The Rise of Feminism

Updated on May 11, 2017
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Sherri is a Certified Meditation Instructor, Reiki Practitioner, and Yogi.

The Vote, The Movement, The Future

Feminism in the 21st Century is a mix of many different feminist beliefs. From the influence of the first movement that took root in 1840 to present times, the end goal of the women’s movement has not strayed from its intense desire to achieve gender-based equality. The attitudes and methods of the movement’s participants, however, have varied throughout this struggle for equality. Feminism has historically left a bitter taste in the mouths of the conservative Christian population because many women and men associated with the feminist movement endorse gay rights and abortion. However, from a functional standpoint, feminism has improved the quality of life for modern women.

The purpose of this article is not solely about supporting or condemning the feminist agenda. Instead, the article will focus on the history and characteristics of early 20th century feminism and the radical feminism of the 1960s in relation to the present status of gender equity and awareness from a structural and functional approach.

In sociology, the structural and functional approach is based on the work of Robert K. Merton. This approach is useful when trying to understand a social event in terms of its purpose or usefulness. In keeping with the true structural and functional approach, first and second generation feminism will be dissected to look at the manifest and latent consequences of the movement.

The Rise of Feminism

Cuzzort and King (1995) define manifest functions as “objective consequences (for an individual group or social or cultural system) that contribute to its adjustment and were son intended”(Cuzzort &King, 1995, 251). Therefore, it can be said that the manifest function of the early feminist movement was to give women the right to vote. The desire to vote and to have a voice soon gave way to the realization that women were treated unequally in other ways. This revelation soon gave birth to an ideology that has often been criticized and misunderstood.

The ideology of feminism—especially radical feminism can not be defined until an understanding of the origins of feminism is established. Feminism was born in 1840, when women of the era began to question their rights. Many women like Lucretia Coffin Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton began to call for an end to the political oppression suffered by American women. Women were not satisfied with their second-class status as citizens. Women wanted the right to vote; to obtain an education; and to own property. This period in history is known as the first wave of women’s movements

Stanton (2000) looked at the traditional female roles as being designed to “preserve her purity and her social position” (Stanton, 2000, 507). Therefore, the primary social function of woman in the mid-to-late 1800s required her to be the nurturing mother or the loving a dutiful wife. However, women were beginning to realize the need to be prepared to function as their own guardian and protector and with this realization, the desire to attend institutions of higher learning and to seek careers in once male-dominated fields began to look less like a dream and more like an achievable goal.

From a social and religious standpoint, the movement received little support. Stanton (2009) writes that when women tried to enter the workplace, men walked away from their jobs. When women preached the gospel, they were condemned because “good men” were “apt to be governed more by authorities and precedents than reason” (Stanton, 2000, 509). Stanton and her contemporaries pushed for a change in precedent. She and other leaders of the movement urged men to stand up to tradition and encourage society to adopt new norms and customs.

The efforts of the first feminists came to fruition on August 26, 1920, when women were officially given the constitutional right to vote. Cott (1987) states “The Nineteenth Amendment is the most obvious benchmark in the history of women in politics in the United States” (Cott, 1987, 85). Supporters of the suffragist movement had won the first of many battles.

Earning the right to vote achieved the primary goal of this first wave of feminism, but the suffragists accomplished much more than a place at the polls on Election Day. This victory created a new sense of solidarity among women. Stanton (2000) compared women of this period to passengers on a ship uniting to face dangers as they navigated uncharted waters. More importantly, women at this time were developing a greater self-awareness and confidence.

This new level of awareness and independence illustrates an important latent function of the first suffragist movement. Cuzzort & King (1995) define a latent function as “consequences that contribute to adjustment but were not so intended” (Cuzzort & King, 1995, 251). In its early stages, the movement anticipated change and attempted liberation of women from subjugation. However, the latent functions of the movement could not truly be identified until the second generation of feminism emerged.

The Birth of Radical Feminism

The second wave of feminism has traditionally received more criticism than the first wave that transpired at the turn of the 20th century. According to Tobias (1997), “It used to be thought that the second wave of feminism in America burst upon the political scene out of the 1960s counterculture, having no particular links to our past” (Tobias, 1997, 71). However, some scholars feel the roots of this movement began to form as early as 1930. Tobias (1997) states, “First, we know now that the long period of feminist quiescence was not entirely without activism and that many women (in the 1930s, 1940s, and even 1950s) found their way into left wing and labor politics, where they championed peace, international cooperation, desegregation, unionism and even equal pay” (Tobias,1997, 71).

The Great Depression saw the rise of the Communist Party and was the breeding ground for leftist political platforms. People were beginning to see a need to facilitate social change. Leftist political ideology really began to take hold in the 1960s as the decade witnessed the rise of the New Left. Members of the New Left actively supported civil rights and vehemently protested the war in Vietnam.

Both women and men were dedicated to the New Left. However, the political activities of the New Left were governed by men. Wood (2005) states, “Men dominated New Left leadership, whereas women activists were expected to make coffee, type news releases, and memos, do the menial work of organizing, and be ever available for the men’s sexual recreation. Women were generally not allowed to represent the movement in public—their voices were not recognized or respected” (Wood, 2005, 63). One well-respected supporter of the anti-war movement, Elise Boulding, was relegated to serving coffee at an anti-war demonstration. When asked about her involvement in the first American campus teach-in held at the University of Michigan, Boulding joked, “And guess what we were doing their? I and the other faculty wives were serving coffee as the nights wore on!” (Morrison, 2005, 134).

As the decade progressed, women were clearly dissatisfied with their treatment. Wood (2005) states, “ Outraged by men’s disregard for their rights and men’s refusal to extend to women the democratic, egalitarian principles they preached, many women withdrew from the New Left and formed their own organizations” (Wood, 2005, 63). This departure was the beginning of the “us vs. them” mentality that is central to radical feminism.

The “us vs. them” mentality seems irrational to some critics and could possibly be classified as a latent function of feminism since the organizers of the movement did not intend for some women to turn against the opposite sex. From a moral and Christian perspective, this attitude endorses hate and, in some extreme circles, homosexual activity. Yet, one of the values of the structural and functional analysis allows the researcher to “replace naïve moral judgment with sociological analysis” (Cuzzort & King, 1995, 255). Looking at radical feminism from a sociological standpoint, the anger generated by the movement, in some ways, gave its participants to bring taboo topics (i.e. domestic violence and other crimes against women) into the public forum.

The Book that Changed the Face of Feminism

The feminist movement has always been driven by a desire for equality and freedom from male oppression; however, women felt that there was yet another existing problem-- a problem that people knew existed but were afraid to discuss. Perhaps one of the most profound effects of radical feminism is that woman finally found the courage and the voice to say what was on her mind. This courage blossomed in 1963 when Betty Friedan’s phenomenal book The Feminine Mystique was published. In her book, Friedan labeled this problem “the problem with no name.” In the introduction to the Tenth Anniversary Edition of The Feminine Mystique, Friedan (1997) states, “It is a decade now since the publication of The Feminine Mystique, and until I started writing the book, I wasn’t even conscious of the woman problem. Locked as we all were then in that mystique, which kept us passive and apart, and kept us from seeing our real problems and possibilities, I like other women thought there was something wrong with me because I didn’t have an orgasm waxing the kitchen floor” (Friedan, 1997, 3). Betty Friedan was not the first women to feel this way; she was, however, one of the first women to admit to these feelings openly.

The publication of The Feminine Mystique finally made it permissible for women to say things like “We are not happy being just a wife, housekeeper, or mother. These roles are not fulfilling our fullest potential. We want more!” Suddenly, with these feelings out in the open, women left their traditional roles behind and went to work making change happen. Friedan said of her work at the time of its publication, “At the present time, many experts, finally forced to recognize this problem, are redoubling their efforts to adjust women to it in terms of the feminine mystique. My answers may disturb the experts and women alike, for they imply social change. But there would be no sense in my writing this book at all if I did not believe that women can affect society, as well as be affected by it; that, in the end, a women, as a man, has the power to choose, and to make her own heaven or hell” (Friedan, 1997, 12).

Freidan’s book left its mark on an entire generation of women. Noted activist, Susan Brownmiller, was one of these women. In her book, In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution, Brownmiller (1999) recalls the impact of Freidan’s classic. “A revolution was brewing, but it took a visionary to notice. Betty Friedan had published The Feminine Mystique in 1963, defining the ‘problem that has no name.’ I’d read it in paperback a year later, around the time I went to Mississippi, and although Friedan had defined the problem largely in terms of bored, depressed, middle-class suburban housewives, who downed too many pills and weren’t making use of their excellent educations, I’d seen myself on every page. The Feminine Mystique changed my life” (Brownmiller, 1999, 3).

Radical Feminism and the 21st Century

Friedan speculated that her book would facilitate social change, and the author was correct. Susan Brownmiller, like many activists, joined the movement in 1968. According to Brownmiller (1999), many of the female, white participants who took part in the southern civil rights struggle also played a major role in the Women’s Liberation Movement. Brownmiller (1999) states of her activism, “Political organizers understand that the important thing about action is reaction. There you are, taking a stand, struggling to express a new idea, and the response is so powerful—positive or negative—that it reverberates into new responses and reactions, especially in you” (Brownmiller, 1999, 11). Perhaps the experience of these political-savvy organizers is one of the major reasons why the Women’s Liberation Movement was successful at articulating the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs of the movement’s core philosophy.

Tobias (1997) attributes the movement’s accomplishments from 1968 through 1975 to the camaraderie that existed between the members of the movement. She feels that this “sisterhood” was necessary because the members of the Women’s Liberation Movement struggled to overcome issues that were more difficult and challenging than the issues that faced 19th and 20th Century feminists. Tobias (1997) terms these issues as “second-generation issues” and comments, “Second-generation issues were going to provoke much more opposition from the public at large because they questioned widely shared assumptions about sex and sex roles” (Tobias, 1997, 11).

Second-generation issues may be classified as topics like violence against women, sexual harassment, marriage and divorce, women’s education, affirmative action, and the reproductive rights of women. Sadly, these issues have followed feminism into the 21st century; however, radical feminists possessed the courage to speak out against the oppression suffered by women in relation to these issues.

In modern times, society can openly speak out against violence against women; however, in the early 1970s, these atrocities were seldom taken seriously. Tobias (1997) states, “One would not have thought that the reclassification of rape as a crime of assault would be controversial. But when second-wave feminists extended the idea of rape to other relations between the sexes, rape became an issue that some thought feminists were taking too far” (Tobias, 1997, 112). Tobias (1997) states that the law viewed rape as something “out of the ordinary.” Women who cried rape either provoked the attacker by dressing provocatively or lied about the attack.

Radical Feminism confronted the issue of rape head-on. During the years between 1971 and 1975, radical feminists organized three public speak-outs on rape bringing the subject out into the open for society to confront. Feminists pushed for tougher rape laws asking the courts to make a women’s sexual history inadmissible in court and demanding that police treat the victim with respect.

Brownmiller (1999) feels that focusing on rape as a political crime against women was radical feminism’s most successful contribution to world thought (Brownmiller, 1999, 194). In 1975, Brownmiller published Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape. Brownmiller (1999) states, “Writing Against Our Will felt like shooting an arrow into a bull’s-eye in very slow motion” (Brownmiller, 1999, 244). The book received its fair share of criticism, but in the end the end Brownmiller managed to illustrate that rape is, in effect, a crime.

In addition to rape, radical feminism vehemently spoke out against sexual harassment. Before radical feminism brought the issue of sexual harassment into the public eye, it was viewed as just another unnamed problem. Tobias (1997) states that “In the past, women suffered silently, wondering whether they had perhaps invited unwanted advances, worrying that outright rejection would cost them their jobs. With the promulgation of the EEOC guidelines and much publicity on the subject, sexual harassment has become ‘the most recent form of victimization of women to be redefined as a social rather than a personal problem’” (Tobias, 1997, 115). Brownmiller (1999) agrees with Tobias by saying, “Giving a name to sexual harassment, as the women Ithaca did when they took up the case of Carmita Wood in 1975, put into bold relief a pernicious form of job discrimination that previously had been laughed at, trivialized, and ignored” (Brownmiller, 1999, 293).

Radical feminism also placed the topics of abortion and pregnancy on their agenda bringing attention to issues like the dangers of illegal abortion and pregnancy discrimination. Domestic violence was also addressed. These issues and other issues like them had never been discussed before in polite society, but radical feminism pointed out that not talking about the issues does not make them any less than real. Today, in the 21st century women can admit to being raped without blame; women do not have to put up with unwelcome advances at work; women can seek help when they are abused by their domestic partners.

Concluding Thoughts

Women have come a long way since 1960. Today, the modern woman is empowered, confident, and satisfied with her place in life. In 1997, Betty Friedan compared modern society to the society that existed when The Feminine Mystique was first published. Friedan (1997) states, “Grown-up men and women, no longer obsessed with youth, outgrowing finally children’s games, and obsolete rituals of power and sex, become more and more authentically themselves…We may now begin to glimpse the new human possibilities when women and men are finally free to be themselves, know each other for who they really are, and define the terms and measures of success, failure, joy triumph, power, and the common good, together” (Friedan, 1997,xxxiv).” This quote by Friedan illustrates the most obvious difference between the ideology of radical feminism and 21st Century feminism. In the 1960’s and 1970s, the battle cry was “us vs. them.” Today, the cry has changed to “us with them” as men and women work together to achieve equality.

The closing words of Susan Brownmiller’s memoirs echo the importance of the Women’s Liberation movement. Brownmiller (1999) states, “Rarely in history have women been able to set aside their other concerns and political causes, their divisions of class, race religion, and ethnicity, their geographic boundaries and personal attachments, in order to wage a united struggle, so revolutionary in its implications, against their basic, common oppression” (Brownmiller, 1999, 330). In some respects, the struggle is not over, and obstacles to equality still exist in the present day; however, women now have the courage to face these and other issues.

References Cited

Brownmiller, S. (1999). In our time: Memoir of a revolution. New York: Dell Publishing.

Cott, N. F. (1987). The grounding of modern feminism. Binghamton: Vail-Ballu Press.

Friedan, B. (1997). The feminine mystique. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Morrison M.L. (2005). Elise Boulding: A life in the cause of peace. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc.

Tobias, S. (1997). Faces of feminism. Boulder: Westview Press.

Wood, J. T. (2005). Gendered lives. Thompson Learning: Canada.

Questions & Answers


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      • profile image


        22 months ago

        thank you so much for such an interesting and inspiring research it has helped me academically and made me realise just how powerful we women are.

      • sherrituck profile imageAUTHOR

        Sherri Tuck 

        5 years ago from Virginia

        Thank you. I, too, learned so much from the research. If you have the opportunity, check out some of the books listed in the reference section.

      • profile image

        miya mh 

        5 years ago

        This article is really impressive.It made me realize the importance and affectivnessee of wemen in society,after beeing neglcted for centuries

      • sherrituck profile imageAUTHOR

        Sherri Tuck 

        6 years ago from Virginia

        I enjoyed doing the research for this article and had the opportunity to read some classic literature on the subject. I am glad you enjoyed it.

      • iLames profile image


        6 years ago

        that was an informative blog, thanks.


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