The Personal is Political: Stories from Second Wave Feminism

2018 has seen many empowered women coming to the forefront of the national consciousness. The #MeToo movement has allowed women to share their experiences with sexual assault to the world. The midterms last November created the most diverse Congress in American history, with several new female congressional representatives. But these huge steps have cause for reflection on how we reached this point. While we experience firsthand current trends of third wave feminism, it's easy to forget the inspirational second wave feminists who came before us.

The second wave of feminism kicked off with Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963. It was instantly a phenomenon, selling three million copies in three years. In her book, Freidan discusses “the problem that has no name,” or the sexism that kept women in the home and shamed women who were unhappy as housewives. This lit a spark as the white, middle class housewives began to share the book. And it was here that women began to realize that they were angry and that they wanted social equality.

The National Organization for Women (NOW)

In the beginning, there was NOW, as Freidan and other early feminists focused on concerns of workplace discrimination. Newspapers were full of Help Wanted-Male and Help Wanted-Female columns. On the male side were all the good, high paying jobs. On the female side were secretary jobs for “good looking executives.” Women such as Jacqui Ceballos, former president of the New York chapter, Muriel Fox, public relations for NOW, and Mary Jean Collins, former president of the Chicago chapter began protesting for equal jobs for women, equal pay, and child care services. Collins, for example, would appear on TV, where she was seriously asked if she thought women should get equal pay. Members of NOW had to be firm that these issues were discrimination.

Through these efforts, there were some legal victories and losses. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 theoretically (in big air quotes) outlawed the gender pay gap. Title IX gave women the right to educational equality. But the most egregious loss came in the form of child care. In order for women to be able to work and enjoy a career, feminists argued that child care must be provided, and they were so close to succeeding. The House of Representatives and the Senate had both passed a universal child care act in the 1970s, only to have it vetoed by Nixon (the ratbastard). But NOW was only one part of the feminist movement.

Women's Liberation

Women’s Lib was made of the younger women within the movement. The big focus, the personal is political, was to change the way society thought about women and how men and women interacted. Many Women’s Lib members got their start in the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-War Movement. Feminists like Jo Freeman and Vivian Rothstein worked in civil rights and felt the power of being in an organized group and got the groundwork for being a feminist. Susan Griffin and Marilyn Webb were protesters in the anti-war movement. More women began to question why they weren’t in leadership positions. They wanted to organize and bring these social issues to the forefront, assuming this would just be seen as another part of the whole ‘60s upheaval.

So, Webb and a few other feminists like Ellen Willis, organized for the first time in front of men at an anti-Nixon protest. Webb went onstage and began to try to talk, only to be interrupted by the men yelling obscenities at her, like “fuck her down a dark alley,” and other such horrifying things. This example I showed you isn’t simply meant to disturb you, but to show how Women’s Lib got its spark. Women faced discrimination from inside various social organizations they were a part of, and realized that they needed to go off on their own to fight for their own rights as human beings.

Little Women’s Lib groups began popping up around the country where women could meet up and just talk. It was like girl talk, but on an enlightenment level. In these groups, women were learning that the problems that they considered embarrassing and a point of personal shame, like abortion, rape, domestic violence, and sexual frustration were being experienced by lots of other women. And now they were angry and ready to take drastic action against sexism.

Alright, enough with the history lesson. Here’s a list of ONLY SOME of the awesome things people did as part of the Women’s Lib movement.

·       Ruth Rosen and other female scholars realized that they knew nothing of women’s history, literature, or art. They called the press and burned their degrees in a trashcan in public protest. These were Masters and PhDs too.

·       The Ask Jane system: Abortion was still illegal, but Heather Booth knew of a good abortionist (in that the woman wouldn’t die) and started a system where she gave out her phone number and anyone who needed an abortion called and asked for Jane. More Janes joined in and women were given counseling and brought to different houses on a rotating basis for the procedure. The abortionist even started teaching Janes how to do safe abortions, who in turn taught more Janes.

·       Miss America protest: women fought against sexist and racist beauty standards all while throwing (NOT burning) their bras in a “freedom trashcan.”

·       Karla Jay’s Ogle day on Wall Street: She and a group of others walked down the street whistling at and catcalling men.

·       Our Bodies, Ourselves: A group of women got together to do research, because women were faking orgasms a lot and could not get a decent sexual experience. They made a course and later a book on female anatomy, pregnancy, hormones, birth control, menopause, death, etc.

Inclusivity and Diversity in the Second Wave

One of the biggest criticisms of second wave feminism was that it was centered around white, straight, middle class women. Woman of color and LGBTQ+ women were pushed to the sidelines. Many women still felt alienated from the mainstream. But there were a few second wave organizations that catered to this need.

Women of color found it hard to identify with the women’s movement. For example, Linda Burnham went to a rally in San Francisco that was filled with white women. Then, someone got on a bullhorn and asked all the African-American women in the crowd to stand under a tree. She went on to help found Black Sisters United as part of the women’s movement. Other activists like Eleanor Holmes Norton worked in Women’s Lib because she saw that African-American women were more disadvantaged than white women, since they needed to fight for both gender and racial equality. And, Denise Oliver-Velez was a prominent activist against the forced sterilization of women of color, especially in Puerto Rico. She came up with idea of Reproductive Justice.

Lesbian women were kept in the closet in all aspects of the movement so far. Especially in NOW, Freidan was worried that endorsing the issues of homophobia would cause the movement to lose credibility. So, many lesbians such as Rita Mae Brown came together to write the paper “Woman identified Woman.” But my favorite part of this story is how they got LGBTQ+ issues onto the movement agenda. At the Second Congress to Unite Women, several lesbians came in with the crowd, and had somebody backstage to pull the lights. When the lights went out, they all stood up and ripped off their blouses to reveal t-shirts that said “Lavender Menace” underneath to protest the homophobia in the women’s movement. And thus, lesbian women were now added to the movement.

Second wave feminism was truly a radical period of change that sought to bring women equality, at first in the workplace, and then in society as a whole. It was full of some truly amazing women, and I hope we don’t forget them moving forward. If it weren’t for their efforts 50 years ago, we might not have the strength and resources to keep going today. As the women’s rights advocate Virginia Whitehill said: “You’re not allowed to retire from women’s issues. You still have to pay attention, ‘cause somebody’s gonna try and yank the rug out from under you, and that’s what’s happening now.”