WS3300 Women in Europe

Week 2 Second Wave Feminism: Theory and Practice


Last week I talked about women’s rights activity from the 1840s to the 1920s as ‘First Wave feminism’ and to the women’s movements that developed from the late 1960s as ‘Second Wave feminism’. The concept of 'waves' is not meant to imply that organised feminism disappeared in the intervening years, but to emphasize periods when women's movements are most visible in terms of their activities and degree of support.

Drude Dahlerup wrote in the introduction to The New Women’s Movement (1986)

‘Second-wave feminism simply indicates a new impetus to this movement which has experienced periods of bloom, strength, and visibility, alternating with periods of more quiet, dogged, struggle to better women's position in a male-dominated society’.

It is interesting to look for similarities and differences between First and Second Wave feminism. In Europe, both waves developed in periods of agitation for social and political change. The same is true of the USA, with the nineteenth century women's movement emerging out of the Anti-Slavery movement and the Women's Liberation Movement of the late 1960s following closely after the Black Civil Rights movement.

Tasks for Students
Can you give any explanation for the points made above?

J. Lovenduski makes the following parallel between the 2 waves in Women and European Politics (1986)

‘The two waves of feminism were instrumental in achieving agenda status for the suffrage and emancipation acts of the early part of the twentieth century, followed by the equality and anti-discrimination initiatives of the 1970s and the 1980s'. p.246

The early activists of the Second Wave knew relatively little about the feminist activism of previous generations. They tended to assume that the pre-WW1 movement was concerned only with legal and political rights and used only moderate campaigning methods about respectable issues. Research to rediscover women's history has been an important activity within the contemporary women's movement and we now know that, for example, women's rights within the so-called 'private' sphere of marriage, family and sexuality were addressed by First Wave feminists and that all First Wave feminist movements in Europe contained both moderates and radicals.

Tasks for Students
Have you got an image in your mind of First Wave feminists? What image do you have of feminists of the late 1960s / early 1970s?

The Emergence of Second Wave Feminism

The first autonomous women's groups of the Second Wave emerged in France, Britain, Germany and Italy in the late 1960s, in Spain in the mid-1970s and in the Soviet Union in the late 1970s. France, Britain, Germany and Italy were all parliamentary democracies, Spain was an authoritarian regime until after the death of Franco in 1975 and the Soviet Union was a single party state where it was extremely difficult for opposition groups to operate publicly.

We have seen an enormous growth in autonomous women's organisations across Eastern Europe since the collapse of communist regimes in 1989 and in the countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union after its break-up in 1992.

The Context of the 1960s

Economic, Social and Cultural Change

Across Europe, the 1960s were characterized by rising living standards for many people and improved educational chances for significant numbers. There had been economic growth, technological change and the expansion of the service sector and it seemed as if Europe was now recovered from the Second World War.

The increased demand for labour in the economy was met in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe by greater participation in the labour market by married women and mothers of young children. Most of the governments of Western Europe were not prepared then to invest in daycare or maternity rights for working women so women with small children were generally excluded from the new jobs in the expanding service sector or in the manufacture of consumer goods that many women who had previously been 'housewives' took up.

In both Western and Eastern Europe, the generation born after the war were becoming adolescents and young adults and contributing to the development of a youth culture based on pop music, fashion, sexual freedom, declining religious observance and a degree of rebellion against the values of the older generation. In some countries of Western Europe, oral contraceptives (the Pill) were available to unmarried women. All forms of contraception were difficult to obtain in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Remember that the commercial interests that helped to promote innovation in music and fashion in the West had some influence on youth in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union but did not operate in those countries.

All these social and economic developments meant that the traditional role of women was changing and that there were wider educational & professional & personal opportunities for young and (especially) urban women in Eastern Europe/Soviet Union and for young and (especially) middle class women in Western Europe. Remember that the governments of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union claimed to have achieved equality between the sexes and women already had the formal and legal rights that women in Western Europe did not achieve until the 1970s and 1980s. But women in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union were still disadvantaged as women in almost all areas of life.

T. Mamonova summarises the position in Russian Women’s Studies (1989)

‘If a woman does submissively carry the cross of being the ‘second sex’ and doesn’t demand sanitary napkins or anesthesia for abortions, if she agrees to suffer humiliation in maternity hospitals and from an alcoholic spouse, then she may have a chance to achieve equal rights in public life'.

Political Events

Against this background, political events outside Europe impacted on (particularly) young and educated people in Europe. The process of decolonization in Africa, the war between North Vietnam & the USA and the Black Civil Rights movement in the USA radicalized many West Europeans towards criticism of the US government, Western governments generally or even industrial capitalism as a system. The concepts of equality, rights and liberation important were important for the radical movements, including the student movement, that followed. In this radical climate, there was increased support for the New Left which consisted of Marxist and other left wing groups that grew up from the late 1950s outside and usually in opposition to orthodox Communist parties In some West European countries, industrial conflict increased in comparison to the 1950s. In France in May/June 1968, student protests were followed by a general strike of workers.

In Eastern Europe, protests by intellectuals, students or workers also increased in the 1960s and there were attempts to reform socialist systems and increase political freedom. The "Prague Spring' of 1968 in Czechoslovakia is a good example. It was repressed by Warsaw Pact troops, led by the Soviet Union, in August 1968. However, opposition movements developed in communist countries in the 1970s, clandestinely in the Soviet Union but more openly in East Germany and Poland.

Organising for Women's Liberation

Within the various radical movements and left parties in Western Europe, some women began to be aware of an unfair division of labour between male and female activists - women mainly did the detailed organising and routine work while men spoke in public and made decisions. When men were challenged about this, they often were dismissive and patronising to the women who then formed their own support groups within the broader organisation.

As Drude D. Dahlerup puts it so crisply in The New Women’s Movement (1986)

‘When fighting for equality and justice and participatory democracy ‘in general’, women become tired of just making tea for the revolution, sleeping with the leaders, and typing their manuscripts’

These women began to concentrate on their own concerns as women, on inequality based on gender and on their own experiences of being treated as inferior and of being dominated by men. Terms such as 'male chauvinism' and 'sexism' were constructed to refer to such practices and the ideas behind them. For many of the early activists who were white and middle class, the experience of identifying and challenging their own inequality, as opposed to political work on behalf of other groups, was exciting and very motivating. They were joined by women not previously active in radical politics, but who had been politicized by their own experience, for example, of financial dependency within marriage or discrimination at work or not being able to get a legal divorce or abortion.

Using the example of France, Jane Jenson writes in ‘The Women’s Movement and the State in W. Europe’, West European Politics, (1985) 8/4.

‘In France, the New Left pioneered a political discourse which emphasized democracy and entertained the possibility that collective actors beyond the traditional working class could engage in revolutionary action - New Left politics provided women with the initial space necessary to claim their own democratic rights.’

Within a short time, the word 'oppression' began to be used to refer to ideas and practices that not only subordinated women to men and treated them as inferior, but led women to believe that their subordination was justified and their inferiority real. The opposite of oppression is liberation, meaning both the freedom and the right to determine one's own life.

Elizabeth Wilson explains in Hidden Agendas (1986) p. 96. that

‘In the word ‘liberation’ were encapsulated both the notions of ‘sexual liberation’ in circulation in the 1960s and also the inspiration that Western radicals, and particularly the youth and student movements, drew from the national liberation struggles of developing countries, above all Vietnam.’

The majority of early Women's Liberation activists were young, white and educated. Many were or had recently been higher education students. Women's Liberation groups tended to be informal and non-hierarchical, based on the belief that this made it easier for women to express their views and for all to be heard. New members were drawn in generally through existing social networks which made it much harder for working class, black or middle aged women who did not have personal connections with existing members to join.

Quite a lot of the early groups developed their analysis of women's oppression through the sharing of personal experiences and the identification of patterns and commonalities. Often, however, they did not take into account that they were not representative of all women and should not speak as if they were. This lack of sensitivity, it could be argued, is demonstrated also by their borrowing of the term 'liberation' from national liberation struggles.

Tasks for Students
Can you write out definitions of 'women's oppression' and 'liberation'?
Now try 'discrimination against women' and ' women's subordination'.

Early Issues and Campaigns

Western Europe

Campaigns for legal abortion were important in all Western European Second Wave feminist movements. In 1972 in France and in 1973 in West Germany, feminists issued signed public statements (including the signatures of many prominent women) declaring that they had all had illegal abortions and demanding the legalisation of abortion. Other campaigning methods included demonstrations & the lobbying of politicians and in France, the carrying out of self-help abortions and in Spain, support for women who were arrested for having or assisting in abortions.

In Britain, abortion had been legalised under certain conditions in 1967, but the Women's Movement had to campaign hard throughout the 1970s and 1980s, through demonstrations, vigils, public meetings and lobbying of Parliament, against attempts to limit abortion rights.

Feminists saw the right to a legal and safe abortion as important for women's health, family life and working life, crucial for the enjoyment of heterosexual intercourse and central to women's right to self-determination.

Equal pay, equal opportunities in education and at work were also important in all movements. It is probably fair to say that these issues were emphasized more by socialist feminists and by liberal feminists. Socialist feminists concentrated particularly on the interests of working class women in these areas.

In Britain and in West Germany especially, women's liberation movements stressed the importance of women challenging and overcoming their oppression directly, through spontaneous activity such as sit-ins and street theatre and by self-help projects such as women's refuges (the first one in Britain 1972, in West Germany 1976).

In the second half of the 1970s, issues of male violence against women were a particular focus for feminist campaigning. While socialist-feminists were involved in these campaigns, it was radical feminists who took the lead in analysis and campaigning.

G. Kaplan wrote in Contemporary Western European Feminism (1992)

'By the end of the International Decade of Women (1985) every Western European country had had some experience with women's publicly enunciated demands and ideas and had been forced to reconsider and to amend its legislation and social practices, sometimes drastically revising its thinking abort discrimination against women'

Eastern Europe/ Soviet Union

Second wave feminist activity in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe has been shaped by political, social and economic conditions that are different from those of Western Europe. In the Soviet Union before the period of glasnost (openess) in the 1980s, political groups which challenged the existing system were not allowed. Opposition groups were able to operate a little more openly in Eastern Europe.

Women in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe had equal legal rights with men and provision such as maternity rights, childcare leave and public daycare to enable them to combine paid employment and motherhood. State provision for childcare was much more extensive than in Western Europe but many women experienced their dual roles as a double burden, made worse by the general expectation that women would also perform most of the domestic labour in the home. Remember also that domestic labour was made harder than in the average West European household by the scarcity of many consumer goods and the rationing of many foodstuffs.

Second wave feminist groups emerged in the Soviet Union in the late 1970s but had to operate clandestinely. An important early publication was The Women's Almanac (1979). The writers identified Soviet society as patriarchal and imbued with masculine values. Women were discriminated against by employers when they needed to take time off to care for sick children and oppressed by the double burden of work and housework. Women were often alienated from men because of the way many Soviet men abused alcohol. The women involved with this publication set up a group called Club Maria.

In Eastern Europe, women were active in the peace and human rights movements and many brought explicitly feminist perspectives to their political activity. (More on this in next section)

Later Issues and Campaigns

(to follow)

Western Europe

(to follow)

Eastern Europe/ Soviet Union

(to follow)

Continue to

Feminist Theory
Reading Lists on Second Wave Feminism
and on Feminist Theory

Week 1 /Week 2 /Week 3 /Week 4 /Week 5 /Week 6 /Week 7 /Week 8 /Week 9 /Week 10


Page created by Penny Welch October 2001/ Updated July 2002

Module Homepage Women in Europe Links Women's Studies Links University Homepage