A Closer Look at Second Wave Feminism
Today we are talking…feminist history! Not just any feminist history, not revisionist history, but a real, true look at the past. After all, it is black history month.
But, before we get started, I have to talk about Sex Education.
I mean I’m sure most of you know Sex Education came out with its second season on Netflix. I absolutely, love this show. It’s somehow done a wonderful job of being comedic, educational, and inclusive.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to spoil anything for those who haven’t seen it, or are in the process of finishing it up.
But, there was one moment of the show that really got me. I mean tearing up, feeling it in my heart, ya know. It was a moment of pure support, pure sisterhood, of pure community.
I absolutely loved this scene. Watching these young women, who swore up and down they had nothing in common, finally, come together and support each other was beautiful. Okay, okay, okay, I won’t spoil anymore.
Second Wave Feminism and Betty Friedan
But this scene, really got me thinking. It took me back down memory lane, if you will. A lane that I wasn’t really able to walk considering I wasn’t born yet, but same thing.
The sisterhood and support I saw on Sex Education, immediately reminded me of second-wave feminism and the tactics women used during this time.
But, don’t you dare think we’re going to talk about second-wave feminism without a conversation about race. I mean the civil rights movement was happening at the same time folks.
To jump-start our historical dive, let’s look to Betty Friedan.
Friedan is often said to have started the second wave of feminism with her book The Feminine Mystique, which was published in 1963.
But, Friedan wasn’t the first to write and think in a way that was radical and characteristic of the second wave of feminist ideologies.
In fact, second wave thinker Simone de Beauvoir, who wrote The Second Sex, had been published in 1949 in France, and 1953 in the US. Both of which, preceding Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.
The intellect and ideology behind Friedan’s book had in fact been done before, but it was how far Friedan was able to spread her message that was significant.
The Feminine Mystique was a hit, and her book was selling faster than a hot knife cutting through butter.
Less southern, and more specifically, Friedan sold 3 million copies of The Feminine Mystique within 3 years.
What is “The Feminine Mystique”
So what was all the hullabaloo about? What was this feminine mystique? And what made it oh, so mysterious?
Well, The Feminine Mystique protests what Friedan labeled as “the problem that has no name.”
The problem without a name being systematic sexism that determined a woman’s rightful place was at home.
And, if a woman was unhappy in her place as a housewife, then the fault lies with her.
In other words, she’s broken because being a housewife is not only what she should be doing, but is in fact her whole purpose.
Friedan even joked, “I thought something was wrong with me because I didn’t have an orgasm waxing the kitchen floor.”
But, as Friedan and others argued, the problem wasn’t within the women, it was within the world that told them a housewife is who they are, and all they are.
Friedan felt that “the problem that has no name,” otherwise known as the general restlessness that accompanied many women as housewives, was a universal problem. A problem that all women faced, and thus she envisioned and advocated for one solution to solve this “universal problem.”
And Friedan, and others alike, advocated for a woman’s right to work.
bell hooks: “From Margin To Center”
And, well, Friedan was right that this was a universal problem…If by universal she means a specific selection of women.
This select group consisting of course of college-educated, heterosexually married, middle- and upper class white women.
Then, yeah for sure then its definitely universal.
And while Friedan’s analysis was radical at the time of the 60s, it was radical for a very distinct set of people, facing a very distinct problem.
Even more so, her analysis ignored the plight of women who did not fall within this very select group.
Don’t fear, though! This did not go unnoticed. Black feminist, author, professor, and social activist bell hooks had quite a bit to say in response to The Feminine Mystique.
Writing her response, From Margin To Center, bell hooks said “hold up wait a minute let me put some perspective in this,” and that she did.
Can we let the title really sink in?
“From Margin To Center”
Moving minority women from the margins of the conversation, and putting them in the center.
Hooks argued that mainstream feminisms’ dependence on white, middle-class women dominated the movement for women’s liberation. In doing so, the involvement, leadership, and struggles of women of color and poor women were overlooked.
More so, the limited focus of Friedan’s version of feminism not only ignored these women, but silenced those who were most victimized by sexist oppression.
And, don’t believe me just watch, because bell hooks breaks it down real well for us.
“Friedan’s famous phrase, “the problem that has no name,” often quoted to describe the condition of women in this society, actually referred to the plight of a select group of college-educated, middle- and upper-class, married white women—housewives bored with leisure, with the home, with children, with buying products, who wanted more out of life. Friedan concludes her first chapter by stating: ‘We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: ‘I want something more than my husband and my children and my house.’ That “more” she defined as careers. She did not discuss who would be called in to take care of the children and maintain the home if more women like herself were freed from their house labor and given equal access with white men to the professions.”
Here, Hooks draws some much needed attention to who is called to complete domestic labor when women like Friedan are free of their duties.
Historically, the answer to this question is minority women of color.
*I mean we can trace it all the way back to slavery Which, if I were to get off on a tangent, could lead us down an entirely different, but related conversation.*
Although, I do encourage you to think of the implications of domestic labor, who completes that labor, and at what price.
Now, back to bell hooks’ read of Friedan, as she goes on to say that Fridan,
“did not speak of the needs of women without men, without children, without homes. She ignored the existence of all non-white women and poor white women.”
Again hooks is calling for an expansion of mainstream feminism.
What about the women without men? What about non-straight women, Fridan?? I mean ever heard of LGBTQ lady? What about women without children? What about those who can’t afford a home?
Hooks analysis draws in deeper and shows just how narrow Friedan’s view of feminism and liberation are.
Hooks goes on to state that,
“When Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, more than one-third of all women were in the workforce. Although many women longed to be housewives, only women with leisure time and money could actually shape their identities on the model of the feminine mystique.”
For Black women of the time, working outside of the home was not a wish, but the norm. These women who had no choice but to work in order to support themselves, and faced very different forms of oppression than that of the feminine mystique.
Despite, the coincidence of the civil rights movement and second-wave feminism during this time, tensions of race, class, and sexuality, continued throughout feminism’s second wave.
The right to work was one tenet of the women’s liberation movement, but a tenet specific to mainstream feminists. Reproductive freedom, however, was advocated for across the board. I mean, advocated across the board to an extent.
You see, white women advocated for the right to contraceptives and abortions.
Black women advocated for contraceptives and abortions as well, but also demanded an end to the forced sterilization of people of color and people with disabilities. Concerns that were not of high consideration for the mainstream women’s movement.
Fed up, some black feminists broke away from the mainstream movement, and forged a path of their own to create womanism.
Second Wave Feminism, Alice Walker, and Womanismhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xWgOpOkSCOI
Here, she writes,
“Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.”
Like bell hooks, Walker took issue with mainstream feminists focus on middle and upper-class white women.
Walker created womanism as a space to acknowledge the Black woman’s experience of being both Black & a woman.
Even more, Black women’s experiences were often silenced or put on the back burner under the mainstream feminist movement. Black women, at times, even had to fight racism amongst other mainstream feminists, who didn’t see a need to denounce and critique white supremacy in their movement against gendered oppression.
So they said frick this, and embarked the path of womanism.
Walker defines womanism as a black feminist or feminist of color, who loves other women–whether that be sexually or non sexually, sometimes men–again sexually or non sexually.
But who is committed to the survival and wholeness of all people, both men, and women. Intended to be a unifying experience while also acknowledging the unique needs each individual needs to survive and feel whole.
*Hard burn to anyone says that feminism is against men.*
“The Personal is Political” and “Telling it Like It Is”
Womanism incited unity, just like second-wave feminism tried to.
But, as you may have guessed mainstream feminism, which is the feminism we most often think of when we talk about these waves, was only interested in creating unity within a select group. Particularly the group that The Feminine Mystique writes for.
How did unity come about, though? How did women realize that their struggles were felt by others?
Well, during second-wave feminism, we saw the rise of rally cries like “the personal is political.”
This phrase came from women coming to understand that they were not alone in what they were experiencing. Rather, they were far from being alone.
What they were experiencing was oppression and systematic. Thus, they began to understand that their personal experience, was in fact political.
Political in that gender oppression was so pervasive in society, that it was not only allowed, but the culture facilitated it.
The realization that “the personal is political” was discovered after women engaged in sessions of consciousness-raising.
Or, should I call it “telling it like it is,” as that’s what it was called in the civil rights movement where this technique was created.
Anyway, during a bout of telling it like it is, or consciousness raising, a group of women are presented with a question. Each woman then answers the question with examples from their own personal experience. Then the group uses these personal stories to make connections to the political roots of these so-called personal problems.
And then, AHA, the personal is political is born. So what is an example of the personal being political today?
Well, an example might be a woman who is out drinking, and while she is out, she is sexually assaulted. Afterward, she is bombarded with questions like what were you wearing, how much did you have to drink, did you say no? Did you fight back?
All in all, after being a victim of violence, she is faced with a bunch of victim-blaming crap rooted in today’s rape culture. Rape culture being the political roots that allow for such a personal violence to occur.
Yet, what is ironic about the rise of “the personal is political” within second wave feminism, is the idea that what we experience, we don’t experience alone. Rather, these injustices are a result of systematic ideologies and practices that facilitate gendered oppression. However, within mainstream feminism, this concept is only applicable to an extent.
As it was too far of a stretch to see how the same ideologies and practices that facilitate their oppression, could also work to oppress differently across identity categories.
So, What’s Your Take?
Alas, for now my Shrews, I believe I have told it like it is. From my understanding, at least.
But I’d love to hear what you have to say!
What important leaders are often left out of these conversations? In doing so, what pieces of history are we missing? And what can we learn from them?
Who did I inevitably miss??
I also would love to see what kinds of conclusions we would come to if we started our own session of telling it like it is. It seemed pretty effective on Sex Education.
So, who’s down to tell it like it is with me?