Feminism, a movement that advocates for social, political and economic equality for women, originated in 1848 when a group of women gathered at the Seneca Falls Convention to discuss women's rights. Since then, feminism has occurred in waves, which are characterized by organized, large-scale efforts to increase the rights of women. The 1950s occurred between the first and second waves of feminism. However, despite the lack of organized advocacy, the actions of feminists during this decade resulted in major gains for women in later years.
In the 1950s, sending information about birth control through the mail was no longer a federal crime. However, women lacked unobstructed access to safe and effective birth control pills. This decade saw many actions from small groups of women. For example, numerous lawsuits were filed by women in an attempt to establish a law granting women the right to receive birth control pills. In addition, two feminists -- Katharine McCormick and Margaret Sanger -- became instrumental in organizing research into the safety and effectiveness of birth control. All of this independent advocacy resulted in the Food and Drug Administration approving the first birth control pill in 1960.
Due to the need for workers to replace the jobs of men who were deployed overseas during World War II, many women began working outside of the home. In addition, women who had held jobs prior to the war were given the opportunity to work in better jobs and receive more pay due to the opening of positions that were previously male-dominated. After the war ended in 1945, women experienced great social and political pressure to leave their jobs and return to being homemakers which continued into the 1950s. While some women did so, many continued to work outside the home. The social and cultural impact of women's wartime labor participation and the refusal of many women to leave their jobs greatly influenced later efforts to secure equal pay for women and fight sex-segregation in labor markets.
Feminist literature existed long before the 1950s, but two important feminist texts were published during this time: "The Second Sex" and "The Feminine Mystique." Simone de Beauvoir's "The Second Sex" challenged the view of women as inferior to men, which was a radical assertion at the time. "The Feminine Mystique," written by Betty Friedan, discussed, among other things, the fact that many women desired successes outside of childcare and housework and wanted to work and enroll in college. This articulated a sentiment common among many women who worked during WWII.
The Civil Rights Movement
Many participants of the suffrage movement -- when feminists protested to gain the right to vote -- and abolitionism -- a movement to end slavery -- were closely allied. This relationship continued to evolve over time and was present during the 1950s. While no major gains for women were made during the 1950s, the civil rights movement was extremely successful. For example, the cases Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. The Board of Education effectively ruled that segregation was unconstitutional. These gains were the result of large-scale, organized protests. Feminists would later use the strategies employed during the Civil Rights Movement to achieve rights for women, such as the legalization of abortion.
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