Second-Wave Feminism & Intersectionality: A Complex Legacy

Second-wave feminism began in the early 1960s, but it’s practises and priorities may seem flawed by today’s standards

Imogen Clarke
21st March 2022
Image: Instagram @ourgoldenage

We are all aware of the first wave of feminism. This movement was focussed on the women’s right to vote, which was first achieved in the former colony of New Zealand in 1893, and in Britain (partially) in 1918, and fully in 1928. This wave of feminism was a primarily Western affair, and the legal campaigning for the right to vote prior to 1918 was done by, and for, middle-class white women.

Second-wave feminism took off in the late 1960s and lasted about two decades. The key names in the movement are Americans Shirley Chisholm, Betty Friedan (who instigated the movement with her book, The Feminine Mystique), Bella Abzug, Jill Ruckelshaus and, of course, Gloria Steinem. Yes, by the 1960s, women had universal suffrage in most countries. However, the second wave began to address the inherent inequalities still faced by women, both legally and socially. ‘Second-wave feminism’ as a phrase originated in America, and issues of reproductive rights, domestic violence and rape, and equal rights in the workplace were starting to be addressed. The movement culminated in the campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which was never ratified in enough states to be passed into law. However, the amendment was designed to guarantee equal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex. Many white Americans, men and women, tried to argue that this was already the case. However, second-wave feminists disagreed. And rightly so. For example, abortion was not legalised in all states until 1973. 

Image: Instagram @meanmag

However, the legacy of the second wave is questionable. For the time, the fight for ERA was very forward, which is evident from the sheer amount of opposition. For a good dramatization of the movement, see “Mrs. America”, by FX and Hulu. The second wave emerged from the civil-rights and anti-war movements of the period. Through thinkers like Steinem, intersectional feminism was born. She aligned all women as ‘sisters fighting against… outdated myths’ and claimed to believe in ‘equality, without division by sex or race’. She spoke publicly against ‘white feminism’. However, her existence as a young, straight, good-looking, middle-class white woman is why she was the face of second-wave feminism. And, in my mind, this is where third-wave feminism comes from: The acknowledgement that women of colour, non-cis women, and non-middle-class women have always been pushed to the fringes of the feminist movement. However, this has been recognised by Steinem herself, at the time, and more recently. 

We are now on the fourth wave of feminism, and the second wave has been branded as outdated, and criticised for centring on privilege white women. Due to this, some black women formed their own organisations, such as the “National Black Feminist Organization” (NBFO). Either way, the movement was still too “ahead of its time”, and began to loose momentum by the 1980s, due to Ronald Reagan’s conservatism in the White House. Even though intersectionality was arguably started with Steinem’s movement, it did not become a mass priority of feminism until the third wave in the 1990s. This is where the second wave fell short, but, considering the time period in which it rose, this is not surprising. 

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