First-wave feminism

First-wave feminism was a period of feminist activity and thought, that occurred within the time period of the 19th and early 20th century throughout the world. It focused on legal issues, primarily on gaining women's suffrage (the right to vote).

Feminism has its source in the 18th century, specifically in the Enlightenment, in this cultural and philosophical movement there was a controversy on equality and gender differences. At the time appeared a new critical discourse that used the universal categories of this political philosophy. Enlightenment movement therefore was not feminist on its roots.

The political origins of feminism came from The French Revolution (1789). This event raised legal equality, freedoms and political rights as its central objectives but soon came the great contradiction that marked the struggle of early feminism: freedoms, rights and legal equality that had been the great conquests of the liberal revolutions didn´t affect women. Rousseau's political theory designed the exclusion of women from the field of property and rights. So in the French Revolution the voice of women began to express themselves collectively.

The term first-wave was coined in March 1968 by Martha Lear writing in The New York Times Magazine, who at the same time also used the term "second-wave feminism".[1][2] At that time, the women's movement was focused on de facto (unofficial) inequalities, which it wished to distinguish from the objectives of the earlier feminists.


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.[3] Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa and Modesta di Pozzo di Forzi worked in the 16th century.[3] Marie Le Jars de Gournay, Anne Bradstreet and François Poullain de la Barre wrote in the 17th.[3]

Mary Wollstonecraft’s most famous work, which is called Vindication, was created in 1792. Its previous feminist work was Poullain de la Barre’s Equality of sexes (1673). This period was affected by Rousseau’s philosophy, the Illustration. The father of the Illustration defined an ideal democratic society that was based on the equality of men, where women were totally discriminated. Mary Wollstonecraft based her work on the ideas of Rousseau. Although at first it seems to be contradictory, Wollstonecraft’s idea was to expand Rousseau’s democratic society but based on gender equality.

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 Men. Her later unfinished novel, Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman, earned her considerable criticism as she discussed women's sexual desires. She died young, and her widower, the philosopher William Godwin, quickly wrote a memoir of her that, contrary to his intentions, destroyed her reputation for generations.

The term feminism was created like a political illustrated ideology at that period. Feminism emerged by the speech about the reform and correction of democracy based on equalitarian conditions. With Wollstonecraft’s work, the illustrated feminist polemic was displayed, and as a result, suffragist movements were stood up. 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 achieved.

A 1932 Soviet poster for International Women's Day.
Louise Weiss along with other Parisian suffragettes in 1935. The newspaper headline reads, in translation, "THE FRENCHWOMAN MUST VOTE".


The first wave of Australian feminism, which dates back to the late 19th century, was chiefly concerned with suffrage (women's right to vote) and consequently with women's access to parliaments and other political activities.[4]

In 1882, Rose Scott, a women's rights activist, began to hold a weekly salon meetings in her Sydney home, left to her by her late mother. Through these meetings, she became well known amongst politicians, judges, philanthropists, writers and poets. In 1889, she helped to found the Women's Literary Society, which later grew into the Womanhood Suffrage League in 1891. Leading politicians hosted by Scott included Bernhard Ringrose Wise, William Holman, William Morris Hughes and Thomas Bavin, who met and discussed the drafting of the bill that eventually became the Early Closing Act of 1899.[5]

Tribute to the Suffragettes memorial in Christchurch, New Zealand. The figures shown from left to right are Amey Daldy, Kate Sheppard, Ada Wells and Harriet Morison


The first women's movement was led by the Dansk Kvindesamfund ("Danish Women's Society"), founded in 1871. Line Luplau was one of the most notable woman in this era. Tagea Brandt was also part of this movement, and in her honor was established the Tagea Brandt Rejselegat or Travel Scholarship for women. The Dansk Kvindesamfund's efforts as a leading group of women for women led to the existence of the revised Danish constitution of 1915, giving women the right to vote and the provision of equal opportunity laws during the 1920s, which influenced the present-day legislative measures to grant women access to education, work, marital rights and other obligations.[6]

New Zealand

Early New Zealand feminists and suffragettes included Maud Pember Reeves (Australian-born; later lived in London), Kate Sheppard and Mary Ann Müller. In 1893, Elizabeth Yates became Mayor of Onehunga, the first time such a post had been held by a female anywhere in the British Empire. Early university graduates were Emily Siedeberg (doctor, graduated 1895) and Ethel Benjamin (lawyer, graduated 1897). The Female Law Practitioners Act was passed in 1896 and Benjamin was admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of New Zealand in 1897 (see Women's suffrage in New Zealand).


In the Netherlands, Wilhelmina Drucker (1847-1925) fought successfully for the vote and equal rights for women through political and feminist organisations she founded.

Although in the Netherlands during the Age of Enlightenment the idea of the equality of women and men made progress, no practical institutional measures or legislation resulted. In the second half of the nineteenth century many initiatives by feminists sprung up in The Netherlands. Aletta Jacobs (1854-1929) requested and obtained as the first woman in the Netherlands the right to study at university in 1871, becoming the first female medical doctor and academic. She became a lifelong campaigner for women's suffrage, equal rights, birth control, and international peace, travelling worldwide for, e.g., the International Alliance of Women. Wilhelmina Drucker (1847-1925) was a politician, a prolific writer and a peace activist, who fought for the vote and equal rights through political and feminist organisations she founded. In 1917-1919 her goal of women's suffrage was reached.


In 1886, a German colonist couple, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche and Bernhard Förster, emigrated to the Paraguayan rainforest and founded Nueva Germania to put to practice utopian ideas about vegetarianism, feminism[7][8]:345–358 and the superiority of the Aryan race.


While in some distance in culture and language, the events of the Conference of Badasht (1848) presented progress on the concerns of first wave feminism. There is a synchronicity in time and a likeness in theme and events between Persia (later named Iran) and the United States between the conference at Badasht and the Seneca Falls Convention.[9][10] First the conference happened over three weeks from late June to mid-July 1848 and the Seneca Falls Convention happened in mid-July 1848. Both conferences had women (Tahirih and Elizabeth Cady Stanton) take strong stances on the role of women in the public arena that some attending reacted to harshly. And lastly leading men present (Quddús and Frederick Douglass) supported these calls during the meetings healing the breach. Some even see a parallel in the background discussions that are partially documented to arrange how things would be brought up and settled.

The conference of Badasht is considered by Bahá'ís as a signal moment that demonstrated that Islamic Sharia law had been abrogated[11][12] as well as a key demonstration of the thrust of raising the social position of women.[13] Although the unveiling led to accusations of immorality[14][15] the Báb responded by supporting her position and naming her the Pure (Táhirih).[16] Modern women scholars review this kind of accusation as part of a pattern faced by women leaders and writers then and since[17] in a way that Azar Nafisi says "…the Islamic regime today… fears them and feels vulnerable in the face of a resistance that is not just political but existential."[18] See the Bahá'í Faith and gender equality.


Feminist issues and gender roles were discussed in media and literature during the 18th century by people such as Margareta Momma, Catharina Ahlgren, Anna Maria Rückerschöld and Hedvig Charlotta Nordenflycht, but it created no movement of any kind. The first person to hold public speeches and agitate in favor of feminism was Sophie Sager in 1848,[19] and the first organization created to deal with a women's issue was Svenska lärarinnors pensionsförening (Society for Retired Female Teachers) by Josefina Deland in 1855.[20]

In 1856, Fredrika Bremer published her famous Hertha (novel), which aroused great controversy and created a debate referred to as the Hertha Debate. The two foremost questions was to abolish coverture for unmarried women, and for the state to provide women an equivalent to a university. Both questions were met: in 1858, a reform granted unmarried women the right to apply for legal majority by a simple procedure, and in 1861, Högre lärarinneseminariet was founded as a "Women's University". In 1859, the first women's magazine in Sweden and the Nordic countries, the Tidskrift för hemmet, was founded by Sophie Adlersparre and Rosalie Olivecrona. This has been referred to as the starting point of a women's movement in Sweden.

The organized women's movement begun in 1873, when Married Woman's Property Rights Association was co-founded by Anna Hierta-Retzius and Ellen Anckarsvärd. The prime task of the organization was to abolish coverture. In 1884, Fredrika Bremer Association was founded by Sophie Adlersparre to work for the improvement in women's rights. The second half of the 19th century saw the creation of several women's rights organisations and a considerable activity within both active organization as well as intellectual debate. The 1880s saw the so-called Sedlighetsdebatten, were gender roles were discussed in literary debate in regards to sexual double standards in opposed to sexual equality. In 1902, finally, the National Association for Women's Suffrage was founded.

In 1921, women's suffrage was finally introduced. The women suffrage reform was followed by the Behörighetslagen of 1923 (Act of Access of 1923), in which males and females were formally given equal access to all professions and positions in society, the only exceptions being military and priesthood positions.[21] The last two restrictions were removed in 1958, when women were allowed to become priests, and in a series of reforms between 1980 and 1989, when all military professions were opened to women.[22]

United Kingdom

The first organized movement for English feminism was the Langham Place Circle of the 1850s, which included among others Barbara Bodichon (née Leigh-Smith) and Bessie Rayner Parkes.[23] The group campaigned for many women's causes, including improved female rights in employment, and education. It also pursued women's property rights through its Married Women's Property Committee. In 1854, Bodichon published her Brief Summary of the Laws of England concerning Women,[24] which was used by the Social Science Association after it was formed in 1857 to push for the passage of the Married Women's Property Act 1882.[25] In 1858, Barbara Bodichon, Matilda Mary Hays and Bessie Rayner Parkes established the first feminist British periodical, the English Woman's Journal,[26] with Bessie Parkes the chief editor. The journal continued publication until 1864 and was succeeded in 1866 by the Englishwoman's Review edited until 1880 by Jessie Boucherett which continued publication until 1910. Jessie Boucherett and Adelaide Anne Proctor joined the Langham Place Circle in 1859. The group was active until 1866. Also in 1859, Jessie Boucherett, Barbara Bodichon and Adelaide Proctor formed the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women to promote the training and employment of women.[27] The society is one of the earliest British women's organisations, and continues to operate as the registered charity Futures for Women.[28] Helen Blackburn and Boucherett established the Women's Employment Defence League in 1891, to defend women's working rights against restrictive employment legislation.[29] They also together edited the Condition of Working Women and the Factory Acts in 1896. In the beginning of the 20th century, women's employment was still predominantly limited to factory labor and domestic work. During World War I, more women found work outside the home. As a result of the wartime experience of women in the workforce, the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 opened professions and the civil service to women, and marriage was no longer a legal barrier to women working outside the home.

In 1918 Marie Stopes published the very influential Married Love,[30] in which she advocated gender equality in marriage and the importance of women's sexual desire. (Importation of the book into the United States was banned as obscene until 1931.)

The Representation of the People Act 1918 extended the franchise to women who were at least 30 years old and they or their husbands were property holders, while the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 gave women the right to sit in Parliament, although it was only slowly that women were actually elected. In 1928, the franchise was extended to all women over 21 by the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928, on an equal basis to men.[31] Women started serving on school boards and local bodies, and numbers kept increasing. This period also saw more women gaining access to higher education. In 1910, "women were attending many leading medical schools, and in 1915 the American Medical Association began to admit women members."[32] A Matrimonial Causes Act 1923 gave women the right to the same grounds for divorce as men.

The rise in unemployment during the Great Depression which started in the 1920s hit women first, and when the men also lost their jobs there was further strain on families. Many women served in the armed forces during World War II, when around 300,000 American women served in the navy and army, performing jobs such as secretaries, typists and nurses.

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 fulfill 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. New Zealand was the first country to grant women the right to vote at a national level, while Finland, as well as some American states gave women voting rights at a state level before Australian women obtained that right across the nation.[4]

United States

Suffragist 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.[33] Prominent leaders of the feminist movement in the United States include Lucretia Coffin Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and Susan B. Anthony; 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.[34]

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.[35]

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.

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.[36] 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.

During the First Wave, there was a notable connection between the slavery abolition movement and the women's rights movement. Frederick Douglass was heavily involved in both movements and believed that it was essential for both to work together in order to attain true equality in regards to race and sex.[37] Different accounts of the involvement of African-American women in the Women's Suffrage Movement are given. In a 1974 interview, Alice Paul notes that a compromise was made between southern groups to have white women march first, then men, then African-American women.[38] In another account by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), difficulties in segregating women resulted in African-American women marching with their respective States without hindrance.[39] Among them was Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who marched with the Illinois delegation.

Timeline of first-wave feminism worldwide


See also


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