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Journal of Women's History 14.2 (2002) 118-125

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The Successes and Failures of Feminism

Barbara Epstein

I have been trying to figure out for several years how feminism should go forward. This seems to me to be the perfect audience to present these ideas to, and get reactions from, so I am going to try out some of my thoughts on you. I want to talk about what the achievements of the women's movement have been and what remains undone—what the strengths were and what some of the weaknesses are.

Leaving aside the antiwar movement of the 1960s, which I think played an important role in bringing the war to an end, the women's movement was the most successful movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The idea that women should enjoy full equality with men was a startlingly radical idea then. That idea has been widely accepted. It seems clear that women in the United States think differently about themselves now than they did 30 years ago because of the women's movement. There have been advances in opportunities for women, especially in the professions, also to, I think, a lesser degree in working-class jobs. Such issues as child care, violence against women, and reproductive rights have been placed on the public agenda as legitimate issues—dramatically different from the political agenda of the 1950s and through the 1960s. There have also been some actual advances in other areas, around such issues as women's health and violence against women, though, given the rightward drift of politics in the United States generally over the last several decades, the record on these concerns has been somewhat mixed. But on a rhetorical level at least, women's equality has been accepted as a goal by mainstream society. The gap between rhetoric and reality remains, but the fact that women's equality has been accepted as a legitimate goal creates an opportunity for changing the reality. It seems to me that probably the most important contribution of the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s was that it gave women a sense of their collective power. And I think it is useful to look at the difference between second-wave feminism and first-wave feminism in relation to this sort of issue. Women who participated in the women's movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also learned this lesson, but the lesson had a narrower impact. First of all, that movement, particularly in the latter part of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was largely confined to middle-class and upper-middle-class, overwhelmingly white women. Working-class women also participated, but they constituted quite a small element of the movement and the memory of that movement was quite effectively obliterated during the [End Page 118] 1940s and 1950s, such that feminism in a sense had to be reinvented in the 1960s. The impact of the second wave of feminism has been broader and deeper and the obliteration of that lesson is not going to happen. So that's a very major accomplishment.

The second wave of feminism was successful not only because it led to changes in the lives of huge numbers of women, but also because the movement evolved over time. And I think in many ways, the movement evolved in positive directions. When the women's movement first emerged in the mid-1960s, it was largely confined to university students, other young people of more or less the same class and a slightly older group of women professionals. There were women of color and working-class women in these movements, but they tended to enter the movements through the same routes that everybody else did, namely the fact that they were in college or in the professions despite unusual origins. Their presence in the movement in the late 1960s did not mean that feminism was being adopt-ed within working-class communities or within communities of color. In those years, there was a wide gap between the feminist claim to...


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pp. 118-125
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