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Feminism and the Women's Movement

Phyllis Schlafly spearheaded a nationwide campaign to stop the Equal Rights Amendment in January 1977.

In the 20th century, there were at least three identifiable mass women’s movements, or “waves.” First wave feminism grew from women activists’ involvement in nineteenth century movements such as the anti-slavery movement. After passage of the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawed discrimination in voting on the basis of race, woman’s movement activists coalesced around campaigns to secure woman suffrage. By 1923, three years after passage of the “universal suffrage” 19th Amendment, some suffragists — National Women’s Party leader Alice Paul, for instance — began pushing for an Equal Rights Amendment to outlaw all forms of discrimination based on sex, an ultimately unsuccessful campaign that lasted until 1983.

Like the anti-slavery movement of the nineteenth century, the modern civil rights movement encouraged activism of all sorts. The rise of feminism in the mid- to late 1960s, especially the locally organized, community-based forms of women’s liberation, was based in part on young women’s recognition of sexism within “the movement,” made up of male-dominated groups like Students for a Democratic Society, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (aided in its development by seasoned activist Ella Baker), and others.

White middle-class women such as Betty Friedan, a founder of the advocacy-oriented National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966, and Gloria Steinem, a founder of Ms. magazine in 1972, seemed to dominate the media’s depiction of women’s lib. But women of color, such as Rev. Pauli Murray (a Hunter College graduate), an attorney, labor organizer Aileen Hernandez, Frances Beal and other activists with the Third World Women’s Alliance, were also significant players. Women of color not only framed feminism to reflect their own experiences but also critiqued the notion that all women shared the same condition regardless of race, ethnicity, or class status.

Kate Millet, left, author of the best-selling feminist tract Sexual Politics, listens as writer Gloria Steinem speaks at a news conference given by women’s liberation activists in New York City on Dec. 17, 1970.

Lesbian feminists such as Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, founders of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first U.S. lesbian rights organization, were early members of NOW, and Martin was the first out lesbian elected to NOW’s national board.

Ultimately, the ongoing analyses and activism of feminist women of color — and lesbian feminists, radical feminists, and young women from all backgrounds raised with expectations of equality — challenged and broadened the contemporary women’s liberation movement, strengthening it as it moved into the 21st century and a new “third wave.”

Veteran activist - Goldie Chu - demonstrates at a pro-ERA rally.




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