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The Beginnings of the Second-Wave

Rights taken for granted today were hard fought by women, for women. 

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President’s Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW)

Executive Order 10980, by which President John F. Kennedy created the President’s Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW) in 1961, charged the commission with "developing recommendations for overcoming discriminations in government and private employment on the basis of sex and for developing recommendations for services which will enable women to continue their role as wives and mothers while making a maximum contribution to the world around them."

Chaired by former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the Commission re-assessed women’s place in the economy, the family, and the legal system.  Roosevelt served the Commission from its beginning through her death in 1962.  On October 11, 1963, coinciding with what would have been her 79th birthday, the PCSW issued its final report, entitled "American Women.”


The report criticized inequalities facing the American woman in a "free" society while acknowledging the importance of women's traditional gender roles. It documented discrimination in employment, unequal pay, lack of social services such as childcare, and continuing legal inequality for women. It raised awareness that women’s inequality was systemic. President Kennedy responded by ordering federal agencies to hire for career positions “solely on the basis of ability to meet the requirements of the position, and without regard to sex.”  


The report avoided a flat statement about the Equal Rights Amendment.  Instead, it stated that constitutional equality between men and women was essential and should be achieved through a Supreme Court decision holding that women were protected by the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause. The Commission stated that because women already were entitled to constitutional protection against discrimination, it did not "now" endorse a constitutional amendment. The same year, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, which made it illegal to have different rates of pay for women and men who did equal work. For the first time, the federal government restricted discrimination against women by private employers.

Feminist Mystique


Pushing for women to have a greater role in the political process in order to advance the women’s rights movement, Friedan co-founded the National Organization for Women and served as its first president. She fought for abortion rights by establishing the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL). With leading feminists Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug, Friedan helped create the National Women's Political Caucus.

Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, broke new ground, exploring the idea that women found personal fulfillment outside of their traditional roles. Friedan worked after marriage, but when she gave birth to her second child, she stayed home to care for her family. Restless in her role as homemaker, she wondered if other women felt the same way, i.e., willing and able to be more than a stay-at-home mothers.  Friedan surveyed other graduates of her alma mater, Smith College, and based The Feminine Mystique on the results.

The book, in which Friedan encouraged women to seek new opportunities for themselves, quickly became a sensation. Not all women wanted to be happy homemakers, a reality that spurred second-wave feminism in the United States. Friedan quickly assumed a significant role in the women's rights movement.

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Gloria Steinem

Social activist, writer, editor, and lecturer Gloria Steinem has been an outspoken champion of women's rights since the 1960s.  She established her reputation as a freelance writer with a 1963 expose on New York City's Playboy Club for which Steinem had gone undercover as a scantily clad "bunny" at the Club. In the late 1960s, she wrote a column on politics for New York magazine.

In 1971, Steinem joined feminists Bella Abzug and Betty Friedan to form the National Women's Political Caucus and took the lead in launching Ms. Magazine. The magazine tackled topics like domestic violence and became the first national publication to feature the subject on its cover. Steinem believed that a strong self-image is crucial to creating change. Her 1983 collection of essays, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, featured works on a range of topics from "The Importance of Work" to "The Politics of Food."

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Civil Rights Act Movement

The 1963 March on Washington was one of the most memorable events of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech challenged U.S. citizens to consider the nation's racial future.  Dr. King spoke of racial equality for all members of the human race.  

Although black women had played a pivotal role in the movement, they often received little recognition for their dedicated participation. When women asked gender-related questions, men often felt that women were sidetracking the movement's focus on race. Black women were often expected to serve in clerical or domestic positions within Civil Rights organizations. When they deviated from those expectations, they were ostracized by men (black and white) within those organizations.

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As the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) planned the March on Washington, women became concerned about their visibility in the March. Some of these women were members of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), an organization that became more active in the Civil Rights Movement after the assassination of Civil Rights Activist Medgar Evers in 1963. Dorothy Height and Anna Arnold Hedgeman, both NCNW members, raised concerns regarding women's participation in the March. Bayard Rustin of SCLC reassured them that by virtue of their participation in various organizations, women were in fact represented in the March.

Segregationists worked hard to defeat the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When Representative Martha Griffiths promoted the inclusion in Title VII of the category of “sex,” along with race, color, religion, and national origin, the segregationists believed the bill would be “killed” for sure. They were wrong; “sex” was added to Title VII, and Congress adopted the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Women’s Movement grew out of this era of turbulent social upheaval that culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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