Lesson 3: The Beginning of Second Wave Feminism
After women gained the vote, the feminist movement seemed to die. During the first wave of feminism
(suffragist movement), the struggle was principally to assert women's right to have the same benefits of
citizenship as men. During this period, women fought for the right to vote but, they also fought to have the
same rights as men in the public sphere of work and government and equal rights in the private sphere where
marriage and reproduction were concerned.
From the 1920s to the late 1960s women continued to work for better housing, health care, better wages and
rights within the workplace. Women began introducing daycares and volunteer programs to support one
another and their children. White women, black women, immigrant women continued to advocate for their
rights throughout the 1940s and 1950s, but not in a large and highly organized movement as we saw during
the suffragist period.And yet this "in between" period was critical in terms of how events, pressures and
ideas would set the groundwork for a swell of feminist activism that would emerge in the late 1960s.
In many ways focussing on Betty Friedan helps to explain why it was difficult for women to join in one large
movement until the 1960s. As a young college student in the 1940s, Betty Friedan took an active role in
examining the terrible consequences of a society rooted in racist and classist practises. She did not merely
discuss the inequalities ofAmerican society with her colleagues; she took the dangerous route of actually
writing about them in her school paper of which she was editor. Of particular concern to her at this time was
how a segregated societyresulted in the brutal suspension of rights for a whole segment of society. She was
active in the promotion of unions and their fight for health and safety standards, vacation pay, decent hours,
promotion and much more.
As a Jewish woman, Friedan was well acquainted with both racism and sexism. She understood the dangers
and knew only too well that by speaking out against inequalities could imperil one's life. The reality of this
danger hit full force with the end of the WWII. The pressure Friedan and others felt was to conform to the
state's call for "a return to normalcy". Open discussions on alternative political systems (i.e. socialism,
communism, or other democratic practises) came to an end. People espousing ideas that conflicted with the
state's notion of the "the good family" or with "good citizens" placed them in peril of arrest or blacklisting.
Friedan and her colleagues who grew fearful during this period were justified. The early 1950s saw the
deliberate closure on all free speech in the United States with Senator Joe McCarthy leading a witch hunt to
expose anyone smacking of "communist" affiliations of any nature. Those hardest hit were obviously people
suspected of being homosexuals, union supporters, people in the arts including film makers, writers, and any
groups that were challenging the government. People were called before congress to testify, many were
blacklisted.And no one was safe, an angry or discontent neighbour, friend, family member, or colleague
could point a figure that would land someone in a mire of accusations of being "un-American."
Can you imagine the kind of threat women were under who promoted ideas like universal access to health
Have you ever been in a social or political conversation or event where you disagreed with the prevailing
ideas or the kind of talk circulating? Did you feel you could speak out? If you did were you afraid of the
consequences and what were they? If you didn't speak, can you remember why perhaps you didn't?
The Myth of the Nuclear Family:
The ideal home/family was one that had two kids, a working father and a stay at home mom who cleaned and
baked but never challenged the authority of the male. The nuclear family was presented as the norm.All other
forms of the family were viewed as deviant. While the United States had the McCarythism to discipline its
citizens into a narrow view of gender specific roles, Canada was experiencing pressures. The RCMP during
the 1950s kept a close eye on those groups whose activities seemed to be questionable. Women's groups were
commonly "spied on" to ensure their activities were not a threat to Canadian security. Even during the repressive years of the early 1950s people dared to challenge the illegality of laws and the
abuse of power. The NAACP (NationalAction Committee of Coloured People in the United States) took the
government to court over its segregation laws (Jim Crow laws). The NAACP won, forcing a whole new set of
tensions as whites were no longer able to exclude blacks from their institutions. The demise of the Jim Crow
laws, brought an end to segregation but not the end of the terror thatAfricanAmericans would experience at
the hands of white supremacists
Take as an example the courage of Elizabeth Eckford, the fifteen year old girl who was the firstAfrican
American to attend an integrated (all white) school. So horrible was the backlash by whites to the end of
segregation that the National Guard was called on to protect Eckford from white parents who tried to block
her from entering the school while spitting and calling out: "Lynch her."
Examples like those of Elizabeth Eckford or the NAACP remind us that even though we may not "see" the
activism of others, we can be sure that someone somewhere is working hard at establishing more just
practises even in the most repressive of times.
It was in this time of conformity and restricted movement, that Friedan married and began a life as a mother
and wife while writing freelance for women's magazines. Her experience as a mother and wife during the
1950s and her struggle with publishers and editors of women's magazines raised her consciousness on the
false notions of women's identity.As she submitted articles for women's magazines, she discovered editors
who reviewed her submissions would reject any that contained more elaborate political ideas. They
contended that women were incapable of understanding "big" ideas. These, mostly men, wanted short, quick
articles on how to decorate a house, look after a husband, attend to children and make a souffle. In all
seriousness, the men she dealt with in the publishing world believed that women were incapable of
intellectual thought or that such ideas were not appropriate considering women's main occupation was to tend
to their families.Articles on shopping were more likely to get published than certainly an article on the loss
of free speech.
In this world of advertising and women's magazines, the focus was on creating an image of women whose
primary function was that of a housekeeper. Housework, in these magazines was described as the fulfillment