what did second-wave feminism focus on what did second-wave feminism focus on

What Did Second-Wave Feminism Focus On? Understanding the Key Objectives of Second-Wave Feminism

The second-wave feminism movement spanned from the 1960s to the 1980s. It was a pivotal era in the history of feminist activism. This period sought to build upon the gains made by the first wave of feminism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

While the first wave primarily focused on suffrage and legal gender equality, such as voting rights and property rights, the second wave widened the ambit to include issues related to sexuality, reproductive rights, family, domesticity, workplace equality, and societal inequalities.

In this article, we will elaborate on what did second-wave feminism focus on. Let’s delve into it.


1. Introduction to Second-Wave Feminism

The transition from the first to the second wave of feminism is marked by a shift in focus from legal to social and cultural aspects of gender discrimination. The legal victories won during the first wave paved the way for women’s suffrage and property rights.

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But, there were still many areas where women faced inequality, especially in the private sphere. The second wave, therefore, broadened its scope to address these issues, critiquing patriarchal institutions and cultural practices in society.

The cultural and political climate of the time played a significant role in fuelling second-wave feminism. The rise of the New Left and the increasing radicalization of voices within the movement led to a greater emphasis on sexuality and reproductive rights. This era also saw the growth of the anti-war and civil rights movements, which paralleled and influenced second-wave feminism.

These movements highlighted the intersections between different forms of social injustice. This pushed feminists to address both public and private manifestations of gender inequality.

Second-wave feminism was not a monolithic movement, rather, it had different branches with varying strategies and goals.

  • For instance, liberal feminists such as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem advocated for federal legislation that would enhance the personal and professional lives of women.
  • On the other hand, radical feminists like Casey Hayden and Mary King adopted lessons learned from their work with student organizations. They created a platform to address violent and sexist issues women faced within the larger Civil Rights Movement.

In sum, the second wave of feminism was a vibrant and multifaceted movement that aimed to challenge and change the deep-rooted patriarchal norms in society. It encompassed a wide range of issues and employed diverse strategies to achieve its objectives, leaving a lasting impact on society and the course of feminist activism.


2. The Catalysts of Second-Wave Feminism

The Feminine Mystique

One of the key catalysts that sparked second-wave feminism was Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking book, “The Feminine Mystique“, published in 1963. Friedan’s work gave voice to the widespread dissatisfaction experienced by many white-middle-class housewives, who felt confined and unfulfilled within their traditional roles of wife and mother.

In her book, Friedan challenged the postwar belief that a woman’s role was to marry, bear children, and find contentment in domestic duties. She criticized the media’s romanticization of the “happy housewife” and encouraged women to seek their own identities beyond being someone’s wife or mother.

Notably, “The Feminine Mystique” resonated with everyday women, mothers, and housewives, bringing feminism to a wider audience and inspiring many to join the movement.

But, it’s important to note that Friedan’s work primarily reflected the experiences of a certain group of women. It predominantly left out women of color and those from other marginalized groups who often had to work outside the home for income.

Socio-Political Movements

Apart from Friedan’s influential work, second-wave feminism was also shaped by the socio-political climate of the time, including the anti-war and civil rights movements.

  • The activists realized the interconnectedness of women’s cultural and political inequalities.
  • They worked with a unifying goal of social equality.
  • They recognized that addressing gender inequality meant not only challenging public injustices, but also confronting private ones, such as rape, domestic violence, and workplace harassment.
  • Second-wave feminists were deeply concerned about systemic racism. So they worked tirelessly to expose and overcome these injustices. Second-wave feminists aimed for equality beyond just the right to vote, encompassing all aspects of life.

It is worth noting that the feminist movement during this period did more than just raise awareness. It led to significant legislative victories, such as the passing of the Equal Pay Act in 1963, Title IX in 1972, and the Supreme Court legalizing abortion in the historic Roe v. Wade case in 1973. These successes marked significant progress in addressing both public and private injustices against women.


3. The Role of Sexuality and Reproductive Rights in Second-Wave Feminism

The second-wave feminism, which spanned from the early 1960s to the 1980s, broadened the debate on women’s rights to include more personal and intimate subjects.

Health Rights
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One of the key areas where this shift was most evident was in the realm of sexuality and reproductive rights. This was a period when these issues moved from the private sphere and into public discourse, becoming central concerns for the feminist movement.

The late 1960s saw the birth of the reproductive rights movement within the larger scope of women’s rights.

  • The goals of this movement were multifaceted and ambitious.
  • It sought to legalize abortion, promote safer and more accessible contraception, and combat racist and classist birth-control programs.
  • These objectives were driven by the understanding that women’s liberation was intimately tied to their ability to control their bodies. And they could make decisions about their reproductive health without interference.

Efforts to Pass the Equal Rights Amendment

A significant part of the energy of the second-wave feminist movement was directed toward passing the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).

This proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution aimed to guarantee social equality regardless of sex, thereby providing a solid legal foundation upon which other battles for gender equality could be fought.

While the ERA was not ultimately ratified, its advocacy played a crucial role in bringing conversations about gender equality into the mainstream.

Societal Resistance to Sexual and Reproductive Rights Advocacy

Nevertheless, these progressive movements did not go unchallenged. Societal resistance to changes in traditional gender norms was a major obstacle faced by second-wave feminists.

This resistance manifested in various ways, from opposition to the ERA to hostility against advocates for reproductive rights. Despite these challenges, the movement persisted in its struggle. It paved the way for future advancements in women’s rights.

Understanding how sexuality and reproductive rights became central to the second-wave feminist agenda is crucial to appreciating the progress made during this era.

The courage and tenacity of these feminists to bring private matters into the public eye and challenge deeply ingrained societal norms marked a turning point in the pursuit of gender equality.


4. Strategies and Tactics of Second-Wave Feminism

In their fight for equality, second-wave feminists employed a variety of tactics. Instead of solely focusing on mass mobilization or direct action, different branches of the movement turned their attention to other forms of social activity.

This strategic shift allowed mainstream groups to focus on lobbying and lawsuits, while many radicals engaged in consciousness-raising activities. Let’s take a closer look at these strategies.

Lobbying and Lawsuits

Mainstream groups within the second-wave feminist movement saw the potential for change within the existing political system. They understood that one of the ways to achieve their goals was to influence legislation and court decisions.

Through lobbying efforts, they were able to contribute to major legislative victories such as the approval of the contraceptive pill and the Equal Pay Act of 1963.

Lawsuits also played a significant role in challenging discriminatory practices and laws, paving the way for more equal rights for women.


On the other side of the spectrum, radical feminists sought to challenge societal norms and attitudes directly. They used consciousness-raising as a tool to encourage women to critically examine their own lives and recognize the systemic oppression they faced.

It was through these discussions that many women became aware of the shared experiences of sexism and inequality.

One notable instance of such radical actions includes the iconic, though often misunderstood, ‘bra-burning’ protest of 1968. This act symbolized a rejection of traditional beauty standards and the objectification of women.

The Role of Mainstream Groups and Radicals

Both mainstream groups and radicals played essential roles within the second-wave feminist movement. Mainstream organizations like Betty Friedan’s National Organization for Women (NOW) provided a platform for discussion and action.

At the same time, radicals pushed boundaries and brought attention to issues left unaddressed by mainstream groups.

For example, lesbian women formed their organizations to advocate for both gay rights and feminist rights, leading to NOW recognizing lesbian rights and establishing a Task Force on Sexuality and Lesbianism.

Successes and Challenges

The strategies employed during this period led to some significant victories. In addition to legislative triumphs, avenues opened up for women in education and employment, with women breaking into traditionally male-dominated fields.

But, the movement also faced considerable challenges. Resistance was met by those who held conservative perspectives on gender roles. There there were internal tensions between the different streams of feminism.

Despite these hurdles, the collective efforts of second-wave feminists resulted in remarkable progress toward gender equality.


5. Notable Achievements of Second-Wave Feminism

Anti patriarchy
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The second wave of feminism was marked by significant strides forward for women’s rights and gender equality. These legislative victories directly challenged the entrenched patriarchal order. They altered the societal landscape and continue to influence our world today.

Major Legislative Victories

  • One of the most significant achievements of second-wave feminism was the approval of the contraceptive pill. This medical breakthrough gave women unprecedented control over their reproductive health, allowing them to decide when or if they wanted to have children.
  • Another monumental victory came in 1963 with the passage of the Equal Pay Act. This legislation, for the first time, legally required equal pay for equal work, regardless of gender.
  • The early 1970s saw further legislative triumphs for second-wave feminists. Title IX, passed in 1972, prohibited discrimination against women in any federally funded education program, dramatically expanding opportunities for women in both academics and athletics.
  • The landmark Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade in 1973 legalized abortion, affirming a woman’s right to control her body and make decisions about her reproductive health.

Wider Societal Changes

The victories of second-wave feminism were not confined to the legal arena. They also triggered profound shifts in societal attitudes and norms. As a result of this movement, women began entering “non-traditional” jobs as electricians, plumbers, machine operators, engineers, architects, and doctors.

The traditional nuclear family structure, once the dominant societal norm, began to evolve as more women pursued careers outside the home.

The feminist movement also made significant headway in academia. Many universities and colleges established gender and women’s studies departments. They created new avenues for scholarly exploration and dialogue on issues related to gender and sexuality.

Ongoing Impact on Modern Society

The achievements of second-wave feminism continue to resonate in our modern world. The rights and protections won during this period laid the groundwork for many of the freedoms and opportunities women enjoy today.

Moreover, the spirit of second-wave feminism—the desire to challenge and dismantle patriarchal structures—lives on in contemporary feminist movements.

The legacy of second-wave feminism is a testament to the power of collective action and the relentless pursuit of equality. It serves as a reminder that progress is possible, even in the face of deep-seated societal resistance.

And it underscores the importance of continuing to strive for a world where every person, regardless of gender, has the opportunity to live a life free from discrimination and oppression.

By charlygutmann from Pixabay/ Copyright 2017


So, What Did Second-Wave Feminism Focus On?

The rippling effects of second-wave feminism continue to permeate our society today, cementing its legacy as a powerful force for change. This movement revolutionized women’s roles in both public and private life. It paved the way for unprecedented access to education, employment, and reproductive rights.

As a result, more women entered “non-traditional” jobs such as electricians, plumbers, and machine operators, breaking down long-standing gender barriers. Women’s studies departments were established at universities, contributing to a more inclusive academic landscape.

Moreover, with the passing of the Equal Pay Act in 1963, Title IX in 1972, and Roe v. Wade in 1973, feminists claimed significant legislative victories. Second-wave feminism also laid the groundwork for modern feminist movements.

Despite these successes, it’s important to acknowledge that the fight for gender equality is far from over. Challenges such as the wage gap, gender-based violence, and discrimination persist in our society.

Therefore, we must carry forward the torch lit by second-wave feminists and continue to challenge the status quo. We are all stakeholders in this ongoing struggle, regardless of our gender identities.

In conclusion, the legacy of second-wave feminism is not just a historical artifact but a living testament to the power of collective action and advocacy. Its impacts transcend generations, reminding us of our responsibility to strive for a world where equal opportunities are not an exception but a norm.

Don’t miss this amazing video on second-wave feminism unfolding some untold stories of that period: