Feminist Organizing After the Women’s March: Lessons from the Second Wave
Feminist Organizing After the Women’s March: Lessons from the Second Wave
While its vision of equality is still far from being fully realized, the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and ’70s won important victories and offers vital lessons for today’s organizers.
An earlier version of this article appeared at Waging Nonviolence.
Fifty years ago, feminist organizing in the United States entered a vibrant new phase of activity. While pinning down an exact starting date is a controversial endeavor, several major events in the late 1960s heralded the birth of what is often called second-wave feminism. The year 1966 saw the establishment of the National Organization of Women, or NOW, while 1967 featured both the introduction of the Equal Rights Amendment into the Senate and groundbreaking pickets at the New York Times opposing sex-segregated job ads. Then, in 1968, protests at the Miss America pageant set off a whirlwind period that marked the movement’s most intensive use of direct action. It also announced the existence of radical feminism, a branch of the movement with an agenda and attitude distinct from the organizing of liberal groups such as NOW.
In the decades since, our society has been transformed by feminism. Changes wrought by the movement have afforded new generations the freedom to transgress once-rigid gender roles, and they have provided hundreds of millions of women with opportunities for personal fulfillment, degrees of independence, and professional accomplishment that were routinely denied their forebears. That said, the vision of equality and liberation promoted by radical feminism is still far from being fully realized.
It is no small irony that, in 2017, Donald Trump, the former owner of the Miss USA franchise and an infamous fount of sexist behavior, became the nation’s president.
The elevation of Hillary Clinton to the White House was meant to be a high point for American women. Instead, the 2016 election pointed to the need for a renewed vision of radical feminism—one that goes beyond corporate feminism’s focus on the presence of women in executive suites and high political office, and that instead speaks powerfully to women who work multiple jobs for low wages and who may lack adequate health care, decent housing and affordable childcare.
Many progressives are rightly dismayed at what Trump’s presidency might suggest about the persistence of sexism fifty years after the emergence of the women’s liberation movement. What will be significant in facing the horrors of the Trump administration will be whether this dismay can be channeled into a revitalized grassroots movement to confront the sexism and racism that Trump embodies, the newly emboldened threat to reproductive rights, and the coming attacks on the social safety net.
The fact that upwards of 500,000 people attended the Women’s March on Washington, which took place the weekend after Trump’s inauguration—and that some 3 million more participated in parallel marches throughout the country—suggests that such a movement can find a energetic base of support. Those organizing this base should draw lessons from the upheaval of fifty years ago—the history of which is too little known, even among progressives.
Looking back at this period of revolt, we can ask: How did it erupt? Why did it end? And what did it accomplish?
Banner dropping Miss America
On September 7, 1968, nearly 400 members of a group called New York Radical Women famously disrupted the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City. Judith Ford, the former Miss Illinois—who had performed on a trampoline earlier in the competition—was being crowned the new Miss America. Just as she began giving her acceptance speech, the action started. Feminists who had snuck inside the pageant hall unfurled a banner reading “Women’s Liberation.” Meanwhile, on the boardwalk outside, hundreds of women symbolically deposited “instruments of female torture”—including bras, high heels, mops, and pots and pans—into a large trash bin to express their view that the pageant commodified women for the profit of men. Flo Kennedy, an African-American activist and lawyer who handled legal defense for the women arrested, fought to include the pageant’s racism in the protest and arranged for support from a local black-owned resort, which served as a staging ground for the disruption.
The banner drop was broadcast into homes nationwide on live network television. As the protest grabbed national headlines, group member Carol Hanisch declared, “millions of Americans now know there is a Women’s Liberation struggle.”
It was the start of something significant. Following the Miss America protest, feminists unleashed a series of high-profile demonstrations and guerrilla theater stunts with lasting implications. When considering the movement’s use of disruptive protest, the time between September 1968 and August 1970 is particularly noteworthy, marking a two-year period when the movement successfully captured media attention and made women’s liberation into a widely recognized phenomenon. Defying expectations of “ladylike” behavior, feminists gave name to forms of sexism and discrimination that had been previously unacknowledged in the mainstream—raising issues ranging from sexual harassment and discriminatory hiring, to sexist media representation and barriers to reproductive freedom, to unequal pay and a lack of publicly supported childcare.
Interestingly, this period of unusually high-profile public action often goes unrecognized. As civil resistance scholar April Carter notes, direct action protest is not often associated with second-wave feminism, especially in comparison with the racial justice and anti-war movements of the same era. The central role of consciousness-raising groups and the frequent references to Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” as the book that changed women’s lives have contributed the image of second-wave feminism as an “inward-facing” movement. Popular iconography of the movement often includes a group of women sitting together in their living rooms, or a tattered copy of Friedan’s book. Political scientist Joyce Gelb writes, “While most analysts see protest as central to the activities of social movements … protest has never been employed as a central tool by most feminists.”
There is some truth in this characterization. Instead of prioritizing direct action or mass mobilization, different branches of second-wave feminism focused on other forms of social movement activity—namely, lobbying and lawsuits on the part of more mainstream groups, and consciousness-raising on the part of many radicals. By the early 1970s, these established themselves as the dominant forms of organizing in the movement, and they contributed to securing significant social and legal advances.
However, the intense period of direct action between 1968 and 1970 also had important consequences, and there is good reason to remember the militant and creative wave of protests that commenced five decades prior to today’s Women’s March on Washington.
While much social movement theory stresses the importance of long-term organizing, scholar Frances Fox Piven has highlighted the critical role of disruptive protest. She argues that relatively short-lived moments of concentrated upheaval have been vital in producing transformative change in U.S. history. “The drama of such events,” Piven writes, “combined with the disorder that results, propels new issues to the center of political debate, issues that were previously suppressed by the managers of political parties that depend on welding together majorities.”
A variety of other theorists and activists have also recognized the power of what Saul Alinsky protégé Nicholas von Hoffman—in the wake of the 1961 Freedom Rides—dubbed the “moment of the whirlwind.” In these times, the normal rules of incremental campaigning seem to be suspended. Unexpected crises, political scandals or dramatic public actions—such as the Freedom Rides or the Miss America protests—become “trigger events” that capture public attention and spur heightened levels of social movement activity. These, in turn, create the potential for new triggers.
The period of intensive public protest that commenced in 1968 can be seen as just such a whirlwind. Putting feminism on the national agenda in a way it had not been before, it expanded the range of issues around which mainstream groups were willing to campaign. And it fueled a generative moment in which dozens of new groups, publications and collectives emerged. While liberal advocacy organizations were important in securing some of the landmark legal and political victories of second-wave feminism, and radical consciousness-raising groups and alternative spaces solidified the social and cultural legacy of the movement, each of these approaches benefited in important ways from the surge in protest activity at the end of the 1960s.
Zap, speakout, occupy
Critiquing liberal feminists’ pursuit of formal equality for women within the existing system, radical feminists took aim at traditional conceptions of social and family life, and they linked feminism to a leftist dissatisfaction with America’s political and economic power structures. Theatrical protest did much to bring this perspective to a wide audience, successfully capitalizing on media interest in the new wave.
Following the Miss America action, membership in New York Radical Women soared. While previous meetings, on average, had around thirty-five participants, attendance rose to around 200 people. Ultimately, the organization seeded new groups, including Redstockings and the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, or WITCH. The latter aimed to take up where the anti-war Yippies left off, launching a series of feminist street theater stunts. The participants called their actions “zaps.”
The first, famous zap took place on Halloween—October 31, 1968—when WITCH announced itself to the world with a piece of anti-capitalist guerilla theater that named the market economy as a target of feminist critique. As historian Annelise Orleck describes in her book “Rethinking American Women’s Activism,” the group’s members marched down Wall Street in pointed hats, fright makeup, and rags, calling “on supernatural forces to produce a decline in the Dow Jones Industrial Average.” Activists rejoiced the next day when the Dow mysteriously dropped five points.
Some five months later, in February 1969, approximately 150 WITCH members descended on the New York Bridal Fair in Madison Square Garden to protest traditional gender roles, consumerism, and the institution of marriage. Among other actions at the fair, activists donned black veils and performed an “Un-Wedding” ceremony to pronounce themselves “Free Human Beings.” Similar disruptions of bridal events took place in other cities, including San Diego and San Francisco.
Also in February 1969, the group Redstockings disrupted a New York State Legislature hearing on abortion. The hearing featured a panel of “expert witnesses” which turned out to consist of fourteen men and just one woman—a nun. Faced with boisterous protest, the hearing quickly adjourned. Redstockings proceeded to organize its own abortion speakout the next month in the West Village, where a dozen women testified with actual expertise about their abortions before an audience of 300. Writer and activist Ellen Willis compared the speakout to the teach-ins that had effectively mobilized public opinion against the Vietnam War.
Throughout the year, autonomous WITCH “covens” staged other demonstrations around the country. Activists scattered hair and nails around a building at the University of Chicago to protest the firing of a feminist professor, heckled politicians in Washington, D.C., and interrupted the Milwaukee press club Gridiron Dinner to highlight the “boys’ club” dynamic within the media industry and to protest the way in which advertising enforced traditional gender roles.
On January 7, 1970, sixty women at the University of California-Berkeley assembled to denounce the fact that karate classes on the campus were open only to men. The group marched into the men’s locker room at a university gymnasium, then extended protests to the chancellor’s office, demanding not only access to self-defense training, but also an end to employment discrimination, the creation of women’s history courses, and free childcare for employees and students at the university.
Other high-profile actions in the Bay Area took place around the same time. These included an invasion of the editorial offices of the San Francisco Chronicle with demands for equal employment of women and an end to sexist advertising; a demonstration that targeted the Pacific Telephone Company’s San Francisco office for its refusal to hire women as telephone installers; and several occupations of radio stations, where activists insisted on more programming by and about women.
‘Women are the real left’
In early 1970, a collective of radical women in Washington, D.C., attended Senate hearings on the negative health impacts of the birth control pill, which at the time contained harmful doses of hormones. Sitting in the Senate chamber, the feminists became incensed as one male expert after another was called to testify, without a single woman being asked to share her experience on the pill. The women first raised their hands quietly to intervene, then stood with hands up. When still unacknowledged, they began yelling, “Why are you using women as guinea pigs?” and “Why are you letting the drug companies murder us for their profit and convenience?” Their televised protest turned the hearings into a major public spectacle, with 87 percent of women between the ages of 21 and 45 reporting that they were paying attention. In the end, not only did drug companies lower hormone levels in the pill but, after continued pressure from the nascent women’s health movement, the FDA began mandating that companies insert disclosure sheets about dosage and side effects into prescription medication—a major change in industry practice that we now take for granted.
In February 1970, New York City feminists staged a takeover of the underground newspaper Rat, protesting what they saw as its use of sexism under the disguise of provocation. They produced a “liberated” issue that included organizer Robin Morgan’s famous essay condemning sexism on the left, entitled “Goodbye to All That.” The essay pinpointed a political shift that many feminists were experiencing. Rather than seeing themselves primarily as activists in the civil rights and anti-war movements, they began naming sexism as a central source of oppression and embracing a political identity as women. Refusing to view feminist struggles as somehow peripheral to the core concerns of progressive politics, Morgan asserted: “Women are the real left.”
The following month, in March, some 200 radical women, dressed in what they called “revolutionary disguise”—traditional skirts and blouses rather than their usual jeans—made their way into the offices of the Ladies Home Journal. With a circulation of 14 million, the Journal was the most widely read women’s magazine in the country, yet its senior editorial staff was made of almost all men. As the occupation commenced, one observer wrote, “In an office which normally had seating room for a dozen, there suddenly were women everywhere, standing, sitting on the floor, draped over the table and the windowsills, and spilled out into the halls.” The occupation lasted for eleven hours, during which time the women helped themselves to the cigars from editor-in-chief John Mack Carter’s corner office and demanded both that the magazine make changes to incorporate feminist perspectives and that it hire more women and people of color.
Ultimately they won the right to publish an eight-page insert on women’s liberation in the magazine, which ran in the August issue. The impact of the occupation could be seen in subsequent years when traditional women’s magazines often excerpted feminist books and offered more sympathetic coverage of the movement than most mainstream sources. Years later, Carter looked back on the action and admitted being chastened: “Confrontation is certainly effective on the confrontee,” he quipped.
Even groups perceived as more moderate undertook confrontational actions during this period. Members of NOW organized a “flush-in” of Colgate-Palmolive’s cleaning products to highlight the company’s discriminatory policies, demonstrated at the Los Angeles Hall of Justice to protest prosecutions of abortion doctors, and disrupted Senate proceedings in Washington, D.C., to demand hearings on the Equal Rights Amendment (which were ultimately held later in the year).
The two-year rush of action culminated in the Women’s Strike for Equality on August 26, 1970, organized by NOW, in which as many as 50,000 women marched in New York City, with thousands more joining solidarity marches in cities across the country. The strike was the largest-ever women’s protest in the United States to that date. And while the radical branch of the movement had generally been suspicious of mass mobilizations—seeing them as having a limited impact in curtailing the Vietnam War—the Women’s Strike for Equality marked an important moment of unity between liberal and radical groups, which came together around core demands for abortion rights, equal pay, and free childcare.
Before and after the storm
This listing of protests represents only a sampling of the activity that took place, and it must be viewed with several caveats in mind.
First, any attempt to set a fixed starting point or end date of this wave of feminist direct action is debatable, as noteworthy protests took place both before and after. The year prior to the Miss America actions, NOW began picketing the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to win employment protection for women and demonstrated outside the New York Times to denounce its sex-segregated job ads. Moreover, a number of earlier actions—such as the Jeanette Rankin Brigade’s mock funeral procession for “Traditional Womanhood” at a January 1968 march against the Vietnam War—marked the separation of radical feminism from other currents of the New Left.
Significant protests also coalesced after 1970, although in less frequent bursts. These included a 1971 building occupation in Cambridge that lasted ten days and resulted in the establishment of the Cambridge Women’s Center. A protest in 1975 became the first march to assemble under the name Take Back the Night. And, at several moments at the close of the decade, there were significant marches in support of the Equal Rights Amendment, with the largest events rallying as many as 100,000 people.
Another caveat relates to the composition of the movement. Press reports tended to focus on protests by groups of largely white, college-educated women in coastal cities, and to overlook protests by women of color. As second-wave feminism surged, the media was eager anoint a few telegenic celebrity feminists as spokespeople, rather than to highlight the work of organizers. Gloria Steinem, a freelance journalist with few ties to movement work when she began writing about feminism, became a glamorous representation of media-friendly feminism, albeit one who came from working-class roots and had some radical sympathies. For many years, Steinem made a point of appearing on stage with African-American feminists, most prominently Flo Kennedy and Dorothy Pitman Hughes, a founder of Ms. magazine and organizer of the first battered women shelter in New York City, but Hughes never became a household name.
As scholar Stephanie Gilmore has noted, the belief that the second wave was dominated by white, middle-class women—and therefore preoccupied with issues of concern to them—has been widespread for decades now. This story highlights the real alienation many women of color felt from some feminist organizations. Yet, as Gilmore’s thorough study of feminist coalitions demonstrates, it also conceals the multiracial activism and organizing by women of color that flourished during the period.
In terms of direct action, the welfare rights movement also made use of boisterous and disruptive protest in the closing years of the 1960s. Agitating for the rights of welfare recipients and for a guaranteed annual income, activists from the National Welfare Rights Organization turned to sit-ins and office takeovers when less abrasive lobbying tactics came up short. In 1968, activists organized a series of direct actions called “Brood Mare Stampedes,” a reference to a term an angry senator had used to refer to pro-welfare demonstrators, most of whom were women of color. Early National Welfare Rights Organization leaders such as George Wiley preferred to frame welfare rights issues in economic terms, rather than as women’s issues. Yet the women of color who came to lead the group by the early 1970s increasingly highlighted connections with feminism. Johnnie Tillmon, the organization’s chairperson, wrote in 1971 that the members of the welfare rights movement represented “the front line troops of women’s freedom.” In 1972 she penned a famous article for Ms. magazine entitled “Welfare is a Women’s Issue,” memorably comparing the ill-treatment of welfare recipients to a “supersexist marriage” in which one turns in “a man” for “the man.”
Why did it end?
These caveats notwithstanding, the Miss America disruption initiated a concentrated period that, in hindsight, marked the high point for nonviolent direct action in the second-wave feminism—an outburst of protest that was not replicated with the same intensity before or afterward. Confrontational and provocative, these actions were often derided and mocked at the time, yet they were incredibly effective in shifting public discussion and recruiting more activists to the cause. Zaps, disruptions, and occupations between the fall of 1968 and the summer of 1970 went far in creating a whirlwind moment for women’s liberation—a period that can be compared to the year following the 1999 Seattle protests for the movement against corporate globalization, the spring of 2006 for the immigrant rights movement, or the fall of 2011 for Occupy Wall Street.
So why did this whirlwind end?
In part, this is simply the nature of disruptive movements. Frances Fox Piven argues that moments of intensive unrest tend to be short lived, as protest movements “burst forth, often quite suddenly and surprisingly,” then subside. One factor is simple exhaustion: peak levels of mobilization cannot be sustained forever, and interest from outside parties often drops off over time. In the case of second-wave feminism, the ever fickle mainstream media’s move to turn its attention elsewhere dampened the impact of protest. As longtime activist and co-founder of the New York Radical Feminists Ann Snitow explains, “At first there was a sense that things were bursting out everywhere, and it was exhilarating. We were on the cover of every magazine. But then the media turned the lights off when they realized, ‘these women who we liked to make fun of are actually serious.’” While concerted organizing continued during the opening years of the 1970s, feminist groups could no longer rely on the press to amplify their efforts.
Another factor is that changing political conditions—often the result of movements securing some initial victories—can cool organizing. Evidence of this pattern can be seen in the second wave: From 1969 to 1973, radicals in Chicago formed the Jane collective, a network that trained activists to perform their own safe but illegal abortions. Members estimated that they performed 11,000 abortions during this time. However, codification of national abortion rights in 1973, with the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, brought an end to this civil disobedience. Initial movement success also led to backlash, as conservatives began organizing in earnest to block feminist advances.
Still other factors, more specific to feminist organizing of the period, led to a shift. Robin Morgan writes in her 1978 memoir Going Too Far that, by the end of 1969, WITCH members in New York were feeling self-critical about how some of their actions had alienated mainstream women, such as the brides-to-be at the bridal fair. The activists moved toward doing consciousness-raising rather than high-profile zaps—undertaking internal organizing rather than agitating in the streets. Within a year, the “mother coven” of WITCH disbanded altogether.
Consciousness-raising was initially seen as an activist intellectual project that would build the knowledge base necessary for collective action. Writer and activist Kathie Sarachild, generally credited with coining the term, traced its origins to educational practices within the civil rights movement. Women meeting in small groups, sharing common experiences, and seeing their personal problems as part of a wider political struggle afforded a powerfully liberating experience to tens of thousands of women. As Susan Brownmiller has argued, the tenets of this process of collective politicization would later become so common as to seem routine and unexceptional. Yet, she writes, “I can attest that in New York City during the late 1960s and early ’70s, nothing was more exciting, or more intellectually stimulating, than to sit in a room with a bunch of women who were working to uncover their collective truths.”
Consciousness-raising groups spread rapidly in the early 1970s, and they served as a vital organizing tool for the movement. Yet scholars such as Jo Freeman have argued that, over time, the predominance of consciousness-raising among radicals at the expense of other activity contributed to an inward turn. “Consciousness-raising was supposed to be the means to an end,” Freeman writes. Yet it soon “practically took over the younger branch of the movement as its sole raison d’être.” Rather than strategizing on how to shift public opinion, many consciousness-raising groups became internally focused. This move, Freeman contends, “altered the movement’s immediate targets from the general public to that of women in the consciousness-raising groups” themselves.
In her history of radical feminism, Daring to Be Bad, Alice Echols describes a related shift in the 1970s from radical to “cultural feminism,” wherein “the movement turned its attention away from opposing male supremacy to creating a female counterculture.” She adds, “concomitantly, the focus became one of personal rather than social transformation.”
Freeman, who has famously written about the “tyranny of structurelessness,” argues that the small, unstructured and non-hierarchical group—modeled after those used for consciousness-raising—became the movement’s norm, and that these “frequently became closed, encapsulated units.” Moreover, it was not uncommon within these groups for the movement’s suspicion of traditional, hierarchical leadership to morph into a suspicion of all leadership. This produced a culture of interpersonal “trashing” and led to the expulsion of many prominent women activists from the organizations they helped found.
Not all efforts ended in self-isolation. The many alternative institutions created by local groups—including women’s centers, bookstores, battered women’s shelters, small presses and rape crisis centers—created critical spaces in which to recruit new members and sustain a movement culture. Particularly outside of large coastal cities, in places where opportunities for engagement could be sparse, these institutions provided lifelines for thousands of women who would otherwise have been cut off from movement activity.
Yet the reality of encapsulation did have negative consequences. As the 1970s progressed, attempts to sway public opinion and influence public policy were left largely to the more established liberal organizations. With the strident, headline-grabbing presence of the movement’s radical wing diminishing, these organizations resumed less confrontational lobbying efforts. Moreover, liberals were unable to benefit from a “radical flank” effect, in which the presence of radicals on the public stage could make them look more reasonable and their positions easier to accommodate. By the mid-to-late 1970s, as conservatives organized a determined counteroffensive, liberals were forced into an increasingly defensive posture.
Harvesting from rich soil
Describing the impact of whirlwind moments in social movements, political scientist Aristide Zolberg writes, “stepped-up participation is like a flood tide which loosens up much of the soil but leaves alluvial deposits in its wake.” Although the impact of movement eruptions are not always as directly traceable as those of traditional lobbying campaigns, these outbreaks can go far in shifting the terrain of political debate and opening new opportunities for progress. After they pass, those seeking to institutionalize change can harvest from richer soil.
Alice Echols writes that, by 1970, “talk of women’s liberation (or more often, women’s lib) was everywhere.” This translated into concrete gains. On each of the three demands that provided points of unity between liberals and radicals during the Women’s Strike for Equality—abortion rights, equal pay, and free childcare—the early 1970s proved to be times of substantial progress.
Coming of age in an era when even contraception was often unavailable to unmarried women, many feminists spoke of the prospect of unplanned pregnancy as a constant fear in their early adult lives and as a galvanizing force for their activism. Thus, securing abortion rights was a pivotal gain of the period. In 1970, the state of New York passed the most progressive abortion law in the country. Wider progress followed in 1973 with the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, which marked a sea change in reproductive rights.
Feminists also realized significant gains on issues of employment and educational discrimination. In 1972, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act strengthened language in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that forbade discrimination on the basis of sex. This shift allowed feminists to effectively pressure the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to take action against employers. Furthermore, the year 1972 saw the expansion of the 1963 Equal Pay Act, as well as the enactment of Title IX, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program—including sports. As one telling statistic shows, women made up just 20 percent of college undergraduates in 1950, but constituted a majority by 1990.
Childcare was a final issue on which the new political landscape presented important paths to progress. As historian Rosalyn Baxandall has argued, one of the most prominent and inaccurate myths regarding feminists activists of the late 1960s and 1970s was that they were uninterested in or even hostile to mothers and their kids, and therefore unconcerned with issues related to childcare. In fact, childcare was a demand of many early actions, including the Ladies Home Journal sit-in. Amid movement pressure, it was also the subject of extensive legislative hearings between 1968 and 1971. These led to the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971, a piece of legislation that would have established universal childcare, with centers funded by the federal government. This represented a truly sweeping proposition by today’s standards, and it is remarkable to note that the bill passed through both houses of Congress. Unfortunately, it was vetoed by President Nixon, who explicitly objected to its collectivism.
As Nixon’s veto indicates, feminists were by no means able to score all the wins they wanted—and the gains they did make would be targets of later conservative backlash. As the 1970s progressed, and the disruptive peak of second-wave feminism receded, liberals had considerably less success on their own than when their radical flank was most visible. Just three years after Roe, the abortion rights movement suffered a major defeat with the passage of the Hyde amendment, which prohibited the use of Medicaid funding for abortion and which was later expanded to include further restrictions. On the employment front, the difficulty of proving discrimination claims under existing law made lawsuits by liberal groups a slow, piecemeal effort. The shift by liberals to focusing on the Equal Rights Amendment proved vulnerable to counterattack by conservatives, who successfully prevented it from clearing the high bar required for ratification. Finally, as right-wing legislators became more and more vocal in their opposition to universal childcare, and as the Carter White House proved to be a lukewarm ally, feminist advocates were unable to push beyond their success from earlier in the decade.
Such limits notwithstanding, second-wave feminism had durable offshoots and has left a formidable legacy, particularly compared with other movements that have had intensive peaks and then quickly died out. In addition to legally implemented changes, feminism has brought about myriad social and cultural shifts. The women’s health movement, best known for the huge success of the collectively-produced “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” was highly effective in challenging the patriarchal treatment of women by their doctors. The proliferation of women’s studies programs and feminist scholarship has exposed countless people to women’s liberation struggles throughout history—something that would have been unthinkable when early second-wave activists burned their diplomas to showcase the disconnect between their educations and lived experiences. And the movement gave name to problems of domestic violence, sexual harassment, and sexual assault, which were once viewed not as social issues at all, but simply as facts of life.
Not only have later generations of feminists been able to build on this foundation, but activists from the second wave also went on to become key players in advocating for a variety of other causes in the late 1970s and the ’80s, with feminist perspectives influencing the organizing models and direct action tactics. These include the peace and anti-nuclear movements, campaigns against nuclear power, the Central American solidarity movement, radical environmentalism, and the struggle for LGBT rights. Feminist “zaps,” for example, became important models for disruptions by ACT UP during the height of the AIDS crisis.
The coming years promise grave challenges. Yet it is worth remembering that the activists who launched the whirlwind of feminist action in the late 1960s faced sexism that was not only pervasive but almost entirely uncontroversial in mainstream opinion. A revived feminist movement in the Trump era—tasked with confronting historic economic inequality, an openly racist president, and an administration promising policies harmful to the great majority of women—should be no less ambitious, unapologetic and disruptive.
Laura Tanenbaum is an associate professor at LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York, whose work has appeared in publications including Jacobin, Dissent and the New York Times.
Mark Engler is a writer based in Philadelphia and an editorial board member at Dissent. His latest book is This Is an Uprising.