What was First Wave Feminism?

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First wave feminism is the term used to denote a period in which women across the world gradually came together, begun analyzing aspects of their lives within society, and attempted to change the institutions that oppressed them.

However, first wave feminism was never one unified movement, but had a variety of political approaches that resulted in the emergence of a variety of strands. For example, women had many goals which included demands of equal rights in law, education, employment, and politics, and would too campaign to win the vote, which first begun in 1840s within the US.

In Britain for example, first wave feminists such as Barbara Bodichon (1827-1891) and Caroline Norton (1808-1877) opposed and contested the laws that kept women, particularly married women, in subordinate roles. Their efforts resulted in the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, which made the husband have to prove a wife’s adultery in a court of law, and also allowed for women to cite a husband’s cruelty or desertion. This was followed by two married women’s property acts, one of which was the Married Women’s Property Act in 1882 that enabled married women to own and control property.

Women also begun challenging the social restrictions that kept them within the domestic sphere of the home and family. For example, English feminists such as Harriet Taylor Mill (1807-1858) and Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) argued that women should have the same access to university training, the professions, and paid employment as men do. Further, the writings of Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1985) proved influential, in particular to a number of socialist feminists, two of whom were Clara Zetkin (1857-1933) and Alexandra Kollontai (1872-1952) who viewed women’s oppression as a class struggle. The Marxist feminists contended that the development of the family as an economic unity fundamental to capitalism forced women into subordinate roles and that only a socialist revolution would be able to free them.

Working class women within mills and factories were also active during first wave feminism. Women contributed to the family income but the growth of industrialization took them out of home and put them in outside work with no protection from exploitation. As a result, working class women within the US and Britain took action, going on strike, and forming women-only trade unions. Facing exploitation, over 1400 women from a match factory in the UK protested against low pay and poor working conditions. Their protest was met with opposition from male trade unions which saw women their activities as a threat to their livelihoods.

Questions and issues of race found a place within first wave feminism form the 19th century onwards. Black feminists, such as the activist and former slave Sojourner Truth (1797-1883), spoke about how they experienced double oppression on both ethnic and gender grounds. In 1851, Sojourner Truth delivered a speech at the Women’s Rights Convention in Ohio, demanding that the fight for equal rights included black women. Additionally, some feminists in Britain and Sweden highlighted that sex and reproduction were important areas of women’s lives in which they had little control. In Britain and the US, feminist campaigns demonstrated against male control of women’s reproductive rights and fought for access to birth control. Josephine Butler (1828-1906) identified society’s sexual double standards when it came to men and women. She saw that sexual activity was deemed more appropriate in men than in women, and that this was highlighted in society’s ambiguous attitude towards prostitution. At around the mid point of the first wave, women within Britain and the US came together in a mass movement to achieve suffrage, or the right to vote. This took place both before and after New Zealand, in 1893, were the first country in the world to allow women to vote. For example, in 1869 the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) in the US condemned the 15th Amendment which, although granting black men the right to vote, did not include women. The campaign for the right to vote dominated much of women’s activity up to World War 1 as well as its immediate aftermath.

Feminist ideas continued to find traction and support. The ideas spread, and by 1920 they were found in many other countries across the world. For example, in Japan Fusae Ichikawa (1893-1981) argued for a woman’s right to be involved in politics while in Egypt, Huda Sha’arawi (1879-1947_ and other feminists had set up the first feminist organizations.

References and Recommended Readings

Burkett, E. Encyclopedia Brittanica: Feminism. Available.

McAfee, N. 2018. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Feminist Philosophy. Available.

McCann, H. et al. 2019. The Feminism Book.

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