American Feminists: Feminism is a movement and discourse exploring the pertinent question that has become politically commonplace in contemporary society. It asks the question: ‘why is there inequality between the genders?’ The feminist discourse not only explores the social dimensions of this issue but also the philosophical, economic and political aspects of it. While the movement can be traced back to several countries arising from varying contexts, the feminists of the USA played a significant role in making this a global contemporary movement.
Here is a list of 10 American Feminists, in no particular order, who contributed greatly to the feminist discourse.
1. Elizabeth Cady Stanton
When the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London was held for the first time in 1840, Elizabeth Stanton and Lucretia Mott along with other women attendees were prohibited from public speaking and made to sit in a segregated area. This made her feel the need to discuss the rights of women in society. She then organised the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 along with other Quaker women which were to become the first women’s rights convention. Stanton demanded women’s right to vote for the first time, which after much debate was included in the Declaration of Sentiments, the first such document on women’s rights. She also formed the American Equal Rights Association in 1866, with Susan B. Anthony, another important figure in the Suffragette movement in the USA, to fight for equal rights for both African Americans as well as women. Later, in 1869, Stanton became the President of the National Woman Suffrage Association. It was created as a reaction against the 15th amendment in the US Constitution which officially provided voting rights for African Americans. In brief, Stanton spearheaded the first wave of feminism in the USA.
2. Susan B. Anthony
Susan Anthony’s name came to be recognized alongside Elizabeth Stanton. Together, they founded the American Equal Rights Association. She also founded the National Women’s Suffrage Association with Stanton. In 1872, Anthony was arrested for attempting to vote in the US Presidential election but she refused to pay the fine imposed on her. In 1978, one of her acquaintances, Senator Aaron A. Sargent introduced an amendment in US Congress giving women the right to vote which was to become the 19th amendment to the US Constitution in 1920. Coming from a Quaker background, her aim was to achieve equality for all sections of the population even to the extent that she once unsuccessfully tried to open a free church for all with secular values.
3. Sojourner Truth
Known for her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” delivered in Ohio Women’s Rights Convention 1851, Sojourner Truth brought to light the complete ignorance and invisibility of black women in the feminist movements in particular and American society in general. Born into slavery, she escaped to freedom but without all of her children who were still legally bound to their masters. When she learned of the illegal sale of one of her children, she moved to the Supreme Court under an alias and became the first black woman to win a case against a white man and got her son back. Having faced injustice and indignity herself while she was enslaved, she set out to fight against all social injustice issues especially those pertaining to women and African-Americans.
4. Carrie Chapman Catt
This was the woman who led the women suffragettes when the 19th amendment to the US Constitution was successfully passed in 1919, clearing the way for women’s rights to vote. Catt was chosen by Susan B. Anthony herself as her successor to become president of the National Women’s Suffrage Association in 1900. She served till 1904 and entered the office for a second term in 1915 – the only person to serve two terms in the organization. Her decision to support the government’s decision to enter the World War in 1917 gave a patriotic perception to the suffragette movement, subsequently increasing their appeal among people. The movement also received support from the then US President Woodrow Wilson in 1918. When the voting began for passing the 19th amendment, Catt coordinated the suffragette battle in all states. Determined to win, she even requested that the amendment not be introduced in legislatures of states that had an opposing majority. She also played a part in the founding of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, envisioning equal suffrage rights worldwide.
5. Lily Devereux Blake
Lily Blake developed a radical gender theory for her time. She argued that gender roles were part of the process of socialization. In reality, she believed, men and women share a common nature so they must enjoy equal rights as well. She was a popular writer and her works depicted strong female protagonists and subversive plots. She took an active part in the suffrage movement and even held presidential posts in a number of suffragette associations. However, her ties with Susan Anthony and her association ended due to differences in vision. While Anthony wanted to focus on suffrage, Blake wanted to pursue a broader course of reform which she had demonstrated by campaigning for securing matrons to take charge of women in police stations as early as 1871.
6. Margaret Sanger
The founder of the first birth control clinic in America in 1916, Margaret Sanger recognized the biological disadvantage faced by women with regard to pregnancy and child-rearing. She introduced the concept of family planning and founded the American Birth Control League. She felt that if women were to attain equal status as men and lead healthier lives, they should be able to determine the number and time of bearing children thus facing their biological disadvantage head-on.
7. Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Gilman came to be widely known for her short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (published in 1892) which portrayed the relationship between mental illness and domestic oppression of women. She argued that the role of a homemaker was not the absolute ideal for women; rather, it was a social construction in a patriarchal androcentric world. Her work also led to the popularization of post-partum depression which has come to be recognized as a common phenomenon among numerous women across the world. In her other works, she constructed a utopian feminist world where women dominate society and men are considered inferior. She also proposed radical changes to the structure of the family by introducing such concepts as economic independence for all members of the family, and the exclusion of the kitchen from the house to free women from the role of the food-maker. Nevertheless, her works acutely portrayed the oppression and possibility of mental illnesses among women when their lives have been restrained to the domestic sphere.
8. Sherry Ortner
Although Ortner did not take part in the feminist movement directly, her theory of nature and culture set the stage for debates on the nature of the human sexes which carries on even today. Being an anthropologist, she published an essay “Is female to male as nature is to culture?” in 1974 which questioned the traditional assumption that women were best suited for domestic work and child-rearing as they were biologically and naturally suited for it like ‘mother nature’ whereas men were intellectually superior and capable of constructing cultures that surpassed and dominated nature. Ortner argued that this idea was a cultural construction and a stereotype by using examples of several societies where the order of men and women was reversed or at least different from the patriarchal societies of the West. Her theory brought into play the nature-nurture debate which explores the innate attributes of individuals as opposed to the impact of their surroundings on them. From a feminist perspective, this implies re-looking at how much of a man or woman’s character can be attributed to their nature while investigating the deep-seated impressions on individual characters made by the environment in which they grow up.
9. Betty Friedan
A book named ‘The Feminine Mystique’ sparked the second wave of feminism in the USA when published in 1963. Betty Friedan was the author. The book challenged the widespread notion of the American woman as the housewife-mother. Inspired by Simone de Beauvoir’s ground-breaking work ‘The Second Sex’, Friedan attempted to bring out in her book a philosophical, intellectual and fact-based study of the plight of the domestically restrained home-makers of America. It became an instant classic and led to the signing of the Equal Pay Act of 1963 thus abolishing wage discrimination based on gender. Friedan also actively participated in the founding of the National Organization for Women (NOW), a popular feminist organisation in 1966.
10. Rebecca Walker
The third wave of feminism was initiated by Rebecca Walker’s article “Becoming the Third Wave” which was published in 1992 in Ms. magazine. While women had been legally established on an equal footing as men, the third wave looked at the social realities of gender discrimination. Intersectionality was a term that came to be popularized during this wave. It referred to the layer of oppression that intermingled in society to create multi-linear relationships such that there was no clear division of oppressor and oppressed anymore. Rather, individuals experienced exploitation in varying degrees and participated in the exploitation of certain other groups simultaneously on grounds of race, colour, ethnicity and so on. The issue raised by Sojourner Truth more than a century back has now come to be recognized and expanded on by feminists of diverse backgrounds. Walker started the Third Wave Fund, a non-profit organisation aimed at promoting activism among young women as well as supporting those belonging to the LGBTQ community.
While a lot of other individuals played important roles in every feminist achievement over the decades, these are some of the prominent names of feminist activists who contributed to the feminist movements in America.