American Second Wave Feminism: Purposes, Complications and Results – Andrew Oleksiuk

Introduction

American Second Wave Feminism is defined generally as the period of feminist activity between 1960-1979. It had social, political and cultural ramifications. During a difficult time in American history, American Second Wave Feminism was discussed, broadcast, politicized, criticized, defined and driven underground. It was also known as the women’s movement, women’s liberation and other names. It was also confused with a lot of other cultural goings on at the time, at times losing focus and being often grossly misunderstood and misused by the media and society.

feminist activism reduced to slogans

Feminist activism reduced to slogans . . .

Background

The 1960s and 1970s were interesting and perhaps confusing decades for popular culture and social change in America. The civil rights movement was punctuated by events such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and King’s subsequent assassination in 1968. The Viet Nam War was the first war watched by millions on television, and spawned the anti-war or “peace” movement. Recreational drug use became popularized not only through social activity (Hippies), but also in literature (the Beats), visual art (Andy Warhol), and music (Jimi Hendrix). The sexual revolution was in full swing, and by July 1969, Time magazine devoted a cover story to “The Sex Explosion.” Another social and political undercurrent sharing the stage with these movements was American Second Wave Feminism, as it is called in contemporary academic parlance. At the time the movement was popularly discussed as “Women’s Lib”, short for Women’s Liberation, or simply feminism. To the casual viewer of mass media, some of these social (and political) and movements overlapped and were quite rightly confused with one another. One handy example is the popular polarizing slogan “Make Love, Not War.” Together the movements became known as the counterculture. The counterculture, in the aggregate, was against militancy, patriarchy, exclusive white male power, the status quo, racial bigotry, and sexism.

The Role of Media

Electronic Media, namely television, radio, phonograph records, as well as advances in color printing and film production catalyzed images of the counterculture in ways never before possible. Probably as importantly, the post-WWII economic boom had given the many Americans the time and media consumption tools to receive all of this cultural activity in their homes. Television had only been around for a decade or so, but by the early 1960s clearly challenged radio as a mass medium. Book publishers, newspapers and magazines increased use of color ink to help sell their products, while cutting back on writing and research staff. Films such as Deep Throat (1972) challenged certain social mores. As these media competed for news, culture, and entertainment dollars, images of feminism collided with those of civil rights, peace, war, sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll.

. . . filed under Fads at the Harold Washington Library image collection

Simone De Beauvoir wrote the influential book, The Second Sex.

Betty Friedan wrote the influential <i>The Feminist Mystique</i>

Betty Friedan wrote the influential book, The Feminist Mystique.

Gloria Steinem became a media icon for the feminist movement

Writer Gloria Steinem became a popular media icon for the feminist movement.

advertisement that equates female desire with dog desire. Apparently a guy in a white tux has no desires.

Sexism: advertisement that equates women with dogs. Apparently a guy in a white tux has no desires. Or perhaps the "male gaze", equated with male sexual power, needs no interpretation.

this image clearly separates the political and social aspects of American 2nd Wave Feminism

Sexism: this cartoon clearly separates the political and social aspects of American Second Wave Feminism (click to enlarge)

Sexism: advertisement with phallic symbol clearly dislocated to the female. The "wearing of pants" as a fashion statement by women also carried a feminist social connotation. This image subversively pokes fun at feminism. Not surprising for the time, but ironic in retrospect, this is an ad selling slacks to men.

Activism: This bizarre image illustrates an agitprop photo opportunity concerning challenging dress codes in the workplace. The sexual revolution and feminism were often confused (and confusing to casual media consumers).

filed under Women - Occupations.

Sexism: male sexual power is clearly demonstrated here. The man is looking at the camera (though a little distracted), asserting his privilege as a social norm. Note: this was filed under Women - Occupations.

White male sexual power was not extended to African-Americans (compare male's gaze to image above).

Male sexual power as a social norm was not extended to African-Americans, at least in the media. Compare the male's gaze in this image to the image above. Image from Ebony magazine.

images of street protests became commonplace in the media. The car is really cool.

Activism: images of street protests became commonplace in the media. The car is really cool.

street protests, marches, and demonstrations of all kinds became common during the period of American 2nd Wave Feminism.

Activism: street protests, marches, and demonstrations of all kinds became common during the period of American Second Wave Feminism.

marches, rallies,  (often with celebrities) demonstrations and agitprop events demanded media attention. This however became so commonplace it demanded ever more radical images to excite a newly media-saturated society.

Activism: marches, rallies, (often with celebrities) demonstrations and agitprop events demanded media attention. This however became so commonplace it demanded ever more radical images to excite a newly media-saturated society.

a much fresher image than the typical rally photo, this woman's t-shirt explains feminist ideology.

Activism: a much fresher image than the typical rally photo, this woman's t-shirt explains feminist ideology.

an example of a women in a traditional male occupation (blue collar). This was actually quite normal in earlier decades, but now American companies were using these images to promote their corporate image.

Advertising: an example of a woman in a traditional male occupation (blue collar). This was actually quite normal in earlier decades, but now American companies were using these images to promote their corporate image.

American 2nd Wave Feminism was co-opted by the advertising industry. Here, they mostly get it right in referencing workplace issues and American 1st Wave Feminism. I want that  dress!

Advertising: American 2nd Wave Feminism was co-opted by the advertising industry. Here, they mostly get it right in at least referencing women's career aspirations and American 1st Wave Feminism (sort of). I want that dress!

Afterward: Popular Feminism Goes Underground (into Academia)

What is not apparent in the images is the element of the Second Wave which went underground after the Second Wave period. Women’s studies programs and gender studies departments began popping up at universities around the country. Feminism re-emerged as a critical theory that broadened across many disciplines. A major complication of the populist aspects of the women’s liberation movement was that it became confused (in the minds of some) with other social movements of the time. The success of American Second Wave Feminism was eventually demonstrated in its ability to define and transform itself through academia. Feminism is now one of the most influential social philosophies and critical theories of the 20th century.

2 responses to “American Second Wave Feminism: Purposes, Complications and Results – Andrew Oleksiuk

  1. Pingback: Columbia College Chicago : IAM Blog Engine

  2. Really neat collection — together, the images are thought-provoking on many levels. However, Friedan’s book was titled “The Feminine Mystique.”

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