Women's liberation movement

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The women's liberation movement, frequently capitalized as Women's Liberation Movement and abbreviated as WLM, was a loose alignment of women and feminist thinking that emerged in the late 1960s and persisted throughout the 1970s primarily in the United States and Britain. The movement, based more in philosophy than politics, was joined by women of diverse backgrounds who adopted the idea that economic, psychological and social freedom were necessary for women to emerge from their station as second class citizens. Members of the movement called into question patriarchal hierarchies of social structure and the lack of women's independence in society. Without the backing of a religious framework, the movement fostered the tenets of humanism and a respect for human rights, yet simultaneously was divisive as it created separation by liberating women from traditional roles, rather than seeking equality within the existing social construct.


The wave theory of social development holds that intense periods of social activity are followed by periods of remission, in which the activists involved intensely in mobilization are systematically marginalized and isolated.[1] After the intense period fighting for women's suffrage, the common interest which had united international feminists left the women's movement without a single focus upon which all could agree. Ideological differences between radicals and moderates, led to a split and a period of deradicalization, with the largest group of women's activists spearheading movements to educate women on their new responsibilities as voters. Organizations like the African National Congress Women's League,[2] League of Women Voters, the Townswomen's Guilds and the Women's Institutes supported women and tried to educate them on how to use their new rights to incorporate themselves into the established political system.[3][4] Still other organizations, involved in the mass movement of women into the work force during World War I and World War II and their subsequent exit at the end of the war with concerted official efforts to return to family life, turned their efforts to labor issues.[5] The World YWCA, was one of the leaders in these efforts, mobilizing women to gather information on the situation of working women and organize assistance programs.[6] Increasingly, radical organizations, like the American National Women's Party, were marginalized, by media which denounced feminism and its proponents as "severe neurotics responsible for the problems of" society. Those who were still attached to the radical themes of equality were typically unmarried, employed, socially and economically advantaged and seemed to the larger society to be deviant.[7]

In countries throughout Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, the Middle East and South America efforts to decolonize and replace authoritarian regimes, which largely began in the 1950s and stretched through the 1980s, initially saw the state overtaking the role of radical feminists. For example, in Egypt, the 1956 Constitution eliminated gender barriers to labour, political access, and education through provisions for gender equality.[8] Women in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Nicaragua and other Latin American countries had worked for an end to dictatorships in their countries. As those governments turned to socialist policies, the state aimed to eliminate gender inequality through state action.[9] As ideology in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean shifted left, women in newly independent and still colonized countries saw a common goal in fighting imperialism. They focused their efforts to address gendered power imbalances in their quest for respect of human rights and nationalist goals.[10][11][12] This worldwide movement towards decolonization and the realignment of international politics into Cold War camps after the end of World War II, usurped the drive for women's enfranchisement, as universal suffrage and nationhood became the goal for activists.[13] A Pan-African awareness and global recognition of blackness as a unifying point for struggle, led to a recognition by numerous marginalized groups that there was potential to politicize their oppression.[14]

In their attempt to influence these newly independent countries to align with the United States, in the polarized Cold War climate, racism in U.S. policy became a stumbling block to the foreign policy objective to become the dominant superpower. Black leaders were aware of the favorable climate for securing change and pushed forward the Civil Rights Movement to address racial inequalities.[15] They sought to eliminate the damage of oppression, using liberation theory and a movement which sought to create societal transformation in the way people thought about others by infusing the disenfranchised with political power to change the power structures.[16] The Black Power movement and global student movements protested the apparent double standards of the age and the authoritarian nature of social institutions.[17] From Czechoslovakia to Mexico, in diverse locations like Germany, France, Italy, and Japan, among others, students protested the civil, economic and political inequalities, as well as involvement in the Vietnam War.[18] Many of the activists participating in these causes would go on to participate in the feminist movement.[19]

Socially, the baby boom experienced after World War II, the relative world-wide economic growth in the post-war years, the expansion of the television industry sparking improved communications, as well as access to higher education for both women and men led to an awareness of the social problems women faced and the need for a cultural change.[20] As women became more educated and joined the work force, their home responsibilities remained largely unchanged. Though families increasingly depended on dual incomes, women carried most of the responsibility for domestic work and care of children.[21] There had long been recognition by society in general of the inequalities in civil, socio-economic, and political agency between women and men. However, the Women's Liberation Movement was the first time that the idea of challenging sexism gained wide acceptance.[22] Literature on sex, such as the Kinsey Reports, and the development and distribution of the birth control pill, created a climate wherein women began to question the authority others wielded over their decisions regarding their bodies and their morality.[23]

Into this backdrop of world events, Simone de Beauvoir published The Second Sex in 1949, which was translated into English in 1952. In the book, de Beauvoir put forward the idea that equality did not require women be masculine to become empowered.[24] With her famous statement, "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman", she laid the groundwork for the concept of gender as a social construct, as opposed to a biological trait.[25] The same year, Margaret Mead published Male and Female, which though it analyzed primitive societies of New Guinea, showed that gendered activities varied between cultures and that biology had no role in defining which tasks were performed by men or women. By 1965, de Beauvoir and Mead's works had been translated into Danish and became widely influential with feminists.[26][27] Kurahashi Yumiko published her debut Partei in 1960, which critically examined the student movement.[28] The work started a trend in Japan of feminist works which challenged the opportunities available to women and mocked conventional power dynamics in Japanese society.[29] In 1963, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, voicing the discontent felt by American women.[30]

In the USA[edit]

Just as the Women's Suffrage movement grew out of the Abolition Movement, the Women's Liberation Movement grew out of the struggle for civil rights.[31][32] Though challenging patriarchy and the anti-patriarchal message of the Women's Liberation Movement was considered radical, it was not the only, nor the first, radical movement in the early period of second-wave feminism.[33] Rather than simply desiring legal equality, members believed that the moral and social climate in the United States needed to change. Though most groups operated independently—there was no national umbrella organization—there were unifying philosophies of women participating in the movement. Challenging patriarchy and the hierarchical organization of society which defined women as subordinate, participants in the movement believed that women should be free to define their own individual identity as part of human society.[31][32] One of the reasons that women who supported the movement chose not to create a single approach to addressing the problem of women being treated as second-class citizens was that they did not want to foster an idea that anyone was an expert or that any one group or idea could address all of the societal problems women faced.[34] They also wanted women, whose voices had been silenced to be able to express their own views on solutions.[35] Among the issues were the objectification of women, reproductive rights, opportunities for women in the workplace, redefining familial roles. A dilemma faced by movement members was how they could challenge the definition of femininity without compromising the principals of feminism.[31]

The publication of The Feminine Mystique by Friedan pointed to the dissatisfaction of many women in American society and was seen as a catalyst for the movement,[35] though after she co-founded the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966, Friedan was seen by radicals as too mainstream.[30][35] NOW's stated purpose was to work within established social and legal systems to gain equality, which clashed with radical feminists who believed that traditional power-structures had failed women and needed to be reformed.[35] In 1964, an anonymous paper (later revealed to have been written by Elaine Delott Baker, Casey Hayden, Mary King, and Emmie Schrader), "The Position of Women in SNCC" (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) was presented by Ruby Doris Smith-Robinson at the Waveland conference.[36][37] The paper discussed the analogous relationship between sex and race discrimination within the context of the work environment and was seen as a critically important document for evaluating gender and women's issues.[37] Stokely Carmichael's response to the paper, "The only position for women in SNCC is prone", has been taken by some to have been condescending,[38] but Carol Giardina argued in her work Freedom for Women: Forging the Women's Liberation Movement that the statement was made jokingly and that focus on the controversy about Carmichael's remark deflects the positive reinforcement and leadership opportunities that many women found within the SNCC.[22][37]

Between 1965 and 1966 meetings, at which papers and conversations about women's place in society were discussed, became more prevalent. An article published in Random, a Canadian journal, advocated that women should participate in self-examination without male scrutiny or advice to embark on their own path of self-discovery.[38] In the summer of 1967 at the Students for a Democratic Society’s national conference, a manifesto drafted by the Women’s Liberation Workshop defined the relationship of women to men as one that a colonial power had toward its colonies. The document demanded that men take responsibility for their male chauvinism and that women demand full participation in all activities of the organization. Following the meeting, women's groups such as the Bread and Roses in Boston and Women's Liberation Group of Berkeley were founded.[39] In Chicago, at a women's workshop held over Labor Day weekend that same year during the National Conference of New Politics (NCNP), Jo Freeman and Shulamith Firestone presented demands from the woman's caucus to the plenary session.[40] The moderator advised that the points of their resolution were insignificant and did not merit discussion on the floor. Over their protests and refusing to discuss the demands further, NCNP Director William F. Pepper moved the topic toward a discussion of Native Americans, but agreed to tack on their concerns to the end of the agenda.[41] Dismissively, Pepper patted Firestone on the head and said, "Move on little girl; we have more important issues to talk about here than women's liberation", or possibly, "Cool down, little girl. We have more important things to talk about than women's problems."[40][41]

Soon after the meeting Freeman, Heather Booth, and Naomi Weisstein founded the Women's Radical Action Project (WRAP), as a vehicle for consciousness-raising.[39] At these meetings, women met regularly to discuss personal dilemmas and to analyze how politics shaped and impacted women's lives. Consciousness-raising discussions were wide-ranging from intimate relationships to social justice issues, with participants stressing the importance of not only having choices but being free to make them.[42][43] Their discussions recognized that legislation could not change many of the issues which confronted women, but that education and redefining societal roles would be required to change attitudes and mores.[43] Within six months, the voice of women's liberation began publication by Freeman as the first radical newspaper of the movement.[40] Firestone left the Chicago conference and returned to New York to found the New York Radical Women (NYRW) with Pamela Allen,[44] among others. It was the "first women's liberation group in New York City",[45] and followed a radical feminist ideology that declared that "the personal is political" and "sisterhood is powerful"—formulations that arose from these consciousness-raising sessions.[46][47]

Within the year, women's liberation groups sprang up all over America.[48] In 1968, the first American national gathering of women's liberation activists was held in Lake Villa, a suburb of Chicago, Illinois.[49] That same year, at the University of Washington, a Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organizer reflected on a meeting about white college men working with poor white men, and "noted that sometimes after analyzing societal ills, the men shared leisure time by 'balling a chick together.' He pointed out that such activities did much to enhance the political consciousness of poor white youth. A woman in the audience asked, 'And what did it do for the consciousness of the chick?'"[41][50] After the meeting, a handful of women formed Seattle's first women's liberation group.[41] In June 1968, Notes from the First Year, containing essays, speeches and transcripts of consciousness-raising sessions was distributed by the NYRW. The mimeographed booklet, which covered topics on sex, including abortion and orgasm, became the "most circulated source material on the New York women's liberation movement".[47]

Liberationists gained nationwide attention when they protested the Miss America Beauty Pageant on 7 September 1968.[51] Though cameramen were prohibited from showing the protesters on television, newspapers headlined the story the following day.[52] Because the pageant promoted beauty as the ideal for measuring women's worth, NYRW activists targeted the iconic event.[52][53] Gathering items they considered to be objects of female oppression, such as bras, curlers, typing textbooks and copies of Ladies' Home Journal, among other items, the activists intended to set fire to the trash cans containing them. They were prohibited from doing so,[52][53] but the myth of "bra-burning", led to liberationists being called "bra-burners".[54] By 1969, NYRW had split into two factions—politicos and feminists, dividing over whether the oppressor of women was the political and economic system or whether it was patriarchy. Politicos, who were tired of being labeled as man-haters and who believed the capitalist system was the root of the problem, formed the Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (W.I.T.C.H), which focused on achieving equality through leftist politics. Feminists, who remained committed to fighting sexism, formed the Redstockings.[47]

The split did not slow activity down. W.I.T.C.H. protested the 1969 Miss American Pageant[55] and the Redstockings demonstrated at a hearing of the New York State Joint Legislative Committee considering a reform of abortion law. Angered that of the 15 experts called, 14 were men, the group held their own "public hearings" at the Washington Square Methodist Episcopal Church, allowing only women to "testify".[56][57] By 1969, Women's Liberation was being featured in national magazines, like Life, Newsweek and Time.[58][55] Vernita Gray, along with Michelle Brody, E. Kitch Child, Margaret E. Sloan and other women formed a group called the Women's Caucus of the Chicago Gay Liberation in 1969. Within a year, the multi-racial group, renamed the Chicago Lesbian Liberation (CLL), had established regular consciousness-raising events, known as "Monday Night Meetings".[59] That same year, at a NOW meeting, Friedan, who feared feminists being associated with lesbians, referred to lesbian activists within the movement as the "lavender menace". Subsequently, Susan Brownmiller wrote an article for the The New York Times Magazine describing the perceived threat to the movement. Lesbian activists responded by embracing the term, staging a protest at the Second Congress to Unite Women held in 1970, in which they revealed lavender t-shirts emblazoned with the term.[60][61] Groups such as Columbia Women's Liberation, Daughters of Bilitis (which was a member of NOW) and RadicaLesbian pushed the drive for women to gain autonomy.[62]

1969 was a pivotal year, in that it marked the beginning of mainstream incorporation of the liberationsists' focus on sexism. Gloria Steinem, a member of NOW, wrote an article for New York magazine, After Black Power, Women's Liberation, which was recognized with the Penney-Missouri Journalism Award as one of the first treatments of the women's movement.[63] The Female Liberation Newsletter, was founded that same year by Julie Morse and Rosina Richter in Minnesota, with the intent of centralizing publications on the varying views of the movement in the Minneapolis–Saint Paul metro area. By 1970, they had formed the Amazon Bookstore Cooperative, hoping to provide a physical space for women-centered dialogue.[64] Influential texts written by liberationists and published in 1970 included The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm by Anne Koedt, The Political Economy of Women's Liberation by Margaret Benston, The Politics of Housework by Pat Mainardi,[65] Sexual Politics by Kate Millett,[66] and Sisterhood Is Powerful, An Anthology of Writings from the Women's Liberation Movement edited by Robin Morgan[67] By early 1970, "Women's Lib" was featured as a cover story in Saturday Review written by Lucy Komisar, vice president of NOW. Atlantic Monthly and Mademoiselle devoted sections to the subject, some of which were written by feminists. Brownmiller, a member of New York Radical Feminists, wrote one of the articles in the February Mademoiselle issue and followed it up with an article in March, published in the New York Times Magazine. Network news followed print media in a rush to cover the "story of the year".[58]

CBS was the first major network to cover women's liberation when it aired coverage on 15 January 1970 of the D.C. Women's Liberation group's disruption of Senate hearings on birth control as a small item in their broadcast. Within a week, the women's protests became leading stories on both CBS and ABC. Early stories focused on behavior, rather than motivations, but NBC broke with the tradition when it aired a story on 23 January evaluating the underlying causes of concern were that the side-effects of the pill had not disclosed safety hazards.[68] In March, CBS televised a series, with all-male correspondents, focused on radicals in the feminist movement, highlighting liberationists' tactics, rather than their underlying issues and portraying sexism as an unsubstantiated claim,[69] which should be treated with skepticism.[70] It was followed by a 6-part series broadcast by NBC anchored by four women, who presented an analysis of the issues with sexual discrimination portrayed as a reality in women's lives. These various treatments, served to undermine the radical message, as on the one hand they were portrayed as extremists and on the other, their sexual politics were assimilated into the mainstream liberal feminist view to present a unified vision for women's equality.[69] In May Marlene Sanders, a member of NOW and one of the two women journalists working for ABC at the time, produced a documentary on the WLM for ABC. The timing of her report was calculated, to curtail the view of advocacy, as it had been approved in 1969, but it did not air until other media outlets had covered the topic, paving the way for an objective presentation. Sander's production attempted to add legitimacy to women’s claims and shed a homogenized evaluation of the movement, "edging lesbians, women of color and the movement's most radical" elements out of the portrait.[71] By redefining the movement, Sanders attempted to legitimize the need for social justice and present the demands of women as socially acceptable goals.[72]

The media coverage brought forth one of the problems of the WLM's loose organizational structure. Though thousands of organizations had formed in the 1960s and 1970s and there were chapters from coast to coast and throughout the Heartland, finding an organization to join was difficult for many.[73] Unable to locate organizations in the phonebook, many felt that the movement was invisible,[74] while still others embraced the ideals without actually joining formal institutions.[75] There were few public spaces where unattended women could gather freely and urban settings with racially segregated spaces were ingrained in the culture.[76] The problem of finding spaces to meet was compounded by the practice of denying women credit without men's consent, thus renting a visible meeting place for women to come together was complicated, forcing women to gather in unconventional settings.[76] For example, the Chicago Lesbian Liberation solved their meeting problems by gathering on a "slow night" at a local bar known as King's Ransom, which welcomed their multi-racial composition. The proprietor was happy for the business and ladies night became a regular feature of the establishment.[77] Women's centers began to be created all over the country as a place for women to meet outside the home. Most of them were run as collectives and spaces for consciousness-raising groups to meet in a non-competitive environment, where women could discuss the intersection of their personal lives, as well as politics and the economy.[78] By 1972, the New York Radical Feminist had prepared a set of instructions for developing consciousness-raising groups. The analysis that went on in these sessions was not therapeutic, but instead an evaluation of how one's personal experience had been shaped by cultural norms. "Meetings were designed to turn the personal into the political",[79] by making women aware that the personal experiences were not unique and had social constructs.[48]

It soon became apparent that small groups and loose cooperative organization was effective for building awareness, but to turn awareness into action more efficient structures were required.[78] For example, the Crenshaw Women's Center in Los Angeles initially opened in 1970 with participants bringing their own pillows as seats. Eventually they collected second-hand furniture and developed a playground, assuming that their evening functions would be attended by women with children.[80] Nine groups—“Haymarket Liberation, the New Adult Community of Women, NOW, Socialist Women’s Organizing Project, the Union of Women’s International Liberation, the Venice-Santa Monica Women’s Liberation, Women’s Liberation Front—UCLA, Women’s Liberation One and Working Women's Group”[81]—came together to offer services to some 1500 women. They offered abortion and contraceptive counseling; personal and vocational consultations; ran a suicide hotline; published a monthly newsletter, The Women’s Center News; maintained a library of feminist writings; provided lectures on legal rights; and taught courses on self-defense.[82] Following their ideal that new structures were needed to build women-only spaces, the center was open to all women and their children. Within a year, NOW withdrew from the collective and established an almost identical center which was open only to their members and invited guests, which included men.[65]

By 1973, with the oil crisis and in reaction to 1960s radicalism, the US environment became more politically conservative. Combined with economic stagflation, radicalism lost favor.[46] The fragile solidarity which had existed between various WLM groups began to fracture as the movement had developed no mechanism for political action other than direct confrontation. Though leftist, they did not adhere to any specific political alignment.[83] The drive to create women-only spaces eliminated the need to confront sexism, as it allowed women to simply evade patriarchal organizations.[84] Thus, rather than rendering gender irrelevant, for which liberationists argued, the cultural feminists, who evolved from them, created a counter-cultural movement to celebrate female difference.[85] For example, Ms. began publication in 1972 co-opting the radicals' ideas of women's oppression and personal introspection, but blamed systemic causes for the issues, rather than men, and promoted self-improvement as a means to change women's lives, rather than politicization.[86] Other groups embracing the idea of a utopian society composed solely of women were inspired by Jill Johnston's 1973 publication of Lesbian Nation.[87] Johnston promoted the idea of a complete break from men and patriarchal institutions arguing for women's separatism. Believing that lesbianism was a political stance, she argued that regardless of who they slept with,[66][88] whether they knew it or not, "all women were lesbians".[89]

By 1975, the Women's Liberation Movement had become simply the women's movement with liberals, who were pursuing reformist cultural feminism prevailing as the dominant group. Radical groups became marginalized and those that did not support the reformist climate splintered.[46] However, in the short history of the WLM the movement exploded into a world-wide awareness of sexism and pushed the liberal feminists far to the left of their original aims.[90]


The Women's Liberation Movement in Canada derived from the anti-war movement, Native Rights Movement[91] and the New Left student movement of the 1960s. An increase in university enrollment, sparked by the post-World War II baby boom, created a student body which believed that they could be catalysts for social change. Rejecting authority and espousing participatory democracy as well as direct action, the promoted a wide agenda including civil rights, ethnic empowerment, and peace, as well as gay and women's liberation.[92] The Canadian magazine, Chatelaine serialized Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and published articles on birth control, modifications needed for the divorce laws, and other women’s issues, making them public concerns.[93] Institutionalized feminists, (liberal feminism) focused efforts on forming a royal commission to evaluate women’s status and address them through reforms, but grass-roots feminists desired more radical change.[94]

As early as 1967, women in Toronto had formed a Women's Liberation Group[95] and in July 1968, a group of women students at Simon Fraser University (SFU) organized the Feminine Action League (FAL). As that year, the U.S. organization SNCC had barred whites from participating in leadership positions, the founders of FAL were influenced to ban men in their organization.[96] Though often depicted in media as a sign of "man-hating", separation was a focused attempt to eliminate defining women via their relationship to men. Since women’s inequality as child-rearers, citizens, sexual objects, wives, workers, etc. were commonly experienced by women, separation meant unity of purpose to evaluate their second-class status.[97] Politicizing personal issues was done in consciousness-raising sessions aimed at eliminating the need to rally support for abstract causes, because the issues were those impacting women's daily lives.[98] Soon after their forming, the group changed their name to the SFU Women's Caucus and initially focused on contraception and pregnancy prevention for students.[96] In July 1969, the group moved off-campus, to downtown Vancouver, opening offices as the Vancouver Women's Caucus (VWC). They began publishing a newspaper, Pedestal, focused on women's liberation and protesting sexist hierarchy and male-domination in the student movement.[99] Women's Caucuses also formed at the University of Alberta and the University of Regina, as offshoots of the Students for a Democratic Union (SDU) and at the University of Toronto aligned with the Student Union for Peace Action (SUPA).[100] As in the U.S. a network of women's centers, which included spaces like the Ste-Famille Women's Centre in Montreal and the Prince George Women's Centre in northern British Columbia developed to facilitate meetings of women and provide them with services.[101]

WLM groups sprang up throughout Canada, though in Quebec there was a struggle over whether women's liberation or Québécois liberation should be the focus for women radicals. Advocating public self-expression, such as participating in protests and sit-ins, organizations affiliated with the movement tended to operate on a consensus-based structure and participated in consciousness-raising, like their U.S. counterparts. However, Canadian Women's Lib groups typically incorporated a class-based component into their theory of oppression which was mostly missing from U.S. liberation theory.[102][103] For example, Frances Wasserlein, a prominent LGBT and feminist activist who chronicled the history of the Abortion Caravan,[104] argued that to be involved in the WLM in Vancouver equated to being a socialist.[105] Some of the first actions of the VWC were to protest discriminatory hiring and wage practices of the Civil Service Commission against women.[106] Other direct actions included the occupation of a building on the University of Toronto campus by the Toronto Women Liberation Movement. Having tried to negotiate with the university to establish day care centers and failing in their efforts, they took over a university-owned house, cleared out the squatters, and renovated it for their children.[107]

In response to the passage of a reform to the civil code on abortions in 1969, the VWC began a series of protests focused on abortion.[108] Marge Hollibaugh and other liberationists organized the Western Regional Conference on Women's Liberation, which was held during the Thanksgiving weekend at the University of British Columbia campus to spread the word about the upcoming caravan.[109][110] Betsy Wood organized a guerrilla theatre performance on Valentine's Day 1970 at the Vancouver Courthouse to illustrate the inequalities which could emerge from allowing Therapeutic Abortion Committees to make decisions for women and the consequences of denying procedures which could be suicide or back-alley abortions.[108] It was also Wood's idea to organize the caravan,[111] which she had proposed at the October conference.[110] Members of the VWC left Vancouver on 27 April performing guerrilla theatre along the way.[112] They reached Ottawa on 9 May and assembled with other WLM groups from throughout Canada at Parliament Hill.[113] Over the next three days, they managed to stage a protest at the home of the Prime Minister and disrupt the House of Commons, shutting it down for the first time in history.[114]

In November 1970 the first national conference of the WLM was held in Saskatoon. Marlene Dixon, a sociology professor teaching at McGill University debunked the idea of an autonomous women's movement, encouraging women to join extant movements fighting racism and classism.[115] The radical movement in Canada was shaped by these opposing views of whether women could gain equality within the existing socio-economic/political system or whether capitalism had to be overturned to create human equality.[116] By the late 1970s, the Marxist and liberationists' alliance fractured in part because of media characterization of radicals in the grass-roots movement as "crazy", but in part because the radical grass-roots groups had difficulty mobilizing women under abstract theories.[117] Bonnie Kreps, who wrote "Radical Feminism 1" which was published in 1973 in the anthology Radical Feminism: The Book portrayed Canadian feminists as falling into three categories: socialist feminists, who were opposed to capitalism; liberal feminists, who were concerned with equal rights and equal pay; and radical feminists who focused on "the oppression of women as women" or sexism.[117][118] Activists who had been involved in the WLM turned their efforts toward violence against women, when the liberal feminists gained the dominant position and public perception that legal change to the existing systems were the legitimate concerns of the women's movement.[117]


In 1970, in Ireland, the Irish Women's Liberation Movement published a manifesto for women and conducted protests and activism such as the Contraceptive Train.[119] The first women's liberation march in London occurred in 1971.[120]


In 1967, at the regional congress of the Radical Party held in Bologna the issues of sexual and psychological freedom were first brought to discussion as political topics. The following year at the national convention of the party in Rome, the discussion broadened to include sexual repression and social oppression and a motion was approved to focus on these issues. In 1969, the regional congress in Milan adopted similar themes, which led to the creation in the winter of 1969–1970 of the Movimento di Liberazione della Donna (MLD) (Women's Liberation Movement). The two planks of the organization were to liberate women by affirming their right to be free and control their own bodies and to create the necessary health structures to legalize abortion.[121] From the beginning the organization had political aims, and constructed a plan of action to decriminalize abortion. By 1975, the organization had split from the Radial Party and become an independent organization fighting for the reform of the civil codes dealing with family law.[122]


In 1970 in the Netherlands a group calling themselves the "Mad Minas" led a protest in Amsterdam to address anonymous groping. Sitting on parked cars and bikes, the demonstrators whistled at male bypassers. Entering bars they pinched the buttocks of male patrons to emphasize their objectification.[34]


The development of the second wave of women's movements in Scandinavia continued the interest in improved conditions for women which had begun in Denmark in 1871 with the Danish Women's Society (Dansk Kvindesamfund). In contrast to the United States where many organizations were disbanded after the right to vote had been achieved, work in the Scandinavian countries had evolved without interruption ever since. Renewed interest in gender and equality emerged in the 1960s as individuals such as Elsa Gress, Åse Gruda Skard and Alva Myrdal promoted debate and commissions on the status of women were formed. In particular the Redstockings (Rødstrømpebevægelsen) in Denmark and the New Feminists (Nyfeministene) in Norway reflected most of the trends emerging in the United States and elsewhere in Europe.[123]


In Denmark, the Women's Liberation Movement had its roots in the 1960s when large numbers of women began to enter the labour market, requiring services such as child care and improved health care. Supported by the Danish Women's Society, the Red Stocking Movement was established in 1970. It fought in particular for equal pay for men and women and for better treatment of women in the workplace.[124][125]

The events of the 1970s led to improvements in equality policy as the state, local authorities, political parties and the trades unions took the lead in implementing change.[125]


The Women's Liberation Movement in Iceland was inspired by the Danish Redstocking movement. Demonstrations of women wearing red stockings took place on 1 May 1970. While the majority of women supported the socialists, a small group created the more politically neutral Women's Rights Organization (Kvénrettindafélag).[123]


In Norway, inspired by activities in Denmark and Britain, the New Feminists (Nyfeministene) emerged in 1970 with action groups in Oslo, Bergen and other large cities. In 1972, the Women's Front (Kvinnefronten) called for a specific socialist policy for women, verging on Communism. Overall, the Norwegian WLM was more politically active than the movement in Denmark.[123]

Membership of the New Feminists was never very high, reaching only about a thousand for the 30 or so groups throughout the country. Even the later Women's Front which was active in 125 towns and cities had no more than about 3,500 members. Interest in feminism nevertheless spread with the support of other women's organizations in the country leading to activism in the universities and in sports. On 8 March 1978, some 20,000 women demonstrated for improved rights, encouraged by the journal Sirene which had been published since 1973.[126]


The Women's Liberation Movement in Sweden was initiated by Group 8 (Grupp 8) in 1968 which established a more traditional women's policy agenda than in Denmark or Norway calling for more child care centers and equal pay for men and women. Emphasis on the needs of working-class women was important despite the fact that most members were from the middle class. From 1970, other more radical groups were formed, including the Women's League in Lund (Kvinnoligan i Lund).[123][127] Group 8 nevertheless continued to be the main organization in Sweden behind better conditions for women.[128]

United Kingdom[edit]

The WLM movement emerged as groups of women took part in local campaigns or more traditional lobbies and marches in support of civil rights, peace and the new left. There activities were triggered by a period of rapid social and cultural change in the 1960s and 1970s. In addition to WLM meetup centres in private houses and community centers, magazines, leaflets and posters were published by the women who gathered there.[129]

The movement was successful in lobbying parliament for changing laws on the status of women and their relationships to men. Its aims were often supported by the Labour Party, leading in particular to legalizing abortion through the Abortion Act 1967 and to establishing the Trade Union Congress’s Working Women’s Charter in 1970 which made it illegal for employers to give women workers pay and working conditions which were different to those for men.[129][130]

The first National Women's Liberation Movement Conference took place in Britain, for three days, from 27 February 1970, at Ruskin College.[131] It was attended by 600 women. There were a further nine such conferences up to that held in Birmingham in 1978.[132] In 1970, British feminist Germaine Greer published her book, The Female Eunuch.[133]


The philosophy practiced by liberationists assumed a global sisterhood of support working to eliminate inequality, without acknowledging that women were not united, but instead other factors, such as age, class, ethnicity, and opportunity created spheres where their interests diverged.[134] While many women gained an awareness of how sexism permeated their lives, they did not become radicalized and were uninterested in overthrowing society. They made changes in their lives to address their individual needs and social arrangements, but were unwilling to take action on issues that might threaten their socio-economic status.[135] Liberationist theory also failed to recognize a fundamental difference in fighting oppression. Combating sexism had an internal component, whereby one could change the basic power structures within family units and personal spheres to eliminate the inequality. Class struggle and the fight against racism are solely external challenges, requiring public action to eradicate inequality.[136]

There was criticism of the movement not only from factions within the movement itself,[34][35] but from outsiders, like Hugh Heffner, Playboy founder, who launched a campaign to expose all the "highly irrational, emotional, kookie trends" of feminism in an effort to tear apart militant feminist ideas which were "unalterably opposed to the romantic boy-girl society" promoted by his magazine.[137] "Women's libbers" were widely characterized as "man-haters", who viewed men as enemies, advocated for all-women societies, and encouraged women to leave their families behind.[35] Semanticist Nat Kolodney argued that while women were oppressed by social strictures and rarely served in tyrannical roles over the male population as a whole, that men in general were not oppressors of women either. Instead societal constructs and the difficulty of removing systems which had long served their purpose, exploited both men and women.[138]

To many women activists in the American Indian Movement, black Civil Rights Movement, Chicana Movement, as well as Asians and other minorities, the activities of the primarily white, middle-class women in the Women's Liberation Movement were focused too narrowly on gender injustice. By evaluating all economic, socio-cultural, and political issues through the lens of gender, liberationists missed the larger picture effecting women of color.[139][140][141] While women of color recognized that sexism was an issue, they did not see how it could be separated from the issue of race or class, which combined to impact their access to education, health care, housing, jobs, legal justice, and the poverty and violence which permeated their lives.[140][142][143] For women who did not speak English, or spoke it as a second language, sexism had little to do with the ability to protect herself or utilize existing systems.[144] The focus on personal freedom, was another divergence between white women and women of color. Liberation of women, without the liberation of men from policies which kept men of color from obtaining jobs or limited their civil rights, preventing them from being able to protect their families, neither improved humanity as a whole, nor improved the plight of families.[37][141] Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women, expressed that the best way black women could help themselves was to help their men gain equality.[37]

Extending personal freedom to sexual freedom, the meaning of being free to have relations with whomever one wanted was lost on black women who had been sexually assaulted and raped with impunity for centuries[37] or Native Women who were routinely sterilized.[145] Their issues were not about limiting their families, but having the freedom to form families.[146] It had very little meaning in the traditional Chicana culture wherein women were required to be virgins until marriage and remain naïve in her marriage.[147] Though invited to participate within the Women's Liberation Movement, many women of color cautioned against the single focus on sexism, finding it constricting and liberationists' actions frivolous and simplistic.[140][148] Likewise, though many lesbians saw commonalities with Women's Liberation, through the goals of free choice and elimination of social categorizing by gender, others believed that the focus was too narrow to confront the issues they faced.[62] Differences in gender identity called attention to differences in issues. For example, many liberationists rejected beauty as a positive trait, which forced femme, white lesbians to choose between their desire to be feminine and their rejection of sexual objectification. Jackie Anderson, an activist philosopher, observed that in the black lesbian community being able to dress up was empowering, as during the work week, black women had to conform to dress codes imposed upon them.[149]


In an effort to distance themselves from the politics and ideas of women in the Liberation Movement, as well as the personal politics which emerged, many second wave feminists distanced themselves from the early movement. Meaghan Morris, an Australian scholar of popular culture stated that later feminists could not associate themselves with the ideas and politics of the period and maintain their respect.[150] Jean Curthoys argued that in the rush to distance themselves from liberationists, an unconscious amnesia rewrote the history of their movement,[151] and failed to grasp the achievement that without a religious connotation, the movement created an "ethic of the irreducible value of human beings".[152] Phrases which were used in the movement, like "consciousness raising" and "male chauvinism", became keywords associated with the movement.[153][34]

Influential publications[edit]

See also[edit]



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  133. ^ Wilde, W H; Hooton, Joy and Andrews, Barry (1994) [1985]. The Oxford companion to Australian Literature (2nd ed.). Melbourne: Oxford University Press. p. 271. ISBN 0-19-553381-X. "... the book became almost a sacred text for the international women's liberation movement of the 1970s, notwithstanding sporadic criticism of aspects of its ideology from some feminists."
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  153. ^ Curthoys 2003, p. 4.


Further reading[edit]

  • Bradshaw, Jan, ed. The Women's Liberation Movement: Europe and North America (Elsevier, 2013).
  • Browne, Sarah. The women's liberation movement in Scotland (2016). online review
  • Burgin, Say. "White Women, Anti-Imperialist Feminism and the Story of Race within the US Women's Liberation Movement." Women's History Review (2016): 1–15.
  • Owen, Nicholas. "Men and the 1970s British Women's Liberation Movement." Historical Journal 56#3 (2013): 801–826.
  • Shigematsu, Setsu. Scream from the Shadows: The Women's Liberation Movement in Japan (2012)

External links[edit]