Second Wave Feminism

Posted on: November 3rd, 2018 by Jason Jacobs


The history of feminism in the U.S. and Europe is viewed in four distinct “waves.” The first wave begins in the mid-19th century and culminates with the women's suffrage movement. In America, the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote in 1920, while British women gained suffrage in 1928. Kristin Miller of Apologia would have come of age during the second wave, which began in the late 1950s and continued into the ‘80s, and had major social impact in the U.S., Britain, and most Western countries.

World War II put women into jobs previously allotted only to men and gave a newfound sense of fulfillment; but post-war society pushed women out of the workplace and back into the domestic sphere. Growing dissatisfaction with traditional roles in the 1950s, along with increased economic prosperity and new technologies, raised women’s awareness and sparked questioning of the social norms which limited women’s life choices. In 1961, the FDA approved the birth control pill, and, while not yet widely legal, abortion also gave women greater choice about having children and establishing careers. Together, these factors led to a forceful current of feminist thought and activism.

Women march for the right to vote at the Woman Suffrage Parade in Washington, D.C., on March 3, 1913. Credit: Library of Congress


As a feminist scholar, Kristin would likely be familiar with the major literature of the second wave, including:

Le Deuxieme Sexe.

The Second Sex by Simone De Beauvoir (1949)

De Beauvoir offers a historical view on how society holds women in subordinate roles. In declaring that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” De Beauvoir argues that gender roles are forced upon women. For example, World War II proved that women could transcend traditional gender roles, thus challenging the belief that they belonged in the domestic sphere.

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (1963)

Through interviews, Friedan gave women a voice to express dissatisfaction with their place in 1950s society. The “feminine mystique” refers to an assumption that women should be fulfilled by domesticity; the inability to live up to this ideal is “the problem that has no name.” The book was a major catalyst for the second wave, and Friedan was a co-founder of the National Organization of Women.

"The Personal is Political” by Carol Hanisch (1970)

In this widely-read essay, Hanisch argued that everyday activities, including the division of household labor and enforcing of gender roles, were political acts and that public discussions of personal problems have political impact beyond any individual.


The second wave actually divided into two movements:

Mainstream, or “equal rights” feminism, focused on legislation and social pressure to change society from within. Equal-rights feminists were mostly older, white women from affluent backgrounds.

Radical feminism sought to disrupt society's hierarchical and patriarchal foundations. Radical feminists included younger white women and women of color, many of whom had been active in the Civil Rights movement.


In England, married women had limited rights to their own property. The 1964 Married Women’s Property Act allowed women to keep half of any savings they made from allowances received from their husbands (an indication of the limited rights women like Kristin would have had when she started her family). British feminism focused largely on issues of property and economic independence. The Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) organized eight national conferences between 1970 and 1978, leading to a series of demands for equality in marriage and the workplace, sexual freedom, reproductive rights, and protection from violence.


Some victories of the second wave in America included passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which aimed to abolish the gender pay gap, and the founding of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966. A series of Supreme Court cases through the ’60s and ’70s gave women the right to use birth control, and the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision guaranteed the right to an abortion. Title IX, part of the Education Amendment of 1972, protected women from discrimination in all educational programs receiving federal funding.


The Second Wave ended in the 1980s. The United States’ failure in 1982 to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment—which would guarantee all rights under the Constitution equally to all persons, regardless of their sex—is generally considered the demarcation point. Additionally, growing criticism of the focus on white women, to the the exclusion of others, led to a third wave in the 1990s. This movement put more emphasis on diversity of race, class, and sexuality, as well as the intersection of oppressed groups.

Apologia takes place in 2009, a time when some second wave feminists were defending their relevance and confronting negative side effects of their movement. A 2006 task force by the American Psychological Association noted that many younger women mistakenly believed that equality had been fully accomplished (significantly, the gender pay gap in 2009 was still 33%, and by 2016 it had only gone down to 20%). It also looked at how the media had created negative stereotypes of powerful women. A spokesperson for the effort acknowledged, “We've had trouble communicating feminism's continuing relevance to young people and people of color."


Although American-born, Kristin’s marriage and divorce would be subject to British law, which was, and remains to this day, unfavorable to women’s best interests. While many American states have “no-fault divorce,” allowing either party to request a divorce without accusing their spouse of wrongdoing, Britain uses an adversarial court system, based on an official statement of blame.

Until 1857, divorce in the U.K. could only be granted by the church, or by Parliament, which was available only for the very wealthy. The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 allowed people to divorce in the courts under strict conditions. Men could divorce their wives for adultery, but women had to prove adultery plus an aggravating factor, such as rape or incest.

In 1969, the Divorce Reform Act allowed couples to divorce without such offenses, but it also required them to live in separation for two years. While more restrictive than America’s no-fault divorces, divorce rates in England and Wales increased from 30,000 in 1950 to 144,000 in 1978. The two-year separation period is still enforced today.

Child custody was generally granted to the husband, under the assumption that he was the primary breadwinner. Children may live with their mother, who provided care and control, but divorced women were presumed dependent on their husbands for alimony and child support, determined by the wife’s needs rather than the husband’s assets. Writer Germaine Greer in The Female Eunuch (1970) explained, “The working wife has her income assessed as a part of her husband’s, and he on the other hand is not even obliged to tell her how much he earns.”

Apologia is playing at the Laura Pels Theatre through December 16, 2018. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

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