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Chapter 10: Sex, Gender and Sexual Orientation

10.5 Activism and the Future

Using Your Sociological Imagination

What is feminism?

Are you a feminist? Why or why not?


Recall that more than one-third of the public agrees with the statement, “It is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family” (General Social Survey, 2018). This means that two-thirds disagreed, which is nearly the same number of women (61%) who said in a Pew Research Center survey that ‘feminist’ describes them well (Barroso, 2021). When broken down by age, education, and political affiliation, the numbers were quite different, with younger, college-educated Democratic women more likely to adopt the term feminist. In a curious turn, a Pew survey of all Americans found that the majority support gender equality, even those who do not identify as feminists (Minkin, 2020). Meanwhile, a Pew survey of Americans found that while most said feminism was empowering, they also criticized the feminist movement, saying it was polarizing and even outdated – including women who identify as feminist (Barroso, 2021). And four in ten Republicans said that women’s progress has come at the expense of men (Horowitz, 2021). So, what is feminism, anyway?

image of feminist icons Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Sojourner Truth.

Feminism as a social movement began in the United States during the abolitionist period before the Civil War. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Sojourner Truth, shown above, were outspoken abolitionists who made connections between slavery and the oppression of women. US Library of Congress – public domain and Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. (1923). Sojourner Truth. Retrieved from https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e4-7440-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.

The Four Waves of Feminism

refers to the belief that women and men should have equal opportunities in economic, political, and social life. People who supported feminist philosophies started a social movement to advocate for changes in society. Since its first incarnation in the United States, there have been four waves of feminism, each characterized by particular issues that needed to be addressed.

In the United States, the first wave of the feminist social movement began during the abolitionist period preceding the Civil War, when women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, both active abolitionists, began to see similarities between slavery and the oppression of women. African-American activist Sojourner Truth poignantly and powerfully gave voice to this with her impromptu speech, Ain’t I a Woman, at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention (to learn more about and read Sojourner Truths’ famous speech, go to this website: Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I a Woman”). This new women’s movement focused on many issues but especially on the right to vote. As it quickly grew, critics charged that it would ruin the family and wreak havoc on society in other ways. Critics added that women were not smart enough to vote and should just concentrate on being good wives and mothers (Behling, 2001).

After women won the right to vote in 1920, the women’s movement became less active but began anew in the late 1960s and early 1970s in what came to be known as the second wave of the feminist movement. In a repeat of what spurred the first wave, women active in the southern civil rights movement turned their attention to women’s rights, bristling at a paternalistic society that saw a woman’s place was mainly in the home; the term , or having prejudiced beliefs that value one sex over another, was coined during the second wave and modeled after the civil rights movement’s term racism. While the first wave of feminism was generally propelled by middle class, white, cisgender women, during the second wave the National Black Feminist Organization advocated for the inclusion of issues faced by women of color and poor white women. Some of the most influential members of the entire feminist movement at this time were lesbians – though the movement’s leaders were not very welcoming (Bedikian, 2020).

Efforts of the second wave centered on passing the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). This constitutional amendment, if ratified, would have read, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex,” guaranteeing legal gender equality for women and men.

Map of the U.S. showing the status of the Equal Rights Amendment support in each state.

The map shows the status of the Equal Rights Amendment support in each state. CC BY NC SA 3.0

The ERA was passed by Congress in March of 1972, at which point it was sent to the states for ratification. For the Constitution to be amended, any proposed amendment must be approved by 38 out of 50 state legislatures. State legislatures originally had until March 1979 to approve the ERA, by which point only 35 states had approved the amendment. At this point, Congress voted to extend the deadline until June 1982, but no additional states voted to approve the amendment by that date. Since that time, more states have ceremoniously ratified the ERA, including Nevada in 2017, Illinois in 2018 and Virginia in 2020, while others have rescinded their approval, including Nebraska, Tennessee, Idaho, Kentucky and South Dakota. Controversy remains over whether or not state legislatures have the right to rescind a ratification. Regardless, the original and extended deadlines set by Congress have passed, ultimately resulting in the ERA failing to be ratified. Additionally, because the second wave of the feminist movement challenged strongly held traditional views about gender, it prompted the same kind of controversy that its 19th-century predecessor did, resulting in a conservative backlash, echoing the concerns heard a century earlier (Faludi, 1991). This, in part, helps to explain why the Equal Rights Amendment did not receive enough state support to be ratified.

image of Phyllis Schlafly at a rally to stop ratification of the ERA

Activist Phyllis Schlafly was a prominent figure in the conservative movement working to oppose the ERA. Schlafly is pictured above wearing a “Stop ERA” badge, demonstrating with other women against the Equal Rights Amendment in front of the White House, Washington, D.C., February 4, 1977. Warren K. Leffler – Public domain – Wikimedia Commons

While the ERA failed to be ratified, many of the goals of the second wave were successful, including increased access to methods of fertility control (such as the birth control pill), lobbying for changes to legalize women’s access to birth control, support for childcare and domestic violence shelters, more women in positions of leadership and women gaining greater access to higher education and diversified occupations.

Similar to the first wave of the feminist movement, the second wave began to decline as goals were achieved. However, this hiatus was short-lived. In the early-1990’s a third wave emerged, jolted into being by the reaction to Anita Hill’s experiences with sexual harassment.

images of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas

President George H. W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991. During his confirmation hearings, Anita Hill testified about sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior by Clarence Thomas when she worked for him as an aide at the U.S. Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Tim Pierce – CC BY-SA 4.0 – Wikimedia Commons and CKnight70 – CC BY 2.0 – Flickr

Anita Hill, a law professor, became a public figure in 1991 during the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. In a confidential interview with the FBI, she reported instances of inappropriate behavior and sexual harassment when he was her boss. The report was leaked, and she had to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee about her experiences. Three other women backed Hill’s claims but were not called to testify, while Thomas’ supporters said she was delusional and pointed out inconsistencies in her behavior. Clarence Thomas was eventually confirmed to the Supreme Court, with a vote of 52 Senators voting to confirm Thomas and 48 in opposition.

In addition to addressing sexual harassment in the workplace, other goals of the third wave, such as raising women’s pay and changing policies on violence were adopted, along with a focus on the interests and rights of women of color and cultural ideas around gender. First, addressing the narrow focus on issues of white middle class women in earlier waves, this wave of feminism actively included the concerns of women and color, who led and sustained the movement. Second, after feminist scholars argued that gender is performative, and that sex and gender are separate, the fight for trans rights became a fundamental aspect of intersectional feminism. Third, noting that the rights of women everywhere matter, the needs of women in Least Industrialized Nations, who often have far fewer rights and opportunities, were now included.

image of a protest with person holding a sign reading, "Nasty Women Unite!"

The current wave of the feminist movement is focused on the rights of all women everywhere, with a particular emphasis on sexual harassment and sexual violence. Matt Zimmerman – CC BY 2.0 – Flickr

In the same way that the Anita Hill hearings spurred the third wave, the events surrounding the Me Too Movement converged into what some have identified as a fourth wave, beginning in the 2000s. Coalescing around the issues of and revisiting issues raised in the second wave – equal pay, sexual violence and sexual harassment – the movement recognizes that women are part of many groups who are marginalized, and that feminism is best understood in the context of a society that also experiences racism, ageism, classism, ableism and inequality due to sexual orientation. In addition, the current awareness and appreciation of how ubiquitous sexual harassment is in the workplace has caused a reckoning where even very powerful men must acknowledge norms have changed.


Think Like a Sociologist

images of Tarana Burke and Alyssa Milano

Marla Aufmuth/TED – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 – Flickr and Luigi Novi – CC BY 4.0 – Wikimedia Commons

The Me Too Movement was originally started by sexual assault survivor Tarana Burke (pictured left) in 2006, who wanted a way for others who had been sexually assaulted to come together in solidarity. It gained traction in 2017 (around the time when the Harvey Weinstein case was erupting) when Hollywood actress Alyssa Milano (pictured right) used the term in a tweet and suggested all women who had been sexually harassed or assaulted use the term as a hashtag as a way to understand the magnitude of the problem.

Some have critiqued the events, saying that wealthy white women co-opted the movement. Others contend that the movement’s success is due to the higher profiles of the actresses who used it.

What do you think?


Correlates of Feminism

Because of the feminist movement’s importance, scholars have investigated why some people are more likely than others to support feminist beliefs. Their research uncovers several correlates of feminism (Dauphinais, Barkan, & Cohn, 1992). We have already seen one of these when we noted that religiosity is associated with support for traditional gender roles. To turn that around, lower levels of religiosity are associated with feminist beliefs and are thus a correlate of feminism.

Several other such correlates exist. One of the strongest is education: the lower the education, the lower the support for feminist beliefs. Figure 10.4 “Education and Acceptance of Traditional Gender Roles in the Family” shows the strength of this correlation by using our familiar General Social Survey statement that men should achieve outside the home and women should take care of home and family. People without a high school degree are twice as likely as those with a bachelor’s or graduate degree to agree with this statement.

Figure 10.4 Education and Acceptance of Traditional Gender Roles in the Family; Percentage agreeing that “it is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family.”

Bar chart showing Education and Acceptance of Traditional Gender Roles in the Family; Percentage agreeing that “it is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family.” Data shows that those with higher levels of education are less likely to accept traditional gender roles compared to those with less education. 14.1% with graduate degrees accept traditional gender roles, 15.3% with bachelor's degrees, 20.2% with associate's degrees and 29.9% with high school diplomas or less.

Source: Data from General Social Survey, 2018.

Age is another correlate, as older people are more likely than younger people to believe in traditional gender roles. Again, looking at data from the General Social Survey, we find that while only 19% of people aged 18-34 accept traditional gender roles in the family, 35% of those over the age of 65 support traditional gender roles (2018). Political affiliation and region of country also reflect different levels of support for feminist beliefs. For instance, 19% of Democrats believe in traditional gender roles, while 30% of Republicans and 27% of independents agree that it is much better in heterosexual couples if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family. Those most likely to agree with this statement live in the South, at 32% and those least likely to support this statement live in the Midwest, at 17% (GSS, 2018).


Think Like a Sociologist

Social movements, including the feminist movement, are given direction by the theories that frame them. Within feminism, several theories exist. Although they all share the basic idea that women and men should be equal in their opportunities in all spheres of life, they differ in other ways (Lindsey, 2011). believes that the equality of women can be achieved within our existing society by passing laws and reforming social, economic, and political institutions. In contrast, blames capitalism for women’s inequality and says that true gender equality can result only if fundamental changes in social institutions, and even a socialist revolution, are achieved. , on the other hand, says that (male domination) lies at the root of women’s oppression and that women are oppressed even in non-capitalist societies. Patriarchy itself must be abolished, they say, if women are to become equal to men. Finally, an emerging emphasizes that women of color are oppressed not only because of their gender but also because of their race and class (Andersen & Collins, 2010). They thus face a triple burden that goes beyond their gender. By focusing their attention on women of color in the United States and other nations, multicultural feminists remind us that the lives of these women differ in many ways from those of the middle-class women who historically have led U.S. feminist movements.

When considering the main sociological perspectives, which feminist theory best aligns with the functionalist point of view? Which reflects the conflict perspective? Why?


Current Attitudes towards Feminism

The feminist social movement has produced many different feminist theories, each with its own particular focus, as discussed in the box above. Some prefer to work within the system in place, others seek to fundamentally change our social institutions. Some emphasize intersectionality, others seek to dismantle male domination. Perhaps due to the many directions feminism has taken, there is less consistency with its message today.

A Pew study found that despite 61% of women and 40% of men stating the word ‘feminist’ describes them at least somewhat and agree that feminism has done at least a fair amount to advance women’s causes, less than half say it is inclusive and nearly half find it polarizing. A sizable 30% say it is outdated (Barroso, 2020). Some object to the word ‘feminism,’ finding it too exclusionary, and would rather band together with other groups fighting injustice based on race, sexual orientation or economic inequality (Rampton, 2015). At the other extreme, some people are rejecting the feminist label completely. On one side are those who support the feminist objectives but find such a negative stigma associated with ‘feminism’ they do not identify as such (Anderson, 2009). On the other hand, are groups such as Women Against Feminism, an informal group started in 2013, who object not to the intent of feminism but rather question whether it is needed anymore. They also find issue with some of the extremes of feminism, saying it fosters misandry, or hating men.

LGBTQ+ Movement

image from 1993 protest for LGBTQ+ rights

Public protests, marches and other shows of support for LGBTQ+ equality, such as the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation in Washington, D.C. on April 25, 1993, have helped to bring about social change.  Ian Aberle – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 – Flickr

As discussed in a previous section, until the mid-20th century, members of the LGBTQ+ community were severely penalized simply for existing. With no protection from the law, homosexuals were fired, forced out of the military, and harassed by the police; living openly simply was not possible. After World War II, there was greater visibility of the gay community, and organizations supporting gay men and lesbians formed. An uneasy truce with law enforcement agencies through the 1960’s meant establishments in larger cities catering to gay, lesbian and trans customers could expect periodic police stings where customers would be rounded up and taken to jail. Several times, patrons fought back, though nothing lasting came of their protests. In 1969, at a bar in Greenwich Village called the Stonewall Inn, gay, lesbian and transsexual patrons rose up against the police into what became known as the Stonewall Riot. Over the next several nights, spontaneous protests against the extreme prejudice occurred throughout the area. From this watershed event came the gay liberation movement.

Since that time, the LGBTQ+ community has seen both successes and setbacks. Openly LGBTQ+ people have been elected to higher office and protest marches demanding civil rights helped lead led to broader support and the repeal of discriminatory laws. On the other hand, laws and policies that discriminate against LGBTQ+ people have also been instituted. One, the Defense of Marriage Act, introduced to Congress in 1996 and signed into law by President Bill Clinton the same year, defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman at the federal level, and also allowed individual states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages that took place in other states having more liberal marriage laws. In the military, what became known as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was a directive adopted in 1993 that allowed gay men and lesbians to serve in the military as long as they neither acted on nor told anyone they were gay. On the other hand, one of the most impactful actions of the gay rights movement was how the group wielded its power to force the government to respond to the AIDS crisis in the 1980’s.

Gay rights activists continued to push for equality, and by the 2000’s many goals came to fruition. Vermont legalized civil unions between same sex partners in 2000, and Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same sex marriages in 2004, soon followed by four more states and Washington, D.C. In 2010, President Barack Obama signed a memorandum allowing some benefits for same-sex partners of federal employees, and then introduced the Matthew Shepard Act, which expanded the 1969 Hate Crime law to include crimes motivated by the victims’ gender, sexual orientation or gender identity. The Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was repealed in 2011, and in 2015 the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex marriages are legal in all 50 states.

The current emphasis of this social movement is on securing rights for the transgender community. One issue revolved around public bathrooms. Debate over whether transgender people should be able to use the public bathroom or locker room that corresponds with their expressed gender rather than their biological sex erupted in 2015. Many states drafted laws that required one’s biological sex to be the standard for determining which bathroom to use, which transgender activists said was discriminatory. In another example, though the federal government had allowed transgender soldiers to serve and supported sex reassignment surgery for active members of the military, the Trump administration rescinded both the ability to serve and the medical benefit in 2017, only to have them restored by the Biden administration in 2021. Clearly, society has not come to agreement regarding the status of transgender people or their rights.


Think Like a Sociologist

In 1975, Oliver ‘Billy’ Sipple became famous for stopping an attempt on President Gerald Ford’s life when he was in San Francisco. Sipple, a decorated Marine who suffered from PTSD, chose to live in San Francisco because it allowed him to live openly as a gay man. However, his family in Detroit was not aware he was gay, and he wanted to keep this from them, as his parents were devout Baptists.

In the 1970’s, gay rights activists felt it was important to normalize homosexuality by outing people, that is, publicizing their sexual orientation, whether the person wanted this to happen or not. Though Sipple didn’t want any accolades and requested privacy after his heroic act, activists shared his sexual orientation with the media and soon headlines such as “Homosexual Hero” were in the news. Sipple’s family in Detroit were harassed, and in response they temporarily cut their ties with him. His father asked him not to attend his mother’s funeral years later, and Sipple came to regret his part in preventing the assassination due to all the unwanted attention it brought.

Sipple’s health declined, both mentally and physically. He became an alcoholic and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. In 1989, Billy Sipple was found dead in his apartment at the age of 46. In the years to follow, he became known as a hero in the LTBTQ+ community, and in 2011, February 22 was declared Billy Sipple Day in San Francisco.

What do you think about the ethics of outing a person, such as what happened to Billy Sipple?

Do you think that a person’s sexual orientation (or identity) is a matter of personal privacy?

Should the goals of a movement ever supersede the rights of individuals?


This is not to say the rights of the LGBTQ+ community are universal. In many places throughout the world, consensual sex between people is criminalized, and being transgender is criminalized, resulting in arrests, fines, imprisonment and, in six jurisdictions, the death penalty. For more information about places that criminalize LGBTQ people: Map of Countries that Criminalize LGBTQ+ People

Reducing Inequality

Inequality based on gender or sexual orientation are found in varying degrees in most societies around the world, and the United States is no exception. Just as racial/ethnic stereotyping and prejudice underlie racial/ethnic inequality, so do stereotypes and false beliefs underlie gender and sexual orientation inequality. Although these stereotypes and beliefs have weakened considerably since the 1970s, thanks in large part to the contemporary women’s movement and the LGBTQ+ rights movements, they obviously persist and hamper efforts to achieve full gender equality.

image from protest showing men marching for and supporting gender inequality

While inequality associated with sex, gender and sexual orientation persists, social movements have helped to challenge and weaken these inequalities to some degree. Peter – CC BY 2.0 – Flickr

A sociological perspective reminds us that gender and sexual orientation inequality stem from a complex mixture of cultural and structural factors that must be addressed if these inequalities are to be reduced further than they already have been since the 1970s. Despite changes during this period, children are still socialized from birth into traditional notions of femininity and masculinity, and gender-based stereotyping incorporating these notions still continues. Similarly, homophobia and bias against transgender are still widespread. Although people should generally be free to pursue whatever family and career responsibilities they desire, socialization and stereotyping still combine to limit our ability to imagine less traditional possibilities. Meanwhile, structural obstacles in the workplace and elsewhere continue to keep women in a subordinate social and economic status relative to men. Cultural and structural factors also continue to produce inequality based on sexual orientation, an inequality that is reinforced both by the presence of certain laws directed at LGBTQ+ people and by the absence of other laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression (such as laws prohibiting employment discrimination and discrimination in housing).

To reduce inequality, then, a sociological perspective suggests various policies and measures to address the cultural and structural factors that help produce gender and sexual orientation inequality. These might include, but are not limited to, the following:

1. Reduce socialization by parents and other adults of girls and boys into traditional gender roles.

2. Confront gender stereotyping and sexual orientation stereotyping by the popular and news media.

3. Increase public consciousness of the reasons for, extent of, and consequences of rape and sexual assault, sexual harassment, and pornography.

4. Increase enforcement of existing laws against gender- and sexual orientation-based employment discrimination and against sexual harassment.

5. Increase funding of rape-crisis centers and other services for girls and women who have been raped and/or sexually assaulted.

6. Increase government funding of high-quality day-care options to enable parents, and especially mothers, to work outside the home if they so desire, and to do so without fear that their finances or their children’s well-being will be compromised.

7. Pass federal and state legislation banning employment and housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and transgender identity and expression.

8. Provide government support for shelters, education and job training for LGBTQ+ youth who have been disowned by family and struggle to support themselves on their own at young ages.

9. Increase mentorship and other efforts to boost the number of women in traditionally male occupations and in positions of political leadership.

Test Yourself


Section 10.5 References

Andersen, M. L. and P. H. Collins.  (Eds.). (2010). Race, class, and gender: An anthology (7th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. 

Anderson, V. N. (2009). What’s in a label? judgments of feminist men and feminist women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 33(2), 206–215. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1111/j.1471-6402.2009.01490.x.

Barroso, A. (2021, March 10). 61% of U.S. women Say ‘feminist’ describes them well; many see feminism as empowering, polarizing. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/07/07/61-of-u-s-women-say-feminist-describes-them-well-many-see-feminism-as-empowering-polarizing/

Bedikian, C. (2020, December 3). Lesbians and their role within the Women’s Liberation Movement in the early 1970s. Gender and Sexuality Throughout World History. Retrieved from https://librarypartnerspress.pressbooks.pub/gendersexuality3e/chapter/lesbians-and-their-role-within-the-womens-liberation-movement-in-the-early-1970s/

BehHorowitz, J. M. and R. Igielnik. (2021, June 25). A century after women gained the right to vote, majority of Americans see work to do on gender equality. Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2020/07/07/a-century-after-women-gained-the-right-to-vote-majority-of-americans-see-work-to-do-on-gender-equality/

Behling, L. L. (2001). The masculine woman in America, 1890–1935. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Dauphinais, P. D., S. E. Barkan and S. F. Cohn. (1992). Predictors of rank-and-file feminist activism: Evidence from the 1983 General Social Survey. Social Problems, 39, 332–344. 

Faludi, S. (1991). Backlash: The undeclared war against American women. New York, NY: Crown. 

Minkin, R. (2020, August 7). Most Americans support gender equality, even if they don’t identify as feminists. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/07/14/most-americans-support-gender-equality-even-if-they-dont-identify-as-feminists/

Overview of Findings (2019). GLAAD. (2019, May 23). Retrieved from https://www.glaad.org/sri/2019/overview.

Rampton, M. (2020, July 13). Four waves of feminism. Pacific University. Retrieved from https://www.pacificu.edu/magazine/four-waves-feminism.

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