First-wave feminism: Wikis


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First-wave feminism refers to a period of feminist activity during the nineteenth and early twentieth century in the United Kingdom and the United States. It focused on de jure (officially mandated) inequalities, primarily on gaining women's suffrage (the right to vote).

The term first-wave was coined retroactively in the 1970s. The women's movement then, focusing as much on fighting de facto (unofficial) inequalities as de jure ones, acknowledged its predecessors by calling itself second-wave feminism.



According to Miriam Schneir, Simone de Beauvoir wrote that the first woman to "take up her pen in defense of her sex" was Christine de Pizan in the 15th century.[1] Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa and Modesta di Pozzo di Forzi worked in the 16th century.[1] Marie Le Jars de Gournay, Anne Bradstreet and François Poullain de la Barre wrote in the 17th.[1]

United Kingdom

Mary Wollstonecraft published one of the first feminist treatises, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in which she advocated the social and moral equality of the sexes, extending the work of her 1790 pamphlet, A Vindication of the Rights of Man. Her later unfinished work "Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman" earned her considerable criticism as she discussed women's sexual desires.

Wollstonecraft is regarded as the grandmother of British feminism and her ideas shaped the thinking of the suffragettes, who campaigned for the women's vote. After generations of work, this was eventually granted − to some women in 1918, and equally with men in 1928.

In 1918 Marie Stopes, who believed in equality in marriage and the importance of women's sexual desire, published Married Love,[2] a sex manual that, according to a survey of American academics in 1935, was one of the 25 most influential books of the previous 50 years, ahead of Relativity by Albert Einstein and Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud.[3]


Early 20th century

During the early 20th century English women achieved civil equality, in theory. World War I saw more women go to work outside the home. Women gained the right to sit in parliament, although it was only slowly that women were actually elected. Women started serving on school boards and local bodies, and numbers kept increasing after the war. This period also saw more women starting to become more educated. Bills passed which aided the women’s movement. Representation of the People Act 1918 had given women the right to vote if they were property holders and older than 29. The Sex Disqualification (removal) Act 1919 opened professions and the Civil Service to women, and marriage was no longer seen to legally stop women from working outside the home. A Matrimonial Causes Act in 1923 gave women the right to the same grounds for divorce as men. However the recession which started in the 1920s meant unemployment rose, which women were the first to face. Many feminist writers and women's rights activists argued that it was not equality to men which they needed but a recognition of what women need to fulfil their potential of their own natures, not only within the aspect of work but society and home life too. Virginia Woolf produced her essay A Room of One's Own based on the ideas of women as writers and characters in fiction. Woolf said that a woman must have money and a room of her own to be able to write.

United States

Suffragette with banner, Washington DC, 1918

Woman in the Nineteenth Century by Margaret Fuller has been considered the first major feminist work in the United States and is often compared to Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.[4] Prominent leaders of the feminist movement in the United States include Lucretia Coffin Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and Susan B. Anthony; all of whom campaigned for the abolition of slavery prior to championing women's right to vote. Anthony and other activists such as Victoria Woodhull and Matilda Joslyn Gage made attempts to cast votes prior to their legal entitlement to do so, for which many of them faced charges. Other important leaders included several women who dissented against the law in order to have their voices heard,(Sarah and Angelina Grimké), in addition to other activists such as Carrie Chapman Catt, Alice Paul, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Margaret Sanger and Lucy Burns.[5]

First-wave feminism involved a wide range of women, some belonging to conservative Christian groups (such as Frances Willard and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union), others such as Matilda Joslyn Gage of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) resembling the radicalism of much of second-wave feminism. The majority of first-wave feminists were more moderate and conservative than radical or revolutionary—like the members of the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) they were willing to work within the political system and they understood the clout of joining with sympathetic men in power to promote the cause of suffrage. The limited membership of the NWSA was narrowly focused on gaining a federal amendment for women's suffrage, whereas the AWSA, with ten times as many members, worked to gain suffrage on a state-by-state level as a necessary precursor to federal suffrage. The NWSA had broad goals, hoping to achieve a more equal social role for women, but the AWSA was aware of the divisive nature of many of those goals and instead chose to focus solely on suffrage. The NWSA was known for having more publicly aggressive tactics (such as picketing and hunger strikes) whereas the AWSA used more traditional strategies like lobbying, delivering speeches, applying political pressure and gathering signatures for petitions.[6]

The first wave of feminists, in contrast to the second wave, focused very little on the subjects of abortion, birth control, and overall reproductive rights of women. Though she never married, Anthony published her views about marriage, holding that a woman should be allowed to refuse sex with her husband; the American woman had no legal recourse at that time against rape by her husband. Of primary importance to Anthony was granting to woman the right to her own body which she saw as an essential element for the prevention of unwanted pregnancies, using abstinence as the method. In her newspaper, The Revolution, she wrote in 1869 about the subject, arguing that instead of merely attempting to pass a law against abortion, the root cause must also be addressed. Simply passing an anti-abortion law would, she wrote, "be only mowing off the top of the noxious weed, while the root remains."[7]

In 1860, New York passed a revised Married Women's Property Act which gave women shared ownership of their children, allowing them to have a say in their children's wills, wages, and granting them the right to inherit property.[8] Further advances and setbacks were experienced in New York and other states, but with each new win the feminists were able to use it as an example to apply more leverage on unyielding legislative bodies. The end of the first wave is often linked with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (1920), granting women the right to vote. This was the major victory of the movement, which also included reforms in higher education, in the workplace and professions, and in health care.

See also

Many white women excluded black women from their organizations and denied them the right to participate in events because they feared that the racist attitudes of Southern voters would affect their support of the women's movement. One notable instance of black exclusion was at a Washington parade in 1913, when activist Alice Paul did not allow the black feminist Ida Wells-Barnett to march with the other white women; instead, Paul told her that she could march at the back of the procession with the other black women.<9>


  1. ^ a b c Schneir, Miram, 1972 (1994). Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings. Vintage Books. p. xiv. ISBN 0-679-75381-8. 
  2. ^ Stopes, Marie Carmichael and McKibbin, Ross (ed.), 1918 (2004). Married love. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0192804324. 
  3. ^ Short, R.V. (August 23, 2005). "Footnote in New ways of preventing HIV infection: thinking simply, simply thinking". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (The Royal Society via PubMed (U.S. National Institutes of Health)). Retrieved 2009-10-21. 
  4. ^ Slater, Abby. In Search of Margaret Fuller. New York: Delacorte Press, 1978: 89–90. ISBN 0-440-03944-4
  5. ^ Dicker, 2008. pp. 28, 47–48.
  6. ^ Dicker, 2008, pp. 40–43.
  7. ^ "Marriage and Maternity". The Revolution. Susan B. Anthony. July 8, 1869. Retrieved 2009-04-21. 
  8. ^ Dicker, 2008, pp. 30, 38.


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