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Does the identification of discrete ‘waves’ of American feminism hide more than it reveals?

By Aleysha Shergill, History Student @ St Hilda's College, Oxford


The wave metaphor has been used by historians to distinguish between different eras and generations of American feminism. It is, however, partially historically misleading. It suggests that gender activism has been united on a single set of ideas and that each wave was a monolith with a single unified agenda. In reality, the history of feminism in the US has been one of deep-seated conflict.


The first part of the twentieth century witnessed the first distinct ‘wave’ of American feminism. Indeed, it was in 1910 that feminism first came into frequent use, as the ballot enabled women to build a coalition towards a common goal. Class divisions were temporarily transcended as new generations of the suffrage movement acknowledged the growing numbers of woman wage earners in urban and service industries. The connection between women’s economic roles in society and their need for the ballot became a central part of the suffrage movement. Suffrage activity after 1907 also used techniques from the political left and the unions, including labour agitation and the strike. In 1916, the National Women’s Party (NWP) was founded and after the continued use of labour militancy and agitation, the Senate passed the suffrage amendment in June 1919.

The subsequent splintering of the feminist movement after the granting of the suffrage suggests that this first period was, indeed, a distinct ‘wave’. Women found it increasingly difficult to find a common goal and the NWP rejected the idea that women might unite over issues other than those centred solely around gender. The party sacrificed the support of black women and throughout the ratification campaign, the party maintained that the 19th Amendment would not interfere with state voting regulations, which disenfranchised African Americans. The question of labour conditions also increasingly fell outside of the purely feminist. Henceforth, throughout the 1920s, women abandoned any quest for general social reform and opted for individualism.


However, women’s capacity to organise on the basis of gender did not completely disappear, thus undermining the ‘wave’ metaphor. During the Great Depression of 1929-1941, for example, the number of women who worked increased. Legislation such as the National Industrial Recovery Act (NRA) and the Social Security Act also heightened expectations and women began to organise on their own behalf. The formation of the Congress of Industrial Organisations (CIO) was also more hospitable to women and women’s union membership tripled.


The post-war period has also been characterised by women’s retreat into domesticity, which, at first, appears to support historians’ use of the wave metaphor. However, discontent was already beginning to surface and on 1st November 1961, 50,000 American housewives joined the movement ‘Women Strike for Peace’, which brought women’s identity as mothers into the activist sphere. Feminist ideas were also identifiable in the existence of loosely organised women’s liberation groups, primarily comprised of African American women, black nationalists, or members of the Old Left. The Mount Vernon Group, for example, founded in 1960, gave women a space to discuss their experiences in a way that would later be called consciousness-raising. The group also advocated birth control. These early liberation groups were important in promulgating early feminist thought and problematise the arbitrary use of ‘waves’.

On the other hand, the 1960s did mark a crucial watershed moment for feminist activism in the US, thus giving weight to the ‘wave’ metaphor, which characterises this period as distinct from earlier feminist thought. One of Kennedy’s first actions as president was the creation of the Commission on the Status of Women that acknowledged that women’s rights and opportunities were of crucial importance and in 1961, the National Organization for Woman (NOW) was born. These developments coincided with the publication of Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique in 1963, who argued that the dominant institutions of American culture had enclosed women in ‘comfortable concentration camps’.

There was also an important grassroots movement growing out of the Civil Rights movement. Many civil rights leaders and those involved at the grassroots were women and coming out of the movement was an acute awareness that gender, as well as race, was an important issue. Casey Hayden and Mary King, for example, argued that women in the movement, particularly in the SNCC, were treated with condescension.


However, the identification of discrete waves also conceals the divisions that accompanied the feminist movement. Divisions over whether women were individuals to be treated in the same way as men or as a distinct group prevailed. NOW focused on equal rights for women and its most extensive campaign was the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Meanwhile, other women’s liberation groups insisted on women-only autonomous groups and pressured employers to provide day-care centres. Second-wave feminism also failed to leave behind its narrow race and class boundaries and both the language, and the programs of feminist groups reflected a white, middle-class approach.

To conclude, there were discrete waves of feminism insofar as there were periods when feminism enjoyed more consensus and momentum. However, this overlooks the fact that women’s ability to organise collectively did not completely disappear. The wave metaphor illuminates the importance of particular historical conditions and their influence on the feminist movement, as much as it obscures themes of continuity and conflict throughout the history of American feminism.

Further reading:

1. Corinne McConnaughy, The Woman Suffrage Movement in America: A Reassessment (2013)

2. Ellen Carol Dubois, ‘Working women, class relations, and suffrage militancy,’ Journal of American History (1987)

3. Ellen Carol DuBois, Women's Suffrage and Women's Rights (1998)

4. Nancy F. Cott No Small Courage: A History of Women in the United States (2004)

5. Nancy Hewitt ed., A Companion to American Women’s History (2005)

6. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920 (1998)


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