The Examination of Feminism in American Society

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In the book, Feminism Unfinished, Cobble, Gordon, and Henry effectively assert that “There was no period in the last century when women were not campaigning for greater equality and freedom. Feminism has been not a series of disconnected upsurges but a continuous flow”. The book argues that the suggestion that feminism occurs in disjointed “waves” obfuscates the continuous history of the American women’s movement. The feminist movement is sustained by labor activists, civil rights advocates, and social-reform campaigners. In the media, feminist activists’ efforts were portrayed to be futile and without the support of the majority of women throughout the country. In actuality, feminists have been making incremental, revolutionary changes, piece by piece throughout history. Accordingly, the recognition of diversity is what has propelled feminism to be a unified movement that has spanned decades. This has allowed there to be a greater impact in improving the rights of women of color and of different economic classes. Cobble, Gordon, and Henry demonstrate that feminism is a continuous movement that has been solidified throughout history as intermittently unified. However, there have been a range of multiple, diverse feminisms from 1920 to present day 2019.

Cobble examines feminism from 1920 to the rise of “women’s liberation” in the 1960s. She contends that feminists in the labor and civil rights movement were surprisingly aware of the ways that women were being discriminated against and disadvantaged, based on their gender. She refers to these women as “social justice feminists” because they fought to improve women’s rights as workers and as citizens. These women advocated on behalf of other minority women who were fighting for themselves in other smaller movements. Cobble explains while these women may not have identified as feminists, they should be credited with enacting the movement, even if they did not claim it as their own.

Cobble illustrates this through her discussion of the competing women’s rights legislative maneuvers in the 1940s. For example, with the Equal Rights Amendment, after the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920, Alice Paul, founder of the National Woman’s Party, proposed this second amendment where she could “secure full legal equality of rights for women”. Many suffragists didn’t support this shift due to the potential of the continued disenfranchisement of women. Paul came from a privileged Quaker family, thus, raising the living standards of workers and ending race-based indignities were not of her utmost concern. Cobble explains, that this is an example where the feminist movements were not unified, but rather running alongside each other.

The Presidential Council on the Status of Women (1962), led by Assistant Secretary of Labor Esther Peterson, analyzed the strain that women were facing post WWII. The Women’s Status Bill, sought to be enacted by social justice feminists in the 1940s and 1950s, focused on implementing workplace reforms and ending sex-based wage discrimination. This bill illustrates how the unification of this movement happens intermittently, especially with the fight for “equal pay for comparable work” for all women. Cobble highlights that the activism in support of racial or economic justice gave women at the time awareness and a skill set to challenge the gender status quo. By this time, there was no longer a narrow-minded view of feminism with working class and minority women, “[who had] by the 1960s … changed public opinion, workplace institutions, law, and public policy in profound and lasting ways”. Ironically, the greatest achievement for women during this period was the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Representative Howard Smith, a Virginia conservative, laughingly proposed adding “sex” to the regulations forbidding discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion or national origin.

During and following WWII a majority of women became a part of the workforce. However, these “Rosie the Riveter” figures were dismissed after the war and were expected to fall back into the role of the “stay at home housewife.” Suburban women soon felt frustrated and constrained because of their mundane lives. Betty Friedan, a left-wing union organizer, explored this plight in her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique which reignited feminists in the U.S. This lead to the Equal Pay Act in 1963, which ignited the creation of the reform network, NOW (The National Organization for Women). In 1966, when NOW was founded by Pauli Murray and Betty Friedan as an “NAACP for women,” many social-justice feminists resisted an alliance overtly based on women’s rights. NOW was present in the early days of the movement where elite feminism was prevalent. Many housewives didn’t take umbrage with the inequalities that all women faced because often working women faced the brunt of it.

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Gordon describes the evolution of women’s liberation from the late 1960s through the mid 1980s. Gordon asserts that feminism didn’t die out in this period, but rather consisted more of small grass roots movements. She prioritizes the activism of working class and ethnic minority women. Gordon shows how civil rights, economic justice, environmentalism, and workers’ rights were some of many issues on feminist minds. Feminists began to protest the Vietnam War and work in collaboration with SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). Women of color were shoved to the background as well even within the civil rights movement. Women who worked within the SNCC organization typed, fetched coffee, and were seen as sex objects. “Freedom Trash Cans” were trash cans that feminists would throw items into that were representative of sexist ideals such as Playboy and Lady Home Journal Magazines, bras, and high heels. Gloria Steinem, an investigative journalist and activist, represented the younger generation of feminists in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She went undercover as a Playboy bunny to expose the inhumane and illegal acts that occurred across the country in the Playboy bars and clubs. She was the cofounder of “Ms. Magazine” which embodied the idea that women shouldn’t be defined by their marital status, redefining the power dynamics established through language.

At this time there were not necessarily competing feminisms. Issues such of reproduction, violence, and access to work and opportunity crossed racial and class boundaries. Gordon challenges the common idea that second wave feminism was exclusive to the white-middle class women. She writes, “There was never exclusion; feminist groups badly wanted nonwhite and poorer members. But their experiences and priorities were at times so different and their conversations so insular, that their groups felt exclusionary to women of color.” Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman came together to support a common cause and bridge the divide between white women and women of color in the feminist movement. Together they fought for a national childcare program for women who are part of the working class, which was eventually vetoed by President Nixon. Gordon goes on to further to explain the importance of consciousness-raising in the 1970s. Many women were unaware of their limited opportunities or secondary roles as political problems. Small, leaderless groups, in which women came together to talk about their lives, led them to realize that “the personal was political,”; their intimate and private experiences in the family, school, workplace, sexuality, marriage, and divorce were shared by millions of other women. These epiphanies were then channeled into political organization, coalitions and effective action. In 1973, two major Supreme Court decisions, one that banned sex-segregated employment ads, and the famous Roe v. Wade, making abortion legal, had an immediate and lasting impact on women’s lives. Title IX (1972) was passed, ensuring equal treatment for women, in institutions that were receiving federal financial assistance, specially in sports.

The Equal Credit opportunity act demonstrates the intersectionality of the feminist movement of women of all economic classes. For example, tennis star Billie Jean King couldn’t obtain a credit card, even at the height of her success. However, her husband, who was an unemployed law student at the time, whom she was supporting, could obtain one himself. During the 1970s, African American women added fuel to the feminist movement. Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman in Congress, often had to fight discrimination from other black politicians within the National Black Caucus because she was a woman. In this situation, the feminist movement allowed women of color to fight, in the political field, against futile welfare programs, especially those located in the South. The issue of public housing for working class women was continually addressed by feminists, specifically women who were on welfare and unmarried. Discrimination was still very much prevalent; it led to “midnight raids” where officials would barge into women’s homes, who were beneficiaries of government aid, checking for “strange men.”

The revival of American conservatism illustrates how women were not unified in their definitions of feminism. Phyllis Schlafly, a constitutional lawyer, claimed that feminists were erratic and didn’t understand their natural, biological place in the world as mothers. She argued that feminists were pushing for androgyny and not women’s rights because their ideology could lead to women being drafted into war.

Diversity, according to Henry, is what defines the third wave of feminism that occurs from the 1990s to the 2000s. Henry argues the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings of 1991, marked the start of the new wave of feminism. Henry states it is, “a wake-up call for why feminism was still urgently needed”. Many young women were outraged by the skeptical of Hill testifying in front 14 white-male members of the Senate about her sexual harassment allegation against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Henry explains this renewed movement was more unified because of the “unprecedented digital reach”, but while this drew people to the movement, the relative cohesiveness of policy goals were lacking compared to the second wave. Twenty-first-century feminism is multiracial and multicultural; it links to LGBTQ groups and protests the global issues of sexual oppression and violence against women, often noted in the #MeToo movement. Some contemporary feminists are concerned with the major American failure to implement family-friendly policies such as state-subsidized child care and paid parental leaves. This is the big unfinished business of the women’s movement just as it was during the second wave of feminism. But there are have been advances, for example in 1990, the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team, who won the World Cup, was the first generation of women who were beneficiaries of policies like Title IX and equal rights.

As of now, Henry argues that feminism isn’t currently unified; “the most defining feature of this generation of feminists is its inability to be defined by any single political goal, ideological perspective, or way of being feminist”. Hashtag feminism “runs the risk of being merely an identity to claim without any political content”. Perhaps, Henry suggests, the diversity and flexibility of “a million little grass-roots movements” are stronger than “one singular vision for social change”. She points to demonstrations, foundations, and fundraising as examples of 21st-century feminist activism. Still, she acknowledges concerns that “feminism as a concept is now so watered-down as to be meaningless.”

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