Second Wave Feminism Got It Wrong


There. I said it. Second-wave feminism got it wrong.

If you talk to the academics, we are now firmly in the third wave of feminism (or possibly into the fourth). The first wave lasted from the late 1800s until the 1920s or so. It was the time of the suffragettes. A lot changed during that time.

A sepia-toned image of a woman in 19th-century dress holding a teacup. She could be a suffragette.
They still had these ridiculous outfits, for example. (Suzy Hazelwood / Pexels.com)

And a lot didn’t. While women may have “got the vote” in some places, there was still a lot of laws on the books that didn’t help advance women’s rights or the idea that women were people. Or that they could vote or hold office. Or that they could own property, divorce their husbands, or inherit anything.
In the 1950s, there was a push back against the feminist movement. Women were encouraged to go back to the home, to be wives and mothers first and foremost.

This erupted into second-wave feminism through the 1960s and 1970s. This wave focused more on equality and freedom in terms of roles. It suggested that women shouldn’t have to be homemakers and mothers. Women were more than their sex appeal.

This is all great in theory, but now, some 50 years later, we can see that we took a wrong turn somewhere.

Second Wave Feminism Focused on Women Being Equal with Men

The idea behind second-wave feminism isn’t necessarily wrong: all human beings are equal, whether they’re men or women. The second-wave feminists tried to challenge sexist policies in companies and sexist laws on the books too.

Second wave feminism has had many successes. As an example, it made it illegal for a husband to force his wife to have sex. Marital rape laws have only been on the books for the last 40 or so years in Western countries. They’re still being introduced in other parts of the world.

Second wave feminism also attacked sexist policies about education and employment. Not hiring a woman because she might get pregnant is now discrimination in the eyes of the law. Women now outnumber men on college campuses.

But second wave feminism made its fatal turn here.

The Women Want to Be Men

People often accuse second wave feminists of wanting to “be the men.” The idea of “wearing the pants” in a relationship is evident here. Female breadwinners and heads of household are still considered strange, and many men are uncomfortable with these ideas.

Feminists like Simone de Beauvoir argued that women shouldn’t be forced into the role of homemaker and mother. In fact, she suggested that was a drudge and Western society had an epidemic of “bored housewives”—women who wanted something more fulfilling outside of children and motherhood. They wanted to be their own women: get an education, have a career.

This is where we made the mistake. Patriarchal society looked at second-wave feminism and said okay.

It let women out of their house-prisons. They could go to school. They could get jobs beyond just secretary or teacher. And they were no longer expected to quit their jobs to stay home once they got married and started having children.

In exchange for this “freedom,” patriarchal society said but you’ll have to be more like men.

A white woman in gray blazer sitting at a conference room table, looking at a laptop. She benefited from second wave feminism, which advocated for equality in the workplace.
Bets she’s demanding third-quarter earnings from an underling? (Tima Miroshnichenko / Pexels.com)

Women now face expectations about being calm and level-headed in the workplace. Duties to home and children need to take a backseat to work. If women don’t comply, they’ll be punished.

At the same time, we still expect women to fulfill these functions, leading to the epidemic of “supermoms”: women who had careers and children and somehow managed to do it all.

Women, then, have not been freed at all. And that’s what second-wave feminism got wrong.

Second-Wave Feminism Ignored the Feminine

The larger picture is that second-wave feminism failed to attack the cultural basis of oppression for most women. Laws, policies, and attitudes all spring forth from the cultural well.

And that cultural well tells us that anything feminine is worthless.

We need look no further than a few contemporary examples to see this attitude still in action:

•   Stay-at-home dads are rare and treated as strange; this is still “women’s work”
•   Boys who play with dolls or show aptitudes for “care work” are bullied, often with demeaning “feminized” epithets; men fear their boys will be “feminized”
•   Women who care about makeup or clothing are perceived as being vapid or shallow
•   Men are taught not to emote for fear of being perceived as “feminine”

Here, then, is the damning evidence: the feminine is undesirable, disgusting. And this is why we have stalled out on achieving true equality among people.

The Feminine Must Be Equal to the Masculine

Our society has undervalued the feminine for a very long time. This has led to a serious hollowing out of communities and relationships; expressing emotion can result in dismissal, demeaning comments, or even a trip to the mental ward. To avoid these punishments, we avoid expressing emotion.

The “baby bust” seems to be upon us, fuelled by multiple factors. People currently delay childbearing in order to be more financially stable. The availability of birth control and a rise in the number of individuals choosing to be childfree, not least of all because children are highly demanding, also play roles.

An Asian woman in a white turtleneck leans on her hand and tries to concentrate on a laptop while two children play behind her.
Motherhood under capitalism is hell. (Ketut Subiyanto / Pexels.com)

In particular, women are more resistant to the idea of having children than men are. That makes sense, given that women have seen precisely how much pressure there is to be a “good mom”—and note exactly how little help or support there is. Society demeans and mocks women who choose to have children just as it shames those who choose not to.

Motherhood Is Miserable (and Other Capitalist Myths)

Think about it. How many times have you seen a mother shamed for not watching her children well enough, for not controlling them or keeping them quiet in a restaurant or a store? How many times have employers refused to accept “the kids were sick” as a valid excuse to be late to work?

Our society tries to pressure us into having children, then refuses to reward us for doing so. It fails to even help us: “you chose this,” it says, and others turn up their noses. Childbearing and childrearing becomes punishment rather than privilege.

This is utter insanity, as any parent will know. Children are incredibly demanding, yet we expect to put all the work on just two individuals: two parents, and that’s if there are two in the picture. This is how little we value—not women—but the feminine. Men turn up their noses at “women’s work,” while women provide free labor. They provide the “reproductive labor” that keeps households churning year after year.

So: women must balance career and baby, with little to no help from their partners or their communities. Is it any wonder so many people are saying “no” to kids?

To rectify this situation, we don’t need to make “women” equal. We need to make the feminine equal.

Why Not Women?

The feminine—and the masculine—extend beyond biological sex and social gender. They are not confined to particular bodies. An example might be the idea of dolls. Playing with dolls is actually a neutral activity. All humans are capable of caregiving, regardless of their gender or sex.

Yet we construct this activity as feminine. In turn, we associate it with the gender identity of woman and persons with XX phenotypes. This is not the problem. The problem is that we degrade the feminine so much that adopting anything associated with it is demeaning.

The problem does not lie in constructing “carework as feminine.” It lies in the value we assign to anything deemed “feminine”—nothing. Carework is thus useless, frivolous, unimportant, and—perhaps most important of all—thankless.

This makes no sense: carework is the basis of human society. If no one takes care of the next generation, they will not survive to adulthood. Individuals must care for themselves, but we have to teach children how to do that.

Humanity’s greatest strength is in its ability to work together. Carework is what allows our elders to survive as long as they do. It’s what allows children to become productive members of society. And it’s what allows individual adults to continue functioning.

The Case of Carework

Yet carework, because it is “feminine,” is bottom of the barrel. Some estimates suggest the “mom job” is worth a salary close to $200,000 per year. Some have suggested being a mother is like having two full-time jobs.

And yet we are constantly asking mothers what they would rather do. Don’t they have a job? Don’t they want a job? To do something more with their lives?

For some, the answer is most definitely yes. Some people do not want the demanding mom job at all, just as some people don’t want management roles or what have you. Simone and her second-wave ilk were not wrong to ask for more options.

Where they were wrong was in turning up their noses at the “mom job,” suggesting that women must crave or want more. This is not true for all women nor even all people. Some men desire to be nurturing caretakers.

And we look at folks who want that as though they must have a few screws loose: who could want such a horrible, demanding, awful, demeaning, thankless job? They must want something more, to exercise their individuality and to find something more fulfilling.

Again: this is not true for many people. Carework can and is fulfilling—under the right circumstances. In our society, thought, carework often occurs under the wrong circumstances.

We Must Elevate the Feminine

One of the reasons Simone de Beauvoir and her ilk pointed to housewifery and childbearing/rearing as “the problem” was that women in the 1950s were largely coerced into it. They had no options, which meant that women who wished to pursue something else were often dissatisfied. They did crave more.

What the second wave feminists were really asking for was an option. In response, patriarchal society gave us another all or nothing approach. Now we assume all women simply must want more than to be bogged down with a husband and baby.

This is where we need to elevate the feminine in its entirety. At the current moment, anything associated with the feminine is a sort of degrading option—precisely as a result of the feminine being so degraded in our society. There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to keep house or raise children. These activities can be quite fulfilling.

But we paint them as degrading, because they are feminine, and we treat the feminine so poorly. Other careworkers, such as nurses, PSWs, counsellors, and even teachers, often face similar degradation. They could find the job fulfilling, but the hours are long, the wages are shit, and there’s never enough to actually truly take care of people the way they need care.

This is because carework in all its forms is carried out in a world where the masculine is paramount. Carework, being feminine, is thus lesser, and it is paid accordingly. And the “mom job” is the most degraded of all—it carries no salary whatsoever, even though moms do two full-time jobs to prepare the next generation.

Revising Social Attitudes

If we were to elevate the feminine, to put carework and other “feminine” activities on equal footing with the masculine, we would likely see these attitudes change.

And, in doing so, we can strive toward what the second-wave feminists envisioned: the freedom of people to choose what they want for themselves.

A Black man prepares breakfast for his son. If we rethink and revalue the feminine, stay at home dads would be considered more normative.
(August de Richelieu / Pexels.com)

This would then extend beyond “women.” The second-wave feminists were eager to make sure women had choices, but they capitulated to patriarchal-capitalist society, leaving in place the old value system that degrades the feminine.

The Real Pursuit of Happiness

By elevating and revaluing the feminine, we are capable of actually opening doors to freer choice. No longer will women who choose carework be looked down upon. No longer will “the mom job” go unrecognized.

And with freer choice for women comes freer choice for everyone. If the feminine is equally valued and respected as a choice, then we don’t need to worry about little boys who play with dolls nor stay-at-home dads. We no longer need to worry about who is adopting “the feminine” or “the masculine.”

That means that we achieve the larger goal that was behind second-wave feminism: allowing people the freedom to follow their own desires. The individual is paramount, and gender and sex no longer stand in the way of them choosing what suits them best.

This comes with the added benefit of extending beyond just “women can be anything they want to be.” We become truly equitable, truly equal, truly free when we recognize that anyone can be anything they wish to be. And that means no judging “lipstick feminists” or stay-at-home dads, boys who play with dolls or trans women who dress in hyper-feminine ways.

Freedom of choice was the ultimate goal of second-wave feminism. By elevating the feminine, by lifting it from its degrading place in our society, we can move toward fulfilling that goal at last.

About the author

By Cherry

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