Feminist movements in the United States

Women's suffrage parade in New York City, May 6, 1912.

Feminism is a collection of movements and ideologies aimed at defining, establishing, and defending a state of equal political, economic, cultural, and social rights for women.[1][2] Feminism in the United States is often divided chronologically into first-wave, second-wave, and third-wave feminism.[3]

As of the most recent Gender Gap Index measurement of countries by the World Economic Forum in 2014, the United States is ranked 20th on gender equality.[4]


The first wave of feminism in the United States began with the Seneca Falls Convention, the first women's rights convention, held at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York, on July 19 and 20, 1848.[5]

This Convention was inspired by the fact that in 1840, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton met Lucretia Mott at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, the conference refused to seat Mott and other women delegates from America because of their gender.[6] Stanton, the young bride of an antislavery agent, and Mott, a Quaker preacher and veteran of reform, talked then of calling a convention to address the condition of women.[6]

An estimated three hundred women and men attended the Convention, including notables Lucretia Mott and Frederick Douglass.[6] At the conclusion, 68 women and 32 men signed the "Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions", which was written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the M'Clintock family.[6]

The style and format of the "Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions" was that of the "Declaration of Independence;" for example the "Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions" stated, "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men and women are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights."[7] The Declaration further stated, "The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man towards woman."[7]

The declaration went on to specify female grievances in regard to the laws denying married women ownership of wages, money, and property (all of which they were required to turn over to their husbands; laws requiring this, in effect throughout America, were called coverture laws), women's lack of access to education and professional careers, and the lowly status accorded women in most churches.[7] Furthermore, the Declaration declared that women should have the right to vote.[7]

Two weeks later a Woman's Rights Convention was held in Rochester, New York on August 2.[8] It was followed by state and local conventions in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York.[8] The first National Woman's Rights Convention was held in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1850.[8] Women's rights conventions were held regularly from 1850 until the start of the Civil War.[9]

The women's suffrage movement began with the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention; many of the activists became politically aware during the abolitionist movement. The movement reorganized after the Civil War, gaining experienced campaigners, many of who had worked for prohibition in the Women's Christian Temperance Union. By the end of the 19th century only a few western states had granted women full voting rights,[10] though women had made significant legal victories, gaining rights in areas such as property and child custody.[11]

In 1866, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed the American Equal Rights Association, an organization for white and black women and men dedicated to the goal of suffrage for all.[12] In 1868 the Fourteenth Amendment was passed, this was the first Amendment to ever specify the voting population as "male".[12] In 1869 the women's rights movement split into two factions as a result of disagreements over the Fourteenth and soon-to-be-passed Fifteenth Amendments, with the two factions not reuniting until 1890.[12] Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed the more radical, New York-based National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA).[12] Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell, and Julia Ward Howe organized the more conservative American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), which was centered in Boston.[12] In 1870 the Fifteenth Amendment enfranchised black men.[12] NWSA refused to work for its ratification, arguing, instead, that it be "scrapped" in favor of a Sixteenth Amendment providing universal suffrage.[12] Frederick Douglass broke with Stanton and Anthony over NWSA's position.[12]

In 1869 Wyoming became the first territory or state in America to grant women suffrage.[13] In 1870 Louisa Ann Swain became the first woman in the United States to vote in a general election. She cast her ballot on September 6, 1870, in Laramie, Wyoming.[14][15]

From 1870 to 1875 several women, including Virginia Louisa Minor, Victoria Woodhull, and Myra Bradwell, attempted to use the Fourteenth Amendment in the courts to secure the vote (Minor and Woodhull) or the right to practice law (Bradwell), but they were all unsuccessful.[12] In 1872 Susan B. Anthony was arrested and brought to trial in Rochester, New York, for attempting to vote for Ulysses S. Grant in the presidential election; she was convicted and fined $100 and the costs of her prosecution but refused to pay.[12][16] At the same time, Sojourner Truth appeared at a polling booth in Battle Creek, Michigan, demanding a ballot; she was turned away.[12] Also in 1872, Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to run for President, although she could not vote and only received a few votes, losing to Ulysses S. Grant.[17] She was nominated to run by the Equal Rights Party, and advocated the 8-hour work day, graduated income tax, social welfare programs, and profit sharing, among other positions.[18] In 1874 the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was founded by Annie Wittenmyer to work for the prohibition of alcohol; with Frances Willard at its head (starting in 1876), the WCTU also became an important force in the fight for women's suffrage.[12] In 1878 a woman suffrage amendment was first introduced in the United States Congress, but it did not pass.[12][19] In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, giving women the right to vote; the first wave of feminism is considered to have ended with that victory.[3]


Second-wave feminism in the United States began in the early 1960s.[20] In 1963 Betty Friedan, influenced by The Second Sex, wrote the bestselling book The Feminine Mystique in which she explicitly objected to the mainstream media image of women, stating that placing women at home limited their possibilities, and wasted talent and potential. The perfect nuclear family image depicted and strongly marketed at the time, she wrote, did not reflect happiness and was rather degrading for women.[21] This book is widely credited with having begun second-wave feminism.[22]

Also in 1963, freelance journalist Gloria Steinem gained widespread popularity among feminists after a diary she authored while working undercover as a Playboy Bunny waitress at the Playboy Club was published as a two-part feature in the May and June issues of Show.[23] The feature was "A Bunny's Tale" (Part I and Part II.) Steinem alleged the club was mistreating its waitresses in order to gain male customers and exploited the Playboy Bunnies as symbols of male chauvinism, noting that the club's manual instructed the Bunnies that "there are many pleasing ways they can employ to stimulate the club's liquor volume."[23] By 1968, Steinem had become arguably the most influential figure in the movement and support for legalized abortion and free daycares had become the two leading objectives for feminists.[24]

The movement grew with legal victories such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which banned sex discrimination in employment), and the Griswold v. Connecticut Supreme Court ruling of 1965 (which legalized birth control for married couples.) [25][26] [27] In 1966 Betty Friedan joined other women and men to found the National Organization for Women (NOW); Friedan would be named as the organization's first president.[28]

The movement picked up more victories in the 1970s. The Supreme Court case Reed v. Reed (1971), was the case in which the Supreme Court for the first time applied the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to strike down a law that discriminated against women.[26][29] Also, while the Equal Pay Act of 1963 did not originally cover executives, administrators, outside salespeople, and professionals, the Education Amendments of 1972 amended it so that it does.[30][31] Also in 1972, the Supreme Court case Eisenstadt v Baird legalized birth control for unmarried people.[32] Also that year Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 illegalized sex discrimination in public schools and public colleges.[33] In 1973 the Roe v Wade Supreme Court case legalized abortion.[34] In 1974 the Equal Credit Opportunity Act illegalized sex discrimination by creditors against credit applicants.[35][36] Also in 1974 sex was added as a protected class under the Fair Housing Act, thus illegalizing sex discrimination in housing.[37]

A major disappointment of the second-wave feminist movement in the United States was President Nixon's 1972 veto of the Comprehensive Child Development Bill of 1972, which would have provided a multi-billion dollar national day care system.[38][39][40]

However, the main disappointment of the second wave feminist movement in the United States was the failure to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, which states, "Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article. Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification." [41][42] The deadline for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment expired in 1982.[43]

Many historians view the second wave feminist era in America as ending in the early 1980s with the Feminist Sex Wars, a split within the movement over issues such as sexuality and pornography. These disputes ushered in the era of third-wave feminism in the early 1990s.[44][45][46][47][48]


During second-wave feminism, women's music (music by women, for women and about women) was started by Cris Williamson, Meg Christian, Margie Adam, and the group titled Sweet Honey in the Rock. This wave of musical expression was rooted as an outlet for situations related to labor, peace movements, and civil rights, and was a part of the second-wave feminist movement. The term women's music does not only apply to musicians, but also includes producers, sound engineers, technicians, distributors, and promoters.


Third-wave feminism in the United States began in the early 1990s.[49][50] In 1991, Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas, a man nominated to the United States Supreme Court, of sexual harassment. Thomas denied the accusations and, after extensive debate, the United States Senate voted 52–48 in favor of Thomas.[51][52][53] In 1992, in response to the Anita Hill sexual harassment case, American feminist Rebecca Walker published an article in Ms. Magazine entitled "Becoming the Third Wave" in which she stated, "I am not a post-feminism feminist. I am the third-wave," which coined the term "third wave".[50][54] Also in 1992 Third Wave Direct Action Corporation was founded by the American feminists Rebecca Walker and Shannon Liss as a multiracial, multicultural, multi-issue organization to support young activists. The organization’s initial mission was to fill a void in young women’s leadership and to mobilize young people to become more involved socially and politically in their communities.[55]

Also in the early 1990s, the riot grrrl movement began in Olympia, Washington and Washington, D.C.; it sought to give women the power to control their voices and artistic expressions.[56] However, Riot grrrl's emphasis on universal female identity and separatism often appears more closely allied with second-wave feminism than with the third wave.[57] Third-wave feminists sought to question, reclaim, and redefine the ideas, words, and media that have transmitted ideas about gender, gender roles, womanhood, beauty, and sexuality, among other things.[58] Third-wave feminism saw many new feminist icons such as Madonna, Queen Latifah, Angelina Jolie, Emma Watson, Beyonce, and Lady Gaga, as well as fictional characters such as Buffy and Mulan.[58] Third-wave feminists have recently utilized the Internet and other modern technology to enhance their movement, which has allowed for information and organization to reach a larger audience. This larger audience has also expanded to many male celebrities such as Aziz Ansari and Leonardo DiCaprio.

The increasing ease of publishing on the Internet meant that e-zines (electronic magazines) and blogs became ubiquitous. Many serious independent writers, not to mention organizations, found that the Internet offered a forum for the exchange of information and the publication of essays and videos that made their point to a potentially huge audience. The Internet radically democratized the content of the feminist movement with respect to participants, aesthetics, and issues.
—Laura Brunell, 2008 Britannica Book of the Year[59]

Through the 1980s and 1990s, this trend continued as musicologists like Susan McClary, Marcia Citron and Ruth Solie began to consider the cultural reasons for the marginalizing of women from the received body of work. Concepts such as music as gendered discourse; professionalism; reception of women's music; examination of the sites of music production; relative wealth and education of women; popular music studies in relation to women's identity; patriarchal ideas in music analysis; and notions of gender and difference are among the themes examined during this time.[160]


Critics of mainstream feminist discourse point to the white-washed historical narrative that omits and/or minimizes the roles played by colored women within and without the feminist movement, as well as the differing obstacles faced by colored women. Audre Lorde, Caribbean-American feminist and essayist, stated: "What woman here is so enamored of her own oppression that she cannot see her heel print upon another woman's face? What woman’s terms of oppression have become precious and necessary to her as a ticket into the fold of the righteous, away from the cold winds of self-scrutiny? . . . We welcome all women who can meet us, face to face, beyond objectification and beyond guilt."[60]

These historical omissions are particularly evident in accounts on First-Wave feminism which often ignores the roles played by fundamental activists such as Ida Bell Wells-Barnett. Wells-Barnett was a key figure in the early feminist movement, her form of radical protest politics "recognized the limits of racial uplift and acknowledged the power of political action in the form of direct protest."[61] For most of her career, Wells-Barnett faced opposition from white feminist leaders such as Rebecca Latimer Felton and Frances Willard, the first woman to serve in the United States Senate and a former president of the WCTU respectively, who saw the feminist movement as an Anglo Saxon pursuit and built their rhetoric on the ideology of white supremacy: "The Anglo-Saxon race," Willard wrote, "will never submit to be dominated by the Negro so long as his altitude reaches no higher than the personal liberty of the saloon."[62] Wells-Barnett's radical activist tactics were later adopted by women's organizations and feminist movements of the early period who recognized the utility of radicalism in achieving legislative change. However, Wells-Barnett's achievements and influences on the First-Wave of the feminist movement are absent in mainstream discussions.

These criticisms stretch into second- and third-wave feminism, which is dominated by narratives minimizing the role of colored women while celebrating achievements as a whole through the gaze of white female leaders. Consequently, by the 1970s and 1980s, African-American women, such as bell hooks, developed a social consciousness by publicly voicing dissatisfaction with black women's representation in feminist discourse.[63]

See also


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  3. ^ a b Engel, Kerilynn. "What Are the Three Waves of Feminism?". Answers. Retrieved June 30, 2014. 
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  8. ^ a b c "Women's Rights National Historical Park – Women's Rights Movement (U.S. National Park Service)". Nps.gov. August 17, 2010. Retrieved June 29, 2011. 
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  15. ^ Danilov, Victor J. (2005). Women and museums: a comprehensive guide. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press. p. 68. ISBN . 
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  32. ^ Dunlap, Bridgette (March 22, 2013). "Eisenstadt v. Baird: The 41st Anniversary of Legal Contraception for Single People". RH Reality Check. Retrieved July 12, 2014. 
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  57. ^ Rosenberg, Jessica; Garofalo, Gitana (1998). "Riot Grrrl: Revolutions from Within". Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society (University of Chicago Press) 23 (3: Feminisms and Youth Cultures): 809–841. ISSN 0097-9740. OCLC 486795617. doi:10.1086/495289. 
  58. ^ a b Laura Brunell (May 13, 2007). "Feminism (sociology)". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved August 24, 2013. 
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  60. ^ Mariana Ortega, "Being Lovingly, Knowingly Ignorant: White Feminism and Women of Color," Hypatia 1/23 (2006): 56
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  63. ^ Patricia Hill Collins, "What's In A Name? Womanism, Black Feminism, and Beyond," The Black Scholar 21/6 (Winter/Spring 1996): 9

Further reading

  • Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States, by Eleanor Flexner (1996)
  • Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967–1975, by Alice Echols (1990)
  • The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America, by Ruth Rosen (2006)
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