How Feminism Works

Between Feminist Waves


­After the passage of the 19th Amendment, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, spearheaded by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was disbanded. The League of Women Voters and National Women's Party took its place. But three years after women won the vote, suffragist and feminist factions split over Alice Paul's introduction of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to Congress. The proposed amendment, which read, "equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex," alienated some women who feared that its passage would undermine legal protection granted to women and children.

­From that point in the early 1920s until the 1960s, feminism seemed to stall. But that didn't mean that subtle changes had stopped taking place. For instance, during World War II, more women than ever joined the workforce, assuming industrial and military jobs previously reserved for men. Higher education had become a more viable option as well, and the number of female college graduates was rising. Then, when the troops came home, American women's culture experienced a return to domesticity. Many women continued to work outside the home, but career options were restrictive with gender-specific job postings. Women had won the vote but not cultural independence.

That growing discontent surfaced in mainstream middle-class society with the publication of two influential books. As Mary Wollstonecraft's "Vindication of the Rights of Women" fueled activism by voicing her generation's sexual discrimination, so did Simone de Beauvoir's "Second Sex," published in 1949. De Beauvoir's book decried women's inferior status in society, reasoning that cultural distinctions between genders only served to reinforce patriarchy and the submission of women. In 1963, Betty Friedan published "The Feminine Mystique," which described the new generation of overly educated, under-employed women who gave up promising careers for the service of hearth and home.

­The government took notice of women's discontent, as well. The Kennedy administration passed the Equal Pay Act in 1963 and established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission the following year, benefitting women and blacks. Yet women earned barely half of men's salaries, and childcare institutions remained scarce. With the simmering Civil Rights movement gaining energy at the time, the cultural atmosphere in the United States was ripe for revolution.