September 22, 2012

The Shape of Equality: An Overview of the U.S. Women’s Movement

Heidi Hartmann and Martha Burk

More than thirty years after the street rallies, consciousness raising, and legislative victories of its “second wave,” there is a widespread public perception that the women’s movement is past its prime. Despite effective mobilizations in defense of Planned Parenthood and access to contraception, it remains unclear if the movement in its present state can act as an effective political force. Since the late 1970s, a resurgent conservatism has consistently fought against reproductive rights, forcing much of the women’s movement into a persistently defensive posture and creating a public perception that feminism is about little more than defending abortion. Other issues of daily concern to most women—including equal pay, workplace conditions, family leave policies, health care, and violence against women—seem to have fallen to the bottom of the agenda.

The beginning of the U.S. women’s movement is usually dated to 1848, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott organized the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York. The decades of what is now remembered as the “first wave” saw major activism, but it would be many years before women won the right to vote in 1919. Moreover, this achievement did not make the enormous difference that many expected. The movement’s second wave was shaped by women’s experiences in the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, and other “new left” struggles. It both transformed most women’s understanding of their social position and achieved a series of important legislative victories. The failure to win ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and the hostile climate of the Reagan-Bush years led to a period of retrenchment and fragmentation that has yielded few victories, even during somewhat more sympathetic Democratic administrations.

In this report, Heidi Hartman from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and Martha Burk from the Center for the Advancement of Public Policy provide a brief history of the U.S. women’s movement, outline its current state, and suggest a way forward. Without conceding the importance of continuing the struggle for reproductive rights, the authors insist on the need for the movement to focus on other issues that are priorities for most women: economic issues, health care, and violence. This new focus could go a long way toward building alliances across boundaries of race and class. In order to effectively advocate on these issues, a new structure is needed, one that can act as a stable alliance and is unafraid to engage in political work.

The women’s movement remains a powerful force in the United States. By focusing on the issues that matter most to the majority of women and becoming a meaningful political actor, it can once again play a central role in building a more just, inclusive, and egalitarian society.