The history of the women’s movement in North America is an epic in two chapters. More than a century ago the first generation of feminists laid the groundwork for women’s rights activists. In the United States they were dedicated abolitionists who quickly realized that women had almost as few legal rights as the slaves they wanted to free. In Canada they were suffragists and prohibitionists who envisioned a better society that did not disenfranchise half its members. For 70 years women on both sides of the border fought for equality with men. But the movement expended most of its energies on one issue—the right to vote, which women won in Canada in 1918 and in the United States in 1920. Then, in the widespread belief that the larger battle was won, the feminist cause collapsed. It was left to the granddaughters of the founders to investigate the nature of feminity itself decades later.
Inspired: The second wave of feminist activity arose in the mid-1960s. Riding its crest was a new generation of welleducated, middle-class women who rejected the belief that having the right to vote had radically altered the lives of North American women. The new feminists raised fundamental questions about Western society’s most basic psychological, cultural and biological assumptions. In The Feminine Mystique U.S. feminist Betty Friedan roused women by depicting them as prisoners of their traditional roles as wives, mothers and housekeepers—and still economically dependent on men.
Friedan dismissed Freud’s adage that anatomy determines destiny, and she replaced it with another one: identity is destiny. And identity, she stressed, is not an immutable accident of birth. “Women can affect society as well as be affected by it,” she wrote,
“and in the end a woman has the power to choose.”
Friedan paved the path for a new group of women looking for more power in a society that they believed was controlled by men. She inspired a generation of accomplished feminist writers. Their books eventually politicized every aspect of women’s lives. The best-seller lists reflected the breadth of their audience and the extent of their interests. In Against Our Will: Men,
Women and Rape, Susan Brownmiller examined sexual violence against women. Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch was a bawdy critique of male supremacy, and Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics attacked patriarchal society.
In the United States, Gloria Steinern and the feminist magazine Ms. tapped the growing sentiment with politically oriented articles on women. In Canada editor Doris Anderson reoriented Chatelaine, one of the country’s largest-circulation magazines, into a crusading women’s journal almost overnight. The most radical feminists argued for nothing less than an end to the traditional family and an outright rejection of society’s most sacred institutions: marriage, motherhood and religion.
But the movement’s solidarity foundered on the rocks of harsh economic realities. Despite a generation’s campaign for equal pay, at the end of the 1970s women working full time in North America earned an average of 60 cents for
every dollar paid to men. The demand for equal job opportunities also proved largely unsuccessful.
Radical: Divisive social issues split the movement as well. Many women questioned whether an essentially middle-class movement could serve the needs of poor and minority women. And radical feminist attacks on the family and support for sexual liberation and abortion alienated many women who sympathized with the movement’s economic goals but could not accept its broader demands. But an obituary may be premature. The movement, Friedan now says, is not over but has arrived at “the second stage”—the title of her most recent book. That stage will consolidate hard-won gains and formulate new goals based on the lessons of the past two decades, she said. In Canada in 1982 women won a constitutional guarantee of equality in the new Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
For Friedan, one hard-won lesson is that “it is not easy to live with—or without—men and children on the basis of the [earlier] feminist agenda.” Whether she and other moderate feminists can persuade the splintered movement to agree on that proposition may well determine whether or not “feminism” as a coherent ideology has a future. in Toronto.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.