Feminism, a belief in the political, economic and cultural equality of women, has roots in the earliest eras of human civilization. It is typically separated into three waves: first wave feminism, dealing with property rights and the right to vote; second wave feminism, focusing on equality and anti-discrimination, and third wave feminism, which started in the 1990s as a backlash to the second wave’s perceived privileging of white, straight women.
From Ancient Greece to the fight for women’s suffrage to women’s marches and the #MeToo movement, the history of feminism is as long as it is fascinating.
In his classic Republic, Plato advocated that women possess “natural capacities” equal to men for governing and defending ancient Greece. Not everyone agreed with Plato; when the women of ancient Rome staged a massive protest over the Oppian Law, which restricted women’s access to gold and other goods, Roman consul Marcus Porcius Cato argued, “As soon as they begin to be your equals, they will have become your superiors!” (Despite Cato’s fears, the law was repealed.)
In The Book of the City of Ladies, 15th-century writer Christine de Pizan protested misogyny and the role of women in the Middle Ages. Years later, during the Enlightenment, writers and philosophers like Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, argued vigorously for greater equality for women.
READ MORE: Milestones in U.S. Women's History
Abigail Adams, first lady to President John Adams, specifically saw access to education, property and the ballot as critical to women’s equality. In letters to her husband John Adams, Abigail Adams warned, “If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice.”
The “Rebellion” that Adams threatened began in the 19th century, as calls for greater freedom for women joined with voices demanding the end of slavery. Indeed, many women leaders of the abolitionist movement found an unsettling irony in advocating for African Americans rights that they themselves could not enjoy.
First Wave Feminism: Women’s Suffrage and The Seneca Falls Convention
At the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, abolitionists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott boldly proclaimed in their now-famous Declaration of Sentiments that “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal.” Controversially, the feminists demanded “their sacred right to the elective franchise,” or the right to vote.
Many attendees thought voting rights for women were beyond the pale, but were swayed when Frederick Douglass argued that he could not accept the right to vote as a Black man if women could not also claim that right. When the resolution passed, the women’s suffrage movement began in earnest, and dominated much of feminism for several decades.
The 19th Amendment: Women’s Right to Vote
Slowly, suffragettes began to claim some successes: In 1893, New Zealand became the first sovereign state giving women the right to vote, followed by Australia in 1902 and Finland in 1906. In a limited victory, the United Kingdom granted suffrage to women over 30 in 1918.
In the United States, women’s participation in World War I proved to many that they were deserving of equal representation. In 1920, thanks largely to the work of suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt, the 19th Amendment passed. American women finally earned the right to vote. With these rights secured, feminists embarked on what some scholars refer to as the “second wave” of feminism.
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Women And Work
Women began to enter the workplace in greater numbers following the Great Depression, when many male breadwinners lost their jobs, forcing women to find “women’s work” in lower paying but more stable careers like housework, teaching and secretarial roles.
During World War II, many women actively participated in the military or found work in industries previously reserved for men, making Rosie the Riveter a feminist icon. Following the civil rights movement, women sought greater participation in the workplace, with equal pay at the forefront of their efforts
The Equal Pay Act of 1963 was among the first efforts to confront this still-relevant issue.
Second Wave Feminism: Women's Liberation
But cultural obstacles remained, and with the 1963 publication of The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan—who later co-founded the National Organization for Women—argued that women were still relegated to unfulfilling roles in homemaking and child care. By this time, many people had started referring to feminism as “women’s liberation.” In 1971, feminist Gloria Steinem joined Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug in founding the National Women’s Political Caucus. Steinem’s Ms. Magazine became the first magazine to feature feminism as a subject on its cover in 1976.
The Equal Rights Amendment, which sought legal equality for women and banned discrimination on the basis of sex, was passed by Congress in 1972 (but, following a conservative backlash, was never ratified by enough states to become law). One year later, feminists celebrated the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that guaranteed a woman’s right to choose an abortion.
Third Wave Feminism: Who Benefits From the Feminist Movement?
Critics have argued that the benefits of the feminist movement, especially the second wave, are largely limited to white, college-educated women, and that feminism has failed to address the concerns of women of color, lesbians, immigrants and religious minorities. Even in the 19th century, Sojourner Truth lamented racial distinctions in women’s status in a speech before the 1851 Ohio Women's Rights Convention. She was later quoted as saying:
“And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne 13 children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?”
In fact, contemporaneous reports of Truth’s speech did not include the words “Ain’t I a Woman?” and quoted Truth in standard English. The distortion of Truth's words in later years reflected the false belief that as a formerly enslaved woman, Truth would have had a Southern accent. Truth was, in fact, a New Yorker.
#MeToo and Women’s Marches
By the 2010s, feminists pointed to prominent cases of sexual assault and “rape culture” as emblematic of the work still to be done in combating misogyny and ensuring women have equal rights. The #MeToo movement gained new prominence in October 2017, when the New York Times published a damning investigation into allegations of sexual harassment made against influential film producer Harvey Weinstein. Many more women came forward with allegations against other powerful men—including President Donald Trump.
On January 21, 2017, the first full day of Trump’s presidency, hundreds of thousands of people joined the Women’s March on Washington in D.C., a massive protest aimed at the new administration and the perceived threat it represented to reproductive, civil and human rights. It was not limited to Washington: Over 3 million people in cities around the world held simultaneous demonstrations, providing feminists with a high-profile platforms for advocating on behalf of full rights for all women worldwide.
Women in World History Curriculum
Women's history, feminist history, Making History, The Institute of Historical Research
A Brief History of Feminism, Oxford Dictionaries
Four Waves of Feminism, Pacific Magazine, Pacific University