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A brief history of the first wave of Feminism

Updated: Jul 12, 2023

By: Ana Palacios

The timeline of feminism is complex, though it's generally assumed there're 4 main movements or waves, targeting different aspects of inequality and each nuanced with different theories and perspectives. It's important to note that this timeline is Western-centric, and this article will be focusing mostly on the American movement for women’s rights. The first wave of feminism emerged in the late 19th and 20th countries, arguably laying the foundations for subsequent waves in the movement for women’s rights, marking a crucial point in the fight for gender equality.

It is in the nature of social movements that they are hard to pinpoint, as they are marked by collective efforts catalyzed by mobilizing ideologies that were hitherto taken off in the mainstream. The first wave of feminism, this term being mostly Western-centric, was thus influenced by women’s participation in social movements at large: one could cite the french revolution, for example. The ideology of the Enlightenment era was, as well, a force that influenced the ideological factor behind this movement. In France, for example, liberty, equality and the rights of individual citizens had become imperative for life, and simultaneously challenged gender roles that previously considered women legally as second-class citizens.

In the United States, the fight for women’s rights began at a fiscal level: the first wave of feminism notably allowed (some!) women to be recognized as equal citizens under the law, making these women’s efforts quintessential to subsequent feminist movements. The movement rallied for women’s constitutional rights, including (but not limited to) the right to own property, the right to education, the right to vote, and to be independent subjects from their husbands, rather than their property.

The first wave of feminism paralleled the suffrage movement: the two often being grouped together. It's important to note that the mainstream of both the first wave and the suffrage movement had segregatory stances, which included only white women in the fight for fiscal equality.

Even still, the first wave of feminists was spearheaded by the likes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott who attempted to attend the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. However, they were denied entry because they were women. This moment catalyzed the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls NY, primarily organized by Stanton. She, alongside a myriad of women, drafted a declaration for equality amongst the sexes in the eyes of the law.

The first wave of feminism saw an onslaught of important feminist literature and declarations. Amongst the notable are: Mary Wollstonecraft’s, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), and recognizable Black writer and abolitionist Sojourner Truth’s 1851 “Ain’t I A Woman '' speech, amongst others. It's important to recognize furthermore the efforts of the Black suffragette movement, with groups like the Alpha suffrage club. The mobilization of Black women was especially revolutionary in the fact that black women fought not only for their own suffrage but against the prominent racism that excluded them in the fight for women’s equality. It is true that the majority of the suffragette movement was white, middle-class women-centric: a focus that disregarded the plight of Black, Hispanic and Asian women, whose citizenship and voting rights were explicitly outlawed in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.

Although the movement began in the 19th country, suffrage in the United States was achieved not until 1920, with the passing of the 19th Amendment in which white women were granted the right to vote, and thus granted egalitarian participation in democracy. Beyond suffrage, the first wave of feminism also led to advancements in education and employment opportunities for women. Universities gradually opened their doors to female students, and barriers to professional careers began to crumble. Given the first wave coincided with an industrial expansion, women's labor rights and workplace conditions were also addressed, leading to improved working conditions and the establishment of fair labor laws.

The first wave of feminism achieved significant milestones that transformed the status of women in society beyond the United States and the West itself. Notably was the suffrage movement in New Zealand, which became the first country to grant women the right to vote. The United States, the UK, and Canada followed in successive years. The first wave of feminism in non-Western contexts finds synchronicity with the participation of women’s participation in anti-colonial nationalist movements spanning from the late 19th century to the 1930s. Still, the Western influence was prominent. Groups like the all-India organization formed in 1917, with an indigenous program of social reform in mind, anti-colonial and feminist activists around the world modeled their demands for gender equality on Western demands.

The first wave of feminism laid the foundation for subsequent waves and continued efforts toward gender equality. It sparked a global conversation about women's rights, challenging deeply entrenched social norms and legal barriers. The achievements of the first wave paved the way for further progress in the fight for gender equality, inspiring subsequent generations of feminists. The first wave of feminism, born out of the struggle for women's suffrage and broader rights, played a crucial role in reshaping societal norms and challenging gender inequality. Through the efforts of dedicated activists, legal and political changes were achieved, enabling women to exercise their rights and participate more fully in public life. The first wave set the stage for the ongoing struggle for gender equality, leaving a lasting legacy that continues to inspire and empower women around the world.



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