First wave feminists spent hundreds of years in activism, writing, protesting and working for the betterment and equality of their sex and gender. First wave feminists worked not only for suffrage, or the right to vote, but also for the right to an education, the right to work, the right to work safely, the right to the money they earned when they worked, the right to a divorce, the right to their children and the right to themselves and their own bodies.
Rights for women can be traced back to the Middle Ages in the Middle East when early reforms under Islam gave women greater rights in marriage, divorce and inheritance. Women in other cultures were not afforded such rights until centuries later. Further improvements of the status of Arab women included things such as the prohibition of female infanticide and recognizing women’s full personhood.
The things mentioned above are necessary, and were necessary, and in some case, came at the end of long efforts.
The earliest signs of feminism in the west came in the 14th century when women lead the Peasants’ Revolt against British Serfdom. Notably was Johanna Ferrour who ordered the violent beheading of Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury Simon of Sudbury. The women who were involved in this rebellion had a stake in it, as the poll tax that was the center of the rebellion was much tougher on married women. Unlike the poll tax you may be used to hearing about in relation to voting, this poll tax was a tax to support the Hundred Year War and it tripled from a groat, which was a currency at the time, to three groats in a period of three years.
In the 14th and 15th centuries women writers began to take up their pens in defense of their sex. These writers include Simone de Beauvoir and Christine de Pizan. But what women were advocating against was a mindset, an entire system of socialization, even then, and then (as some would argue to this day), women were socialized, both in their minds and in the minds of men, that their sole role in society was reproduction.
First wave feminists had to work against this impression, and they had to work against the society that allowed an unmarried woman to be property of her father and a married woman to be property of her husband.
The 17th century saw the continuance of feminist writers, including Marie de Gournay who wrote The Equality of Men and Women. But probably the most popular 17th century writer and advocate of female education as a means to not only equality, but to a better society, was Mary Wollstonecraft with her treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
But being an educated woman was dangerous at the time, Anne Askew, a Quaker and a feminist, was burned at the stake for heresy. It is said she died ‘for her implicit or explicit challenge to the patriarchal order.’
The right not to be property, rights to their inheritance, rights to an education and to a religion that was not patriarchal are all things that in a number of centuries women were trying to fight for, and they continued to fight for more. European Feminists such as Marguerite de Navarre and Anna Maria van Schurman attacked misogyny and promoted the education of women.
Then came the Victorian age in Europe. The Victorian age brought with it this obsession with ‘manners’ and ‘etiquette’ and women were not spared as they were inundated with conduct books such as The Angel in the House by Mrs. Beeton. Feminist writers of the time, however, such as the Bronte sisters and Elizabeth Gaskell rejected this notion and published novels of their own depicting women’s misery and frustration.
In the 19th century there finally came political organization out of centuries of writing and treatise. The First Women’s Convention is held in Seneca Falls in New York in 1848. The Married Women’s Property Committee was started in 1855 by Bessie Rayner Parkes and Anna Jameson. The Society for Promoting The Employment of Women was founded by Barbara Leigh Smith in 1859. Dozens, if not hundreds of organizations of this nature were made to advocate for education, property rights, working rights, voting rights, etc.
With colleges in England opening to women in the 1840s and 1850s and with women like Elizabeth Blackwell being one of the first women in the US to graduate in medicine, rights in education were being gained.
By the 1920s women were being given not only the right to vote, but the right to run for office.
The latter part of first wave feminism included Margaret Sanger’s efforts towards family planning and abortion advocacy. As well as the effect of the two world wars on the women’s desire to work. While during the war they were allowed and expected to work to support the people on the front, they were also expected to give up their jobs and thus their economic sense of importance and independence, as soon as the men came back from war.
The first wave of feminism was the longest, and it is the most taken for granted. It is common now to speak with women who do not identify as feminists who think that feminism is a dirty word, who simultaneously pursue careers and an education, who exercise their right to vote, who own property and benefit from the fruits of their labor. Understanding the history and the efforts of feminism, understanding how much progress they made and how long it took them is important both to those who think they are not feminists, and those who identify as feminists and who live life trying to better the world by the feminist ideal.
First wave feminists of interest:
Mathilde Fibiger – See Clara Raphael, Twelve Letters
Emmeline Pethwick Lawrence – See ‘Votes for Women’
Olive Schreiner – See Women and Labor
Marion Reid – See A Plea for Women
Harriet Martineau – See Society in America
William Thompson – See Appeal of One Half of the Human Race
Josephine Butler – See The Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts
Annie Besant and Charles Knowlton – See Fruits of Philosphy