The Once & Only 19th Amendment Centennial Course: A 2020 Blog: The Rise of the Renewed Women’s Movement and Its Coalition Politics

Week 11 

Our students know very little about the reinvigoration of the women’s movement that began in the 1960s and 1970s – they know almost as little as they do about the suffrage movement, and their stereotypes and misconceptions of it are equally dominant. For older faculty it is crucial to remember that our juniors and seniors were born around 2000 and may have come to political consciousness after the election of Barack Obama. Their parents may have been born around the time the women’s liberation movement was rising, but they won’t remember it. The notion of a “third wave” is often attributed to Rebecca Walker’s work in the very early 1990s – our students weren’t yet born then either, although some of their mothers may have felt themselves part of that. But in any case, to teach our students about the 1960s/70s re-rise of the women’s movement is to teach them ancient history.

I began this class by retracing our work from early in the semester on social movement theory, emphasizing yet again the importance of social movements as coalitions and networks, and the significance of that framework for understanding the rise of social movements, their historical patterns, and the threats to their survival and success. Just as NWSA was not “the suffrage movement,” no single organization – not NOW or any other – was “the women’s movement.” And just as the suffrage movement encompassed many different organizations and networks the revolved around different issues and priorities, different styles and tactics, and different social groups, so, even more, did and does the contemporary women’s movement.

The student preparation for this week was reading Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movement (2014), by Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon, and Astrid Henry. I like assigning this book because it focuses on three different 20th century time periods in feminist movement history: before the rise of the “Women’s Liberation Movement,” the 1960s/1970s phase, and the “third wave.” When I have used this before students are often surprised at how much activism there was between 1920 and the Women’s Liberation Movement. They are fascinated by the “younger” phase, although that one, as I emphasized above, is now old to them.

I begin with problematizing the idea of “waves.” I have never liked or used this terminology in reference to the history of feminist movements, because I believe it oversimplifies and is very misguiding. The first “wave” lasted an extraordinarily long time, involved generations of women, and was much more diverse as a period in feminist history than the wave idea allows for. The second “wave,” as it is generally told, skips over 40 years of rich history. But that “wave,” also is more complicated as a period of feminism than its use often credits.  As my students have learned it, there is a sort of homogenizing effect, where there is little difference between the Feminine Mystique and the women that inspired and the Redstockings, and feminist organizations of African American women or lesbians are virtually inconceivable given the stereotypes they have received. And the “third wave,” apparently suddenly invented more fluid sexuality and intersectionality.

Before we had a full discussion, I screened She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (2014,, an excellent documentary available through . It runs about 1.5 hours, which is perfect for my 3 hour, 45 minute class. The documentary offers an amazingly comprehensive look into the rise of the 1960s/70s women’s movement, and for all the prominent figures who were still alive at the time of filming, those women narrated and talked about the segments in which they were featured. When I have shown it to classes before, they find it a revelation, especially with respect to what a broad coalition the movement was.

After it finished I used the breakout rooms feature of zoom to give them a bit of time to discuss among themselves in small rooms what they found most interesting or surprising as they thought about their reading and the documentary, or they could talk about what was similar and what was different between the coalition politics of women’s movements in the 19th century and the end of the 20th century.

We only began the discussion – and will continue it next week, but the race politics segments fascinated them, as did the story of Jane. They were also struck by the theme of the education within the movement – explicitly, for example, by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, but also in the myriad other ways feminists studied, learned and educated themselves, including through consciousness-raising groups, founding periodicals, and through their other action plans.

More next week.

The entire blog post on the course can be found here:

The syllabus can be found here: