The Waves of Feminism
The First Wave (The Suffragettes)
Dissent is our heritage. The League of Women Voters grew out of 80 years of protest over women not being allowed to vote. From the first Women's Convention, held in 1848, came the commitment “to secure the sacred right to the elective franchise.” By 1890, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was formed with the sole purpose of securing for women the right to vote. The idea that women were individuals with the right to citizenship and authority over their persons, children, and property was revolutionary. Suffragists were opposed and ridiculed by many, even other women who were shocked by the public display of defiance. By 1917, with almost a million dollars raised, the final push for a constitutional amendment began.
President Woodrow Wilson called a special session in May 1919, and on June 4 the 19th Amendment was sent to the states. Its wording was the same proposed by Susan B. Anthony in 1875: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex."
With victory in hand, the NAWSA, at its Jubilee Convention in St. Louis in March 1919, sought to speed the suffrage campaign in the United States and other countries. It created a new organization, the League of Women Voters, to finish the fight and to aid in the reconstruction of the nation. League of Women Voters began as a “mighty political experiment” designed to help 20 million women fulfill their responsibilities as new voters. NASWA President Carrie Chapman Catt completed her call to action: “The spirit of this new crusade will travel from state to state, from city to city … a nationwide campaign against the world’s oldest enemy … ignorance. What should be done, can be done; what can be done, let us do.”
After decades of protesting, legislative initiatives and great persistence, women finally received the right to vote in 1919. On March 24, 1919, the Minnesota Legislature granted women of the state the right to vote for presidential electors. On September 8, 1919, the Minnesota Legislature ratified the 19th Amendment: in the House 120 to 6; in the Senate 60 to 5. Full franchise finally came to the women of Minnesota.
On October 29, 1919, the Minnesota Suffrage Association dissolved and became a branch of the national League of Women Voters for the purpose of completing full enfranchisement of women and increasing effectiveness of women's votes in furthering better government. The success of the first wave provided women their voice to fight for future rights.
The Second Wave
The Second Wave of feminism began in the early 1960s and lasted through the early 1980s. Whereas first-wave feminism focused mainly on suffrage and overturning legal obstacles to gender equality (i.e., voting and property rights), second-wave feminism broadened the debate to a wide range of issues: sexuality, family, the workplace, reproductive rights, de facto inequalities, and legal inequalities. The personal became the political.
The publication of Betty Freidan's The Feminine Mystique started a groundswell amongst feminist activists that the status quo could stand no longer. Women leaders rallied their power to start political and social dialogue around issues not attempted by the first wave of feminists. It was a time when women, primarily white women, began making professional gains in the workplace, the military, the media and sports - in large part because of second-wave feminist advocacy and social movement. Organizations like the National Organization for Women and Activists also drew attention to issues like domestic violence and marital rape, establishing rape crisis and battered women's shelters, and fought for reforms to custody and divorce law. A major effort of feminist activists of the time was the attempted passage of the Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution, which failed by only three states to obtain 2/3 majority approval by the Senate and the House of Representatives.
Legislative successes included the Equal Pay Act of 1963. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, an achievement of the civil rights movement begun in the mid-1950s, was also an early success of the feminist movement and the broader civil rights movement. Title VII of the act prohibited employers from discrimination on the basis of gender, as well as race, color, religion, or national origin. The Supreme Court opinion Roe v. Wade in 1971 legalized abortion, and organizations such as NARAL (National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws) and National Organization for Women (NOW) were founded.
The Next Wave?
Some historians believe the 1990s was a third-wave of feminism with a new focus on identity and inclusivity. That focus continues in present-day feminism. Previous waves of feminism were dominated by white, straight, middle-class women and there has been little progress in including more diverse voices. In order for the movement to grow and change, today’s feminists have new approaches to be inclusive. One of the key issues is intersectionality – that in our increasingly diverse women identify in many ways.
In order to broaden the conversation to include more voices, today’s movement leaders also focus on making sure we do not speak for others; magnifying community voices is the best way for many voices to be heard. In addition today’s feminists are trying to recognize when our unconscious biases create unjust policy; employing a tactic of privilege checking or trying to ensure that people consider how their privilege impacts their choices. We cannot and should not speak for others; all individuals speak from a very specific viewpoint. Mainstream feminism remains dominated by the straight, white, middle-class women. The next wave aims to disperse the power amongst a much wider net.
These issues are not new, but the attempt to deal with it in an open manner is. The acknowledgment that women are not a homogeneous group presents new challenges for organizations such as LWV Minnesota. If LWV Minnesota is to be relevant into its second century, it must reflect the changes being expressed by the next wave of feminism.
Change is never easy. Like our foremothers who responded to the injustices within their social framework, LWV Minnesota today must reflect the needs of young and diverse feminists seeking to continue making positive changes for all women. LWV Minnesota is recommitting itself to being inclusive and reflective of the rapidly changing Minnesota demographic. People from all communities are welcome to explore opportunities within the League.