Exploring Second Wave Feminism in the United States


I struggle to identify with the mainstream feminist movement. The flaws in the mainstream feminist movement particularly the maintenance of White supremacy, capitalism, colonialism, imperialism and lack of diversity in leadership, transphobia, racism have put me off from the banner of mainstream feminism.

I acknowledge that there will be flaws and gaps in this essay as I am one person writing, editing, and researching the information for these works. As I am an anthropologist (in training), it’s important that I recognize my positionality in writing this piece. I write this essay from my position as a Black womxn from a low-income background with disabilities. My critique and disappointment with the feminist movement is grounded in my identity and the racism, sexism, classism, and ableism I have faced in my life. This series of essays will be grounded in contextualized historical and academic texts to support my argument that mainstream feminism is not good enough to exact meaningful, collective change.

This is part two of my four part series on Feminism in the United States, if you haven’t already read part one, check out A Brief History of First Wave Feminism for some background! If you’ve enjoyed this series and appreciate the intellectual labor (8 hours of research and writing and 2 hours of finishing touches) that went into its production, please consider supporting Noire & Co. on Patreon!  This section will cover the social movements that influenced the second wave of the feminist movement in the 60s and 70s in the United States, consciousness raising groups, and disintegration of the intersectionality in the second wave feminist movement.

Influences, Movements, & Women of Color

The 1960s marked an incredible time for social change in the United States. Hegemonic feminism focuses primarily on the anti-war movement, free love/hippie movement, and the publication of the Feminine Mystique (we’ll get to that later) as starting the women’s rights movement. However, this understanding of the feminist movement is ahistorical at worst and racist at best. It is difficult to discuss the second wave feminist movement because if you split the dialogue into women of color and white women, it makes invisible the multiracial coalitions between women of color and anti-racist White women. I’m going to try my best to give some focus to both facets of the movement, but I recognize that there are gaps in my knowledge.

During the 1960s and early 1970s, women of color were already doing work to undo racism and oppression. It’s necessary to note that women of color have always been going this work in the United States. We can find numerous groups of women of color (Hijas de Cuauhtemoc, Asian Sisters, and Women of All Red Nations) and anti-racist White allies and accomplices to challenge white supremacy and gender inequality working throughout the years coinciding with the second wave feminist movement.

The civil rights movement served as a large foundation of the intersectional nature of the women’s rights movement and assisted in facilitating multiracial anti-racist groups. Collective movements of marginalized people in the United States were represented in the public sphere (through television). The tactics especially used by Black civil rights activists created a playbook for anti-racist White allies and other marginalized people to fight against structural and systemic inequality. Through the media, people were seeing Black people struggle in public and call attention to the injustices White supremacist people committed against them.

[Image description: Black and white photo of a White man wearing a long black coat and a Black man wearing a long white coat carrying a sign reading “Black and White Together” in black text on a white background] Source: goodnet.org 

I am going to focus on the experiences and movements of Black women because I am more familiar with that area, however please note that Asian American, Latinx American, and Native American women in the United States have a distinct, important history of mobilization in the feminist movement.

A lack of focus on the misogyny perpetuated by Black men, pushing of women’s rights to the periphery of the movement, and ignoring the important roles of Black women in the Civil Rights Movement necessitated the development of a a movement that addressed the intersectional oppressions of being Black and a woman in the United States. Treva B. Lindsey, a professor at the Ohio State University writes in “Post Ferguson: A “Herstorical” Approach to Black Violability”:

Although nascent, the emergent national (and arguably global movement) against anti-Black racial violence connects to a long tradition of African American activism. A troubling part of this tradition, however, is the regular erasure of Black women, queer people, and trans* people from the historical record both as victims and as activists. 1Lindsey, Treva B. “Post-Ferguson: A “Herstorical” Approach to Black Violability”

Black women coalesced in groups to discuss the intersections of their identity as Black, woman, queer, poor, disabled, etc. These groups were amazing sources of knowledge production in the forms of art, essays, discussions, manifestos, etc. In these spaces, Black women defined themselves, their interests, and created political positions for self-advocacy. I was going to try to condense this quote, but it’s too good/important/incredible/revolutionary to not insert it in full.  The Combahee River Collective Statement, a group of Black, lesbian women in Boston in the 1970s shows the important definitions of the self that were developed in these spaces:

Above all else, our politics initially sprang from the shared belief that black women are inherently valuable, that our liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else’s but because of our need as human persons for autonomy. This may seem so obvious as to sound simplistic, but it is apparent that no other ostensibly progressive movement has ever considered our specific oppression a priority or worked seriously for the ending of that oppression. The mere names of the pejorative stereotypes attributed to black women (e.g., mammy, matriarch, Sapphire, whore, bulldagger), let alone cataloguing the cruel, often murderous, treatment we receive, indicates how little value has been placed upon our lives during four centuries of bondage in the Western hemisphere. We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation is us. Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters, and our community, which allows us to continue our struggle and work.

Contemporaneously, White women were mobilizing in the face of gendered inequality. After World War II, White women were pushed back into the domestic sphere after years of wartime involvement in labor production. In the 1960 and 1970s, middle class White women were no longer comfortable with their marginalized positions in White society and aimed to reassert themselves. In “Ripples in the Second Wave: Comparing the Contemporary Women’s Movement in Canada and the United States”, Naomi Black a professor emerita of Political Science and Women’s Studies writes in her essay “Ripples in the Second Wave: Comparing the Contemporary Women’s Movement in Canada and the United States” that White, middle class women began to participate actively organize in their communities. Their community activism was grounded primarily in their identity as  mothers through involvement civic duties related to their children. This was seen as an “extension of domestic duties” and “emphasized mother’s issues, the importance of the house wife, and taking care of children’s futures” 2Black, Naomi. “Ripples in the Second Wave: Comparing the Contemporary Women’s Movement in Canada and the United States.” Challenging Times: The Women’s Movement in Canada and the United States, edited by Constance Blackhouse, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1992, pp. 94-109..

The Feminine Mystique

[Image description: Black and white photo of Betty Friedan in the foreground and women protesting in the background – two protestors are carrying a sign reading “Women Unite!] Source: The New York Times

White women’s movement into the political sphere through local civic engagement was amplified by Betty Friedan’s 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique. Betty Friedan’s book took the frustration of middle class housewives and grounded it in the sociopolitical sphere. The Feminine Mystique argued that “women are people too”. This was especially revolutionary (for the 1950s) as it challenged the notion of women as mother and wives, rather than human beings capable of having the same wants/desires/goals/needs as men.

Women were wives and mothers. A few, they knew, were also heroines, brave souls like the female spies who risked their lives for the Allies in World War II. But the idea that an ordinary woman could be a person in her own right, in addition to being a wife and mother, seemed completely new to many women. Friedan told these women that their inability to imagine a fuller, more complete life was the product of a repressive postwar campaign to wipe out the memory of past feminist activism and to drive women back into the home. 3Coontz, Stephanie. A Strange Stirring : The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, Basic Books, 2011.

The book highlighted the marginalization of White middle class women as housewives and the devaluation of their domestic labor, the dismissal of women’s health concerns with labels of “hysteria”, and limiting women’s presence in economic, educational, and social spheres.  For White middle class women, things going back to the patriarchal norm after World War II was stifling beyond belief. The Feminine Mystique was like an affirmation that these women’s disenchantment with their lives was not strange/crazy/invalid, but showed that other women in similar positions felt the same way. Through their new experience with organizing, political engagement, and finally having the language to describe their oppression, they were ready to mobilize for their equality.

Buuutttt… The Feminist Mystique isn’t all that, like at all. The problems that Friedan describes only apply to a certain class and race of women. Poor white women and women of color did not have the ability to remain in the home. The call to action was for women to find a source of meaning and self-definition outside of the home, children, and being a mother. The thesis of the novel relies on a presupposed shared experience that is grounded in being a White, middle class, educated woman. It relies on the notion that most women were stay at home parents, despite a third of women being in the workforce at the time. In the hegemonic feminist master narrative, The Feminine Mystique is seen as a book that touched the lives of all women and was a revolutionary text. However, it operates from a position that wipes away the diversity of experiences and fails to understand its own privilege.

The Feminine Mystique ignored that for working class women, they encountered gendered oppression beyond their ability to get a job and knew that working did not eliminate the problems they faced. In fact, Friedan did not even argue that women ought to move out of the domestic sphere and defining themselves solely in relation to their family units. She wrote that women “take a few classes or engage in volunteer activities that would be compatible with their family duties, then later pursue or resume a career” 4Coontz, Stephanie. A Strange Stirring : The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, Basic Books, 2011..

To gain the flexibility to work outside of the home, Friedan suggested women hire workers (maids, nannies, housekeepers) to handle domestic duties, which ignores that this work was done by women of color who were underpaid and discriminated against. Not all women would ever experience dissatisfaction with “The American Dream” that Friedan sought to challenge. For Black women, no matter how well they attempted to assimilate into White society and wear the markers of class in White society, they still were unable to access the benefits of Whiteness. In Black Women and Feminism, bell hooks writes “those black women suffered most whose behavior best exemplified that of a “lady”. A black woman dressed tidy and clean, carrying herself in a dignified manner, was usually the object of mud-slinging by white men who ridiculed and mocked her self-improvement efforts”.

This highlights a thread in the feminist movement that has continued into the present. In “African-American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race”, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham describes it as “the womanness underneath the black woman’s skin is a white woman’s and deep down inside the Latina woman is an Anglo woman waiting to burst through”. Despite our differing identities and experiences that have shaped our womanhood, underneath it all we have a “neutral womanhood” beneath class/race/ability/etc. that is White.

The narrative and experience that Betty Friedan describes lack applicability to all women in the United States and lacked an intersectional approach to women’s issues in the United States.

Consciousness Raising Groups

[Image description: Black and white photo of Angela Davis and other women sitting] Source: Catching the Wave, Harvard University

The Feminine Mystique showed primarily White, middle class women that their experiences and dissatisfaction with their position with society and the home was not unique to them. Outside of The Feminine Mystique, many working class women and younger women entered the women’s rights movement by way of consciousness raising groups. These spaces allowed discuss their lives/issues/experiences amongst other women. These inter-racial/sexuality/ability/socioeconomic status groups taught their participations how intersections of identity could impact other women’s oppression. These spaces informed an important phrase in the women’s rights movement that the personal is political. In terms of the women’s movement, it de-individualized women’s experiences to show that what they were experiencing (discrimination, lack of access to resources, issues with reproductive health, racism, homophobia, etc.) was connected to the larger political world and its machinations.

Solidarity and sisterhood were key elements to dismantling intersectional oppressions and bonding over shared identity as women. Women of all walks of life were given a space to bond with one another and organize collectively. In “Multiracial Feminism: Recasting the Chronology of Second Wave Feminism”, Becky Thompson writes:

Cross-racial struggle made clear the work that white women needed to do in order for cross-racial sisterhood to really be powerful. Among the directives were the following: Don’t expect women of color to be your educators, to do all the bridge work. White women need to be the bridge— a lot of the time. Do not lump African American, Latina, Asian American, and Native American women into one category. History, culture, imperialism, language, class, region, and sexuality make the concept of a monolithic “women of color” indefensible. Listen to women of color’s anger. It is informed by centuries of struggle, erasure, and experience. White women, look to your own history for signs of heresy and rebellion. Do not take on the histories of Black, Latina, or American Indian women as your own. They are not and never were yours. 5Thompson, Becky. “Multiracial Feminism: Recasting the Chronology Second Wave Feminism.” No Permanent Waves: Recasting Histories of U.S. Feminism, edited by Nancy A. Hewitt, Rutgers University Press, 2010, pp. 39-60.

Consciousness raising groups, similarly to the women of color led groups allowed for women to organize and gain awareness of the oppression that impacted all women’s liberation.

Problematizing the Second Wave

Since good things don’t last, as the movement progressed these consciousness raising groups began to lose their important intersectionality. The primary people in these anti-racist groups were younger women more interested in dismantling systems of oppression. However, older, upper class women were not interested in engaging with their Whiteness to create change that affected all women. If you read part one, you have seen that historically women of privilege will seldom do liberation work that will impact their ability to gain the benefits of their whiteness or wealth.

That’s basically what happened in the second wave feminist movement. In Feminism is for Everyone, bell hooks describes that in the 60s and 70s class became a large focal point of the movement.

It was not gender discrimination or sexist oppression that kept privileged women of all races from working outside the home, it was the fact that the jobs that would have been available to them would have been the same low-paying unskilled labor open to all working women. Elite groups of highly educated females stayed at home rather than do the type of work large numbers of lower-middle-class and working-class women were doing.

Middle class White women wanted equality as they entered the work force.  I don’t want to discount the importance of “equal wages” (it’s important to define who we are trying to be equal too, but the wage gap discussion shows a primary focus on capitalism and was used as a tool to stop talking about race and class hierarchies. These women sought to maintain the hierarchies of land owning Whiteness at the top, working class/less educated White women women lower, and women of color at the lowest. Sharing the benefits of whiteness and richness as White men were too alluring to create meaningful longterm change. As the White supremacist structure puts Whiteness and wealth above all else, the patriarchal, racist society we live in is only comfortable addressing the humanity of some people that they deem valuable and worthy.

Tracing the origins of whiteness to domination and exploitation…“whiteness” is inseparable from the subjection, denigration, objectification, and repudiation of those who are perceived as non-white. “The very genealogy of whiteness was entwined from the beginning with a racial hierarchy.” 6http://www.iep.utm.edu/fem-race/

Gaining access to economic power “deserving” of their race and class, was seen as the feminist movement making gains and changes for all women (see above: womanness seen as white). However, not much changed for women of color and working class women whose continued oppression and subordination was necessary to maintain class hierarchy.


At the end of the day/second wave feminist movement/beginnings of third wave feminism, liberal feminism does not get the job done. Feminism that ignores intersections doesn’t cause meaningful change for all women. Feminism that upholds capitalism is complicit with the oppression of women. Feminism that thinks that if only women’s pay was increased to equal men’s wages, doesn’t cause change. I would argue that any feminism that upholds the preceding isn’t feminist at all. It’s something else altogether that should not be framed anywhere near the liberation that feminism seeks.

From part one and part two, we can see that allegiance to white supremacy and class is what kills the feminist movement, makes it inaccessible, and is the reason collective change has not happened to liberate all women.

In the penultimate part in this series, we’ll be talking about my fave in depth: Black feminism!

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Anonymous. “The Combahee River Collective Statement.” Ms, vol. 2, no. 1, 1991, p. 40.

Black, Naomi. “Ripples in the Second Wave: Comparing the Contemporary Women’s Movement in Canada and the United States.” Challenging Times: The Women’s Movement in Canada and the United States, edited by Constance Blackhouse, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1992, pp. 94-109.

Coontz, Stephanie. A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, Basic Books, 2011.

Elkholy, Sharin. “Feminism and Race in the United States.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu/fem-race/.

Lindsey, Treva B. “Post-Ferguson: A “Herstorical” Approach to Black Violability.” Feminist Studies, vol. 41, no. 1, 2015, pp. 232–237.

hooks, bell. Ain’t I a Woman : Black Women and Feminism. Boston, MA, South End Press, 1981.

hooks, bell. Feminism for Everyone: Passionate Politics. New York, NY, Routledge Press, 2000.

Thompson, Becky. “Multiracial Feminism: Recasting the Chronology Second Wave Feminism.” No Permanent Waves: Recasting Histories of U.S. Feminism, edited by Nancy A. Hewitt, Rutgers University Press, 2010, pp. 39-60.

Warhol, Robyn. “Second-wave feminism and After.” The Cambridge History of Postmodern Literature, edited by Brian McHale and Len Platt, Cambridge University Press, 2016, pp. 214-229.