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The term women’s liberation in twentieth-century discourse has been used interchangeably with feminism, women’s rights, and the women’s movement. A more precise focus on the term women’s liberation raises the question, “Liberation from what?” The response that feminists have offered is liberation from the oppressive practices of patriarchy and women’s second-class social status that have been a part of the structure of traditional and modern societies. The concept of women’s liberation was popularized by the early stages of the Second Wave of the women’s movement, by the United Nations’ (UN) decade of focus on women (1975 to 1985), and more recently by UN-sponsored events like the 1995 Beijing Conference on Women. Because women constitute 50 percent of the world’s population, the potential for coalitions across nations, ethnicities, ages, classes, religions, and sexualities is significant for all people. These UN events, which included governmental and nongovernmental agency representatives, have offered opportunities for international networking to supporters of the women’s movement. The term liberation draws insights from Marxist and liberal democratic theories, which argue that societies work best when all adult persons are free and able to participate fully in public life. But what counts as women’s liberation shifts over time.
Historically, the women’s movement can be divided into three waves, which begin with the issue of suffrage. Setting the stage for the First Wave were some key political writings in Western societies that articulated the centrality of individuals in the state. These include the eighteenth-century work of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), A Vindication of the Rights of Woman; the nineteenth-century work of John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) with Harriet Taylor (1807-1858), On the Subjugation of Women, which compares women’s situations to slavery; and the work of the German socialist Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, shaped by his work with the political philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883), which argues that women’s oppression begins with the division of labor in the family.
The women’s movement has developed in a variety of world cultures in complex ways, but an understanding of the Western tradition offers a context from which to examine some of the key issues. For those influenced by U.S. politics, the First Wave began with the Seneca Falls Convention in New York in 1848, when activists involved in the abolition of slavery met to talk about women. It ended in 1920 with a U.S. constitutional amendment that granted women the vote. The Second Wave began with the civil rights struggles in 1962 and included a push for an equal rights amendment, workplace equity, educational opportunities, and policies that supported women’s participation in public life. During this period women’s studies programs were established as challenges were made to traditional discipline-based theories and epistemologies. In the early 1980s the New Right began to gain momentum just as feminist goals were shifting from legal rights to cultural issues and as multiculturalism was gaining greater recognition. These developments gave rise to the Third Wave of feminism in the 1990s, which has gained momentum since the beginning of the twenty-first century.
The Seneca Falls Convention was organized by Lucretia Mott (1793-1880) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), with the abolitionist Frederick Douglas (1817-1895) and various Quakers in attendance. The issues in the First Wave were laid out at the convention in the Declaration of Sentiments, which called for women to have access to education, to their own salaries, to courts, to property, to child custody, to employment, to professions, and to the right to vote, which was the most controversial resolution. It would take from 1848 to 1920 for this last resolution to be achieved in the United States. The struggles for women’s equality in European societies followed similar historical paths.
The Second Wave
The Second Wave of American feminism grew out of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the New Left. During the early stages activists readily employed the term women’s liberation as a way of explaining that the problem women faced as a group was similar to that of other oppressed groups. Second Wave consciousness-raising groups helped women move from seeing themselves as ineffective individuals in a fair society to identifying the structural patterns of sex bias that turned women as a group into second-class citizens. Women were in need of liberation from patriarchy and the cultural, legal, and political practices that flowed from patriarchy to subjugate them. As the civil rights movement progressed and the women’s movement gained supporters, four key categories became the base for critical analysis: race, class, gender, and sexuality. The removal of their accompanying social ills—racism, class privilege, sexism, and heterosexism—would liberate societies from oppressive practices and unjust institutional structures. Feminists argued that women’s liberation would result in the liberation of men because gender roles would be more open and individuals could assume them according to their talents and tastes instead of the shape of their bodies.
The Second Wave of feminism was supported by a variety of local and national political organizations that pressed for such rights as to continue work while pregnant and to have access to information about birth control, to abortion, to health care for pregnant women, and to legal protection from domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment, and economic discrimination. Concerns over women’s health, reproductive choices, and body image came to the foreground as the issues of health and medical practices were scrutinized for sex or gender bias. Groups used lobbying, demonstrations, community-based organizations, and litigation and were loosely linked together through national-level organizations like the National Organization for Women (NOW), founded in 1966.
Betty Friedan (1921-2006), one of the NOW founders, raised a key question about women’s liberation in her book The Feminine Mystique: “Who knows what women can be when they are finally free to become themselves?” (Friedan 1963, p. 378). Her critical review of women’s roles as housewives helped citizens see how women were restricted in their ability to develop into full persons. Coalitions between the women’s movement and the New Left, the anti-Vietnam War campaigns, the black liberation movement, and the ecological movement produced a variety of feminist theories and analyses, each of which explained liberation differently. Liberal feminism sought legal rights on a par with men’s rights; socialist and Marxist feminism sought economic equity; radical feminism sought liberation and recognition for women-based theories, cultures, and sexualities; eco-feminism sought to explain how the subjugation of women is connected to the subjugation and abuse of nature; and postmodern feminism sought linguistic equities.
As the Second Wave of the women’s movement progressed, pejorative nicknames like women’s libber emerged as some social groups began to resist the changes. While there were feminists who wore the label libber or radical proudly, embracing the popular adage that “feminism is the radical notion that women are people,” others found that the labels hindered other types of political work. Feminists fought against the stereotype of themselves as man haters and humorless. While women as a group were oppressed, many also belonged to privileged groups: whites, elites, developed nations, majority religions, and heterosexual dyads. Since the term liberation could be understood as liberation from men or from slavery, other terms were employed to discourage these misunderstandings. Instead of using the term women’s liberation, many political activists and scholars refer to this concept with the terms feminism or gender equity.
Groups within the feminist movement who focused on rights put their energies into legislation, gaining political office, protests, and litigation. Others were concerned with cultural transformations and focused on reframing language, what counted as the canon in art and literature, everyday life activities, the division of labor in the household, and images of women presented in schools and the media.
“The personal is political” was a phrase that articulated the ways all women could be involved in this process of change, and personal choices were seen as manifestations of political commitments. The genuineness of a political commitment was indicated in the details of how one lived one’s life. Those who were vegetarian were expected not to wear leather shoes. Those who believed women were equal to men were expected to refer to adult females as “women,” not as “girls.” Hence a notion of political connection between individual actions and political beliefs was advocated, and this led to a form of “political correctness” in that one’s personal behavior was to match one’s ethical commitments. Progressive activists would point out such inconsistencies in each others’ actions in order to discourage patriarchal practices. Such actions examined and corrected speech practices to alert citizens to inconsistencies between political commitments and personal utterances. Calling adult women “girls” or referring to women as “chicks” could elicit public criticism. The Second Wave established inclusive speech practices for both genders that are now accepted in the society as a whole.
Affirmative action programs were put in place to recruit women and minorities into schools and the workplace, and watchdog agencies were created to be sure that such policies were followed. Sexism and racism were scrutinized, and citizens became aware that they needed to be careful about engaging in these types of behaviors. Some of these programs and the scrutiny associated with them have diminished with the rise of the New Right and its critiques of affirmative action, abortion policies, and other limits on corporate interests. The New Right resurrected the term political correctness to suggest that feminists and their allies had unduly politicized issues that were best left to individuals or corporations to work out as they thought best. Drawing from the ways in which politics has been treated as a negative term, the new use of political correctness permitted a quick negative label for social practices (especially related to affirmative action, protections for equal political and economic access for women and ethnic minorities, and inclusive language practices) that the political right wanted to eliminate from social policy.
Because rights in the United States are focused on limits to government action, U.S. politics has focused on how states have prevented women’s access to contraceptives and abortion as well as preventing corporations from discrimination in employment and educational opportunities on the basis of gender or sex. The New Right in the United States has developed an antiabortion component to their political agenda with a “pro-life” argument based on the protection of what they call the unborn. This position builds on the general interests of the New Right in gender politics. Antifeminists have attempted to reduce women’s liberation to women’s individual opportunity and even to “bra burning” by making the claim that Second Wave feminists burned bras. However, the occurrence of this event cannot be found by those who study the movement even though it was reported in the media. Reducing a movement to “bra burning” was probably a confusion with the anti—Vietnam War movement that burned draft cards, an illegal activity that did serve as civil disobedience. While burning draft cards is illegal, there is no such law against burning bras; discussions about bra burning are designed to trivialize women’s liberation. The central issues of the Second Wave movement were equal access to education, employment opportunities, and health care.
Internationally, gender issues have included a struggle over women’s identities as wife and mother with a primary location in the modern private sector as opposed to women’s identities as political citizens with economic roles in modern societies that include but are not limited to their roles within the family. Because the world economy depends on women’s economic contributions to the economies of nations, the limitation of women to the private sector of the home has disappeared as an economic factor even though the issue remains alive as an emotional factor in some political ideologies or religious interpretations. These issues were debated at the 1995 UN Conference on Women in Beijing, China, where representatives from major religions, the political right and left, and other sectors discussed what is required to liberate women.
In an international context, the key issues for feminists remain women’s access to educational opportunities, including educational levels comparable to those offered to men, employment and pay opportunities that afford a living wage and are comparable to the pay men receive, and access to health care. In some nations women continue to struggle for equality with men in suing for divorce and custody of their children. Government policies vary on reproduction regulation, including abortion. In some nations abortion is limited to early stages or conditions that depend on the life of the mother. In others, such as China with its one-child policy, abortion can be encouraged and supported up to later stages of pregnancy. While some would reduce women’s liberation to access to reproductive health technologies, women’s liberation depends on access to general health care, education, and wages that will reduce women’s poverty and the devastation that comes when women are unable to provide for themselves, their families, and their children.
As the political climate developed in the 1980s and 1990s, feminists no longer had to contend with the problems of invisibility or of not being taken seriously. Nonetheless, while they were taken seriously in the 1990s, they were targeted by the New Right as a source of social ills. Internationally, a New Right, neoconservative feminism emerged that emphasized the role of women as wives and mothers. In the United States these activists are often part of the “pro-life” movement that has opposed abortion and worked to counter the effects of Roe v. Wade. They have argued that women did not need and would not benefit from the individual protection that could be granted through social and political rights that are the same as those granted to men. At the same time, among Western feminists, tighter alliances were built with the gay and lesbian movements, so issues of sex and reproduction remained important in the struggle over what counts as women’s liberation.
The Third Wave
In the 1990s postmodern analyses came to the foreground with a focus on the politics of language and culture and an emphasis on everyday political transformations as well as notions of difference. These shifts placed greater emphasis on culture and language as mechanisms for change at local levels. As the children of the Second Wave of feminism began to reach adulthood, they became activists with a new agenda that embraced the postmodern turn to language and cultural issues but also focused on mentoring, leadership, art, and new articulations of feminine and feminist identities. Rebecca Walker, the daughter of the Second Wave activist and novelist Alice Walker (b. 1944), is an example of a Third Wave activist. Building on Second Wave feminism, these activists and academics raise new questions such as that found in Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drake’s Third Wave Agenda: “Which personal? And whose politics? How to think ‘sisterhood’ in terms of difference and hybridity?” (Heywood and Drake 1997, p. 23). Examinations of multiple identities, complex articulations of feminine and feminist, coalition politics, and everyday practices became even more important than party affiliations and legal reforms. Retaining a loyalty to womanist perspectives and multicultural understandings, feminists continued to argue that each woman must gain the opportunity to tell her own story and speak for herself.
As academic feminism moved from the Second Wave feminists, who had drawn on empirical evidence to substantiate gender bias, to Third Wave academics, who drew more from postmodern theoretical frameworks, linguistic playfulness became a form of politics. Third Wave feminists have focused on reinventing women’s identities, languages, and symbols while framing their own articulations of feminist politics. In this context women’s liberation means the freedom to select the context for political change, the ability to frame the issues in response to both contemporary and local contexts, and the means by which various surprising reversals, including linguistic turns, might liberate.
Women’s liberation is a part of the women’s movement, which includes access to education and political office; health care benefits, including reproductive health benefits; legal rights for women; employment access; protection from rape, domestic violence, and sexual harassment; access to professions and professional development; and protections from unwanted medical interventions and practices that put men in charge of women’s lives. The democratization of nation-states depends on women’s liberation because 50 percent of the population of a nation—women—cannot be denied equal participation and rights if a democracy is to emerge. Such denial undercuts democratization.
Women’s liberation has come to mean liberation from patriarchal practices. However, the ways liberation might take place and what practices count as patriarchal are matters for political debate, and women, like men, differ in their assessment of their own needs. While there are similarities in women’s situations, different contexts and values create different understandings of what women’s liberation requires and how it might best be achieved. These differences offer important political insights for social justice and the development of strong democratic societies.
- Basu, Amrita, with C. Elizabeth McGrory, eds. 1995. The Challenge of Local Feminisms: Women’s Movements in Global Perspective. Boulder, CO: Westview.
- Friedan, Betty. 1963. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Norton.
- Harding, Sandra G. 1991. Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Women’s Lives. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
- Heywood, Leslie, and Jennifer Drake, eds. 1997. Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- hooks, bell. 2000. Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Cambridge, MA: South End.
- Jaggar, Alison M. 1983. Feminist Politics and Human Nature. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allanheld.
- Meyers, Diana Tietjens, ed. 1997. Feminist Social Thought: A Reader. New York: Routledge.
- Rossi, Alice S., 1973. The Feminist Papers: From Adams to de Beauvoir. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Seager, Joni. 2003. The Penguin Atlas of Women in the World. 3rd ed. New York: Penguin Books.
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