Politics and Civics, Social Movements

The Illinois Women’s Agenda

By: Robert Blythe
Mar 20 2017

Collections volunteer Robert Blythe details the history and contents of the Illinois Women’s Agenda records in our Research Center.

The records of the Illinois Women’s Agenda (IWA) shed light on the many and varied activities that characterized second-wave feminism in America in the 1970s and 1980s. Established in December 1975, the IWA was a coalition of over sixty organizations supporting the National Women’s Agenda. This agenda was advanced at the national level by the Women’s Action Alliance, which was formed in response to the United Nations’ designation of 1975 as the International Year of the Woman.

An early publication from February 1976, Box 9. All images by CHM staff

Second-wave feminism had a broader focus than the first-wave feminism of the early twentieth century, which had secured the right to vote for women. Many historians cite the 1962 publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique as the opening salvo of second-wave feminism. Friedan articulated the isolation, frustration, and sense of lost opportunity felt by many college-educated women trapped in a suburban kitchen in the 1950s. As it marshaled its forces, second-wave feminism combated workplace inequality, rape, and domestic violence, while promoting reproductive rights and consciousness-raising among women.

A poster for the US National Women’s Agenda listing a few of their causes. Oversize folder

The IWA’s goal was to advocate for women’s rights on a state and local level by providing resources for women who did not have access to such aid. It emphasized practical results and its activities included lobbying state and local officials on women’s issues, conducting workshops and training sessions, and hosting annual conferences so that women from all over the state could network and exchange ideas. The group produced a Chicago Women’s Directory; its development is well documented in the collection. A scrapbook of newspaper articles in the collection is an excellent resource for anyone studying second-wave feminism or lobbying groups. Another hallmark of the IWA visible in these records is its efforts to be an inclusive organization.

A bilingual directory of the IWA, c. 1975. Oversized file

A number of the IWA’s newsletters and pamphlets were produced in Spanish-language versions. The organization was also heavily involved in working toward the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which would have provided a constitutional guarantee of gender equality. Sent by Congress to the states in 1972, the ERA fell three states short of ratification. In 1983, the IWA disbanded after establishing the Illinois Women’s Lobbying Corporation earlier that year, a non-profit organization whose purpose was to lobby the General Assembly on women’s equality issues, particularly health/reproductive rights and the appointment of women to state boards and commissions. The IWA also helped create the Midwest Women’s Center, where the IWA had its offices and whose records are also available at the Museum. The Illinois Women’s Agenda records can be accessed through the Chicago History Museum’s Research Center.

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