Second Wave feminism

Related Overviews

Betty Friedan (1921—2006) American feminist and writer

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Radical Sisters: Second-Wave Feminism and Black Liberation in Washington, D.C. By Anne M. Valk. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008. xvi, 253 pp. $40.00, ISBN 978-0-252-03298-1.)


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A shorthand reference for the politically active form of feminism that emerged in the US and elsewhere in the 1960s. It was neither a unified nor a homogeneous movement, but it did of course have a common goal, however disparately this was conceived, namely the equality of the sexes. It was born of the recognition that in spite of the considerable advances of the retrospectively christened First Wave of feminism, women had still not achieved genuine equality with men in every facet of life. Its starting point, in the US, was Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963), which argues that women are trapped in a system that denies them self-identity as women and demands they find fulfilment through their husbands and children. Later writers, particularly those identifying as radical feminists, would use the term patriarchy as a shorthand for this systemic subordination of women at the level of culture itself, rather than individual men.

In 1966, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was formed, as a civil rights organization for women, and in many respects it became the driving force of Second Wave feminism, particularly on the political front. NOW lobbied the US government to adopt the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), but while it had many victories at State level, it remained without ultimate success at Federal level.

In 1970, a NOW committee member Kate Millett published her PhD dissertation Sexual Politics, arguing that there is in effect a patriarchal and a non-patriarchal way of writing, with D. H. Lawrence, Normal Mailer, and Henry Miller falling into the former category and Jean Genet into the latter. The book sparked a huge debate and was attacked quite savagely by Norman Mailer ; it is frequently held up as an example of what is wrong with political correctness. Nonetheless, Millett's work offered an early and powerful critique of the patriarchal values in art and literature. Australian critic Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch (1970) was published in the same year, causing a similar stir by suggesting that the way to fight patriarchy is through women taking charge of their own sexuality.

The extent to which sex is a neglected problem of violence and exploitation was brought to light by Susan Brownmiller's angry exposé, Against Our Will (1975). Brownmiller's book divided feminism into two separate and opposed camps: those like Greer who advocate sexual promiscuity as a political weapon and those like Brownmiller who see this as simply catering to a male-dominated view of desire. Second Wave feminism came to an end in the early 1980s. In part, it was a victim of its own success because there was a powerful backlash against political correctness, even among women, who found some of its messages ‘over the top’. But the far bigger problem was the profoundly unfavourable political conditions that materialized in the 1980s: both Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK were anti-ERA in their outlook and policy-making. Second Wave feminism has since been succeeded by Third Wave feminism on the one hand and post-feminism on the other.


Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies.

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