Our Activist Roots: Late 1800s-1950s

April 20, 2010 | NeW Staff

The role of women in public and private spheres has always been of great debate and concern among conservatives, moderates, and liberals and men and women throughout time. The issue of equality and of gender roles within these spheres has placed gender against gender, female against female, and male against male. In the early days, women were forced to be silent and fill the traditional role of mother and wife. If a woman did not have children, was promiscuous, or tried to do a man’s job, she was considered evil, rebellious, or worthless.

Women became involved in politics as cities became slums and citizens became helpless. This was largely due to the rush of immigrants and the migration of the American people from the country to cities. Many women began to see an area where they could expand their role as a mother and start to take care of those in trouble like the poor, mentally ill, and immigrants. The Prohibition Movement in the early twentieth century was a time when many women became active in society by taking positions in organizations and often used the power of their husbands to pass their own agendas. As the Civil Rights Movement gained steam, women became more active than ever as they championed for African Americans to gain the right to vote. The World Wars also greatly attributed to women being forced into the public sphere when many men were protecting our country overseas. New opportunities outside the home gave women a new sense of independence and motivated them to fight to retain it, once the wars were over. But with the increased activity of women, came the increased questioning of their own rights and their own worth in society, which was contrary to they were expected or required to do.

In 1920, the 19th amendment was passed allowing women the right to vote. The first-wave feminists, known as the suffragettes , had been successful in passing legislation which now placed women closer to the political status of men. After the struggle for the right to vote was over, women disagreed on what characteristics of society women needed to focus on next. This is where the first-wave feminists divided and the next wave of women’s organizations took the stage.

In the 1950s and 1960s, women were expected to be homemakers, staying where they belonged at home with the children. During that time period however, two strong and powerful female groups arose which championed the housewife label. Conservatives and liberals took different approaches to accomplishing the same ultimate goal. Both groups wanted to do what was best for women by providing security, opportunity, status, and power in the public and private spheres. The submissive role of women was being challenged.

Throughout the 1960s, a second wave of feminism spread and a rise of conservatism became opposing parts within the women’s movement. An analysis of that time period is to come in a future post .

For now, can you see any similarities between the common goals for the women’s groups from the very beginning and can you see what the major barrier was to getting us all working together? Can we ever create a strong female voice, united?

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