A History of U.S. Feminisms


By Rory C. Dicker

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The complete, authoritative, and up to date history of American feminism-intersectionality, sex-positivity

Updated and expanded, the second edition of A History of U.S. Feminisms is an introductory text that will be used as supplementary material for first-year women’s studies students or as a brush-up text for more advanced students. Covering the first, second, and third waves of feminism, A History of U.S. Feminisms will provide historical context of all the major events and figures from the late nineteenth century through today.

The chapters cover: first-wave feminism, a period of feminist activity during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries which focused primarily on gaining women’s suffrage; second-wave feminism, which started in the ’60s and lasted through the ’80s and emphasized the connection between the personal and the political; and third-wave feminism, which started in the early ’90s and is best exemplified by its focus on diversity, intersectionality, queer theory, and sex-positivity.




LAST WEEK, THREE SEPARATE INCIDENTS OCCURRING within the space of about two hours reminded me in powerful ways what feminism has accomplished in American culture and why it is as urgently needed now as it ever was.

As I stood in line at a deli waiting to place a to-go order, I overheard snippets of a conversation between two people I assumed were mother and daughter. The mother made repeated suggestions of what the daughter might have for lunch, but the daughter rejected each idea, insisting that she did not like the place’s food. My interest piqued by such a blanket claim about a deli whose food is quite good, I turned and in one glance understood all: Toothpick arms were folded protectively across a gaunt body dressed in a short skirt and T-shirt. Even the horizontal stripes of her shirt did not give the teenager’s emaciated body any heft; smiling quietly, the mother endured her daughter’s complaints as if used to them. I turned away. Although I routinely discuss eating disorders in the classes I teach, witnessing such a body filled me with both sadness and rage.

After lunch, which I ate hungrily, a coworker told me about a mutual acquaintance whose boss had abruptly dropped on her desk a letter in which he asked her when she planned to stop breastfeeding her infant daughter. Although her child is in daycare, this woman uses a breast pump at work to maintain her milk supply. And even though the woman is able to continue working while she pumps—indeed, her productivity has not declined while she has been nursing her child—her male boss, perhaps because he felt uncomfortable about her pumping behind the closed doors of her office or because he wanted to exert some kind of control over her, made remarks that caused this woman stress and unhappiness, not to mention concern about the security of her job.

Later, as I walked down the street to pick up my daughter from childcare, I ran into a friend who asked if I’d seen the newspaper story about a grad student we both knew. I hadn’t, so my friend explained that this woman had just filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against her dissertation director. According to the woman’s allegations, the professor manifested his misogyny by saying that women are good only for sex; he expected his student to find female sexual partners for him, and if she didn’t, he would not continue to support her research. Stating that this professor had hindered her career, this woman first filed a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and then launched a suit against the faculty member and the university.

These incidents jolted me awake—it’s not every day that I am barraged with so many examples of our patriarchal culture’s hatred of women. As I reflected on what I saw and heard, I realized one thing all of these women had in common: All were quite young, ranging in age from about sixteen to thirty. These women had so much to look forward to in life, and here they were, stymied by entrenched norms about what women should or shouldn’t be, do, or look like. Part of me grew despondent as I considered the costs—emotional, physical, psychological, economic—of being female in American society.

Yet, as I thought about these examples of patriarchy’s reign, I recognized my indebtedness to feminism, which has given me not just the language to talk about the sexism I witness but the tools to analyze and understand it. Feminists of the second wave—the women’s movement occurring in the 1960s and ’70s—invented words such as “sexism” and “sexual harassment,” and it was during the heyday of the second wave that behavior such as that of the antibreastfeeding boss was labeled “sex discrimination” and deemed illegal. Because of the work of feminists, the graduate student could file a complaint with the EEOC and the young mother could submit a grievance at her workplace. In addition, the clinical and written work of feminist psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers has saved the lives of countless young women plagued by eating disorders and educated their families and the general public about these devastating illnesses. These examples remind me that feminism has made valuable, concrete changes to the lives of women and men in this country. In spite of these changes, feminism is still needed, among other reasons, to ensure that women are treated fairly in school and on the job and to critique and correct a culture that mandates a homogeneous beauty ideal for all women. It is also needed—and these are no mean feats—to protect women’s reproductive rights and to eradicate sexism.

What, then, is feminism, and why don’t more people understand it for what it is? In the last fifteen years, I have taught countless introductory women’s and gender studies classes, and I am constantly disabusing students of their caricatured impressions of feminism and feminists. When I ask students to describe what they imagine when they hear the word “feminist,” in short order they are able to rattle off all of the often-invoked stereotypes. They tell me that a feminist is ugly, hairy, and wears no makeup. She is a man-hating, butch lesbian. She is violent, angry, and humorless, rushing from one protest to the next. Constantly policing her own behavior along with that of her family, friends, and colleagues, she is, to use Rush Limbaugh’s famous neologism, a “feminazi.”

Classic feminist cartoon. Artist and date unknown.

After hearing this litany, I do two things. First, I tell my students that I am a feminist. Startled that a feminist could be packaged as I am—a petite white heterosexual woman who smiles and has been known to wear lipstick—students then listen as I read a standard definition of “feminism,” such as this one from The American Heritage Dictionary: Feminism is the “belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes” as well as the “movement organized around this belief.” We talk about this definition, and many students begin to realize that, even if they had never thought so before, they are feminists. How could they not support a principle as American as “equality”? Our discussion then moves on to why, even though they know so little about what feminism actually is, they have such distorted images of what a feminist looks like. We talk about the media’s perpetuation of the feminist stereotype, referring to various filmic incarnations, such as Enid, the serious-looking law student in Legally Blonde, who holds a PhD in women’s studies with an “emphasis in the History of Combat.” I have students read the chapter from Susan Douglas’s Where the Girls Are about the media’s coverage of the women’s movement in the late 1960s and early ’70s so they can understand how current stereotypical images of feminists were deliberately constructed by a media culture antagonistic to many of feminism’s demands.

Like Douglas’s chapter, much of the material students read at the start of my introductory course emphasizes the importance of history. Women did not always have the rights they enjoy today, and it is crucial to learn about how women—and men—fought to change a society that, in spite of its talk about equality, disenfranchised the female sex until the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. Unless we read and study the history of women’s rights, we run the risk of forgetting what actually happened to women in the past, how they were treated, and how they were taught to think about themselves. My belief that people need to understand the history of feminism in the United States prompted me to write this book; in no way an exhaustive history, it sketches out the parameters of American feminist history so that readers can understand what feminism really is, what feminists believe, and what feminists have accomplished.

So much of what we take for granted in our everyday lives we owe to people who believed that women deserved to be treated equally in every area of their lives—in their homes and families, at work, before the law. Activists in the first wave of the women’s movement—the period extending from 1848, when the first women’s rights convention occurred, to 1920, when women gained suffrage—did more than secure the vote for women. Because of the work of first wavers, by the end of the nineteenth century, a woman could hold property in her own name, even after marriage; she could keep the money she earned if she worked for pay; and she could enter into contracts as well as sue people. By 1920, a woman could go to college and earn higher degrees; she could enter the professions; and she could live on her own without the “protection” of a husband or male guardian. These rights may seem pretty basic to us today, but they had to be fought for. Similarly, women in the second wave in the 1960s and ’70s agitated for and achieved many new rights for women, everything from greater access to employment and educational opportunities to reproductive rights, including abortion. Because of second wavers’ activism, a girl can play sports on school and community teams, a pregnant woman can choose to have a certified midwife rather than an obstetrician deliver her child, and a woman who has been sexually assaulted can call a rape crisis hotline.


     Riding Feminism’s Waves

Although second wavers started to call themselves feminists in the late 1960s, they did not initially think of their work as another “wave” of the women’s movement. At least initially, the language of “waves” served the purposes of the historian rather than of the participants in the women’s movement. Women’s rights activists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries certainly did not recognize the need for such terminology; they were trailblazers of the movement and thus did not know where it would go or how it would progress.

The conceptualization of feminism in terms of waves seems to have first appeared in March 1968, when Martha Lear wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine in which she referred to a “second feminist wave.” As the second wave progressed and women’s history developed as an academic specialty in the 1970s, feminists began to trace their connections to the activists who preceded them, referring to their precursors as the first wave and themselves as the second. These days, the terminology is commonplace.

In Moving the Mountain: The Women’s Movement in America Since 1960, Flora Davis explains the usefulness of the wave metaphor for describing how social change occurs: “First, there’s a lot of intense activity and some aspects of life are transformed; then . . . reaction sets in. Stability reigns for a while, and if there’s a strong backlash, some of the changes may be undone. Eventually, if vital issues remain unresolved, another wave of activism arises.”

The wave metaphor has been meaningful because it captures the forward and backward movement, the ebb and flow, of feminism. As feminist agitation has yielded some social changes, some segments of society have reacted against the changes, stalling forward momentum. The idea of continual motion, even if it isn’t always forward movement, is part of the appeal of the metaphor.

If women in the past have succeeded in making all of these gains, is there really any need for feminism today? Haven’t women achieved equality already? While American women certainly have more rights today than ever before, they still have a long way to go. For one thing, they are not paid equally: These days a woman can expect to earn 77 cents to a man’s dollar. Only twenty-three women are Fortune 500 CEOs; only 16.9 percent of the seats on corporate boards of directors are held by women. While there are more women involved in politics than ever, there are only twenty female U.S. senators (out of one hundred) and eighty-four female U.S. representatives (out of 435). Of the nine members of the Supreme Court, three are women, the largest number of women ever to serve at once. The social inequalities women face are as great as the economic and political ones. Women experience violence in their homes and families; they are subject to beauty ideals that encourage them to remake themselves through plastic surgery, skin bleaching, and disordered eating; and they have shrinking access to abortion, not to mention honest and thorough sex education. These continuing problems and inequalities suggest an ongoing need for feminist activism.

Feminism, however, is not just concerned with “equality.” Many people take issue with the standard dictionary definition of feminism because it tends to reinforce an androcentric understanding of equality: Women will become equal when they have what men have. Should women want merely to copy men, though? Aren’t there some flaws with the systems men have created? Indeed, aren’t these flaws what feminist activists are trying to redress? Some scholars and activists talk about feminism in very different ways, shifting the focus away from women’s trying to be like men and instead questioning whether women are even a unified category that can be understood to have the same interests and desires. In “Racism and Women’s Studies,” a talk delivered at the first National Women’s Studies Association conference in 1979, writer and activist Barbara Smith offered the following definition of feminism; it is one of two that I prefer: “Feminism is the political theory and practice that struggles to free all women: women of color, working-class women, poor women, disabled women, Jewish women, lesbians, old women—as well as white, economically privileged, heterosexual women. Anything less than this vision of total freedom is not feminism, but merely female self-aggrandizement.”

Perhaps the most striking thing about Smith’s definition is its insistence that feminism is for “all women”; it is not a project or movement designed only for those with the privileges conferred by skin color, wealth, or sexual orientation. As Smith’s definition insists, women come in all shapes and sizes, with all kinds of concerns; to talk about “women” as one broad category is thus impossible, since a black woman, for example, cannot separate her race and her sex—these axes of her identity intersect and are always present in her lived experience. She can never be just a black person; she can never be just a woman, either. According to Smith, then, feminism cannot be concerned solely with the oppression women face as women; it must be concerned with oppressions based on sex, race, class, ability, age, and sexual orientation, among other things. For instance, feminists are concerned about poor women’s ability to find jobs and the social services they need; feminists work to assist lesbian mothers wanting to adopt children; and feminists question the ways the dominant culture depicts women of color in exotic, unrealistic, and demeaning ways.

Smith’s definition does not use the word “equality”; instead, Smith states that feminism aims to “free all women.” What might women need to be freed from? Smith’s reference to freedom echoes the demands of activists in the civil rights and black power movements, not to mention the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and ’70s; these radical feminists wanted to liberate women from the constraints and oppressions caused by patriarchy, a social system in which men rule and women are pushed into positions of inferiority and subservience. It is likely that for Smith, patriarchy was only one of many systems from which women needed liberation.

The definition of feminism offered by scholar bell hooks in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, the second definition that I prefer, helps to clarify other things from which women might need to be freed. hooks writes: “Feminism is a struggle to end sexist oppression. Therefore, it is necessarily a struggle to eradicate the ideology of domination that permeates Western culture on various levels, as well as a commitment to reorganizing society so that the self-development of people can take precedence over imperialism, economic expansion, and material desires.”

This definition suggests that women need to be freed from sexism, or discrimination based on the belief that one sex is superior to the other. But hooks expands her critique so that it is not based just on sex; to hooks, “domination” is the root of the problem, and domination occurs when one person or group has power over another. According to hooks, society needs to be transformed so that all systems of domination, including not just patriarchy but racism, imperialism, and capitalism, are eradicated. All of society would be free if the “ideology of domination” were eliminated; as a result, people would be able to concentrate on “self-development.” Feminism, then, can be thought of as a belief system that, by ending domination in all of its guises, liberates people so they can be their best selves. This liberation leads to social transformation.

Second wave feminists were not the first to conceptualize feminism in terms of liberation, however. The idea of liberation has been a recurring theme in the history of the women’s movement. For instance, women’s rights activists in the nineteenth century wanted to break free of the shackles of patriarchy and domesticity. They wanted the freedom to gain an education, to work for pay, and to lead in the church, and thus they wished to liberate themselves from confining and constraining social roles. One of the best examples, albeit fictional, of this desire for freedom from the nineteenth century’s ideals of femininity is Edna Pontellier, the heroine of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. After beginning to awaken to sensuality during a summer vacation at the seaside, Edna returns home to New Orleans, where she abandons her duties as a conventional upper-middle-class matron, neglecting her work as hostess, homemaker, mother, and wife. Instead, she focuses on her own self-development, working on her painting, indulging her love for horse racing, amusing herself with a sexual dalliance, and even moving out of her husband’s house when the desire to be independent overwhelms her. Near the end of the novel, Edna stands naked on the beach; divesting herself of her clothes is symbolic of the way she has attempted to rid herself of the constraints her society has imposed on her as a woman.

Like Edna, women in the second wave wanted to free themselves from social roles they saw as conventional and stifling; in seeking careers and sexual pleasure they hoped to find personal fulfillment in ways that had been unavailable to their mothers. These days, liberation takes other forms: Some women want to free themselves from body ideals that deny the female body’s fullness and curves; other women seek freedom from patriarchal religious structures that do not give women any voice; still others wish to liberate themselves from the demand that women be able to “do it all,” as if they were some kind of superhero.

While American women have been seeking liberation for hundreds of years, they did not always use the word “feminist” to refer to themselves or their goals. The word “feminism” was based on the French word “feminisme,” which was coined in the 1880s by Hubertine Auclert, the founder of the first woman suffrage society in France. The English started to use the word in the 1890s, and the term emerged in American publications somewhere around the turn of the century, coming into wide use in the 1910s. Before this time, women referred to their belief in “woman’s rights,” “woman suffrage,” or the “woman movement,” a broad term used to indicate women’s works of benevolence and temperance as well as activism for higher education, better wages, and the vote. As Nancy Cott explains in The Grounding of Modern Feminism, even though to contemporary ears the phrase “woman movement” sounds strange and even grammatically incorrect, “Nineteenth-century women’s consistent usage of the singular woman symbolized, in a word, the unity of the female sex. It proposed that all women have one cause, one movement.” The phrase, then, worked as a call to solidarity, one that many women responded to during the course of the century. It is important to note, though, that the “woman movement” appealed only to those women who, because of their class and race privilege, were able to understand their identities in terms of their sex rather than in terms of any other identity category. Unlike Barbara Smith’s “feminism,” which is a movement for all women, the nineteenth-century “woman movement” was exclusive in its appeal to white, middle-class women.

By the time the term “feminism” came into widespread use in the 1910s, the idea of a “woman movement” sounded archaic, and the ideals of nineteenth-century womanhood themselves felt out of step with those held by more modern “New Women,” who increasingly lived on their own in urban settings, had college educations, and worked in professional or semiprofessional jobs. The first users of the word “feminism” tended to capitalize the term and did not always specify what it meant. In 1914, suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt defined feminism as a “world-wide revolt against all artificial barriers which laws and customs interpose between women and human freedom.” Catt, however, probably would not have called herself a “Feminist,” since she saw suffrage as the most important goal that women’s rights activists could achieve. In contrast, those who referred to themselves as “Feminists” saw the vote as essential and something to fight for, but they envisioned their goals more broadly, encompassing civil rights as well as opportunities for professional work, economic self-sufficiency, self-expression, and sexual freedom. As one woman stated, “All feminists are suffragists, but not all suffragists are feminists.”


     Party Girls and Protofeminists

When we try to identify the moment when women ceased being restrained Victorian ladies concerned with propriety and convention, our minds often fasten onto the 1920s. During this decade, the “flapper” lived what seemed to be the high life; with her bobbed hair, short skirts, and playful attitude, the flapper seems to signal the advent of a freer woman, one whose liberated attitude toward sexuality mirrors that of our own age. However, it’s important not to forget the flapper’s precursor, the “New Woman,” who became a type in the 1890s and remained popular until the advent of World War I.

The New Woman was young, well educated, and independent. She broke with convention in many ways, the most obvious being in her choice of dress. She typically wore a high-collared shirtwaist blouse, which she tucked into a dark skirt. This outfit underscored the New Woman’s no-nonsense approach to life: Except for its puffed sleeves, the blouse was plain, and the skirt wasn’t highly ornamented. It extended as far as her ankles, a length that made it easy to walk, hike, or ride a bicycle.

The most famous image of the New Woman was illustrator Charles Dana Gibson’s “Gibson Girl.” In countless images appearing in Life magazine in the 1890s, the Gibson Girl epitomized a new kind of American beauty, one that was self-confident, competent, and free. Although her long hair—worn piled onto her head—reflected an old-fashioned valuing of hair as women’s “crowning glory,” the New Woman’s athleticism represented a new kind of physical freedom for women.

In The New Womanhood, a book published in 1904, author Winnifred Harper Cooley wrote, “The finest achievement of the new woman has been personal liberty. This is the foundation of civilization. . . . The new woman, in the sense of the best woman, the flower of all the womanhood of past ages, has come to stay—if civilization is to endure.” Cooley suggested that the New Woman represented the pinnacle of womanhood; her “liberty,” which set her apart from her Victorian predecessors, made her a model for early feminists in the period leading up to the First World War.

Although the term became more widespread in the 1910s, only a small group of women called themselves “feminists” in the early twentieth century; it wasn’t until the late 1960s, when second wavers began to refer to themselves as feminists, that the term applied to a large constituency. Yet, even at first, some second wavers did not like the connotations of the word “feminist.” To them, it called to mind, as activist Shulamith Firestone put it, a “granite-faced spinster obsessed with the vote.” This association, of course, is ironic and anachronistic, but, in the minds of some radical women, a feminist was too white, too middle class, and too bourgeois in her desire for equality and her willingness to have women participate in “the system.” Unlike these women, radical feminists such as Firestone wanted to make fundamental changes to society, rejecting a social system they saw as sexist and unfair to women. However, after doing some reading on early women’s rights activists, Firestone, who would go on to publish the feminist classic The Dialectic of Sex, rethought her initial assessment of first wavers and criticized her peers who rejected any “connection with the old feminism, calling it kop-out [sic], reformist, bourgeois, without having bothered to examine the little . . . information there is on the subject.” In coming to see that first wavers were more radical than she had initially judged them, Firestone helped to reclaim the word “feminist” and encourage her peers to apply it to themselves.

Firestone and her peers in the second wave articulated theories that have altered the way we talk about men, women, and society. Indeed, we can thank feminists for reshaping society’s understanding of the roles, behaviors, and attitudes available to men and women. One of the key contributions of second wave feminists was the rejection of a traditional division of labor in which men were cast as breadwinners and women as homemakers. According to this norm, men’s work took them into the public realm, where they were required to develop


On Sale
Jan 26, 2016
Page Count
200 pages
Seal Press

Rory C. Dicker

About the Author

Rory Dicker teaches classes about women and literature, feminist pedagogy, and the history of American feminisms at Vanderbilt University, where she is the director of the Margaret Cuninggim Women’s Center. She is the coeditor of Catching a Wave: Reclaiming Feminism for the 21st Century.

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