Women's Rights & the Civil Rights Movement

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  • 0:04 Civil Rights
  • 0:57 Second Wave Feminism
  • 1:57 Relationship to Civil Rights
  • 3:56 Limitations
  • 4:35 Reproductive Issues
  • 5:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The women's rights and civil rights movements had a lot in common. Yet they also had their differences. In this lesson, we'll see how these movements interacted with each other in their fight for equality.

Civil Rights

Equality is a prized American virtue, but was it always a reality in American history? The 1950s and 1960s were dominated by the civil rights movement, the movement to end segregation and promote equality within the United States. The civil rights movement during this time generally referenced the struggle of African Americans to achieve political and social equality, but the ideologies of the movement spread beyond this community. Latino populations started their own civil rights movement, as did Native Americans.

The civil rights movement also had a big impact on women. From the rigid ideas of gender conformity in the 1950s, women embarked on a much wider campaign of equality and opportunity in the 1960s and 1970s. They both influenced and were influenced by the civil rights movement. At the end of the day, equality was what mattered.

Second Wave Feminism

Our story really begins in the 1950s. Women had won the right to vote thirty years prior, and during World War II they achieved greater economic independence by working in the factories. Then the men came back from the war and women found themselves relegated to suburban kitchens and the role of wife and mother. Sitcoms of the era depicted happy housewives eagerly participating in this culture of conformity, but many women were not as content as they seemed.

In 1963, American author Betty Friedan published ''The Feminine Mystique'', which claimed that suburban culture was oppressing women and harming their psychological well-being by denying them economic and personal agency. Basically, the point was that women wanted to work and be independent, but American culture was preventing it. This book helped to establish Second Wave Feminism, a wave of activism in the 1960s and 1970s that focused on improving women's access to education and economic independence.

Relationship to Civil Rights

So how did Second Wave Feminism relate to the civil rights movement? For one thing, the civil rights movement established a culture of protest in the 1950s and 1960s, and more importantly, one that was actually achieving many of its goals. Civil rights protests warmed American society up to the idea that change was needed and that oppression throughout the country was neither normal or acceptable. It is important to remember that many civil rights organizations were led by women, particularly black women.

The women's rights movement built on many of the ideologies and methodologies that had proven successful in the civil rights movement. They boycotted and protested using nonviolence, some embraced more militant forms of civil disobedience and tried to connect their movement to greater issue of the Cold War. At the time, the United States was trying to broadcast itself as a leader of freedom in order to combat Soviet communism. Civil rights protests pointed out the hypocrisy of this; America could not be a global leader of freedom if it allowed oppression at home. Women's rights activists took a similar approach, made all the more salient by the progressive gender ideologies enforced in the USSR.

Employing civil rights movement tactics, the women's rights movement achieved several important successes. As early as 1961, President Kennedy formed the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women to research women's issues and advise the president on them. By the time the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, the wording had been changed to prohibit discrimination based on sex as well as race. This wording had actually been added in order to weaken support for the bill. Fortunately, it had the opposite effect. Finally, in 1972, President Nixon signed Title IX of the Education Codes, prohibiting exclusion from educational programs. The number of women in higher education, notably in engineering and medical programs, skyrocketed.

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