Course syllabus

Course description

This option will examine aspects of the theory, practice, political activism and cultural production of the so-called ‘second wave’ of feminism which began in the late 1960s in the USA. (There’s disagreement on when it ended: some historians put this as early as 1975, while others make the mid-80s their cut-off point. The term ‘third wave’ was first used in print by feminists in 1987, though its inauguration as a real political phenomenon is most often dated to the early 1990s. This course will cover 1968-c.1987.)  A range of materials will be used to examine second wave feminism and interrogate today’s received wisdom—both feminist and non-feminist—about it. As well as looking at its origins, its development over time and the different political currents within it, we will ask what was distinctive about it and what it has contributed to today’s feminist thought and activism. We will also consider the strengths and limitations of the ‘wave’ model itself.

The class readings will emphasise primary source materials produced during the relevant period (especially the early part of it), rather than secondary texts written about the second wave by later scholars (though we will read some of those). The central focus will be on the Women’s Liberation Movement as an autonomous, grassroots, radical political movement that combined analysis and activism. This means we will not be looking in detail at more conventional (‘liberal’ or ‘reformist’) campaigns (e.g. for equal pay and—in the US—abortion rights), or at the work feminists did within mainstream political parties and the organised Labour movement, or (much) at the kind of theory that was largely of interest to academics. We will mainly be considering texts and events relating to feminism in Britain and (especially) the US, though with some attention to France and Italy. The conventional narrative of the second wave is in reality very largely a story about the US, and the history of feminism in other places does not necessarily fit that narrative exactly, either temporally or politically. At the same time, the transnational cultural influence of the US during the late 20th century meant that the US (or ‘Anglo-American’) variant of feminism did have a significant influence on feminism in other parts of the world (especially, but not only, in western Europe).


Session 1: What was the second wave? 

In this first session we’ll explore some general historical, political and theoretical questions about the second wave—and particularly about the emergence of an autonomous Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) in the US towards the end of the 1960s. We’ll consider how feminism related to other contemporary political movements (Civil Rights, the student anti-war movement, the ‘new Left’ in general) and what prompted the women who founded the WLM to break away to form their own groups; we’ll ask what was distinctive about these feminists’ political aims; and we’ll also ponder what it means—and what is gained, lost, revealed or obscured—when we conceptualise feminism’s history as a series of ‘waves’.

Required reading

History and retrospective analysis

Gordon, Linda, ‘The Women’s Liberation moment’, in Cobble, D,S., Gordon, L. and Henry, A., Feminism Unfinished (Norton, 2014).

British Library, Women’s Liberation: A National Movement.

Eberle, Ashley, ‘Breaking with our brothers: the source and structure of Chicago Women’s Liberation in 1960s activism’. Western Illinois Historical Review Vol.1, spring 2009

Henry, Astrid, Not My Mother’s Sister: Generational Conflict in Third Wave Feminism (Indiana UP, 2004), Introduction and chs 1&2. (In spite of the title, this isn’t only about the third wave: it problematizes the concept of ‘waves’, and examines the relationship of the (so-called) second wave to both what preceded and what followed it).

Primary texts

Anne Koedt, ‘Women and the radical movement’ (1968)

Redstockings, Manifesto (1969)

Beal, Frances, ‘Double jeopardy: to be Black and female’ (1969)

Morgan, Robin ‘Goodbye to all that’ (1970)

Session 2: ‘The personal is political’: feminism as a politics of experience

One thing that struck many contemporary observers as distinctive about the new feminist movement was its concern with issues that were typically thought of as ‘private’ or ‘personal’ rather than political—like sex, marriage, domestic violence, housework and childcare, objectification and beauty standards. In this session we’ll read some texts (and about some political actions) in which feminists politicised the personal experience of women, and examine one of the distinctive second-wave practices which supported analysis and activism, namely consciousness raising. We’ll also discuss the way some feminists used fiction to explore women’s experiences and in some cases to popularise feminist political analysis.

Required reading:

Carol Hanisch, ‘The personal is political’ (1969)

Kathie Sarachild, ‘A program for feminist consciousness raising’ (1968).

Anne Koedt, ‘The myth of the vaginal orgasm’ (1970)

Pat Mainardi, ‘The politics of housework’ (1970)

Judy Syfers, ‘I want a wife’ (1970)

Lilian Mohin, ‘Storming the Wimpy Bars’ (1984)  (p.29-31).

Also read at least one of the following fictional texts: Marge Piercy, Small Changes (1973); Marilyn French, The Women’s Room (1977).

Session 3: Theorizing women’s oppression: patriarchal power and feminist revolution

Feminists saw the oppression of women as a structural phenomenon, and they were struck by how universal it appeared to be, existing across cultures and classes and throughout recorded history (though some feminists did posit a prehistoric matriarchal society). However, there were competing views on its origins and mechanisms and whose interests it mainly served. In this session we’ll look at several different attempts to grapple with these questions: the attempts of socialist feminists to incorporate a feminist analysis of patriarchy into the Marxist model; the production by radical feminists of theories that put patriarchy at the centre; and the approach taken in what Anglophones at the time often called ‘French feminism’ (though it was only one current of feminism in France), which focused on the construction of subjectivity, and the linguistic and psychic suppression of the feminine in that process. (This last, ‘sexual difference’ paradigm was not influential within the early Anglo-American Women’s Liberation Movement, but from the end of the 1970s it gained more influence, especially in academic feminist circles.)

Required reading:

Firestone, Shulamith, The Dialectic of Sex (1970; reissued Verso, 2015)

Dunbar, Roxanne, ‘Female liberation as the basis for social revolution’ (1970)

Eisenstein, Zillah, ‘Constructing a theory of capitalist patriarchy and socialist feminism’, Critical Sociology 25(2/3), 1999. (in case the date’s confusing, this is a republication of an older article)

Delphy, Christine, ‘The main enemy’, Feminist Issues, 1980. (note: this was originally written in French).

Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron (eds.), New French Feminisms (Harvester, 1981), ‘Introduction III: Contexts of the New French Feminisms’, pp.28-38. (Note: the book is an anthology of translated extracts, mostly short snippets, from the writing of various French feminists, including Cixous, Irigaray and Kristeva; there are much better English language sources, now, for these women’s actual work, but what’s of historical interest about this introduction is the way the editors contextualise their thinking and writing for English-speakers who are assumed to be unfamiliar with (and possibly resistant to) the kind of feminism it represents. It tells us something about how ‘Anglo-American’ as well as ‘French’ feminism was seen at the time).

Session 4: Before we said ‘intersectionality’: race and class in the Anglo-American second wave

Second wave feminism is frequently presented as a middle-class white women’s movement, one which lacked the commitment of present-day feminism to inclusivity and intersectional analysis. But while tensions and conflicts around race and class inequalities have affected feminism in all phases of its history, and it is undoubtedly true that the WLM was dominated by college-educated white women, historians like Linda Gordon and Annelise Orleck argue that the ‘standard’ narrative has had the paradoxical effect of downplaying or erasing the significant contributions Black and ethnic minority women did in fact make to the second wave. In this session we will look at some texts in which Black feminists in the US and UK both challenged racism in the movement and offered compelling analyses of women’s situation—analyses that took account of the way women’s experiences and political aspirations were shaped by both race and class.

Required reading:

Morrison, Toni, ‘What the Black Woman thinks about Women’s Lib’, New York Times (1971)

The Combahee River Collective, Statement (1977)

Davis, Angela, Women, Race and Class (Vintage, 1983), chs. 11-13.

Carby, Hazel, ‘White Women Listen!’(1982)

Amos, Valerie and Parmar, Pratibha, ‘Challenging imperialist feminism’, Feminist Review 17 (1984): Many Voices, One Chant: Black Feminist Perspectives.

Farnham, Margot, ‘Still working against the grain: an interview with Southall Black Sisters’, Trouble & Strife 23, 1992.  (a 1990s piece tracing the history of a group that formed in 1979).

Session 5: An explosive issue: sex

It’s sometimes been suggested that the sexual politics of the second wave was dominated by the views of lesbian separatists who didn’t have anything to say to the majority of (heterosexual) women; a claim that’s made even more often is that discussions of sex among radical feminists expressed an ‘anti-sex’ or ‘victim’ feminism whose opposition to pornography and prostitution aligned it with the forces of social/religious conservatism. In this session we’ll look at some feminist debates on sex, focusing particularly on two contentious issues: (1) lesbianism (especially when conceived of as a political choice feminists could or should make), and (2) tensions between what one influential anthology of the early 1980s called ‘pleasure and danger’, i.e. between affirming women’s sexual freedom and their right to define their own erotic desires, and recognising that sex under patriarchy is a key terrain for the exploitation and subjugation of women (this is a very large topic: for the purposes of the session we’ll approach it via one issue that featured prominently in debates on it—pornography).

Required reading

Bunch, Charlotte, ‘Lesbians in revolt’ (1972),

Rich, Adrienne, ‘Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence’ (1980), repr. Journal of Women’s History Vol. 15(3), 2003,

Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group, ‘Love Your Enemy?’ (Onlywomen Press, 1981)

Campbell, Beatrix, ‘A feminist sexual politics: now you see it, now you don’t’, Feminist Review 5, 1980: 1-18.

Willis, Ellen, ‘Feminism, moralism and pornography’, in Powers of Desire (also the UK as Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, ed. Ann Snitow et al. (NYU Press, 1983).

MacKinnon, Catharine, ‘Not a moral issue’ (1983), in Feminism Unmodified (Harvard UP, 1987)

Session 6:  What did it all mean? Looking back/ looking forward

In this final session we’ll get retrospective—revisit some of the general questions we began with in the light of the reading and discussion we’ve done over the last six weeks, and read an essay addressing some of those questions from the vantage point of the late 1980s (when, as the essay’s title suggests, there was an increasing sense of ‘the second wave’ as a historical moment that had now passed, but a ‘third wave’ had not yet emerged). The essay raises several issues which we might want to explore in discussion: the question of ‘post-feminism’ and the ‘backlash’ (a concept later popularised by Susan Faludi’s 1991 book Backlash), the challenge represented by 1980s ‘sexual difference’ feminism, and the age and generational differences which are also discussed by Astrid Henry in Not My Mother’s Sister.

Required Reading

Rosenfelt, Deborah and Stacey, Judith, ‘Second thoughts on the second wave’, Feminist Review 27, 1987