7.10 The Second Wave of Feminism

Robert Rutherdale, Department of Philosophy & History, Algoma University

In 1963 feminist author and activist, Betty Friedan, captured extraordinary attention with her book, The Feminine Mystique. She struck a chord for many readers and a nerve among her critics. She wrote about “the problem that has no name,” the unhappiness and dissatisfaction experienced by many women in their roles as homemaker, mother, and feminine wife. At its source, she argued, was patriarchy. Notions of privileged males resonated with the daily experience of many women in Canada, especially in the middle-class.

Inspired by The Feminine Mystique, and by Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1948, translated into English in 1953), as well as by Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1970) a growing number of women across the western world, including women in Canada, launched a significant activist movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Women’s Liberation Movement aimed to empower women in both their private and public lives. This second wave feminist challenge staged public protests, producing iconic images that were easily consumed on television screens and often sensationalized. They challenged assumptions about conventional roles for women and the “normalcy” of patriarchy, leading in Canada’s centennial year to the establishment of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, which produced its report in 1970 and established the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. Progressive changes in gender roles, with respect to enhancing women’s power, were attempted by establishing a portfolio on the status of women in the federal cabinet and in creating an Office of Equal Opportunities in the Public Service Commission. A new Citizenship Act was passed in 1975 and legislation to amend the Labour Code was adopted in 1978. That same year, the Canadian Human Rights Act came into effect, ensuring that “equal pay for equal work” be reflected in the workforce.

These shifts in public policy and public opinion provided space for a discussion of the brutal side of patriarchy. Women’s Liberation in the 1960s which was sometimes exuberant and even fun was followed in the 1970s by a grim and growing recognition of gendered violence in the form of wife abuse. Friedan’s critique of a patriarchal society made possible the revelation of life stories of battered women. She offered a challenge, taken up by many readers in Canada beginning in the early 1960s, which had been largely absent in the popular discourse. Even now, out-of-sight struggles from this generation (and others) are gradually being revealed by oral histories and life writing. With renewed local community support throughout the 1970s, the rising number of women’s and family shelters provided a necessary, if distressing, measure of the problem of spousal abuse.

At this point, two generations of Canadian women  mothers who remembered the 1930s and beyond, and their daughters  could step past the so-called generation gap between parents and the young, to confront long histories of becoming a woman, altogether. In the 1970s Women’s Studies courses and, later, programs were appearing for the first time on Canadian university campuses; daughters enrolled in these newly instituted disciplines started bringing home copies of the much reprinted Our Bodies, Ourselves (a key, and evolving, textbook, launched by a Boston-based feminist movement established in 1969) for mom to have look at. Old assumptions about property rights, income-earning potential for women (who often earned less than two-thirds pay for work of equal value at this time), taxation laws, and child-care responsibilities spoke to the larger picture of patriarchy’s persistence during and beyond the so-called “good life” of the 1950s. That the Dominion Bureau of Statistics (replaced by Statistics “Stats” Canada in 1972) routinely recorded fathers and husbands in the conjugal family as household “heads,” even in the early 1970s, is understandable: adult males earned much more as paid workers and their gendered role conformed to Western cultural practice and expectations.

Despite these feminist challenges, most barriers to gender equality held fast beyond the 1960s. The second wave had momentum, but it crashed again and again against opposition from both men and women, opposition that was as much conditioned by past assumptions, as it was just plain reactionary. The “trouble with normal,” as Mary Louise Adams put it, was that the great postwar experiment in restoring a heterosexual, gendered family regime rooted in a mythical past  had failed to live up to its billing.[1] Dismantling its structures through new laws and public policy in employment equity, day care provision, and family law reform continue to present day.

Probing these broad patterns can take us to unexpected places, as historians move from an era when “mixed marriages” described a union across Christian denominations to one in which same-sex nuptials are protected by Canada’s Charter of Freedoms and Rights. In hindsight, from the end of the Second World War to the early 1980s, gender roles did not obliterate old boundaries, but they shifted considerably in pushing them toward more equality. Nonetheless, the ongoing task of translating legal gender equality into everyday realities in the continual making of gender roles leaves work yet to be done  throughout Canadian society, and by historians at work mapping their historical contexts in the years ahead. Present-day trends have deep historical roots. Gender roles remain defined more by patriarchy than equal partnership. It is also evident that they have been significantly challenged in histories of the struggle for women’s rights.

Key Points

  • The movement to improve the condition of women changed in the 1960s and 1970s, becoming variously known as the Women’s Liberation Movement and second wave feminism.
  • A result of this activism and a stimulus to further action was the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in 1970.
  • Legislation aimed at achieving gender equality was introduced incrementally, although barriers proved resistant and continue to be so.

  1. Mary Louise Adams, The Trouble with Normal: Postwar Youth and the Making of Heterosexuality (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1997).


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Canadian History: Post-Confederation Copyright © 2016 by Robert Rutherdale, Department of Philosophy & History, Algoma University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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