The Origins of Feminism in the 18th Century (Proto-Feminism)

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Although feminism as a concept only emerged in the first half of the 19th century when the Frenchman Charles Fourier first used the term “feminisme,” many women (referred to as proto-feminists) were expressing feminist concerns long before then. In the early 1700s, women from different countries were examining their unequal status within society and begun asking whether it was natural and inevitable.

These concerns were expressed within writings and discussions, which all hinged on a desire for greater rights and equality with men. During the 1700s women felt that they were largely regarded as inferior to men and that this reflected in the intellectual, social, and cultural domains. Women’s inferiority appeared to be reinforced by the Christian Church which identified them as the “weaker vessel,” and they were often subject to their father’s and, if married, to their husband’s control. Technological changes also exerted influences on the lives of women. The growth of trade and industry resulted in a growing middle class in which social roles were sharply defined by gender. As such, the public sphere of work and politics was seen as uniquely male, while women were expected to remain in the private sphere of the home.

Feminist ideas and concerns experienced a new life given the rise of the printing industry. This led to a cascade of journals, pamphlets, novels, and poetry which all helped new ideas and information to be circulated and accessed by readers. Writing was a medium used by particularly privileged and educated women, some of whom, despite social restrictions, expressed feminist concerns. Some of the earliest feminist writing came out of Sweden during the mid-18th century as the publisher and journalist Margareta Momma (1702–1772) and the poet Hedvig Nordenflycht (1718-1763) were able to develop feminist themes and ideas in print. Britain also had its feminist authors writing about related concerns, as evident in the work of Mary Astell (1666-1731) who argued that God had made women just as rational as men and stated that women’s socially inferior role was neither God-given nor inevitable. To treat women as inferior was therefore an offense to God.

The salon too had its place within early feminism. By the mid-18th century, multiple European countries had women coming together as groups in literary salons. Within these groups women would discuss literature and share ideas, and this instilled a space for female expression through which writers and thinkers were inspired and nurtured.

Further, the cultural, political, and intellectual movements within the U.S. and Europe went far in assisting the development of feminism during the 18th century. Within the Enlightenment and the revolutions in France and the U.S., women begun demanding their own rights. Several enlightenment philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Denis Diderot challenged the tyranny of societies that were based on inherited privileges and argued for liberty and equality which for some of them excluded women. Despite this, women were actively involved in the American and French revolutions. The French playwright and activist Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793), for example, published The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen (1791) in which she called for equal legal rights for women and men. Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), inspired by the French Revolution, penned A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Wollstonecraft identified domestic norms and tyranny as the major obstacle preventing women from living independent lives and she also called for women to have access to education and work.

Most of the feminist writers of this early period came from the privileged class. This did change, however, when in the early 1800s working-class women in the U.S. and the U.K. started to become politically active.

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