Women’s Liberation Movement
Betty Friedan wrote that “the only way for a woman, as for a man, to find herself, to know herself as a person, is by creative work of her own.” The message here is that women need more than just a husband, children, and a home to feel fulfilled; women need independence and creative outlets, unrestrained by the pressures of society. Throughout much of history, women have struggled with the limited roles society imposed on them. The belief that women were intellectually inferior, physically weaker, and overemotional has reinforced stereotypes throughout history. In the 1960s, however, women challenged their roles as “the happy little homemakers.” Their story is the story of the Women’s Liberation Movement.
The struggle for women’s rights did not begin in the 1960s. What has come to be called “Women’s Lib” was, in fact, the second wave of a civil rights movement that began in the early 19th century. This first wave revolved around gaining suffrage (the right to vote). Earlier women’s movements to improve the lives of prostitutes, increase wages and employment opportunities for working women, ban alcohol, and abolish slavery inspired and led directly to the organized campaign for women’s suffrage.
The movement towards women’s suffrage began in 1840 when Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton went to London to attend a World Anti-Slavery Society Convention. The were barred from attending and told to sit in a curtained enclosure with other women attendees if they wished to meet. This incident inspired Mott and Stanton to organize the First Women’s Rights Convention which was held in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Three hundred women and some men came. The Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, which stressed equality among men and women and also listed grievances, like women’s lack of voting, property, marriage, and education rights, was written at the convention and signed afterwards. This event inspired other conventions, like the first National Women’s Rights Convention in 1850, and the formation of organizations, like the National American Women’s Suffrage Association in 1890, both of which aided the fight for women’s suffrage.
After women got the right to vote in 1920, the most devoted members of the women’s movement focused on gaining other rights for women. Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, who had created the National Women’s Party in 1916 to work for women’s suffrage, turned their efforts toward passing the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). This amendment, which would make all forms of discrimination based on sex illegal, did not receive significant support and never passed. Arguments against the ERA, advocated by social reformers, such as Florence Kelley and Jane Addams, along with administrators in the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor, were that the ERA would, in reality, eliminate protective legislation for women, harming working-class women instead of helping them.
Another issue that the Women’s Rights Movement undertook was women’s reproductive rights. In early 19th century American society, a husband could legally demand sexual intercourse from his wife, even if she didn’t consent. Because of this, the issue of birth control began to surface among women activists. Margaret Sanger and Emma Goldman started advocating birth control in the 1920s. The American Birth Control League, which would later become the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, was founded in 1921. Throughout the 1900s, birth control would remain an important issue in the Women’s Rights Movement.
In the 1960s, the second wave of the Women’s Rights Movement began. Attitudes toward women in the 1960s were not very different than they had been in the 1920s, so in the 1960s women began again to fight for their unattained equality. World War II had brought large numbers of women out of their homes and into the workforce. Many women began to acknowledge their dissatisfaction with being only a wife and mother with no means for a career. Betty Friedan was a woman who wrote about her experiences as a housewife in her book The Feminine Mystique. She wrote about the buried and unspoken “problem,” that lack of fulfillment that middle-class, educated suburban housewives could not identify within their lives, but knew existed. Friedan helped launch the modern wave of the Women’s Rights Movement by inspiring thousands of women to look beyond their roles as homemakers for fulfillment.
By 1968, people were starting to talk about “Women’s Liberation.” The new wave of the Women’s Civil Rights movement had begun, and the social, economic, and political rights of women had resurfaced. Numerous laws which addressed the civil rights of women were passed during this time. The Equal Pay Act, which made it illegal to pay different wages to men and women who performed the same job, was passed in 1963. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which barred discrimination in employment on the basis of sex, race, color, or ethnic group, was passed in 1964. In 1972, Title IX of the Education Amendments banned sex discrimination in schools. Then the following year, as a result of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court established a women’s right to a safe and legal abortion. These laws are a few of the many which were passed during the Women’s Liberation Movement.
In 1972, the Equal Rights Amendment was again brought to Congress for approval. This time the ERA passed and was sent on to the states for ratification; however, it failed to be approved by enough states. This second failure of the ERA may again be partially attributed to the opposition. This time, Phyllis Schlafly organized the opposition, maintaining that the passage of the ERA would lead to “men abandoning their families, unisex toilets, gay marriages, and women being drafted.”
The Women’s Liberation Movement brought many changes socially, economically, and politically, but perhaps the most significant advancement was “consciousness raising.” This term refers to the rethinking and confidence building that women began to do in the 1960s. Being able to talk about previously suppressed issues or feelings liberated women and helped them to acquire more positive self-images and more desirable roles in society. This consciousness was a significant aspect and legacy of the Women’s Liberation Movement.
The impact of the Women’s Liberation Movement is still with women today, as is the movement itself. Women have the right to vote in most nations and are being elected to public office at all levels of government. Women defy current stereotypes, and those of past generations, by becoming educated and self-aware. Women raise families by themselves and hold positions in all ranks of the workforce. Despite the many disparities that still exist among women and men in America and the rest of the world, women have come a long way. The Women’s Liberation Movement was, and continues to be, a fight for women’s equality in a world run predominately by men.
Eisenberg, Bonnie and Mary Ruthsdotter. “The National Women’s History Project.”23 May 2004.
Schultheiss, Katrin. “Women’s Rights.” Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia.23 May 2004.
Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States 1492-Present. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.