Second-wave feminism: Accomplishments & lessons


“Today is the beginning of a new movement. Today is the end of millennia of oppression.”
— Kate Millett, feminist author, speaking to 50,000 in New York City, August 26, 1970.

August 26, 1970 marked the public emergence of second-wave feminism, coming 50 years after the winning of women’s suffrage.

The women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and early 1970s had a profound effect on society. It also had a profound effect on those of us who were a part of it. Working collectively for women’s liberation, reveling in the joy and sisterhood that comes from that, was a life-changing experience.

I had the good fortunate to be one of those women, as a member of Boston Female Liberation — one of the first and most widely respected radical feminist organizations of that time. I was also on the national staff of the Women’s National Abortion Action Coalition (WONAAC) in 1971.

What is second-wave feminism? What did it accomplish? What can a new generation learn from it?

Coming on the heels of the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement, women began to fight for their rights as part of a broader radicalization of youth that was unfolding, starting in the late 1960s.

To assess the accomplishments of second-wave feminism, it’s helpful to take a quick look at the status of women at the time. As a whole, women were second-class individuals with limited opportunities.

Women were channeled into “female” jobs that paid less than those of men. We had no control over our bodies, with lack of accessibility to birth control and abortion.

Many of us were denied the possibility of furthering our education if we so desired, and were told over and over that motherhood and the home is where women “belonged.”

Marching into history

Following years of consciousness-raising groups — where women came together to discover that their “problems” were not individual ones but rooted in society — and years of attempts to legalize abortion, second-wave feminism came into public view with the massive women’s rights demonstrations on August 26, 1970.

 On that day demonstrations took place in ninety cities, the largest being in New York City with 50,000 women marching down Fifth Avenue. The actions had three demands: free abortion on demand, no forced sterilization; free community controlled 24-hour childcare centers; and equal opportunities in jobs and education.

A diverse coalition of groups came together around these demands, including Church Women United, National Organization for Women (NOW), Red­stockings, Socialist Workers Party, Third World Women’s Alliance, High School Student Alliance, and National Welfare Rights Organization, to name just a few.

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