Feminist Scholarship and Oral History
From OHA Wiki
Women have been fighting for social change and equality in the United States since the mid-1800s. Though the early movement focused on the right to vote, the latter part of the movement, or the “second wave,” took on a broader view – social and political equality to their male counterparts. The women’s suffrage movement historically began in 1848 with the Seneca Falls convention, the first women’s rights conference in the United States. In 1861 the movement gained strength with John Stuart Mill’s book The Subjection of Women, an examination of the position of women within society.2
Even though women were successful in obtaining a few of their goals, such as inheritance rights and higher education opportunities, the right to vote was still out of their grasp. In 1869, the 15th Amendment was proposed, which gave black men the right to vote. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Stanton headed a campaign to have the wording changed to allow all women the right as well. They formed the National Woman Suffrage Association to spearhead the campaign, and later joined with the American Woman Suffrage Association (led by Lucy Stone) to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Unfortunately, it was not until 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment that these women gained the right to vote.3
During this battle, Anthony and Stanton, along with Matilda Joslyn Gage, began documenting the history of the movement in their six volume set, History of Woman Suffrage. The volumes were intended to persuade future generations to become involved in the movement but many “unsavory” aspects of the cause were left out. Bickering between conflicting organizations and leaders were omitted as to not dissuade women from joining in the movement.4
After the passage of the 19th Amendment, the movement lost strength. Without suffrage, the cohesiveness and focus of the movement was lost. Many groups continued to work towards improving the position of women, but little progress was made. Alice Paul, a former member of the NAWSA, introduced the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) for Congressional approval, with an objective of political and economic equality for women. Support for this Amendment was sparse, with only the National Woman’s Party by its side between 1920 and 1960.5
During the 1960s, the women’s movement saw a resurgence. This resurgence, better known as “second wave feminism” was in conjunction with the Equal Pay Act and the Civil Rights Movement. After taking office, President Kennedy selected Esther Peterson as the director of the Women’s Bureau. In her position, Peterson was able to sway Kennedy to form the President’s Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW). In 1963, the Commission released a report, American Women, which illustrated “discrimination against women in every facet of American life.” When Lyndon Johnson took office after Kennedy’s assassination, he signed a bill which outlawed private employers from discriminating on the basis of sex and also began the “Women in Government” campaign.6 When Title VII (employment provision) of the Civil Rights Bill passed with the inclusion of women, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) did not enforce the sex provision. A resolution was written by PCSW delegates to discuss the issue, but the EEOC refused to hear it. Because of this, a new organization, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was formed to work towards gender social changes.7
In 1972, the ERA finally passed in Congress and had a deadline of ratification by 1979. Twenty-two states ratified it in its first year, with another eight doing so in 1973; a great start to the process. Also during this time, many specialized groups and centers began popping up and the radical feminist sector started to dissipate. The women’s movement saw many victories during the 1970s – many wage and sex discrimination lawsuits went in favor of women, they won the legal right to an abortion with Roe vs. Wade, and books on feminist virtues were even best sellers. The membership of NOW grew exponentially, with 35,000 members in 1975 and 250,000 members in 1982. But in 1978, it was clear the ERA would not be ratified by its original deadline of 1979 and a campaign to extend the deadline to 1982 was successful.
Even with all the gains in the 1970s, the movement went on the defensive due to opposition from new political leaders and media coverage in the 1980s.8 The new Reagan administration in 1980 was hostile to the movement and funding for feminist-friendly programs was cut. It was also clear by this time that the ERA would not pass in 1982 and some states had even repealed their initial ratification.9 The media coverage was just as appalling. Magazine articles stressed the “domestic” virtues of women and films either depicted women as objects or completely left them out.10 Also during this time the movement was fragmenting and the boundaries blurred. Feminism spread to encompass a broader range of American women, not just the middle-class whites in which it was so commonly attached.11 The women’s movement was resurging by the late 1980s and women’s studies became popular as an academic field of study. Also, many journals focused on women’s involvement within various fields of scholarship. Conferences, centers and institutions, and grants welcomed and focused on women studies and involvement.12 Despite the backlash from the Reagan administration, the women’s movement continued to evolve.
The 20th century marked a new wave or resurgence of feminism among the younger generations. This feminist group in the mid-1990s labeled themselves as the “Third Wave.”13 The Third Wavers focused mostly on cultural issues and saw themselves as different from their predecessors, and took a more individualistic approach to feminism. Women candidates for government office were gaining substantial support through grassroots organizations. In 1992, twenty-two women ran for Senate seats, compared to only eight in 1990. With the presidential election of Bill Clinton the same year, Hillary Clinton became an idol for many, with her liberal views and strong public voice for reform.14 By the end of the 20th century, the feminist leaders’ voices within the movement in the United States were being heard around the world.
(2) Barbara Ryan, Feminism and the Women’s Movement: Dynamics of Change in Social Movement, Ideology and Activism (New York: Routledge, 1992), 11.
(3) Ryan, 20.
(4) Elizabeth J. Clapp, “The Woman Suffrage Movement, 1848-1920,” in The Practice of U.S. Women’s History: Narratives, Intersections, and Dialogues, ed. Eileen, S. Boris Jay Kleinberg, and Vicki L. Ruiz (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2007), 239.
(5) Ryan, 38.
(6) Ryan, 43.
(7) Ryan, 44.
(8) Sara Evans, Tidal Wave: How Women Changed America at Century’s End (New York: The Free Press, 2003), 7.
(9) Evans, 176-177.
(10) Evans, 184-186.
(11) Evans, 209-210.
(12) Evans, 200-202.
(13) Evans, 216-217.
(14) Evans, 226-229.