Feminism is a social movement that advocates for social, political and economic equality for women. The movement 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, characterized by organized, large-scale efforts to increase the rights of women. The 1950s wave of feminism occurred between the 1848 induction and later more-organized 20th century feminism efforts. While feminism efforts in the '50s were not as widely felt at the time, those actions 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, but women still 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, Katharine McCormick and Margaret Sanger were two influential feminists who were instrumental in organizing research into the safety and effectiveness of birth control. All of this independent advocacy eventually 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 return to more traditional roles in their homes, many continued to work outside of their homes after the war. This combination of women's wartime labor participation and continued entry into the previously male-dominated job force had a strong social and cultural influence into later effects to try and secure equal pay and opportunities for women. The effects of these early feminist movements in the workplace are still ongoing with greater successes in certain employment sectors and a long path ahead in others.
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 and abolitionism movements were closely allied in their beliefs and advocacy movements. This relationship continued to evolve over time and was highly 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.
- Women's International Center: Women's Rights
- Berkley University: The Second Sex
- International Civil Rights Center and Museum: America's Civil Rights Timeline
- Feminist Majority Foundation: The Feminist Chronicles, 1953-1993
- National Woman's Party: http://nationalwomansparty.org/learn/womens-history-in-the-u-s/