Today, feminism is an ideology/theory that most people fail to fully understand. Feminism has been described as having three separate waves. The first wave of feminism started in the mid-19th Century and culminated with the women’s suffrage movement. Second wave feminism started in the late 1950s moved into the 1980s. Historians and feminist/gender scholars describe today’s feminist theory, ideology and social/political movement as the third wave of feminism. The ‘’second wave’’ of feminism started after the women were forced out of the workplace after end of World War Two and essentially ended with the failure to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Second-wave feminism splintered after criticism grew that the movement had focused on white women to the the exclusion of everyone else.
The women’s movement before the 1920s was characterized by the suffrage movement that led to women gaining the right to vote. From the 1890s and early part of the 20th century, much of the women’s movement focused on general societal inequalities and, such as poor working and housing conditions, while also focusing on social ills such as alcoholism and prostitution. Black women in the Southwest of the United States, during the 1930s, for instance, joined labor unions such as the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) to protest poor wages and work environments they had to endure.  Apart from this general social activism and gaining the right to vote, gender-specific topics, including equality in work and pay, were not major focus areas.
In the 1940s, women gained increasing employment as men left overseas to fight in World War II. In fact, it was World War II that can be argued as the major trigger for the second wave feminist movement that occurred after the war. During the war years, the labor unions that had grown in the 1930s became even stronger as women became increasingly employed, particularly in manufacturing jobs required to support the war effort. During the 1940s, new work benefits became available to women, including maternity leave, daycare, and counseling. These benefits developed more substantially in Europe, as many countries there were devastated by war, where much of the male population was reduced. Nevertheless, in the United States, women’s participation in the labor force in World War II created a feeling among many women, after the war ended, that they also deserved the same types of rights as men in jobs they filled. This was highlighted by the fact that many men who came back and retook their old jobs from women who were doing them during the war also were given higher salaries, further highlighting this inequality.
Categories: Women's History