What was First-Wave Feminism?


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

However, first-wave feminism was never one unified movement, but had a variety of political approaches. For example, women had many goals including the demands for equal rights in law, education, employment, and politics. Women also campaigned to win the vote, which first began in 1840s in the United States.

In Britain, first-wave feminists such as Barbara Bodichon (1827-1891) and Caroline Norton (1808-1877) opposed and contested laws that kept women, particularly married women, in subordinate roles. Their efforts resulted in the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857. This meant that a husband had to prove his wife’s adultery in a court of law and it also allowed women to cite their 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 began challenging the social restrictions that kept them in the domestic sphere of the home and family. 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. 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 saw 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 the home and put them in outside work with no protection from exploitation. As a result, working-class women in the United States and Britain took action. They went on strike and formed women-only trade unions. Facing exploitation, over 1400 women from a match factory in the United Kingdom protested against low pay and poor working conditions. Their protest was met with opposition from male trade unions that saw women and their activities as threats to their livelihood.

Questions and issues of race found a place within first-wave feminism from the nineteenth century onward. 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 over which they had little control. In Britain and the United States, feminist campaigns protested 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 midpoint of the first-wave, women in Britain and the United States came together in a mass movement to achieve suffrage, or the right to vote. In 1869, the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) in the United States 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 the First World War and during its immediate aftermath.

Feminist ideas continued to find traction and support. The ideas spread and by 1920 they were found in many 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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