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Female Leadership: A History of Frustration (Pt. 2)

After nearly one hundred years of writing, speech-making, picketing, hunger strikes, and skirmishes with the judicial system, the feminists won their first victory with the introduction of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Passed by the House of Representatives on May 21, 1919, and approved two weeks later by the Senate, the Amendment was sent to the States for ratification. Tennessee was the thirty-sixth state to ratify it, giving it the three-quarters majority it needed to pass. On August 26, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment was official, and that September, thousands of women flocked to the polls. This time in the feminist movement has come to be referred to as the ‘First Wave.’ It achieved what women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony had lobbied for since the very beginning with the Declaration of Sentiments: access to education had increased (Thorpe); divorce legislation was also relaxing little by little; and women finally had a voice in politics. (Hardy) It was now time to expand their horizons.

In 1911, a young nurse working in the Lower East End of New York was horrified by the number of large families and the high rate of infant and maternal mortality as a result of illegal abortions. Her name was Margaret Sanger.

Motivated by what she saw, she became a “...feminist who believed in every woman’s right to avoid unwanted pregnancies and… [was] devoted…to removing the legal barriers to publicizing the facts about contraception.” (“Margaret Sanger”)

She launched a career of advocating birth control and sex education, landing herself in prison several times as a result of her efforts. In 1912, Sanger founded the birth control movement in the United States. Eventually, she gained popular support and brought about changes in legislation to allow her beliefs to spread, such as the 1936 law that allowed doctors to prescribe birth control. (Michals) Her legacy is Planned Parenthood. It’s worth noting, however, that “Sanger’s legacy has been complicated by her support of eugenics, the idea that selective breeding for desired heritable characteristics could improve future generations of humans…,” (“Margaret Sanger”) and even Planned Parenthood admits Sanger’s unsavory ties to eugenics. (Stewart)

As the Roaring Twenties ended with the Stock Market Crash of 1929, the United States was plunged into the Great Depression. Millions of men were losing their jobs, but, interestingly enough, employment for single women increased from 10.3 million to 13 million. This was partly due to the 22% decline in marriages during that time, leaving more single women to support themselves. The hardest-hit industries, such as coal mining, were male-dominated sectors, but nurses, secretaries, domestic staff, and other traditionally female roles were more necessary than ever. The wages were low, though, and married women were still discouraged from entering the workforce, as their husbands needed the jobs to support their families. (Rotondi) This all changed with the onset of World War II.

Once again, the nation focused all its energy on the war effort. Characters like Rosie the Riveter became the inspiration for patriotic women. During World War I, the posters and notices for women had been careful to show that women could still be feminine in the workforce; (“Women in WWI”) Rosie the Riveter of World War II, a munitions worker, had firm muscles and a strong jaw. The celebrity Marlene Dietrich caused a sensation by her habit of wearing men’s suits, and it was a definite statement on her part: “I dress for the image. Not for myself, not for the public, not for fashion, not for men.” (Foster) She and other women volunteered in USO shows to entertain Allied troops. Almost 350,000 women served in the Armed Forces in the new Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACs, later renamed the Women’s Army Corps) which was created in May 1942, the Navy Women’s Reserve (WAVES), the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve (SPARS), the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS), the Army Nurses Corps, and the Navy Nurse Corps. (“History At a Glance: Women in World War II”) For the first time, women flew military planes in the WASPS, freeing more male pilots for combat. On the home front, women were introduced for the first time into the munitions and aircraft industries, traditionally male-dominated industries: in 1943, 65% of the aircraft industry workers were women.

One in four married women in the US was in the workforce during World War II, leading to problems with childcare.

In 1940, the Lanham Act established the first childcare grants, and in 1942, Eleanor Roosevelt campaigned for the passing of the Community Facilities Act, the first step toward daycare. Yet, women’s wages were only about 50% of their male counterparts in many areas, and many had to give up their jobs when the soldiers returned home after the war. (“American Women in World War II”)

While women did not have combat roles in World War II, some of their non-combat positions brought them perilously close to the frontlines. Some, like the “Gunner Girls,” worked alongside the artillerymen, though they were never in charge of actually pulling the trigger. There were, however, female snipers and combat pilots in the Soviet Union. A select few American women engaged in espionage for the British Special Operations Executive, like Virginia Hall. (Bowen) Nicknamed ‘The Limping Lady’ due to a prosthetic leg, she underwent grueling training and worked in France for thirteen months as a spy for Allied Intelligence. She narrowly escaped capture by the Nazis in 1942, only to return to France in 1944, this time working directly for the United States. After the war, she continued to work for the CIA until her retirement in 1966. (“1945: Virginia Hall”) Another daring lady was the one solitary woman present at D-Day: Martha Gellhorn, a war correspondent for Collier’s Magazine. She finagled her way to Normandy, and once there, waded ashore with some medics and assisted in the evacuation and care of the wounded. (Barbor) While these women are numbered among the heroes of World War II, their stories show a new sense of empowerment that drew them to challenge traditionally male-dominated roles.

After the strain and excitement of the war years, the soldiers returned home amid delirious celebration. Life settled down for most Americans, but it couldn’t ‘return to normal.’ Men resumed their previous jobs, most married women became housewives once more, and Suburbia blossomed into existence. What is more classic than the picture of a 1950s or ‘60s family with Dad, Mom, and two or three kids in front of their ranch-style home with the station wagon parked in the driveway? (McLellan) It was the quintessential American Dream of the time. According to the 1960 census, of the 40.5 million families in the United States, the average suburban household size was 3.50 persons, with 57% having at least one child under the age of eighteen. (“1960 Census of Population: Supplementary Reports: Households, Married Couples, and Families”) Housewives had new, labor-saving machines to help with cooking, housework, and entertainment. Life was glamorous… or was it? In 1963, feminist author Betty Frieden published her controversial book The Feminine Mystique, which opened with the following lines:

“The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States.” (Muñoz)

This book, read by thousands of American housewives, is credited with sparking ‘Second Wave Feminism,’ also known as the ‘Women’s Liberation Movement.’ (Burkett) The feminist movement had fixed its sights on the workforce. Even though women had been employed outside the home for over a century, they determined that the traditional role of housewife and stay-at-home-mother was no longer good enough for women, that they needed to earn a living alongside their husbands. (Muñoz) Through Sanger’s efforts, birth control, abortion, and sex education were brought to the forefront, joined by ideas such as raised awareness of sexual harassment, the concept of daycare for children, and maternity leave for pregnant women. (Burkett)

The same year that Freiden published her book, the Equal Pay Act was enacted, prohibiting “sex-based wage discrimination between men and women in the same establishment who perform jobs that require substantially equal skill, effort and responsibility under similar working conditions.” (“The Equal Pay Act of 1963”) Socialist ideas of equal wages permeated the feminist movement. (“Don't you want everyone to be paid the same?”) Socialist feminists of the New Left became prominent social figures, including Myra Wolfgang, Betty Friedan, and Gerda Lerner, all three of whom were former Communists. The wage gap was just a symptom of the whole ideology, which held that gender, race and class were all artificial causes of inequality that must be removed, (Gordon) going a step further than the socialist-influenced feminism of the past. Hence the introduction of the Equal Pay Act. They could not tolerate any inequality of wages between a male and a female worker in the same role in a company, no matter the discrepancy in aptitude or experience. This was the Sexual Revolution.

Complete equality of the sexes demanded that people could talk about anything, no matter how personal or taboo, with much more freedom. This helped women to have the courage to speak up about abuse and the terrible situations into which they had been thrust. It was embarrassing and unbelievably difficult, but these victims did much to help spread awareness and began the journey toward healing. Shelters for battered women, literature to help promote awareness and a means of escape, and other aids were established to help the victims of domestic and sexual abuse. (“A Brief History of the Anti-Rape Movement”) Reproductive rights were also closely tied up in this part of the movement, because if women could speak out about rape, why could they not speak about pregnancies that resulted from it? In fact, why not take control entirely of their reproductive rights, regardless of consent or force? Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood advocated it, and slowly birth control and abortion became the new headline of feminism.

Abortion had been illegal since the nineteenth century in America, with the most recent reinforcement of the ban being passed in 1910. However, the National Association for Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) was established in 1969. It began with four states (New York, Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington) repealing their abortion laws, while thirteen more states were reconsidering, (“Historical Abortion Law Timeline: 1850 to Today”) Texas not being one of them. Beginning with oral arguments on December 13, 1971, the now-famous case of Roe v. Wade came before the Supreme Court to appeal the findings of a Texas court on abortion. The Texas Court of Appeals had overturned a ruling of a district court and found that the existing criminal laws in Texas against abortion were unconstitutional. An appeal was made to the Supreme Court, and on January 22, 1973, the ruling was upheld, declaring abortion laws as unconstitutional according to the right to privacy under the 14th Amendment. (“Roe v. Wade :: 410 U.S. 113 (1973)”)

On this wave, which crested and broke in the 1980s, came the feminist movement of the last fifteen years which has included “My body, My choice,” #MeToo, the Gender Wage Gap, LGBTQIA+, and BLM. #MeToo, a continuation of the anti-rape movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, has a goal to educate and protect underprivileged individuals from rape, especially women. Originally founded in 2006 by Tarana Burke, it has seen a resurgence in popularity since 2017 in its current form of #MeToo. (“Get To Know Us | Tarana Burke, Founder”) In other areas, the original abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements from the nineteenth century, combined with the Socialist Feminism of the 1960s, have given rise to Black Lives Matter and the LGBTQIA+ movements. At the same time, the Equal Pay Act has given rise to the Gender Wage Gap revolution, and Roe v Wade has continued in the “My body, My choice” campaign.

For these and similar groups, the word of the day is empowerment - the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one's life and claiming one's rights.

Like the point of departure in an angle, we have come from Harriet Beecher Stowe and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the 1830s all the way to Hilary Clinton, Malala Yousafzai, AOC, Greta Thumber, Liz Truss, and countless other women of the 2020s. Some, like Malala Yousafzai, have nearly died from injustice and have rightly taken a stand because of that. (“Malala's Story”) Others, like AOC, have declared that "[b]ecause misogyny is treated as being culturally acceptable, it goes unpunished;” and that "[i]f anything, having a wife and daughters makes your misogyny worse, not better." (Taylor) Women like Liz Truss and Hilary Clinton have stepped boldly into the political arena with unbelievably divisive results. As a woman, it is pitiful to watch Liz Truss’ famous video, (“'I Am A Fighter And Not A Quitter!': Prime Minister Liz Truss Under Fire In U.K. Parliament”) not because she wasn’t sincere but rather because of the mockery that met her statement. She tried, she stumbled, and her fellow feminists laughed at her. Meanwhile, in American politics, just mentioning the name ‘Hilary Clinton’ can result in the widest variety of reactions.

It’s a mixed bag of legitimate concerns, socialist ideology, misdiagnosis, and overreaction. Some of it is real; a good bit is hysteria. In any case, it is tragic to see passionate and dedicated women be mocked by society and left so confused and misguided. From the onset of the movement in the nineteenth century, the same sentiments have always been involved, as well as the same reactions. Motivated by a feeling of inferiority to men, feminists have lashed out, broken away, and completely thrown out everything that womanhood once stood for: family, home, union. We have seen this theme from the very beginning. Why, then, after nearly two hundred years of feminist history, do women lose the respect of society when they make a stand? The reaction has been consistent, but is it really because there is something wrong with society? Before the feminist movement, queens, empresses, and first ladies were respected by society when they stood up and spoke. Yet, these roles were created by men long before the feminist movement forced women into the workforce.

This begs the question: has the feminist ideology unwittingly destroyed the very feminine leadership it tried to promote and uphold through its tenets of equality and empowerment?

Stay posted to discover the answers to these questions, as this series explores in depth the spirit of Feminism and its dramatic effect on women.

Works Cited

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  • Barbor, Cary. “The Only Woman on the Beach at Normandy.” WGCU Public Media, 4 June 2020, Accessed 20 January 2023.

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  • McLellan, Dennis. “Suburbia Changing, but Still Part of the American Dream, Author Says : Urban Realities of the '80s Intruding Upon Idyllic Retreats That Flourished in '50s, '60s.” Los Angeles Times, 6 July 1986, Accessed 20 January 2023.

  • Michals, Debra. “Margaret Sanger.” National Women's History Museum, 2017, Accessed 20 January 2023.

  • Muñoz, Jacob. “The Powerful, Complicated Legacy of Betty Friedan's 'The Feminine Mystique.'” Smithsonian Magazine, 4 February 2021, Accessed 20 January 2023.

  • “1945: Virginia Hall.”, Accessed 20 January 2023.

  • “1960 Census of Population: Supplementary Reports: Households, Married Couples, and Families.” U.S. Census Bureau, 8 October 2021, Accessed 20 January 2023.

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  • Rotondi, Jessica Pearce. “Underpaid, But Employed: How the Great Depression Affected Working Women.” HISTORY, 11 March 2019, Accessed 20 January 2023.

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  • Taylor, Joanna. “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: 7 best lines from her speech about sexism | indy100 | indy100.” Indy100, 24 July 2020, Accessed 20 January 2023.

  • Thorpe, JR. “Here's How Women Fought For The Right To Be Educated Throughout History.” Bustle, 11 May 2017, Accessed 20 January 2023.

  • “Women in WWI.” National WWI Museum, Accessed 20 January 2023.

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