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  • Elizabeth Gramely

Second-Wave Feminism and Early Intersectionality

Following the end of the “first wave” of feminism in 1920, the early feminist movement mostly faded out of the mainstream and the Great Depression and World War II took precedence. Even after World War II ended, the focus of the country remained on recovering from the war. At the same time, women who had worked during World War II were returning to the home, placing an increased emphasis on women’s role as caregivers in the home. Second-wave feminism did not begin until the early 1960s, with the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Freidan’s book is often credited with launching the second wave of feminism by identifying the dissatisfaction felt by middle class suburban white women who were not employed outside the home. Similarly to first-wave feminism, the recorded history second-wave feminism tends to ignore the contribution of non-white women, despite the fact that Black, Asian, and Latina women were involved in the National Organization for Women (NOW) from the beginning and founded women’s caucuses and separate feminist organizations as well.

One of the most influential of these groups was the Combahee River Collective. Named after the site where Harriet Tubman is credited with freeing 750 slaves, the Collective is responsible for creating a lasting blueprint for Black feminism. Barbara Smith, a member of the collective, came up with a definition of feminism that continues to be a model today: “feminism is the political theory and practice to free all women: women of color, working-class women, poor women, physically challenged women, lesbians, old women, as well as white, economically privileged, heterosexual women. Anything less than this is not feminism, but merely female self-aggrandizement.” The group also highlighted the fact that white feminists had white privilege and often socio-economic privilege, making white feminism inherently easier. 

At the same time that second-wave feminism was growing, the civil rights movement was reaching its peak. Still, the two groups mostly existed parallel to each other - both working for equality, but rarely together. As with second-wave feminism, Black women such as Septima Clark, Amelia Boynton Robinson, and Diane Nash were crucial to the movement but received little recognition or credit. Unsurprisingly, Black women also faced many double standards - for instance, radical white feminists are often celebrated while radical Black feminists are criticized. Mainstream feminism often tried to promote inclusivity while also being overtly exclusive. For example, the feminist movement celebrated Shirley Chisholm’s symbolic and historic presidential run when it was convenient for them, but refused to endorse her and encouraged her to drop out so that they could coalesce around George McGovern, who was the presumptive Democratic nominee at the time. They wanted to have a “clearer conscience,” being free of the feeling that they had betrayed one of their own.  

By the end of second-wave feminism in the 1980s, the term “intersectional feminism” had yet been coined; however, Black feminists were already modeling their movement off intersectional feminism, while their white counterparts continued to focus primarily on white, middle-class women. White feminism continued to dominate the narrative surrounding second-wave feminism. The non-white feminist movement paints a fuller, more realistic picture of the feminist movement. Even though it may be uncomfortable to acknowledge the flaws of women that many modern feminists regard as heroes (and these women did accomplish impressive things), they were often complicit in a system that excluded non-white women. However, the contributions and influence of women of color must be acknowledged and celebrated, not lost to history. 

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©2020 by The Bipartisan Feminist Project.

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