How Feminism Works

Schisms Within Feminism


The goals of civil rights and women's rights share many of the same overarching them­es of freedom, equality and social justice. During first-wave feminism, freed slave Sojourner Truth spoke out for emancipation as well as universal suffrage. Second-wave feminists also borrowed consciousness-raising tactics from the Civil Rights movement.

But the two movements didn't always take advantage of their commonalities. The reactions of some prominent first-wave feminists, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to legislation allowing black men to vote reveals dark undercurrents of racism in early feminist movements. Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" has been criticized since its publication for its failure to address the plight of minority and working-class women who didn't have ready access to higher education or the choice to stay at home.

Unlike white feminists, black women fought a twofold battle against racism and sexism. Black feminism grew out of second-wave feminism's failure to address that unique struggle. Black feminist writer Bell Hooks dismissed the idea of a common oppression among women that united them across races and classes. Rather, Hooks wrote, leading white feminists in the 1970s only reinstated classist white supremacy by not acknowledging the experience of being a black woman.

Indeed, some feminist organizations at that time came across barriers to integrating white and black members. Gloria Steinem and other white feminists strived unsuccessfully to coordinate a racially diverse board of the Women's Action Alliance in 1971 [source: Harrison]. Some black feminists felt marginalized in certain groups and banded together. In 1973, as a result, the National Black Feminist Organization was founded.

Lesbian feminists encountered prejudice within the movement as well. Homosexuality remained a cultural taboo, and even some liberal-leaning feminists sought to distance themselves from it. The National Organization of Women (NOW) refused to include homosexuality as part of its platforms, and Betty Friedan allegedly referred to it as the "lavender menace." In response to that alienation, some lesbian feminists formed separatist organizations that aimed to create an entirely new culture, devoid of male influence.

­Could the movement recover from all of these fractures and produce a third wave of feminism? The third wave's existence remains up for debate, as well as the overall relevance of feminism in today's society.