Second-Wave Feminism’s Unfinished Business

Women are forced to take on both wage and social reproductive labor, then made to negotiate this contradiction individually. Second-wave feminism tried to change that.

Women's liberation march from Farrugut Square to Lafayette Park, August 26, 1970. Library of Congress

The “women’s wage gap,” the 80 cents that American women make for every dollar made by men, has long been a subject of debate for feminists, with each proposed contributing factor begging its own set of policy fixes.

Those who argue that women’s lagging wages are rooted in gendered prejudice might support equal pay laws mandating salary parity or encourage women to negotiate aggressively. If the demands of motherhood are holding women back professionally, potential salves include subsidizing childcare, pushing fathers to assume a more active parenting role, or having more flexible, family-friendly workplaces. If women earn less because they make different professional choices, they may be advised to enter higher-paying STEM fields, “lean in” like a man would, or simply accept that women’s lower earning power reflects different wishes and is far less insidious than they claim.

But a new study released by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research complicates the picture, arguing that women actually earn only 49 cents for every dollar men do. These wildly different numbers were derived by two different methodologies which get to the heart of gender inequality: the 80-cent figure compares pay between men and women with full-time jobs, whereas the 49-cent figure compares total earnings for women over a fifteen-year period. The latter is a more comprehensive look at gendered wage disparity, because it includes periods of part-time and flexible work, or even opting out entirely — all of which women are more likely than men to do, largely because they disproportionately perform care work that make such arrangements necessary.

The overwhelming majority of American adults have to work for wages, but the labor it takes to sustain society outside of the workplace — childbirth, parenting, eldercare, cooking, cleaning, and other activities that typically fall to women, sometimes called “social reproduction” — are largely unpaid. Women have been kept persistently poorer than men because they have been forced to take on both wage and social-reproductive labor, then negotiate this contradiction individually. If women are uniquely burdened by competing family and work roles, then both must be reorganized, redistributed, and alleviated by social-democratic care policies.

This was the ambitious but misunderstood project of second-wave feminism, argues historian Kirsten Swinth in Feminism’s Forgotten Fight: the Unfinished Struggle for Work and Family. Swinth explores the ways feminism challenged women’s public and private lives from 1963 to 1978: by eroding prescribed gender roles for both men and women, by fighting to secure legal protections and family-friendly policies in the workplace, and by building support for universal public care programs.

While second-wave activists won important victories, Swinth explains that they fell short of their ultimate vision; because they were defeated, the anti-feminist reactionary backlash that opposed them was then able to warp our cultural understanding of what exactly that feminist project was.

Swinth guides her readers through a history of a movement often caricatured as a bored, white, suburbanite crusade to engineer superwomen who “have it all” but actually made real-life women miserable in the process. This narrative is wrong, she argues, and misses what the second-wave project was actually about.

In order to uproot conventional structures of paid and unpaid labor, feminists first had to challenge cultural norms that presumed men were sole breadwinners, providing for women confined to home and care roles. This entailed consciousness-raising efforts to encourage women to cultivate a sense of self outside the structures of feminine gender roles, new dialogues about both sexual violence and sexual agency, and challenging academic fields like psychology and sociology that pathologized women.

Feminists also pushed back against gendered expectations at home by championing fairer divisions of parenting responsibilities and housework — at times even codified in so-called “marriage contracts” negotiated and signed by both spouses to divvy up household chores — much to the chagrin of conservatives (and to famed author and essayist Norman Mailer, who wrote a fifty-page screed against the idea in a 1971 issue of Harper’s.)

But if second-wave feminists made impressive inroads challenging traditional gender roles, they were, despite their best efforts, less successful in remaking the rules of care work and transferring key burdens from individual women to the state.

This is a central reason why the wage gap and women’s subjugation more generally still happen in a country that those feminists radically transformed on an interpersonal level. In a society that forces people to work for money, and give birth and sustain families and communities for free, with minimal institutional support, it will always be far more lucrative to be a man.

That isn’t to say feminists didn’t win crucial work-related victories, including job protections during pregnancy and multiple workplace sex-discrimination suits. At the forefront of several such legal battles was a young lawyer named Ruth Bader Ginsberg, whose work combined the second wave’s emphasis on reimagined gender roles and workplace reforms.

She argued in favor of a widower’s right to his wife’s social security payouts after her death, for example, helping strike down a law she said stereotyped women as dependents and not workers themselves. Later, Ginsberg was instrumental in the design and passage of the Pregnancy Rights Act, which mandated that pregnancy essentially be treated as a temporary disability and not a fireable offense.

“If we are genuinely committed to the eradication of gender-based discrimination,” she told a group of law students in 1974, “the problem of job and income security for childbearing women workers must be confronted and resolved head-on.”

Still, even with expanded workplace protections, the time and resources required for social reproduction still eroded women’s wages. This was especially true for single mothers, leading many feminists to organize in support of expanded welfare rights to combat the “feminization of poverty.” The campaigns, primarily led by women of color, demanding resources to defray individual costs of care, won crucial victories, including raising standard welfare benefits in several states and helping women access them. (These wins were later dialed back under President Clinton.)

But feminists ultimately lost fights for universal childcare, universal basic income, paid parental leave, and protections for non-full-time work, which could have reduced women’s dependence on both men and bosses and lessened the economic penalties faced by those who perform unpaid care work. While pushing back against gender norms and sharing such duties with men certainly relieves some of these pressures, the fact remains that privatizing care as the responsibility of individual families disproportionately impacts women, and hurts workers and children.

As neoliberalism took off in the 1970s and 1980s and workers’ wages began to stagnate, the majority of American women entered the workforce for the first time. (African-American women — from whom wealth had been systemically denied — always worked outside the home at higher rates than did their white peers.) Without sufficient institutional support for workers’ families, juggling paid and unpaid care roles stretched women thin.

With second-wave feminism successfully challenging gender roles (including, crucially, mandating agency over parenthood through increased access to contraceptives and abortion) but losing the battle for social-democratic reforms like universal childcare, women were individually empowered to go beyond the feminized care work they had previously been limited to but left without socialized support systems that could actually help them do it. They were empowered to demand more, but their losses made it nearly impossible for all women to achieve more.

Conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly — who had, of course, opposed feminists’ demands all along — were quick to swoop in with an explanation for women: feminism lied to you. It promised you could ‘“have it all,’” but you can’t. The antidote, they reasoned, was a return to the single-wage nuclear family that feminism had successfully challenged (and victim-blaming for those who either couldn’t or didn’t want to).

But the problem was not that feminists had demanded too much — it’s that too many of their demands went unmet.

Without a robust redistribution of resources and a socializiation of care duties, twentieth-century feminism expanded a small number of women’s access to money and power but couldn’t overcome the political forces opposed to using public resources to guarantee stable, secure lives for those without money and power. It’s easy to understand, then, why some heard feminism’s promise as individualized advice: “Sure, have it all! But do it all by yourself.”

Swinth makes the case that second-wave feminism was never about “having it all” — it was about freeing women from the straitjacket of narrow gender roles and the economic penalties associated with all the unpaid labor that keeps society going. We need to resume second-wave feminism’s incomplete project of rearranging and alleviating the needs of women, work, and family by fighting to both socialize care responsibilities and reduce the degree to which wage work bankrolls survival in the first place.

Second-wave feminists never promised women they could “have it all.” But they did fight for women to have much more. That fight is still unfinished.