Second-wave feminism: the late 20th century
What is sometimes termed ‘second-wave’ feminism emerged, after the Second World War, in several countries. In 1947, a Commission on the Status of Women was established by the United Nations, and two years later it issued a Declaration of Human Rights, which both acknowledged that men and women had ‘equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution’, as well as women’s entitlement to ‘special care and assistance’ in their role as mothers. Between 1975 and 1985, the UN called three international conferences on women’s issues, in Mexico City, Copenhagen, and Nairobi, where it was acknowledged that feminism
constitutes the political expression of the concerns and interests of women from different regions, classes, nationalities, and ethnic backgrounds… There is and must be a diversity of feminisms, responsive to the different needs and concerns of different women, and defined by them for themselves.
African women offered a salutary reminder that
women are also members of classes and countries that dominate others… Contrary to the best intentions of ‘sisterhood’, not all women share identical interests.
A remarkable variety of Western women picked up their pens. One
of the most influential was, and remains, the French writer Simone de Beauvoir. Her writings – including four volumes of autobiography and several novels – add up to a remarkable exploration of one woman’s experience; women from many other countries responded, saying that Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949) had helped them to see their personal frustrations in terms of the general condition of women. All through history, Beauvoir argues, woman has been denied full humanity, denied the human right to create, to invent, to go beyond mere living to find a meaning for life in projects of ever-widening scope. Man ‘remodels the face of the earth, he creates new instruments, he invents, he shapes the future’; woman, on the other hand, is always and archetypally Other. She is seen by and for men, always the object and never the subject.
Through chapters that range over the girl child, the wife, the mother, the prostitute, the narcissist, the lesbian, and the woman in love, Beauvoir explores different aspects of her central argument: it is male activity that in creating values has made of existence itself a value; this activity has prevailed over the confused forces of life; ‘it has subdued Nature and Woman’. Woman, she argues, has come to stand for Nature, Mystery, the non-human; what she represents is more important than what she is, what she herself experiences.
But ‘one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’, Beauvoir insists; and she can change her condition. Most women, mistakenly, look for salvation in love. But Beauvoir’s own alternative is perhaps too simple: she conjures up an image of the ‘the independent woman’ who
… wants to be active, a taker, and refuses the passivity man means to impose on her. The modern woman accepts masculine values; she prides herself on thinking, taking action, working, creating on the same terms as man.
That is not really an attractive image of our possible future. But, she
adds rightly, too many women cling to the privileges of femininity; while too many men are comfortable with the limitations it imposes on women. Today, women are torn between the past and a possible, but difficult and as yet unexplored, future.
Beauvoir was always opposed to any feminism that championed women’s special virtues or values, firmly rejecting any idealization of specifically ‘feminine’ traits. To support that kind of feminism, she argued, would imply agreement with
a myth invented by men to confine women to their oppressed state.
For women it is not a question of asserting themselves as women, but of becoming full-scale human beings.
But though Beauvoir was and remained critical of some forms of traditional feminism, she was impressed by the emerging Mouvement de Liberation des Femmes (MLF), admitting in a 1972 interview that she recognized that
it is necessary, before the socialism we dream of arrives, to struggle for the actual position of women… Even in socialist countries, this equality has not been obtained. Women must therefore take their destiny into their own hands.
Beauvoir was one of the women who signed a 1971 manifesto published in the Nouvel Observateur, drawn up by an MLF group, who were campaigning to legalize abortion; 343 women signed it, proclaiming ‘I have had an abortion and I demand this right for all women.’ However, she always insisted (not wholly convincingly) that she herself had no personal experience of women’s ‘wrongs’, that she had escaped the oppression that she analyses so brilliantly in The Second Sex.
Far from suffering from my femininity, I have, on the contrary, from the age of twenty on, accumulated the advantages of both sexes… those around me treated me both as a writer, their peer in the
masculine world, and as a woman… I was encouraged to write The Second Sex precisely because of this privileged position. It allowed me to express myself in all serenity.
11. Perhaps the most influential of all 20th-century Western feminists, Simone de Beauvoir remains important still, for her autobiographies and novels as well as for her great piece of feminist theory, The Second Sex.
But Beauvoir’s four autobiographical volumes – Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, The Prime of Life, The Force of Circumstance, and All Said and Done – as well as the 1964 book about her mother, ironically entitled A Very Easy Death, take us on a uniquely detailed, remarkably frank, and often very moving journey through her own experiences. She never suggests that she is a model for others; but she evokes her own life as a successful example of how one girl escaped the feminine role of ‘object, Other’. She is almost apologetic about concentrating on women’s issues when ‘some of us have never had to sense in our femininity an inconvenience or an obstacle’. But she admitted that a woman who takes up the pen inevitably provides
a stick to be beaten with… if you are a young woman they indulge you with an amused wink. If you are old, they bow to you respectfully. But lose that bloom of youth and dare to speak before acquiring the respectable patina of age: the whole pack is at your heels.
And her autobiographies, as well as her novels, are all the more moving, and certainly speak more directly to women readers, because, perhaps against Beauvoir’s conscious intentions, they evoke her own – inevitable – frustrations and uncertainties, whether about Jean-Paul Sartre’s infidelities during their long relationship, about her own affairs with the American writer Nelson Algren and with Claude Lanzmann, or about her own childlessness.
But to the end, Beauvoir remained open to new experiences. In 1955, after she and Sartre visited China, she wrote The Long March, acknowledging that it had ‘upset my whole idea of our planet’, as she came to understand ‘that our Western comfort [is] merely a limited privilege’. Her last major theoretical work, Old Age (1970), in which she struggles to maintain her cool rationality in the face of the ultimate, the inevitable, defeat, is perhaps her most moving book.
Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique exploded the myth of the happy housewife in the affluent, white, American suburbs; ‘the problem that has no name’, she wrote, “burst like a boil through the image of the happy American Mystique’. The idea for the book began with a magazine article she wrote after she had attended a class reunion, and asked other women there, ‘what do you wish you had done differently?’ Their answers alerted her to a vague but pervasive discontent. She has been criticized, correctly, for being narrowly middle class; for a simplistic argument that urges suburban women to plan their lives ahead so that they can move from family duties to work outside the home, while ignoring the numbers of less fortunate women already desperately juggling housework with outside jobs, usually poorly paid. For poorer Americans, the black feminist bell hooks argued:
liberation means the freedom of a mother finally to quit her job – to live the life of a capitalist stay at home, as it were… To be able to work and to have to work are two very different matters.
But Friedan’s book was a well-researched, sharply written, even passionate indictment of the fact that even affluent middle-class women lead restricted lives, and too often lapse into a depressed acceptance of that restriction. She insisted that each woman must at least ask what she truly wants. Then she may indeed realize that ‘neither her husband nor her children nor the things in her house, nor sex, nor being like all the other women, can give her a self’.
Friedan’s own background had been in radical politics, and her earlier writings, particularly, display a keen awareness of social inequalities. Moreover, with a group of other women, some from the Union of the Automobile Workers, she went on to become one of the founder members of NOW, the National Organization of Women, which set out ‘to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society, now, assuming all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men’.
12. Betty Friedan in New York, 1970.
Friedan, like some of the older women in the movement, was concerned that the new feminist rhetoric ‘rigidified in reaction against the past, harping on the same old problems in the same old way1, instead of moving forward. In The Second Stage (1981) she admits both how much has changed for women – and how little. Despite arduous and prolonged attempts to get the Equal Rights Amendment passed, some states still reject it. Perhaps inevitably, there was a widening gap between Friedan and the new generation of feminists, though it is hardly fair to accuse her of going along with a ‘backlash’. She approvingly quotes a Toronto journalist:
I don’t want to be stuck today with a feminist label anymore than I would want to be known as a ‘dumb blonde’ in the fifties. The libber label limits and short-changes those who are tagged with it. And the irony is that it emerged from a philosophy that set out to destroy the notion of female tagging.
Her criticism may be unfair, but it cannot be dismissed out of hand.
Within Western feminism – or Women’s Liberation as it soon came to be called – there was initially, at least, great variety, and an energy that sprang in part from anger at having been excluded in existing leftist groups, in part from fruitful disagreements within the emerging movement itself. Many younger women – in the student movement, amongst anti-Vietnam protesters and New Left activists – had felt they were being sidelined by their male comrades. Women among the American Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) announced in 1965 that, having learned ‘to think radically about the personal worth and abilities of people whose role in society had gone unchallenged before’, a lot of women in the movement ‘have begun trying to apply those lessons to their relations with men’. Two years later, SDS women insisted that their ‘brothers … recognize that they must deal with their own problems of male chauvinism’. Some women issued a news-sheet called ‘Voice of the Women’s Liberation Movement’, along with a manifesto from New Left activists who found themselves sidelined by male
comrades, and who were infuriated by Stokely Carmichael’s infamous remark that ‘the place of women in the movement is prone’.
bell hooks, in her Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre (1984), was sharply critical of the whole movement, arguing that the women ‘who are most victimized by sexist oppression… who are powerless to change their condition in life’ have never been allowed to speak out for themselves. Current feminism, she insists, is racist, and has left many women bitterly disillusioned. Movement women have consistently ignored the deeply intertwined issues of race and class; the emphasis on the common ‘oppression’ of women has in fact ignored terribly real inequalities within American society. White women behaved as if the movement belonged to them, hooks insists; they ignored the fact that women are divided by all kinds of prejudice, ‘by sexist attitudes, racism, class privilege’. hooks recalls her own experience in feminist groups: ‘I found that white women adopted a condescending attitude towards me and other non white participants.’ Black feminists rightly argue that ‘every problem raised by white feminists has a disproportionately heavy impact on blacks’.
In America, expressions of feminism ranged from Gloria Steinem’s accessible and glossy Ms magazine, first published in 1970, to the Sisterhood of Black Single Mothers. In her book Sexual Politics (1970), Kate Millett set out to analyse ‘patriarchy as a political institution’. Politics, she insists, refers to all ‘power structured relationships’, and the one between the sexes is a ‘relationship of dominance and subordinance’ which has been largely unexamined. Women are simultaneously idolized and patronized, she argued, backing up her thesis with a scathing analysis of the patriarchal attitudes of writers from different periods and cultures: Freud, D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, and Jean Genet. She saw little immediate hope for women; ‘it may be that we shall. . . be able to retire sex from the harsh realities of politics’, she concluded, ‘but not until we
have created a world we can bear out of the desert we inhabit’. Other political statements included the American Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex (1970), which argued that the basic division, the most profound oppression, in society was not class but sex; she hoped for a true ‘feminist revolution’, but argued that revolution would demand
an analysis of the dynamics of sex war as comprehensive as the Marx-Engels analysis of class antagonism was for the economic revolution. More comprehensive, for we are dealing with a larger problem, with an oppression that goes back beyond recorded history to the animal kingdom itself.
In England, the Australian-born Germaine Greer’s lively and provocative The Female Eunuch (1970) challenged the ‘sense of inferiority or natural dependence’ which women have too often accepted placidly, passively, allowing it to distort and impoverish their lives. There are chapters on the middle-class myth of love and marriage; on why being ‘an object of male fantasy’ actually desexualizes women, and on the way ‘cooking, clothes, beauty and housekeeping’ can become compulsive, anxiety-producing activities.
Sheila Rowbotham’s Liberation and the New Politics (1970) and Juliet Mitchell’s Woman’s Estate (1971) were both written in response to the emerging Women’s Liberation movement in England. Though that movement, Mitchell argued, was international ‘in its identification and shared goals’, and was for the most part ‘professedly, if variously, revolutionary’. Her book cites, briefly, women’s movements in Europe (Holland, Sweden, and France) and in the United States. Everywhere, she argues, women are ‘the most fundamentally oppressed people and hence potentially the most revolutionary’, and she goes on to examine four areas of their lives that must be transformed: production, reproduction, sexuality, and the socialization of children.
Protests at the Miss America contest in Atlantic City in November 1968 and in 1969, when feminists mockingly crowned a sheep, gave the emerging movement high visibility. Protesters argued that the beauty contest was a symbol of the way women in general are objectified, diminished, and judged primarily on appearance. ‘Every day in a woman’s life is a walking Miss World Contest’, one feminist remarked wearily.
In London, women had been meeting in small groups since 1969: some had been involved in protesting against the war in Vietnam, and helping American deserters; other women emerged from traditional left-wing groups, from student movements, or from the radically experimental Anti-University. Hackney women began producing a news-sheet called Shrew, and later issues were put out by other London groups. By the end of 1971, Shrew listed 56 groups – plus one men’s group. A conference had been called in February 1970 in Oxford; so many women and children (and a few men) turned up that the venue was shifted from Ruskin College to the Oxford Union. Above all, the meetings offered women the opportunity to talk: about loneliness, about equal rights at work, about childcare, about housework, about men, about revolution. The emerging movement, rather optimistically perhaps, defined its demands: equal pay, equal education and opportunity, 24-hour nurseries, and free contraception and abortion on demand. A big march through London was organized, with banners announcing ‘we’re not beautiful, we’re not ugly, we’re angry’.
It remained a mainly middle-class movement, though there were many attempts to communicate with working-class women: feminists offered their support to a night cleaners’ campaign for better pay and conditions, and to a strike by women machinists at the Ford Dagenham plant.
Perhaps the most distinctive element in the new movement was its organization: women met in small groups, some locally based, others – later – formed to discuss particular issues, or work for
14. Women’s Liberation groups marching through London, 1971.
divided them. The overall aim was to begin to understand private fears and discontents in a wider context, to discover, through ‘sharing, recognizing, naming’ their political implications. As Juliet Mitchell remarked, ‘women come into the movement from the unspecific frustration of their own private lives, find what they thought was an individual dilemma is a social predicament’.
Consciousness-raising, Mitchell has suggested, was a matter of ‘speaking the unspoken: the opposite, in fact, of ‘‘nattering together’’’. Women who cannot deal with the peculiar forms oppression takes in their private lives are ‘highly suspect when they begin to talk about forms of oppression that afflict other women… If we cannot face our own problems we have no right to claim that we have answers to other people’s problems.’ Men were excluded, not, for the most part, out of hostility, but out of a recognition that women have the habit of deferring to men, ‘intellectually and/or flirtatiously’, at least in public.
Consciousness-raising was never intended – as its detractors sometimes claimed – merely as ‘group therapy’. At meetings, women would speak in turn about their problems and frustrations; not simply as an outlet for individual grievances, but, hopefully, as a step towards understanding that these may not simply be a result of their personal situations. It was to be a way of discovering what they had in common as women, whatever their differences of class or race or personal experience. (They were mostly, if not wholly, younger women, so differences of age were rarely addressed.)
As one American feminist remarked, ‘consciousness-raising is a way of forming a political analysis on information we can trust is true. That information is our experience.’ Another American, Shulamith Firestone, argued that ‘agitation for specific freedoms is worthless without the preliminary raising of consciousness necessary to utilize these freedoms in full’. Other women were less certain about it all. Some complained that consciousness-raising was particularly suited to the educated women of the middle and upper classes, and
15. As this banner suggests, the early movement, in America as in Britain, quickly learned to make its arguments dramatically and wittily.
that these women were able to gain ascendancy over groups through their articulacy, their proficiency in this central activity. In fact, at the time, most women had little experience of group dynamics. Because the play of feelings within a group can be so unpredictable, even explosive, one or other member of a group might easily feel she was being unfairly criticized, made a scapegoat, or even excluded. Some meetings proved unexpectedly, and unhelpfully, painful. Sisterhood may be powerful; it was sometimes forgotten that the relationship between sisters may prove a troubled one. There were, inevitably, splits and disagreements. In England, one early conference was split – improbable as may sound – by a bitter quarrel between lesbian feminists and Maoist feminists. At another weekend conference, held in a building that was shared by a large group of coal miners, some women, who obviously had little clue about working-class men or about how to deflect their teasing aggression, began shouting that ‘sisters are being brutalized by the miners’.
But (real) male violence was a problem that urgently needed to be raised. Some feminists, particularly in America., disappointed by the failure to ensure passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and by threats to welfare and abortion rights, seized on this issue as a symbol of woman’s second-class status and her vulnerability. In 1975, the American Susan Brownmiller published a long, scholarly, and ground-breaking study of rape, Against Our Will, which deconstructed the centuries-old male ‘myth of the heroic rapist’, and coined a slogan that was rapidly picked up by other feminists: ‘pornography is the theory and rape the practice’. (One of those feminists was Susan Griffin, who made an effective attack on the easy and commonplace way people justify pornography, by claiming that is it ‘liberating’ for women as well as for men. In Pornography and Silence (1981), she argued that, far from freeing erotic energy, as its defenders claimed, pornography expresses ‘fear of bodily knowledge and a desire to silence eros’.) Brownmiller went on to argue that rape is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation used against all women by all men. She is not
sentimental about women; her later book, Femininity, deconstructs, disconcertingly and wittily, the games girls learn almost from the cradle: the tricks and techniques for charming men and competing with other women. Femininity, as we know it, is romantic nonsense, something that has to be carefully contrived and preserved. It is the product of ‘a nostalgic tradition of imposed limitation’. But Against Our Will mocks, bitterly and effectively, the way crimes of violence against women are so often dismissed with crude commonplaces: ‘No woman can be raped against her will’; ‘she was asking for it’; ‘if you’re going to be raped, you might as well relax and enjoy it’. She quotes, to telling effect, a (female) character in Rabbit Redux, a novel by the highly respected John Updike, who remarks dismissively, ‘You know what a rape usually is? It’s a woman who changed her mind afterward.’
Unfortunately, this legitimate, urgently necessary insistence that rape is, indeed, a serious and violent crime, was distorted by some later feminists. For another American, Catherine McKinnon, woman is always, indeed almost by definition, a victim. ‘To be about to be raped is to be gender female in the process of going about life as usual’, she insists.
You grow up with your father holding you down and covering your mouth so another man can make a horrible searing pain between your legs. When you are older, your husband ties you to a bed and drips hot wax on your nipples and brings in other men to watch and makes you suck his penis. . . In this thousand years of silence, the camera is invented and pictures are made of you while these things are being done. . .
Her friend Andrea Dworkin argued that ‘pornography is the law for women’, and flatly, without any qualification, equated rape and sexual intercourse. As, indeed, did McKinnon, who from the opening paragraph of Only Words (1995) offers a terrible paradigm of what she sees as female experience: a primal paternal rape that freezes us in a state of permanent terror. She constantly evokes the
image of a once-violated child who can never grow up, who, she insists, lives on in most women, even those who claim to enjoy consensual sex: ‘the aggressor gets an erection; the victim screams and struggles and bleeds and blisters and becomes five years old’. This is melodrama masquerading as feminism.