Literature of the Second Wave Feminist Movement

Feminist movements in the United States were started with the intent of fighting the injustices that arose, defending an ideology that women have an equal role in society, and entitled to the same rights as men. There have been three waves of the feminist movement in the United States. The first wave began at the end of the 20th century (1890’s) up till the early 21st century (1920’s) and it was a movement characterized by the women’s suffrage movement that ended with some success.

The third wave of the feminist movement had started towards the end of the 1980s with differentiation from the second wave focusing on improving from the flaws and mistakes that had arisen in the second wave and finding their definition. The second wave of the feminist movement began to gain momentum in the 1950s, after World War II, with the women being forced out of the workplace, and came to an end in the mid-1980s.

The second wave of the feminist movement came to its end after splintering due mainly to two points, the failure to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment and the continued growth of criticism that the movement focused on white women excluding minority women (DailyHistory). Novels are valuable for more than just their feminist rhetoric; they are a testament to how a cultural movement can be further cultivated by and more fully understood through the impact of the writing of the time. This paper will observe and analyze some of the literature that moved and changed the second wave of the feminist movement.

First a brief outline of the second wave feminist movement. The second wave had begun in the late 1950s and had come to an end in the late 1970s or early 1980s. The second wave of feminism started with the dissatisfaction of women being forced out of the workplace with the return of the men from overseas, after the end of World War Two (DailyHistory). In the early 1950s and 1960s with the country being stabilized the ideas and discontent with social norms, movements began to form. Literature and politics in the 1960s had helped the movement and made more people take notice of them.

The feminist saw their victories through the legalization of abortion, the Equal Pay Acts of 1963, and the introduction of the pill, these victories gave the movement momentum in the 1970s and saw improvements to the rate of women finishing their education and women entering the workforce. Second-wave feminism had finally dissolved under the harsh criticisms that the movement had focused on white women to the exclusion of all the other women, the minorities. The movement saw its end when they failed to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in 1983.

During the 1940s there was an influx of women entering the workforce due to the Second World War, the influx had been caused by the men heading overseas to fight. As the war ended many women had already entered the workforce and had gained work benefits, such as maternity leave, daycare, and counseling, but as the men returned those women had lost their work. Yet women began to feel the injustice of lost and unequal pay (DailyHistory).

After World War II, literature saw some changes to how women were perceived, writers began to question ‘how women in society were perceived and the role they played,’ particularly as the war (WWII) had shown women made valuable contributions and, in many cases, performed tasks equally to men. In 1949, Simone de Beauvoir published The Second Sex a novel that questioned the views and roles thrusted on women by society and explored the role of male dominance that played in continuing this patriarch (Beauvoir). Felstiner in her article “Seeing ‘The Second Sex’ through the Second Wave” explains that Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex in the hopes of finding the answers to the questions that plague feminists even to this day have not been abated.

The Second Sex had a unique structure to it for Beauvoir choose to explore the structure of women in society into two volumes the first being the ‘Facts and Myths’ behind women and the second volume being the ‘Lived Experience’ and within each volume were parts in volume one it went Destiny, focusing on the biological, phycological, and physiological views on women, the second part was the History, focused on the history of women’s role in society from nomadic to present times (1940’s), and the third/final part of volume one was the Myths, exploring the myths and legends of women such as a comparison of Eve and the Virgin Mary to Pandora and Athena and the difference in an image that is portrayed. In volume two there are four parts which break down as a cycle, a phase in a women’s life and as she progresses what society expects of her.

Part one is the Formative Years, how she grows into a woman, part two is the Situation, the roles in which women are expected to play in society and the expectations of each role, part three is the Justifications, what places the women within their role and how society and women should view their places within society, and the final part right before the Conclusion is about the movement Towards Liberation, on how women are independent beings. (Beauvoir).

The book broke down and verbalized the questions on why women should play into man’s hands and why a woman should have to be subservient to men’s whims and made a call for liberation and change. Beauvoir though did not join in the feminist movement for the “females to rise to the same heights as men but to release from the ideas of gender and open a path for equality for everyone, where gender plays no role in politics or society.” (Felstiner).

In the latter half of the 20th century, we see a change in literature there begins to be a rise in female protagonists. In the 1960s many science fiction novels explored the idea of a society that had no gender politics, or reversal of gender roles (Fleming). With the rise in feminism, it was time to explore alternate paths and see how society could change. While some aspects of literature seemed to yet remain such as the fact that a woman either marries, is a spinster, or dies in some way, usually her hand or in protecting those she loves, there is an increase in the female protagonist working and living more of a ‘male’ role.

Women are no longer being portrayed as the obedient sweetheart of a damsel, but women of mind and action (Short). The late 1960s brought the arrival of female writers became a component spokesperson for the science fiction genre, with the arrival of Ursula Le Guin, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and a couple of others (Short). This proponent is important because this genre allowed female voices to be heard, so they may envision their own futures.

The science fiction genre tends to have two sides that a writer will fall into, they will either create a utopia or a dystopia. In the case of feminists thee utopian writers could rise above the current patriarch and view a future where there is sexual equality and freedom to be what they desired, as for the feminist dystopian writers they could reveal the doom and despair that awaited if there was no change to the patriarch, showing how repressive things could become in their manifestations (Zaman).

One of the most important writers during this period is undoubtedly Betty Friedan and her book The Feminine Mystique, a novel that had been published in 1963 is a dystopian account of suburban life in the 1950s and 60s. the feminine mystique is much more than that is “a challenge to dependent wives to trade domestic self- abnegation for a more fulfilling version of
the American dream; and above all, an eminently readable text.” (Turk).

Friedan book begins by covering “the problem that has no name” an issue that many suburban wives have come across time and time again, in a time where the economy is stable and their husbands have steady work, they are faced with this issue, and Friedan had no issue naming and dissecting it, “If a woman had a problem in the 1950’s and 1960’s, she knew that something must be wrong with her marriage, or with herself,” Friedan wrote the narrative from the basis of the women she interviewed and her own experiences within that role. As Turk helpfully summarized:

”The advances of science, the development of labor-saving appliances, the development of the suburbs: all had come together to offer women in the 1950s a life their mothers had scarcely dreamed of, free from rampant disease, onerous drudgery, noxious city streets. But the green lawns and big corner lots were isolating, the housework seemed to expand to fill the time available, and polio and smallpox were replaced by depression and alcoholism. All that was covered up in a kitchen conspiracy of denial.”

Friedan began writing The Feminine Mystique after surveying some of Smith graduates. The survey convinced her that many of the educated middle-class women were living unsatisfactory lives and it prompted her to pursue years of additional research. (Alexander). Betty Friedan forced her readers to question the injustices women faced daily, in a term she defined as the “feminine mystique”: “the body of culture, professional opinions, and institutions that instructed women who were dissatisfied with their feminine roles to seek solace in ever more femininity”. (Turk).

The Feminine Mystique urged women to take a step back and observe the constructs that built and social environments and the opportunities for them to claim their “full humanity”. A point that assisted in moving the feminist movement was that Friedan had decided to take and active role within the movement, like when she had been one of the forces behind the Women’s Strike for Equality in 1970 and again for the first year anniversary after that strike (Lichtenstein).

Six to seven years after the publication of The Feminine Mystique, (1969-1970) came another major book in feminist theory, Sexual Politics by Kate Millett. Kate Millett wrote Sexual Politics about the patriarchal structure of society that controls sex, sexual expression, and ultimately politics and the narrative of political discourse (Millett).

Millett went about that by documenting the subjugation of women in literature and art, but she doesn’t stop there the book goes on to explore literature’s patriarchal myths and their extension into psychology, philosophy, and politics. Stimpson said it quite eloquently “Finally you (Millett) offered a reading of history, a reading of the past 160 years in England and the United States, where you saw a sexual revolution beginning, becoming sexual reform, and then beginning of a counterrevolution.”

The book had an easy read and in just the first few passages alone the reader feels the disgust of the men’s actions and pain for the woman, Millett does not hesitate to bring out the dark actions and frames the mind in “us against them” setting. In the book she even clearly states that “Because of our social circumstances, male and female are really two cultures and their life experiences are utterly different— and this is crucial.

Implicit in all the gender identity development which takes place through childhood is the sum total of the parents’, the peers’, and the culture’s notions of what is appropriate to each gender by way of temperament, character, interests, status, worth, gesture, and expression…”(Millett, p31) and continuing on about the patriarch of society, this is important because it does not use platitudes and soft words to soften the blow but airs it for all to see, and for feminists a clear statement on the need for change. When the book came out the feminist movement (or women’s liberation movement as it was called during the time) had held its first mass demonstration, the one the Friedan was a part of, and so was Kate Millet, after releasing her book (Simons).  The book had help ensure that the fire remained lite and added the kindling needed to wake more people to the issues women are constantly facing in society.

Sex and gender oppression are common because of political discourse found in society. The second wave of feminism had worked to try and fight such oppression, with some success. As Millets argued “that before any other type of oppression existed, elite men first oppressed people based on sex and gender, extending later to race and class.” (Turk). Women saw this every day but the books had been the shout that caught many peoples attention, for each piece of literature told a tale of women being pushed back down, and some visualized a future free of such concerns, free of the patriarchal oppression.

The 1960s had some victories for the emerging second wave women’s movement, and though it ended sadly the second wave did open many doors for women. Some of the successes the second wave had was the establishment of the National Organization for Women (NOW), which Friedan joined, and a great legislative victory for feminists, the passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963 (DailyHistory), prohibiting the discrimination of wages on the account of sex by employers engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce (U.S Equal). Each piece of literature expresses an idea, a call for change, above are just a few of such that called for women’s liberation and equality.


  • Alexander, Ruth M. “In Defense of Nature: Jane Jacobs, Rachel Carson, and Betty Friedan.”
  • Journal of Women’s History, vol. 31 no. 3, 2019, p. 78-101. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/jowh.2019.0028. Accessed 10 Apr. 2020.
  • Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany
  • Chevallier, PDF eISBN: 978-0-307-81453-1, VInetage Books, 2010, Accessed 10 Apr. 2020.
  • Felstiner, Mary Lowenthal. “Seeing ‘The Second Sex’ through the Second Wave.” Feminist
  • Studies, vol. 6, no. 2, 1980, pp. 247–276. JSTOR, Accessed 10 Apr. 2020.
  • Fleming, Erica. “to Find Out what was Left”: Science Fiction Literature as a Response to the
  • Second Wave Feminist Movement, West Chester University of Pennsylvania, Ann Arbor, 2009. ProQuest, Accessed 10 Apr. 2020.
  • Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. Dell Publishing Co., 1974. Accessed 10 Apr. 2020.
  • Harnois, Catherine. “Re-Presenting Feminisms: Past, Present, and Future.” NWSA Journal, vol.
    20, no. 1, 2008, pp. 120–145. JSTOR, Accessed 10 Apr. 2020.
  • Lichtenstein, Grace. “Feminist Protest March Due Thursday.” The New York Times, 22 Aug.
    1971, p. 47, Accessed 10 Apr. 2020.
  • Millett, Kate. “Full Text of ‘Sexual Politics (1970)”.” Internet Archive, UNIVERSITY OF
  • ILLINOIS PRESS Urbana and Chicago, Millett–Sexual Politics_djvu.txt. Accessed 10 Apr. 2020.
  • Schnittker, Jason, et al. “Who Are Feminists and What Do They Believe? The Role of
  • Generations.” American Sociological Review, vol. 68, no. 4, 2003, pp. 607–622. JSTOR, Accessed 10 Apr. 2020.
  • Short, Stacey C. Identity, Second -Wave Feminism, and the Novel of Re-Development, Texas
  • A&M University, Ann Arbor, 2002. ProQuest, Accessed 10 Apr. 2020.
  • Simons, Margaret A. “Racism and Feminism: A Schism in the Sisterhood.” Feminist Studies,
    vol. 5, no. 2, 1979, pp. 384–401. JSTOR, Accessed 10 Apr. 2020.
  • Stimpson, Catharine R., et al. “‘Sexual Politics:” Twenty Years Later.” Women’s Studies
  • Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 3/4, 1991, pp. 30–40. JSTOR, Accessed 10 Apr. 2020.
    “The Equal Pay Act of 1963.” U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Accessed 10 Apr. 2020.
  • Turk, Katherine. “‘To Fulfill an Ambition of [Her] Own’: Work, Class, and Identity in The
  • Feminine Mystique.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, vol. 36, no. 2, 2015, pp. 25–32. EBSCOhost, doi:10.5250/fronjwomestud.36.2.0025. Accessed 10 Apr. 2020.
  • “What Was the Second Wave Feminist Movement?”, DailyHistory.Org, 14
    Oct. 2019, Accessed 10 Apr. 2020.
  • Zaman, Sobia. The Feminist Appropriation of Dystopia: A Study of Atwood, Elgin, Fairbairns,
    and Tepper, University of Manitoba (Canada), Ann Arbor, 1995. ProQuest, Accessed 10 Apr. 2020.

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