Second Wave Feminism

Second Wave (1960s-1990s)

Advertisement from the 1940s:



In 1963, Betty Friedan poses a question in her book The Feminine Mystique:

Not long ago, women dreamed and fought for equality, their own place in the world. What happened to their dreams; when did women decide to give up and go back home?

(Friedan 2013,: 29)

After the first wave of feminism, a backlash happened.

Despite the fact that women had access to education and thereby jobs, their idea of “the good life” slowly turned into finding a husband, having kids, and being the “perfect” stay-at-home mom (Casas(a) 2013: 04:30). “The fact is that to women born after 1920, feminism was dead history. It ended as a vital movement in America with the winning of that final right: the vote” (Friedan 2013: 107). Instead, the 1930s and 1940s became the fight for human rights and the liberation of marginalized groups such as African Americans, oppressed workers, and victims of Franco’s Spain and Hitler’s Germany. The fight for women’s rights was seen as won and the term ‘career woman’ became a word of abuse, which was in large part due to the hostility and the prejudice feminists were met with.

This backlash was reinforced by the ending of World War II, since women had joined the workforce during the war. This allowed them to experience the satisfaction of getting out of the house and the freedom that comes from earning money independently. The problem was that the men returning from war dreamt of a simple, domestic life with a stay-at-home wife. When the men returned, they returned to high-level positions, which, among other things, meant that they were in control of the media content – even women’s magazines. Because of this, the ‘housewife image’ became the dominating ideal of what it meant to be a woman (Friedan 2013: 49).

This is reflected in this advertisement from the 1940s:

a woman belongs in the kitchen.png


The media was at the same time used as a propaganda tool in order to get women back in the home and convince them that their purpose in life was to find a man, get married, and create a well-functioning family. If women, ‘against their own best interests’, insisted on having a career, they were told that it was best to not compete for “men’s jobs” and instead search for “softer” jobs as teachers and caretakers (hooks 1990: 177).

Girls growing up in this period thought of the feminine mystique as something to strive for and distanced themself from everything the feminists had stood for (Friedan 2013: 107).

It is a strangely unquestioned perversion of history that the passion and fire of the feminist movement came from man-hating, embittered, sex-starved spinsters, from castrating, unsexed non-women who burned with such envy for the male organ that they wanted to take it away from all men, or destroy them, demanding rights only because they lacked the power to love as women

(Friedan 2013: 83)

In her book, Friedan describes ‘the problem with no name’: the feminine mystique, which described many American housewives. Friedan breaks with this notion by writing: “We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: “I want something more than my husband and my children and my home”” (Friedan 2013: 22). The book is often seen as the start of second wave feminism, in which Friedan is viewed as one of its leading figures along with Gloria Steinem, who was one of the figures starting up the first magazine run by women: Ms. Magazine.

After the release of The Feminine Mystique, Friedan took part in starting up NOW (National Organization for Women) along with women’s rights activist Pauli Murray. The preposition for is important to note, since she “(…) knew the movement had to include men as equal members, though women would have take the lead in the first stage” (Friedan 2013: 464). NOW fought alongside members of the hippie subculture in 1968 to redefine femininity and masculinity (Friedan 2013: 472) and challenged industrialized beauty contests with slogans like “Women use your brains not your bodies” (Casas(a) 2013: 32:19).

In addition, they fought for the right to female sexuality and reproductive justice and advocated passing the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) (suggested back in 1923), a constitutional amendment which would eliminate discriminatory laws based on gender. The ERA was met with massive criticism from other women who thought the ERA made women victims of patriarchy (Casas(b) 2013: 33:54). The ERA was eventually passed by Congress in 1972 and was sent to states for ratification. By March 2017, only 36 states had ratified it, meaning there are still, in 2018!!!, two more states to go for the amendment to be an official part of the Constitution. (Web, web).

Second Wave and the Media

The organized fight for women’s rights changed the media by encouraging women in the film industry to challenge existing norms, such as writing more well-rounded, female characters and asking for leading positions in Hollywood movies:

It’s the Women’s Movement that really broke down the barriers for so many of us. Because women like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan were telling me that I could have options. And I was listening to them

(Lansing in Knowlton: 11:51)

The same goes for Laura Mulvey, who paved the way for a critical analysis of how women are portrayed in movies by coining the term ‘mMale gaze’ (Barding et al. 2015: 11). Jean Kilbourne was one of the first feminist critics to address how women in commercials were stripped of their humanity and reduced to sexual objects. In a way, this meant (put bluntly) that violence against women was legitimized and normalised (Casas(c) 2013: 11:49). (This is just now, in 2017, being put into question, since women worldwide are joining forces by putting their feet down and saying NO through the #MeToo hashtag).

Advertisement from the 1960s:

Skærmbillede 2017-06-21 kl. 12.22.56.png


A Kilbourne TedTalk from 2014, The Dangerous Ways Ads See Women underlines that this tendency is still prevalent today. In the following examples from 2006 and 2010, sexual assaults and even murder, of women are banalized:

Jimmy Choo commercial from 2006:



Calvin Klein Jeans commercial from 2010:



One thing feminism brought to the agenda was the term ‘domestic violence’. This resulted in shelters for women’s protection being built and ultimately manifested in the changing of the discourse on what it means to be a man: women were no longer their property and it was therefore not their right to be violent towards their wives (Casas(c) 2013: 13:40). In addition, feminists fought to eliminate to root of this form of violence—to challenge the idea that part of being masculine is about sexual aggression: “Gradually, however, feminists began to define the very nature of violence against women – domestic violence and rape were not about lust. They were about power” (Casas(c): 16:24).

In the 1980s, the term sexual harassment became widely known through Anita Hill’s accusation against Judge Thomas Clarence and subsequent trial (this was so common it did not have a term describing it, and most people did not even understand why this was necessary at all) (Casas(c): 16:24).

Despite the fact that second wave activism slowly died down, the ideals and visions never vanished completely. Instead they turned to academia, where classes on Women’s Studies, and later Gender studies, Feminist studies, Masculinity studies and Queer studies were based on many of the things for which second wave feminism sowed the seeds(Rampton 2015).

Internal disputes
The trouble with NOW was that the participants were primarily white and middle class (Casas 2013(a): 24:06), despite the fact that black women’s rights activist Pauli Murray, an active member of the NAACP, was part of founding NOW and the one who suggested that NOW focus specifically on women’s rights (Web). Additionally, the organization addressed issues that, at that time, primarily affected white, middle class women, such as abortion.

In her book Sister Outsider (2007), writer, feminist, and activist Audre Lorde wrote “Black feminism is not white feminism in blackface. Black women have particular and legitimate issues which affect our lives as Black women” (Lorde 2007: 60). Many black women did not just struggle with the question of abortion, but also the right to have children at all: many were subjected to sterilization and other population control measures. The battle led to the term reproductive justice (Ross in Web).

Since feminism at the time focused on white women’s issues, African American women had the choice of fighting for white women’s rights or black men’s. In addition to this, white women were associated with white men and thereby ‘white privilege’ (Casas(a) 2013: 24:25).

White women wanted to join the workforce. Black- and working-class women were there already—and they were deeply dependent on it (Casas(a) 2013: 24:55). The trouble was that the black women who wanted to fight for women’s rights alongside white women were threatened by black men (Lorde 2007: 47). “No one bothered to discuss the way in which sexism operates both independently of and simultaneously with racism to oppress us” (hooks 1990: 7), since racism did not prevent black men from subjecting themselves to the same patriarchal structures (hooks 1990: 101).

Black women were also discriminated against by white, racist women. Lorde refers to the National Women’s Studies Association that held a conference focusing on racism in 1981. Many poor, black women were excluded, since the registration fee was too high. They were therefore not able to participate in or be in charge of workshops (Lorde 2007: 126). Lorde points to the fact that white women ignored differences such as race, class, age, and sexual preferences: “There is a pretense to a homogeneity of experience covered by the word sisterhood that does not in fact exist” (Lorde 2007: 116). This form of denial of the fact that there were different degrees of oppression caused many black women to view the movement as their enemy:

Implicit in the assertion that work was the key to women’s liberation was a refusal to acknowledge the reality that, for asses of American working class women, working for pay neither liberated them from sexist oppression nor allowed for them to gain any measure of economic independence.

(hooks 1990: 145)

In that sense, the movement supported ‘white, racist imperialism’ by proclaiming full support for US policies and social orders, whereby black women wanted to change the existing, racist policies (hooks 1990: 175).

This form of dissatisfaction caused many non-white women to form their own organisations such as Chicana Hijas de Cuauhtemoc, Asian Sisters, and the Third World Women’s Alliance (Web: 02:55).

At the same time, NOW was divided into different groups by its members due to the rise of radicalised groups (that were inspired by British, militant women’s rights activists). Unfortunately, these sub-groups received most of the media coverage, which meant that they were prominent in creating the negative stereotype: angry, man-hating feminists. Another point of dispute was whether or not to include lesbian members, since members of the movement were afraid that would cause too much resistance from the public (Casas(a) 2013: 45:32).

These are just a few examples of how the movement was subjected to many of the societal norms; like homophobia and structural suppression of non-white, non-middle or upper class women.



Barding, Antonia, Kæregaard, Marlene Bjørn, Eliasen, Kristina Maria Danielsen, Matthiassen, Anja Falkner & Stassen, Christoffer Trosborg (2015): Orange Is the New Black – Markante kvinderoller i nyere, amerikanske tv-serier. RUC, Bachelorprojekt. Find it here (last seen 31/12-17)

Casas(a) (2013): Makers: Women Who Make America (Part 1). Found at (last seen 30/12-17)

Casas(b) (2013): Makers: Women Who Make America (Part 2). Found at (last seen 7/9-17)

Casas(c) (2013): Makers: Women Who Make America (Part 3). Found at (last seen 7/9-17)

Friedan, Betty (2013): The Feminine Mystique. W. W. Norton & Company, New York. ISBN: 978-0-393-34678-7

hooks, bell (1990): “Ain’t I A Woman. Black Women and Feminism”. Pluto Press, London. ISBN: 0 86104 379 0. Found at  (last seen 29/12-17)

Knowlton, Linda Goldstein (2014): Women in HollywoodFound at (last seen 22/12-17)

Lorde, Audre (2007): Sister Outsider. Crossing Press, U.S.A

Rampton, Martha (2015): Four Waves of Feminism. Pacific University Oregon. Found at (last seen 30/12-17)

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