, they questioned liberal feminist organizations like NOW. Feminism was founded with on liberal principles—liberal feminism reinforces notions of equality between men and women, “emphasizing the similarities between them and arguing that women can be as capable and as rational as men.” Radical feminists believed that liberal groups were acting too conservatively in their fight for women’s rights, and radical feminism’s “strategies and ideology call for the change and reconstruction of society.”  In other words, when it comes to solutions for sexism, Radical Feminism calls not only for thinking outside the box, but for rethinking the box itself. Typically, their focus is on the influence of patriarchy and how to combat the lingering effects of male-domination. In the late 1960s, radical feminist initially emerged as a part of the New Left but quickly found that they were not being treated as equals within the movement. At one conference run by New Left organizations, radical feminist leaders proposed a resolution that never made it to the discussion table. In response to their resolution, the meeting chair said, “Move on, little girl; we have more importation issues to talk about here than women’s liberation” (Dicker). That language—women’s liberation—stuck; soon, the women who had proposed the initial resolution started an organization called the West Side Group and began publishing a newsletter entitled Voice of the Women’s Liberation Movement.



The New York Radical  Women

Women’s liberation groups began popping up everywhere, and the New York Radical Women (NYRW) became one of the most influential. The NYRW considered advocating for peace in Vietnam an integral part of the feminist cause; within the peace movement, however, these women stood out. At one protest at Arlington National Cemetery, “about thirty members of the NYRW carried a papier-mâché coffin emblazoned with a streamer reading THE BURIAL OF TRADITIONAL WOMANHOOD” (Dicker 79). At this demonstration, the women gave a “Funeral Oration for the Burial of Traditional Womanhood.” The oration described the cause of death as such: “the old hen, it turns out, was somewhat disturbed to hear us—other women, that is—asserting ourselves just this least little bit about critical problems in the world controlled by men. And it was particularly frightening to her to see other women, we- women, asserting ourselves together, however precariously, in some kind of solidarity, instead of completely resenting each other, being embarrassed by each other, hating each other and hating ourselves.” This solidarity began to be described as a sisterhood, a term which became crucial to the language of this movement. Each year, NYRW published Notes from the Year in a newsletter they called Women’s Liberation.


Women’s Liberation, Consciousness-Raising, and “The Personal Is Political”

Consciousness-raising (or CR, as it’s often called), was a hallmark of the women’s liberation movement. The practice was initially outlined in Notes on the Second Year by NYRW leader Kathie Sarachild. In a typical CR session, “a small group of women, anywhere from a handful to a dozen, would gather and respond to a particular question” (Dicker). These questions could be about anything having to do with women’s particular experiences, including experiences with sex and sexual orientations, gender role stereotyping, body image, dating and marriage, and beauty standards. The idea behind CR was that as women shared their experiences, patterns in problems would begin to emerge. From these patterns, many women realized that problems they’d privately experiences were privately held by many women. This discovery helped validate women’s experiences and elevated their personal problems to political problems that could be talked about and solved publicly. As Carol Hanisch explained in her landmark piece “The Personal is Political,” which was published in that same Notes on the Second Year, “There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective solution” (Dicker). By validating women’s voices and helping women realize the role sexism played in their everyday lives, CR hoped to empower its participants and promote the feminism movement more widely.


CR and Our Bodies, Ourselves

One downside to CR sessions is that they required women to be in the same place at the same time, often at meetings or conventions. This meant that women who could not attend due to time constraints, distance, or other limitations were often not included. This limitation meant that many women could not reap the benefits of these conversations, which was especially unfortunate when the issues discussed were as important as their bodies and health.  At one session called “Women and Their Bodies,” which took place at a conference in Boston in 1969, the organizer had women discuss pregnancy and birth, abortion, contraception, the female orgasm, and the various ways women were patronized in medical settings. They discovered that women were not always informed on their own bodies and medical professionals had not helped this problem. After the success of this session, many women involved decided to research and write papers on their topics discussed that they later shared with their groups (Dicker). This was a way of compiling and sharing information about women’s bodies without needing to ask a doctor or someone else. Inspired to share this information more widely, they revised their papers and created a collaborative book to help reach women who could not attend their sessions or classes. They initially printed 5,000 copies of the book, titled at this point for the conference session, but quickly sold out—eventually it grew so popular that the original writers established a nonprofit and signed a deal with Simon and Shuster to publish their expanded book, Our Bodies, Ourselves, all across the nation. The book is still published today and is updated every four to six years; as of Fall 2017, the text has been translated into 31 languages.


Miss America Protest and the “Bra Burners”

In what is often considered the first mass action of the second wave, around 200 NYRW members staged outside the 1968 Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in order to protest “an image that has oppressed women” (Rosen). These women were tired of the forced beauty standards put on women, and they were fed up with a system that made money off of socially constructed ideals. To these women, the Miss America Pageant represented all of things women should reject and fight against. Protestors snuck into the hall and unfurled a large banner that read, in all caps, WOMEN’S LIBERATION. This action that caught the attention of the TV cameras inside. Outside, the women mocked the title of Miss America by crowning a sheep while also handing out pamphlets and carrying signs which read “NO MORE MISS AMERICA,” “THE REAL MISS AMERICA LIVES IN HARLEM,” “IF YOU WANT MEAT, GO TO A BUTCHER,” and “CAN MAKEUP COVER THE WOULDS OF OUR OPRESSION?” (Dicker).

There was also a “Freedom Trash Can,” in which protesters were to throw items they saw as oppressive “objects of female torture.” These items included: cosmetics, girdles, issues of Cosmopolitan, Playboy, and Ladies’ Home Journal, wigs, fake eyelashes, makeup, high-heels, and of course bras. Due to safety reasons, the items could not be burned, but they were still thrown into the trash with disdain. Despite not being able to actually burn anything, the media latched onto the idea of “bra burning” feminists, an image that is still evoked today. After the protest, many of the women participants noted that they had not made it clear that they were protesting the pageant and not the contestants (Rosen). While the media covered this protest negatively, “this publicity spurred more women to join NYRW and other women’s liberation groups around the country” (Dicker). 


Redstockings Speak-Out, “Abortion: Tell It Like It Is”

Building on the popularity of CR, a women’s rights group called Redstockings decided to use this rhetorical practice for political advocacy. After picketing at a hearing on abortion law in New York, they decided to continue using their voices in a “speak out,” organized in 1969. Like CR, the speak out was built on a theory of collective rhetoric, which means it helped create “novel public vocabularies as the product of the collective articulation of multiple, overlapping individual experiences” (Dubriwny). In creating a public vocabulary built of many overlapping experiences, they hoped to be both inclusive and persuasive. This persuasion, however, was not about simply making an argument that is convincing, but “the creation of situations in which the telling of individual experiences makes possible a reframing of one’s own experiences” (Dubriwny). Through hearing the experiences of other women, it became easier for women to rethink and reframe what they’d gone through and validate their own experiences, often remembering new things and building on what others shared. This abortion “speak out” featured a dozen women who were willing to share their personal testimony about having an abortion; the organizers hoped that this would help reframe the conversation and normalize talking about the procedure. As these women spoke openly, they shared freely, often interrupting each other and building on the last person’s experience; the goal was to create empathy and help sway public opinion, and these women used irony, humor, and openness about their personal experiences to help do just so (Dubriwny).


Ms. Magazine

The first issue of Ms. Magazine hit newsstands in 1972 and became a major player in normalizing discussions of feminism and women’s rights—with its title alone, Ms. introduced and normalized the marital-status-hiding title for the first time. The magazine was created by journalist Gloria Steinem and editor Patricia Carbine, and it was the first feminism-focused magazine to be published in the mainstream market; prior to Ms., most magazines for feminists were distributed in limited quantities while most magazines for women were focused on beauty, fashion, and keeping a home (Dicker). The magazine tended to be aligned with liberal feminism. With articles like “Raising Kids Without Sex Roles,” “Women Tell the Truth About Their Abortions,” and “Lesbian Love and Sexuality,” Ms. Featured content that could not be found elsewhere, at least not widely. This access meant that women from all across the nation could experience what one Ms. writer, Jane O’Reilly, called the “click,” or the “moment of awareness that women feel when they suddenly realize that sexist assumptions permeating their everyday lives” (Dicker). The magazine was an instant success and sold three hundred thousand copies in only eight days; Ms. continues to be published today, over forty-five years later.


Jo Freeman’s Feminist Button Collection

In 1974, prominent feminist activist and writer Jo Freeman published a piece in Ms. entitled “Say It With Buttons,” where she discussed her ever-increasing collection of feminism-focused buttons. At the time of writing, she purported to have the world’s largest collection of feminist buttons


But she was not satisfied with stopping there: “You might think that with so many, I would feel secure. No way. Every collection I see, no matter how small, usually contains at least one button I don’t own—and spasms of unfulfilled desire surge through my bloodstream.” Freeman understood that the buttons themselves had no intrinsic meaning” “They are made to be given away in order to be worn by the greatest number of people,” she explained, “Thus, if you talk someone into a good (for you) trade, or lift a few buttons from the opposition campaign headquarters under false pretenses, you’re not depriving anyone of something essential for their existence.” Buttons, in other words, are cheap, plentiful, and made to be spread around and shared.

But despite the ubiquity of buttons, Freeman suggested they were one of the best ways to trace feminism histories. She argued that “buttons reflect the Movement’s history and development with greater consistency than its political tracts.” She describes wearing buttons saying “UPPITY WOMEN UNITE,” “I AM A CASTRATING BITCH,” and “SISTERHOOD IS POWERFUL,” as well as buttons more specific to certain demonstrations, such as the second Miss America Pageant. At that event, women wore a new button that “caught the popular imagination.” This button, produced by Robin Morgan, depicted, “a clenched fist inside the biological female symbol,” in the color “menstrual red.” She describes buttons as not only helpful as “mini-billboards,” but also as tools for fundraising.


Equal Rights Amendment Protests & the Alice Paul Memorial March

After women were given the right to vote, suffragist and feminist activist Alice Paul penned the Equal Rights Amendment, which read: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” Alice Paul spent the rest of her life fighting for the passage of this amendment, and its ratification became a major goal for feminists in the 1970s. Women staged rallies, wore buttons, and pressured their elected officials to help the amendment pass. In the early 70s, “the approval of the ERA seemed a certainty” (Dicker). However, due to pressure from anti-ERA conservatives, it was never passed, despite the fact that the deadline for ratification had been extended to 1892. After Alice Paul died in 1977, ERA-supporting feminists staged a memorial march in honor of her life and in hopes of drumming up support for the amendment. As attendee Jo Freeman put it, “To replicate the drama and spectacle of the Suffrage parades, the NWP asked everyone to wear traditional white. A young woman with horse was found to replicate Inez Milholland’s role, but the horse was a chestnut. Many people also wore sashes of purple, white and gold; colors chosen by the NWP to symbolize Woman Suffrage. The NPW explained that purple stood for the “Royal glory of Womanhood”; white for “Purity in the home and in Politics”; and gold for the “Crown of Victory”. Some people carried original Suffrage banners; some carried new ones made for this march which identified their organizations and/or support for the ERA.”


Shifts and Splits in the Movement: Whispers of the Third Wave

Second wave feminism is often criticized for not prominently including women of color and women of varied sexual orientations. There were, however, definitely feminist women of color active before the third wave, and many of these women, like Audre Lorde, “critiqued white feminist for their narrow vision” (Dicker). As Lorde saw it, many white feminist spaces (especially academic spaces) were arrogant for not “examining our many differences” and for not asking for the input of “poor women, black and third-world women, and lesbians.” As a response to narrow feminism, some women of color “claimed a new kind of feminism for themselves (Dicker). One organization, Kitchen Table/Women of Color Press became the first publishing house devoted solely to the voices of women of color. The Combahee River Collective was another prominent organization that focused on the interactions of race, gender, and class. Though the term “intersectionality” was not introduced until the Third Wave, these groups run by women of color were the first people to assert the importance of paying attention to the ways that oppressions intersect (Dicker).

Contact us

About the Project

This exhibit was funded by a generous grant from the University of St. Thomas and with the help of the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, and Fales Library at NYU. You can read more about our process and project here.

This exhibit was complied by Rachel Busse and Kerry Kraemer.

© Poetics of Protest | 2018

Website design by Rachel Busse