women’s rights movement, also called women’s liberation movement, diverse social movement, largely based in the United States, that in the 1960s and ’70s sought equal rights and opportunities and greater personal freedom for women. It coincided with and is recognized as part of the “second wave” of feminism. While the first-wave feminism of the 19th and early 20th centuries focused on women’s legal rights, especially the right to vote (see women’s suffrage), the second-wave feminism of the women’s rights movement touched on every area of women’s experience—including politics, work, the family, and sexuality. Organized activism by and on behalf of women continued through the third and fourth waves of feminism from the mid-1990s and the early 2010s, respectively. For more discussion of historical and contemporary feminists and the women’s movements they inspired, see feminism.
Prologue to a social movement
In the aftermath of World War II, the lives of women in developed countries changed dramatically. Household technology eased the burdens of homemaking, life expectancies increased dramatically, and the growth of the service sector opened up thousands of jobs not dependent on physical strength. Despite these socioeconomic transformations, cultural attitudes (especially concerning women’s work) and legal precedents still reinforced sexual inequalities. An articulate account of the oppressive effects of prevailing notions of femininity appeared in Le Deuxième Sexe (1949; The Second Sex), by the French writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. It became a worldwide best seller and raised feminist consciousness by stressing that liberation for women was liberation for men too.
The first public indication that change was imminent came with women’s reaction to the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Friedan spoke of the problem that “lay buried, unspoken” in the mind of the suburban housewife: utter boredom and lack of fulfillment. Women who had been told that they had it all—nice houses, lovely children, responsible husbands—were deadened by domesticity, she said, and they were too socially conditioned to recognize their own desperation. The Feminine Mystique was an immediate best seller. Friedan had struck a chord.
Betty FriedanBetty Friedan.Smithsonian Institution
Reformers and revolutionaries
Initially, women energized by Friedan’s book joined with government leaders and union representatives who had been lobbying the federal government for equal pay and for protection against employment discrimination. By June 1966 they had concluded that polite requests were insufficient. They would need their own national pressure group—a women’s equivalent of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). With this, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was born.
The organization was not an instant success. By the end of its second year, NOW had just 1,035 members and was racked by ideological divisions. When the group tried to write a Bill of Rights for Women, it found consensus on six measures essential to ensuring women’s equality: enforcement of laws banning employment discrimination; maternity leave rights; child-care centres that could enable mothers to work; tax deductions for child-care expenses; equal and unsegregated education; and equal job-training opportunities for poor women.
Two other measures stirred enormous controversy: one demanded immediate passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution (to ensure equality of rights, regardless of sex), and the other demanded greater access to contraception and abortion. When NOW threw its support behind passage of the ERA, the United Auto Workers union—which had been providing NOW with office space—withdrew its support, because the ERA would effectively prohibit protective labour legislation for women. When some NOW members called for repeal of all abortion laws, other members left the fledgling organization, convinced that this latest action would undermine their struggles against economic and legal discrimination.
NOW’s membership was also siphoned off from the left. Impatient with a top-heavy traditional organization, activists in New York City, where half of NOW’s membership was located, walked out. Over the next two years, as NOW struggled to establish itself as a national organization, more radical women’s groups were formed by female antiwar, civil rights, and leftist activists who had grown disgusted by the New Left’s refusal to address women’s concerns. Ironically, sexist attitudes had pervaded 1960s radical politics, with some women being exploited or treated unequally within those movements. In 1964, for example, when a woman’s resolution was brought up at a Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC) conference, Stokely Carmichael flippantly cut off all debate: “The only position for women in SNCC is prone.”
While NOW focused on issues of women’s rights, the more radical groups pursued the broader themes of women’s liberation. Although they lacked the kind of coherent national structure NOW had formed, liberation groups sprang up in Chicago, Toronto, Seattle, Detroit, and elsewhere. Suddenly, the women’s liberation movement was everywhere—and nowhere. It had no officers, no mailing address, no printed agenda. What it did have was attitude. In September 1968 activists converged on Atlantic City, New Jersey, to protest the image of womanhood conveyed by the Miss America Pageant. In February 1969 one of the most radical liberation groups, the Redstockings, published its principles as “The Bitch Manifesto.” Based in New York City, the Redstockings penned the movement’s first analysis of the politics of housework, held the first public speak-out on abortion, and helped to develop the concept of “consciousness-raising” groups—rap sessions to unravel how sexism might have coloured their lives. The Redstockings also held speak-outs on rape to focus national attention on the problem of violence against women, including domestic violence.
Responding to these diverse interests, NOW called the Congress to Unite Women, which drew more than 500 feminists to New York City in November 1969. The meeting was meant to establish common ground between the radical and moderate wings of the women’s rights movement, but it was an impossible task. Well-dressed professionals convinced that women needed to reason with men could not unite with wild-haired radicals whose New Left experience had soured them on polite discourse with “the enemy.” NOW’s leadership seemed more comfortable lobbying politicians in Washington or corresponding with NASA about the exclusion of women from the astronaut program, while the young upstarts preferred disrupting legislative committee hearings. NOW leaders were looking for reform. The more radical women were plotting a revolution.
Successes and failures
Despite such dissension in its leadership and ranks, the women’s rights movement achieved much in a short period of time. With the eventual backing of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (1965), women gained access to jobs in every corner of the U.S. economy, and employers with long histories of discrimination were required to provide timetables for increasing the number of women in their workforces. Divorce laws were liberalized; employers were barred from firing pregnant women; and women’s studies programs were created in colleges and universities. Record numbers of women ran for—and started winning—political office. In 1972 Congress passed Title IX of the Higher Education Act, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational program receiving federal funds and thereby forced all-male schools to open their doors to women and athletic programs to sponsor and finance female sports teams. And in 1973, in its controversial ruling on Roe v. Wade, the United States Supreme Court legalized abortion.
The eventual dwindling of the women’s rights movement was hastened by NOW’s singular focus on passage of the ERA. Owing to the efforts of women such as Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem, the ERA passed Congress in 1972. But its ratification by the states became a rallying point for the backlash against feminism. Anti-feminists such as Phyllis Schlafly organized a crusade against the amendment, warning—correctly or not—that it would, among other things, invalidate state sodomy laws, outlaw single-sex restrooms in public places, legalize same-sex marriage, and make taxpayer-funded abortion a constitutional right. Needing ratification by 38 states within 10 years of its passage by Congress, the amendment fell three states short.
Gloria SteinemGloria Steinem, 1981.Scott Applewhite/AP Images
The failure of the ERA was followed in the 1980s by a gradual decline in organized, often bellicose activity by masses of women in the United States. Moreover, there was a growing national sense that the core goals of the women’s rights movement had been achieved. NOW continued to work for women’s rights—to defend abortion rights (a cause made more prominent by the National Abortion Rights Action League) and sexual harassment laws, to promote full equality in the military (including combat duty), and to secure greater federal funding for child care and for programs to prevent violence against women. But despite NOW’s growth, both in budget and in membership, its activism became fragmented and fraught with dissension.
NOW demonstration for abortion rightsMembers of the National Organization for Women (NOW) demonstrating for abortion rights at the U.S. Supreme Court building, Washington, D.C., 2000.Stephen Boitano/AP Images
On college campuses, feminists argued among themselves and against their colleagues over such questions as whether male professors involved in consensual relationships with female students were guilty of sexual harassment. They debated the validity of women’s studies as an academic major. The role of women in the armed forces became a point of contention as some hoisted the standard of equality while others protested that mothers in the military should not be sent off to war.
By the 1990s, a movement that was once defined by its radical pitch had taken on new tones—some of them conservative. The divide over abortion continued to alienate many women, such as the Feminists for Life, who believed fervently in women’s rights but disagreed with the mainstream movement’s position on abortion. That divide deepened when, in 1998, Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade, declared her opposition to abortion on demand; shortly before dying in 2017, she claimed that she had been paid by antiabortion groups to support their cause.
Eventually, a backlash cast doubt on many of the social and economic achievements fostered by the women’s rights movement. Faced with increasing numbers of single mothers and older divorced women living in poverty, many Americans began to wonder whether no-fault divorce and the end of most alimony had, in fact, served women’s best interests. With a growing number of young children spending their early years in institutional day care, debates erupted over whether women were abdicating their maternal responsibilities and whether federal policies that gave tax breaks to working mothers were encouraging a further deterioration of the family unit. Feminists were further targeted as the primary culprits behind the many by-products of the sexual revolution, from the increased rate of teen pregnancy to the spread of AIDS. Ironically, however, many of the purveyors of those opinions were women who had achieved prominent status—thanks to the gains of the women’s rights movement.