Feminism is a philosophy advocating equal economic, political, and social rights and opportunities for women. The term has been used for close to a century in the United States: Even before winning the right to vote in 1920, women who sought women's rights called themselves feminists.
Between 1920 and 1960, enthusiasm for the women's rights movement decreased. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the United States Constitution, which would have made sex discrimination officially unconstitutional, caused feminists to split during the 1920s and form two camps — those who favored the ERA and those who opposed it. The Great Depression and World War II also hindered gains for feminists.
In the 1960s, political activism for women's rights began to increase. Two branches formed: a middle-aged group of professional women who advocated legislative reform, and a younger group of women who favored revolutionary change and called themselves women's liberationists. By the mid-1970s, these groups merged to form organizations such as the National Organization for Women (NOW).
During this time, President John F. Kennedy established a Presidential Commission on the Status of Women and, in 1961, named Eleanor Roosevelt its chairperson. The commission's report revealed widespread discrimination against women in the workplace, as well as in the law, and a lack of adequate childcare. In 1963, the first civil rights legislation for women, the Equal Pay Act, was passed. Since then, Congress has passed other laws prohibiting discrimination against women.
Through their writing, feminists such as Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Germaine Greer have brought awareness of the plight of women to the public. While attending college, Kingsolver read the writings of Friedan and Steinem. Greatly influenced by her readings, Kingsolver writes about women, their struggles to survive, their relationships with each other, and their commitment to motherhood.
In The Bean Trees, the protagonist and the other central characters are women. The women who have children (Taylor and Lou Ann) are either not married or separated from their husbands. They manage to survive by forming a community in which they can depend on each other. Throughout the novel, Kingsolver introduces feminist issues that she feels strongly about, such as childcare, sexual harassment, and the capabilities of women in typically male-dominated workplaces.