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From Suffragettes to #MeToo, Feminism’s Many Waves

The history of women’s rights in the U.S. is often characterized in waves. The first wave consisted of suffragettes fighting for the right to vote. The second wave, beginning in the 1960s, sought equality. The last several years have brought attention to a new wave of issues, including sexual harassment, the #MeToo movement, and women seeking political office in record numbers.

Professor Lynn Chancer (Hunter College, The Graduate Center, CUNY) takes a look at all this and more in her new book, After the Rise and Stall of American Feminism: Taking Back a Revolution. The title reflects the notion that “spurts of political progress” are often followed by decades where the push for women’s rights gets stuck. Right now, we’re experiencing a wave of activism from Hollywood to Congress.

One of Chancer’s most intriguing themes involves what she calls “looksism” or “the conventional pressure on women to be or stay ‘good-looking’ in order to attract and keep male sexual partners.” That pressure not only creates a bias against women in the world of work, but it also harms men by creating a demand for “compulsory masculinity.” As she explains, looksism involves “two sides of the same familiar coin.”

A woman's hand holds a young baby's hand
“Suffrage parade in New York City,” 1913. Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library.

Chancer also looks at intersectionality — how race, class, and gender norms fit in with feminist issues — and she emphasizes that feminism is as much about realizing the potential of all humans as it is a movement for women’s rights.

Chancer originally titled the book, I’m Not a Feminist, But… before dropping the idea because she thinks women have started embracing feminism again. Case in point: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has long downplayed gender issues, is now talking more about the unique challenges facing women in politics. A recent New York Times story about Merkel was headlined: “Is the World’s Most Powerful Woman Finally a Feminist?”

“The feminist movement is here to stay,” Chancer writes, adding that signs of its “renaissance and resurgence” promise to “move the currently troubled, and troubling, world forward.”

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After the Rise and Stall of American Feminism: Taking Back a Revolution
Stanford University Press, 2019

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Lynn Chancer (Professor, Sociology) | Profile 1 | Profile 2