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Feminist Consciousness After the Women’s Movement

Barbara Epstein teaches in the History of Consciousness program at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Along with Marcy Darnovsky and Richard Flacks, she is editor of Cultural Politics and Social Movements (Temple University Press, 1995).

There is no longer an organized feminist movement in the United States that influences the lives and actions of millions of women and engages their political support. There are many organizations, ranging from the National Organization for Women to women’s caucuses in labor unions and professional groups, which fight for women’s rights, and there are many more organizations, many of them including men as well as women, whose priorities include women’s issues. But the mass women’s movement of the late sixties, seventies, and early eighties no longer exists. Few, among the many women who regard themselves as feminists, have anything to do with feminist organizations other than reading about them in the newspapers. Young women who are drawn to political activism do not, for the most part, join women’s groups. They are much more likely to join anticorporate, antiglobalization, or social justice groups. These young women are likely to regard themselves as feminists, and in the groups that they join a feminist perspective is likely to affect the way in which issues are defined and addressed. But this is not the same thing as a mass movement of women for gender equality. A similar dynamic has taken place in other circles as well. There are now very large numbers of women who identify with feminism, or, if they are reluctant to adopt that label, nevertheless expect to be treated as the equals of men. And there are large numbers of men who support this view.

The extent of feminist or protofeminist consciousness, by which I mean an awareness of the inequality of women and a determination to resist it, that now exists in the United States, is an accomplishment of the women’s movement. But it is also something of an anomaly, since it is no longer linked to the movement that produced it. When the first wave of the women’s movement in the United States went into decline, after woman suffrage was won in 1921, feminism went into decline with it. By the 1950s, feminism had almost entirely disappeared, not only as an organized movement, but also as an ideology and a political and social sensibility. Even in the early sixties, in the New Left, to describe oneself as a feminist was to invite raised eyebrows and probably more extreme reactions. Now, for a second time in U.S. history, the memory of a movement that engages the energy of very large numbers of women is receding into the past. But this time feminist consciousness has if anything become more widespread. This raises the question: what accounts for this difference? How and what does feminism change when it becomes a cultural current rather than a movement for social change?

In part this different history may have to do with the disparities between the first and second waves of feminism. The first wave of feminism began, in the 1840s, as a demand for women’s equality generally. The women’s movement emerged out of the abolitionist movement, and at first feminism was part of an egalitarian worldview, closely connected to antislavery and antiracism. But in the last decade of the nineteenth century, and to an even greater degree over the first two decades of the twentieth, mainstream feminism narrowed to the demand for woman suffrage. Leading feminists, mostly middle- and upper-middle-class, native-born white women, even made racist and anti-immigrant arguments for woman suffrage. Though the women’s movement also included working-class women, many of them socialists, for whom feminism remained a part of a broader commitment to social equality, by the second decade of the twentieth century, radicalism was a minor current within the women’s movement. Emma Goldman, who combined determination to resist the oppression of women with anticapitalist politics, was not typical of feminists of the first two decades of the century. For most feminists, and for the public, feminism had come to mean the vote for women and little more. Once suffrage was won, feminism lost its raison d’etre and so had little future either as a movement or as consciousness.

The second wave of the women’s movement turned out differently. It did not narrow ideologically, nor did it run into any dead end, as its predecessor had. If anything over time the radical currents within the movement gained influence; women who had entered the movement thinking that women’s equality would not require major social changes tended to become convinced that gender inequality was linked to other dimensions of inequality, especially class and race. The women’s movement declined, in the eighties and nineties, mostly because the constituency on which it had been largely based, young, mostly white, middle-class women, gradually put political activity behind them. These women were beneficiaries of, what John Kenneth Galbraith has called, the “culture of contentment” of the eighties and nineties.1

They benefited, along with the rest of the class, from the prosperity of the time; they also benefited from affirmative action. Even as they left political activity, few feminists thought that the aims of the women’s movement had been accomplished. Many thought that they could continue to work towards these aims in the arenas, mostly professional, that they were entering. Feminist consciousness was sustained in part, no doubt, because it was widely understood that its aims had not been achieved, and because many women who left the movement remained committed to its goals.

This in itself would not have led to the widespread acceptance of feminism that has taken place over the last twenty years. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, some commentators have argued that the inequality of women in the Arab world is a sign of the deep cultural gap involved: to reject feminism is to reject modernity and the West. For instance, Laura Bush, speaking on the weekly presidential radio address, on November 17, 2001, supported the Bush administration’s attack on Afghanistan on grounds of the denial of women’s rights by the Taliban. In the sixties, probably even in the seventies, such an argument would have been unthinkable. Many feminists, especially radical feminists, thought that their challenge to male supremacy was also a challenge to the existing social order. Many, who regarded themselves as guardians of that social order, agreed. How has feminism become an accepted part of modern, Western society rather than an enemy of it?

The emergence of the second wave of feminism in the United States, was connected to a transformation of the economy that was drawing women into the labor force on a permanent basis. Before the Second World War few women worked outside the home after marrying and having children; most of the few who did were blacks or immigrants. The middle class set the cultural standard: marriage meant domesticity for women. Working-class people, including immigrant groups, strove to attain this idea. Even the depression of the 1930s did not put much of a dent in it; many women supported their families after their husbands lost their jobs, but often by taking work into the home. During the Second World War many women worked outside the home, but that was understood as a temporary, wartime necessity, and most women who worked in industry lost their jobs when the war ended.

The postwar United States was suddenly prosperous. The struggles of the thirties (and the fear that those struggles might continue once the war was over) helped to prompt the creation of a large welfare state bureaucracy and a wide array of social services. This brought new jobs, mostly white-collar jobs. Prosperity also led to a massive economic expansion and to the creation of many white-collar jobs in the private sector as well. Many of these jobs required some higher education. By the late fifties many women—mostly white middle-class women with some college education—were taking such jobs, partly because there were not enough men to take them, partly because many families and women needed more income, and partly because some women were tired of domesticity and wanted jobs. In the sixties, these trends accelerated. By the seventies it became clear that it was not only middle-class but also working-class women who were in the labor force for good. Meanwhile, during the fifties and sixties, higher education had expanded dramatically, and women, mostly white middle-class women, had begun attending colleges and universities in large numbers. College and university degrees gave expanding numbers of young women the credentials they needed in order to get the jobs that were becoming available. Colleges and universities also provided the arenas that young women needed to form bonds with each other, to develop a new female consciousness and a feminist movement. The movements of the sixties, despite their problems of sexism, provided a supportive environment for the development of a radical women’s consciousness and a movement that demanded women’s equality and linked it to demands for class and racial equality. Women civil rights activists, prompted by the parallel between the oppression of blacks and that of women, were the first to develop a feminist perspective. The antiwar movement on northern campuses provided a supportive environment for the growth of a large and radical feminist movement.

The women’s movement thus emerged in the contradiction between an economy that not only invited but required the participation of women, and a culture that continued to define femininity in terms of passivity and subservience to men. This contradiction still exists. Feminism quickly became a mass movement because young women needed a new set of values, and each other’s support, in making the transition between the domestic world that most of their mothers had inhabited and the world of work that they were entering. The demand for women’s labor, and the strength of the radical movements of the time, also gave young women the leverage to challenge the culture and structures of gender inequality, and to confront the men who expected women to abide by these rules. Other than the antiwar movement, the women’s movement was, by the early seventies, the largest of the radical movements of the time. It was certainly the most lasting of the movements of the sixties, expanding and becoming stronger through the seventies. The size and strength of the women’s movement had to do with the fact that it was challenging a dying institution, the patriarchal nuclear family, revolving around women’s domesticity.

Despite the media’s portrayal of the family, in the fifties, as utterly stable, in fact divorce rates were already rising. With or without the women’s movement, women would have moved into the labor force in huge numbers over the following decades, further destabilizing the form of family life anchored by women’s domesticity. But neither the destabilization of the traditional nuclear family nor the massive entry of women into the labor force guaranteed any overall improvement in women’s status. Rising divorce rates meant, among other things, a loss of security for women. The ability to work, to hold a job, does not guarantee equality or even, necessarily, hold out the promise of it. The women’s movement took the opportunity presented by women’s entry into the labor force to demand better terms for women, in the workplace, the public arena, and the family.

For women, working for wages outside the home has become the norm. This, in combination with feminist pressure for greater gender equality on all levels of society, has transformed the lives of U.S. women as well as the very structure of U.S. society. The feminist goal of gender equality has not been achieved; not only do women still earn less than men, but in the ranks of the poor, single women and their children have come to predominate. The prejudices that discourage women from entering traditionally male fields remain and violence against women persists. Though the nuclear family of the forties and fifties was based on male supremacy, the increasing instability of family life has hardly been a blessing for women. But women’s equality has become a publicly accepted principle. Glaring deviations from this principle are open to challenge, and very large numbers of women are ready to make such challenges when necessary. This in itself is an enormous and transforming advance.

So, over the last two decades feminist consciousness has spread even as the organized women’s movement has contracted. This is partly because of the increasing numbers of women in the labor force, and in other areas of public life, who, in talking to each other and giving each other support, spread and redefined feminism, even if they do not call themselves feminists or use the word. It was possible for the first wave of feminism to disappear because the women’s movement that it was associated with had come to an end without the majority of American women having gained access to arenas outside the home. The fact that women are now in the labor force and the public arena to stay makes it hard to imagine that feminism and what it stands for could disappear again. This is a measure of progress. Probably feminism will continue to be a major political current in the United States, though perhaps not based in any movement, and in that sense a cultural as well as a political phenomenon.

One danger posed by the attenuating connection between feminist consciousness and the movement from which it emerged is that feminist consciousness is losing its radical edge. This has happened to some degree: in the professions, feminism has tended to absorb the obsession with individual success that prevails in that arena. A large, actively engaged movement does not necessarily prevent such developments; first wave feminism, in its suffragist phase, absorbed the perspective of the upper-middle class of that time. But a movement can make it possible for movement activists to look critically at their own class, and develop an independent perspective. This is what happened in the sixties and early seventies, making radical feminism, and radicalisms of other varieties, possible.

It does not seem likely that another mass women’s movement will emerge any time soon. But feminism is being given new vitality by its association with the range of activist groups that make up the antiglobalization and anticorporate movements. Young women in these movements are very likely to describe themselves as feminists; feminism is accepted as one of the ideological currents that shape these movements, along with anarchism, environmentalism, and the struggle against white supremacy. Inside these groups, women tend to take for granted the equality that women of the movements of the sixties and seventies fought for. If the labor movement makes headway in its effort to organize the unorganized, feminism will inevitably become part of the culture that develops within it, because so many of the unorganized are women. Such movement-based versions of feminism could introduce radicalism into wider feminist discussions.

Over the last two decades other movements have followed the same trajectory as the women’s movement. The environmental movement is a clear case: once consisting of large numbers of people engaged in political activity, it now consists on the one hand of a series of staff-driven organizations, and on the other, of a large sector of people who consider themselves environmentalist, or who have an environmental consciousness, but who take action on environmental issues largely in individual ways, such as in their shopping habits and in recycling. A similar argument could be made about the African-American movement, whose organizations have shriveled while militant forms of racial and ethnic consciousness have expanded, at least culturally, among young people. To some degree this expansion of various forms of consciousness going way beyond the borders of the movements in which they first emerged shows the lasting influence of those movements. But it also has to do with what appears to be the decline of political and protest movements, and the difficulty of finding compelling forms of political engagement. The tendency of the political to collapse into the cultural, even as it connotes a measure of triumph, weakens the left.


  1. John Kenneth Galbraith, The Culture of Contentment (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992).