Six Decades of Feminism
It will never be enough to satisfy my yearnings.
The 1950s were the fantasy decade, a time I have no memories of. I was but a babe. Women, who were once empowered in the workplace of the previous decade, were forcibly removed and encouraged to embrace the role of the “happy housewife.” As Simone de Beauvoir wrote, “We were not born woman, we became it.” And that “becoming” seemed to be reversing, as advertisers built and maintained an artifice of suburban happiness. Smack in the middle of this decade, as white women’s economic fortunes improved, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus, illustrating for all the world to see the gaping hole between Black and white women’s equality — and so much more.
The second wave of feminism took hold in the 1960s, as did a new political momentum. In truth, politics and feminism can never be extricated. In May 1960 the FDA approved “the pill.” Mid-decade was a burst of hope, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, followed by the founding of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 1965. Then in 1966 the National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded. The political momentum culminated with Shirley Chisholm becoming the first Black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1968. My experience of this decade is seared by memories of the segregation that shaped my childhood.
The 1970s brought feminism mainstream. The possibility of equality felt so real. I drank it in, expecting more. Authors like Susan Brownmiller (Against our Will: Men, Women and Rape) and Kate Millett (Sexual Politics) became common names. And Gloria Steinem exploded onto the scene, with the co-founding of Ms. Magazinein 1972, also becoming the first women to speak at the National Press Club. In June 1972, Title IX was passed. Collegiate sports, and so much more, would never be the same. Roe v. Wade became the law in January 1973, and in 1974 the Fair Housing Act, was amended to included prohibitions on housing based on sex. By the late 1970s bell hooks had begun publishing. It was she who defined the feminism I know. It is “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression.” Who would not support this? Oh, just wait and see.
The 1980s brought the backlash. All I had dreamed possible seemed to come into question. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), originally penned in 1923 by Alice Paul and Crystal Eastman (representing first wave feminists), would die — its death notice written by Phyllis Schlafly. At the same moment, the movie 9 to 5, satirically put sexual harassment front and center. It would prove to be just the opening salvo, with Tarana Burke launching #MeToo two-plus decades later. In less than a decade, Roe v. Wade had already become a lightning rod. In the mid-1980s my monthly birth control, which was my right, was denied to me by a neighborhood pharmacist. And four decades later my daughter would have trouble accessing the medication she needed to safely miscarry her non-viable fetus. Again, at the whim of pharmacists. Both times in violation of the law. In the 1980s, I found my feet and began marching.
In the 1990s Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique writing, “It has barely begun the search of women for themselves.” Angela Davis was now a professor of feminist studies. Allice Walker and Toni Morrison won Pulitzer Prizes. And Anita Hill spoke her truth. Madonna, smashed barriers in music and reframed how women could choose to see and represent themselves; and the “Girl Power” movement unfold. In January 1997 Madeleine Albright, became the first woman Secretary of State; while Hillary Clinton declared to the world, “Women’s rights are human rights.” These words heralded the unfolding of the third wave of feminism. Still, by the end of this decade, the promise of equality was revealed as a false hope. For the more power women assumed, the more hostility they experienced. I felt the hostility all around me. It infused my bones and influenced my research, as I trudged toward my PhD.
The 2000s held promise, but the backlash to feminism remained. In this decade, third wave feminist vigorously embraced the word “girl.” In part as resistance to its negative connotations and in part as resistance to second wave feminist who bridled against the word, having pushed so hard to be called women rather than girls; demanding to be seen and treated as fully grown adults. Third wave feminists used parody and irony as an answer to patriarchy. Their righteous anger displayed itself in punk rock bands and the subversive Guerilla Girls art, as they scorned stereotyping. This is the decade, as the hostility to powerful women remained vivid, I began my academic journey. My research again and again pointed out the painful inequity women experienced in the advertising industry. I swung between anger and exhilaration as my research exposed the advertising industry’s underbelly.
In the 2010s fourth wave feminism arrives, inspired by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw who introduced the term intersectionality to describe the ways in which different forms of oppression intersect. Still, as we move into the fourth wave, and even with its focus on intersectionality, we again see generational divisions among feminists. As one generation after another, embrace feminism and the equity it offers, the generational differences seem to constrain feminism’s success. Still, as the movement grows bringing into it more racial and socioeconomic diversity, surely there will be growing pains. However, the pool of people it reaches — men and women alike — also grows exponentially, as the vibrantly diverse annual Women’s March now demonstrates. In the 2010s intersectionality also became crucial to my work, as I began shining a light on the painful lack of diversity in advertising. I stopped swinging and just dangled above my findings in a precarious sort of disillusionment. The underbelly of advertising looking more and more necrotic.
We begin the 2020s with devastation. Shortly into the decade, COVID begins recking havoc on the world. Then on September 18, 2020 Ruth Bader Ginsberg, likely one of the most consequential Supreme Court justices to ever sit on the bench, and a feminist who provided decades of wisdom to the Court, passed. Yet, reminding us of the enduring strength of women, on January 20, 2021 we watched as Kamala Harris the first Black, Asian-American woman took the oath of office as Vice President of the United States of America. My disillusionment has begun to ebb.
She is us. She will not be the last.
Happy International Women’s Day.