The Women's Liberation Movement

A History of Feminism in the 1960s and 1970s

Marchers with Women's Liberation banner
Women's Liberation group marches in protest in support of Black Panther Party, New Haven, November, 1969. David Fenton/Getty Images

The women's liberation movement was a collective struggle for equality that was most active during the late 1960s and 1970s. It sought to free women from oppression and male supremacy.

The Meaning of the Name

The movement consisted of women's liberation groups, advocacy, protests, consciousness raising, feminist theory, and a variety of diverse individual and group actions on behalf of women and freedom.

The term was created as a parallel to other liberation and freedom movements of the time. The root of the idea was rebellion against colonial powers or a repressive national government to win independence for a national group and to end oppression.

Parts of the racial justice movement of the time had begun calling themselves the "black liberation." The term "liberation" resonates not just with independence from oppression and male supremacy for individual women, but with solidarity among women seeking independence and ending oppression for women collectively. It was often held in contrast to individualistic feminism. The individuals and groups were loosely tied together by common ideas, although there were also significant differences between groups and conflicts within the movement.

The term "women's liberation movement" is often used synonymously with "women's movement" or "second wave feminism," although there were actually many different types of feminist groups.

Even within the women's liberation movement, women's groups held differing beliefs about organizing tactics and whether working within the patriarchal establishment could effectively bring about desired change.

Not "Women's Lib"

The term "women's lib" was used largely by those who opposed the movement as a way of minimizing, belittling, and making a joke of it.

Women's Liberation vs. Radical Feminism 

The women's liberation movement is also sometimes seen as being synonymous with radical feminism because both were concerned with freeing members of society from oppressive social structure. Both have sometimes been characterized as a threat to men, particularly when the movements use rhetoric about "struggle" and "revolution." However, feminist theorists overall are actually concerned with how society can eliminate unfair sex roles. There is more to women's liberation than the anti-feminist fantasy that feminists are women who want to eliminate men.

The desire for freedom from oppressive social structure in many women's liberation groups led to internal struggles with structure and leadership. The idea of full equality and partnership being expressed in a lack of structure is credited by many with the weakening power and influence of the movement. It led to later self-examination and further experimentation with leadership and participation models of organization.

Putting Women's Liberation in Context

The connection with a black liberation movement is significant because many of those involved in creating the women's liberation movement had been active in the civil rights movement and the growing black power and black liberation movements.

They had experienced disempowerment and oppression there as women. The "rap group" as a strategy for consciousness within the black liberation movement evolved into consciousness-raising groups within the women's liberation movement. The Combahee River Collective formed around the intersection of the two movements in the 1970s. 

Many feminists and historians trace the roots of the women's liberation movement to the New Left and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and early 1960s. Women who worked in those movements often found that they were not treated equally, even within liberal or radical groups that claimed to fight for freedom and equality. Feminists of the 1960s had something in common with feminists of the 19th century in this respect: Early women's rights activists such as Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were inspired to organize for women's rights after being excluded from men's anti-slavery societies and abolitionist meetings.

Writing About the Women's Liberation Movement

Women have written fiction, non-fiction and poetry about ideas of the 1960s' and 1970s' women's liberation movement. A few of these feminist writers were Frances M. Beal, Simone de Beauvoir, Shulamith Firestone, Carol Hanisch, Audre Lorde, Kate Millett, Robin Morgan, Marge Piercy, Adrienne Rich and Gloria Steinem.

In her classic essay on women's liberation, Jo Freeman commented on the tension between the Liberation Ethic and the Equality Ethic. "To seek only equality, given the current male bias of the social values, is to assume that women want to be like men or that men are worth emulating.... It is just as dangerous to fall into the trap of seeking liberation without due concern for equality."

Freeman also commented on the challenge of radicalism versus reformism which was a tension in the women's movement. "This is a situation the politicos frequently found themselves in during the early days of the movement. They found repugnant the possibility of pursuing 'reformist' issues which might be achieved without altering the basic nature of the system, and thus, they felt, only strengthen the system. However, their search for a sufficiently radical action and/or issue came to naught and they found themselves unable to do anything out of fear that it might be counterrevolutionary. Inactive revolutionaries are a good deal more innocuous than active 'reformists.'"