Feminist Herstory Pt. 3 – Let’s Judge Ourselves as People

We’re back for the occasional history of feminist theory. Earlier posts are here:

Feminist Herstory Pt. 1 – It is discovered that Women are PEOPLE!!!

Feminist Herstory Pt. 2 – Here comes the FIRST WAVE

Burning bras and breaking free!

The Depression didn’t kill the feminist movement but with the right to vote and record unemployment, activist women diverted their energy to the right to work and unionize. World War II actually was a period of empowerment for women. As men shipped off to the Pacific and Europe to fight the enemy, women took over many of the social positions they vacated. Not only did women go to work in the jobs at factories and office buildings left open by men, they became a major part of the industrial workforce in the war effort. Women were building tanks and battleships and assembling munitions. The number of working women increased by 57% from 1940 to 1944. They were immortalized in the classic images of Rosie the Riveter. There would be no Allied victory without the formerly weak females building B-52 bombers.


Susan Faludi points out in her 1991 book, Backlash, that these working women not only had their own money (and government funded childcare), with their men overseas they also had some space. This was reflected in the media of the time. Gone were the Betty Boops and damsels in distress. In their place were strong independent women who drove storylines in movies and radio programs. A perfect example is Woman of the Year (1942). In this classic film, Spencer Tracy has to negotiate the new gender dynamic with his talented wife, played perfectly by Katherine Hepburn.


But like all good things, World War II came to an end and most of those men came home to reclaim their old jobs and women. Kathrine Hepburn was replaced by Marilyn Monroe and films like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The resulting “baby boom” put women back in the kitchen, pregnant and getting dinner on the table at 6 pm.

But after that glimpse of economic freedom, feminism was far from dead. In 1953, Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 book, The Second Sex, was made available in English. De Beauvoir, the life partner of French existentialist Jean-Paul Satre, made waves with The Second Sex by separating the terms sex and gender. The famous quote from the book, “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman,” opened the door for discussions of gender socialization. The Second Sex also outlined the many ways females are marginalized as aberrations and second-class people.

Unfortunately for 1950s feminists, The Second Sex wasn’t as popular as romantic novels, like James Jones’ From Here to Eternity (1951). The 50s were characterized as a time of consumerism and domesticity and women were expected to find happiness in housekeeping and mothering. That is until the 1960s happened. Betty Friedan’s 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, identified the “problem with no name,” and that problem was sexism.

Friedan, who has written that she was pressured to leave her graduate work at Berkeley by her boyfriend, had been a union activist. She was fired from her job as a union writer when she became pregnant with her second child. The idea for The Feminine Mystique came after her 15th college reunion. When surveying female college graduates she found a similar theme. (White middle-class) women asked, “is that all?” Were their lives meant to be lived in the shadows of their men?  Didn’t they have the right to pursue their own dreams?


The Feminine Mystique kicked of the “Second Wave” of feminism. Where the first wave was primarily concerned with political empowerment (suffrage), the second wavers addresses the broader marginalization of women in society. In 1966, Friedan co-founded the National Organization of Women (NOW). NOW took on not only the issues of first-wavers, like abortion rights, but also the expansion of the civil rights legislation to protect women from discrimination.

MISS AMERICA 09 07 196803

The second wave went to the heart of the marginalization of women, the Miss America pageant. Since 1921, the Miss America pageant has promoted itself as the annual crowning of the most beautiful (young) woman in America. The beauty contest was (and is) the largest source of college scholarship money for females in America. You might be beautiful on the inside, but if you don’t look smashing in a bathing suit (now a bikini) you have no hope of getting that college money. In 1968, feminists protested outside the contest in Atlantic City. The protesters crowned a sheep as Miss America. They threw many of the symbols of female beauty, including (male designed) bras, into a trashcan. Although the trashcan was never lit, the feminists were forever labeled as “bra burners.”

Coming Soon: Part 4 – The Second Wave Arrives.

The following books mentioned above are available at Powell’s by clicking the covers below.

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