history of womens liberation movement

What is women’s liberation? First, let’s start with the definition of liberation. Liberation according to the dictionary means; the act of setting someone free from imprisonment, slavery, or opposition; release. So basically it was a coming of age for women, where they felt like they were breaking free from their previous status of feeling unequal. Women’s liberation is often times referred to as “second wave feminism”, because it is like a branch off of the feminism tree. This movement was started in the 1960’s and lasted through the mid 1980’s. It took place in many developed countries, including North America and Europe. “The WLM arose from, and was very much part of, what is termed ‘new social movements’ of the 1960s, particularly an end to the threat of nuclear war, anti-apartheid, opposition to the Vietnam War and civil rights” (Forster & Bruley 698). Women were tired of feeling like second class citizens after the war, so they decided to start a movement to try and get their voices heard, and that they did.

One way that the Women’s Liberation Movement tried to bring change into the world was by using grass-roots activism. The civil rights movement defines grass-roots activism as a method of campaigning for a cause that the activist or activists feel strongly about. These activist are typically fighting against those in political power, but the campaigns that they do are actually very effective in making a difference. Some traditional things they did are things such as marches and lobbying but, they also liked to develop local based actions. In the UK, it was common for campaigns to form from small groups and women’s centers. The centers became a place where women could meet up and eventually they started being a safe place for women to go. They provided housing for women who were in domestic trouble, whether it be abuse or some other form. It was also a place where women could go to find out if they were pregnant or not. These centers were also meeting places for the women where they could hang out and run workshops. Often times the people who met at these places would publish journals, magazines, posters, etc. for the feminist publications. If you’ve heard of Planned Parenthood, then you would realize that these centers still exist today, they are just connected to social services now.

Most women today don’t realize that without second wave feminism that we would be worse off than we were before. In fact, some of the phrases that we hear everyday were brought about because of these feminist. Phrases including, “equal pay for equal work, affirmative action, Title IX, the politics of housework, the glass ceiling, men’s only clubs, the concept of gender privilege, domestic workers unite, date rape, Roe vs. Wade, and ‘the personal is political’”. The impact of the Women’s Liberation Movement has reached from welfare offices, to boardrooms, to women in mines. While there were many achievements made that have changed the way things are today, there were also some disconnects within the group. For instance, second wave feminists forced a lot of women to choose between their racial and gendered identities. This ignored the fact that some women had benefited from certain things like slavery and colonialism and they were not necessarily oriented toward change that would support women from all class, ethnic, racial locations and sexual orientations.

One of the earliest women’s liberation groups in the United States was started in New York in 1967 by Pam Allen and Shulamith Firestone. They called themselves the New York Radical Women (NYRW) and unlike some of the other liberation groups, they were not connected to a university, in fact most of them worked for a living. All of the founding members of this group had some form of leadership and although they were different forms, they all agreed that they wanted a movement that was related to their lives at all times. Less than two months after their first meeting, the NYRW held an action at the Jeanette Rankin Brigade, a large women’s peace march held in Washington, D.C. to protest the Vietnam War. One of their missions was to call upon women to unite to fight their own oppression and achieve some real power because “it is naive to believe that women, who are not politically seen, heard, or represented in this country could change the course of a war by simply appealing to the better natures of congressmen” according to Firestone.

Typically when you think of feminism you think of women supporting women. That includes supporting lesbians. Feminism and lesbians pretty much went hand and hand until 1969, when some lesbians began to create a separatist theory. Basically they thought that women talked too much about men and sex and claimed that they were sleeping with the enemy. “Straight women,” wrote Julia Penelope Stanley, “even those who call themselves ‘feminists,’ are still tied to men and dependent on their tolerance and goodwill, which is why they cling to issues like equal pay and birth control. A woman who has no vested interest in men wouldn’t bother.” (Stanley, 1975) Many women turned to an all-women culture, where they ignored men and had lesbianism in the center of it. “Liberation” was even deleted from the Women’s Liberation Movement so that it was just the Women’s Movement.

In 1960, something groundbreaking happened for women and that was when the first oral contraceptive called Enovid was approved by the FDA as a contraceptive and made available. Up until then women had struggled with sexual liberty and to gain their reproductive rights. During World War II and during the Cold War, birth control was believed to help stop overpopulation as long as helping with reducing poverty and promote planned families. The two women who are often credited with the being the “mothers of invention” are Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick, because of their work within the US to try and help women control their own fertility and reproductive rights.

One of the big things that women took away from obtaining birth control was the line that was drawn between having sexual intercourse and becoming pregnant, which led to more sexual empowerment and freedom for women. Although this seemed like a positive step for women, it led to some negative double standards. For instance, “Even if an unmarried women avoided pregnancy, she risked a tarnished reputation, whereas sexual licentiousness in men was accepted as natural male behavior” and also things such as, “rushed marriage, dangerous abortion, shame, ostracism, and burdens of unwed motherhood.” The pill wasn’t as easy to get as it seemed either, in many states you had to be married in order to get birth control. Despite the fact that the pill met some of its obligations, it didn’t meet them all:

It did not eradicate poverty, nor did it eliminate unwanted pregnancies or guarantee happy marriages. But it became a major player in many of the most dramatic and contentious issues of the last half of the twentieth century: the quest for reproductive rights; challenges to the authority of medical, pharmaceutical, religious, and political institutions; changing sexual mores and behaviors; revaluation of foreign policy and foreign aid; and women’s emancipation.

Before the 1960’s, women were either known as housewives or mothers. This generalization started to make women frustrated and upset. There were several protest because of this but the one that is most predominant during the Women’s Liberation Movement is the Miss America Pageant of 1968. Outside of the pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey, African American lawyer and feminist, Florynce Kennedy chained herself to an oversized sculpture of Miss America to protest women’s “enslavement to ludicrous ‘beauty’ standards.” Blocks away on that same afternoon, a parade of African American beauty contestants in dresses walked down the boardwalk with the same idea of a protest in mind, in the form of an all-Black beauty contest. Wearing her hair in an untreated natural way, the first ever Miss Black America proclaimed, ‘Miss America does not represent us because there has never been a black girl in the pageant. With my title I can show black women that they too are beautiful’ (Klemesrud 1968).

The women’s liberation demonstration in which Kennedy took part is in popular memory as one of the first and most significant actions of the second-wave feminist movement. The mere mention of feminism and beauty pageants is sure to generate a series of associations in most people’s minds- whether of unruly women setting bras on fire in a hyperbolic gesture against a harmless beauty pageant, or courageous founders of a mass movement taking a stand against sexist oppression. Kennedy’s role as an organizer and demonstrator in the action is all but forgotten despite the fact that she was one of the most prominent Black feminists of her day, and current scholarship shows that she had a foundational influence on the women’s liberation movement. Still fewer people recall that in 1968, a civil rights protest also challenged the beauty standards of the bathing-suit contest cum scholarship pageant.

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