Understanding First Wave Feminism: Everything You Should Know

Historical Context and Background: First-wave feminism had a connection to both the liberal women’s rights movement and early socialist feminism. It was a common belief (during those times) that rationality as an intellectual trait was not possessed by women. Thus they always needed a man to take decisions for them. Till the age they were not married, they were under the authority of their father or brothers (in the absence of their father). When they got married, their husbands were put in the place of authority. There was pre-decided path that dictated how a woman’s life should go. The marriage and becoming a mother was projected as highest achievement for women. The women who failed to reach these ideals were subjected to social ridicule and mockery. In the marriage too, her position was less than human (read man). Her husband as sole authority, had full access to not only her body but over her whole life. She had no control over the number of pregnancies she had to go through. Divorce as a social phenomenon was unheard of. The concept of consent was not recognised. A husband had right to get sexual services from his wife at any time, and she had no right to refuse. If she refused due to some reason then the husband had the power to punish her too. Their testimony in court was given less importance as compared to men because of their gender.

Key Issues of First Wave Feminism

  • Abolition movement: In 1840, World Anti-Slavery Convention was scheduled to be held in London. The organizers of convention first decided that only men will be allowed to attend the convention. In spite of that Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott (along with other women) went to attend the convention. However they were told to be mere spectators of the proceedings. They were denied the right to speak and vote in the proceedings. This event became the foundational stone for the organization of the first ever women’s rights convention held at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. It was here only that the ‘Declaration of Sentiments’ was signed, which proclaimed men and women to be equal before law.
  • Temperance Movement: This movement was active during early 1820s. The key theme of Temperance movement was ‘moral reform’ aimed at reducing the consumption and distribution of alcohol. They saw alcohol as a threat to the stability of families. This movement is credited with giving women opportunity (for the first time) to fully engage in public life outside of their homes.
  • Right to vote/suffragette: The entire first wave of feminism can be summarized as a movement for the right to vote for women. In other words, it was the topmost priority for feminists of the first wave. The enlightenment works on social contract (John Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, etc.) presented society as an outcome of agreement between people and the state. They adhered to the basic premise that all humans (read men) have some natural rights that are sacrosanct. Thus, to protect these rights, humans formed a state through a mutual social contract. However, this reasoning excluded women from being recognized as human beings with rights. Women of those times felt that it was most important to first gain legal recognition as autonomous human beings. Because it will give legitimacy to their voices in the political sphere and open up a platform for discussion on the issues they face.
  • Women in public sphere: The other important issue that the first wave focused on was championing the cause of women’s participation in the public sphere. They called for breaking out of the four walls of home by challenging the social restrictions that kept them in the domestic sphere of home and family. They questioned the double standards held by society for men and women. They questioned the existential biological explanations that portrayed women as weak and in need of protection.
  • Access to Education: They suggested access to education as a solution to improve the subordinate position of women in society. They believed that women also have thinking abilities, and working on them will surely help them raise their voices effectively against injustices being meted out to them.
  • Sex and reproduction: In Britain and the US, feminist campaigners argued against male control of women’s reproductive rights and fought for access to birth control. They raised issues like marital rape and viewing women simply as breeding machines whose only purpose in life was to satisfy the sexual fantasies of men while mothering and nursing children.

Key Figures and Their Contributions

  • In Britain, activists Caroline Norton and Barbara Bodichon orchestrated attacks on laws that kept women, particularly married women, in a subordinate role. Their efforts resulted in the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, which forced men to prove a wife’s adultery in court and allowed women to cite a husband’s cruelty or desertion. This was followed by two married women’s property acts, the second of which, in 1882, enabled married women to own property.
  • Susan B. Anthony, an abolitionist and renowned suffragist, campaigned for black suffrage, published the periodical “The Revolutionary”, and was President of NAWSA (till the age of 80). Throughout her life, she resisted abuse and judgment and upheld her beliefs. When the Nineteenth Amendment Act passed 14 years after her death, it was referred to as “the Susan B. Anthony Amendment” in her honor.
  • Sojourner Truth was a former slave who had become a preacher. She is known for her groundbreaking speech titled “Ain’t I a woman”. She said, “That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, over mud puddles, or gives me the best place! And Ain’t I a woman?” By successfully showing the racial double standards that existed within the movement, she became voice of marginalized women of color.
  • Harriet Taylor Mill and Elizabeth Blackwell argued that women should have the same access as men to university training, the professions, and paid employment. They worked profusely towards providing women with training, professions, and paid employment. Their contribution was significant in opening up greater opportunities for women.
  • Clara Zetkin in Germany and Alexandra Kollontai in Russia viewed women’s oppression as a class issue, arguing that the development of the family as an economic unit is fundamental to capitalism. And this has forced women into a subordinate role. They proposed that only a socialist revolution would free women from their miserable condition.
  • Josephine Butler, an English social reformer, identified sexual double standards within society. They exposed how sexual activity was condoned by men but not by women. They were also highlighted by society’s ambiguous attitude toward prostitution. They pointed out that society justifies prostitution for satisfying male sexual desires, whereas women who engage in such professions are denied respect and inclusion in society.
  • By the 1920s, feminists such as Fusae Ichikawain of Japan argued for a woman’s right to be involved in politics. In the Arab world, too, particularly Egypt, Huda Sharaawi and other feminists set up the first feminist organizations.
  • Unionized Actions by Women: Women began to organize and unionize (make demands as a group rather than as individuals) early on in the industrial revolution, calling for better pay and fairer treatment from their employers. As early as 1828, the Lowell Mill Girls“, effectively the first female union in the US, took to the streets with banners and signs to protest against their employer’s restrictive rules. In 1869, a group of women shoe workers created their own trade union under the name Daughters of St. Crispin“. They demanded equal pay for equal labor. They organized two strikes in 1872, of which the second won higher wages for female workers.
  • Match Girls Strike: In July 1888, 1,400 women and girls walked out of the Bryant & May match factory in London to protest against a proposed tax on matches. This strike came to be known as the Match Girls Strike. British socialist Annie Besant used her newspaper, The Link, to publicize the key issues of the Match Girls, like the 14-hour workday, toxic materials, the unfair difference between shareholder profits and the poverty wages paid to employees, heavy fines that cut into their wages, and unfair dismissals. They also suffered breathing difficulties and other health problems because of the phosphorus fumes in the factory. The success of the match girls inspired a wave of similar strikes in the UK and boosted the rise of trade unionism.
  • Classical Marxist Literature: According to these works, work performed by men and women is equally vital for society. Only with the rise of capitalism, the advent of surplus products, and the accumulation of property did the human race become interested in the concept of inheritance. Engels maintains that the right of inheritance was supported by the idea of morality, the monogamous family, and the separation between private and public spheres, which then led to the control of female sexuality. Explaining further, he asserts that the violence and oppression that women suffer are rooted in the family at its very foundation. He describes the rise of the nuclear family as the “world historical defeat of the female sex,” in which the woman was the slave of her husband and a mere instrument for the production of children.

Achievements of First Wave Feminism

  • The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857.
  • The second of the Married Women’s Acts (1882) enabled married women to own property.
  • Right to vote/suffragette, 19th Amendment of the USA
  • Exposed the sexual double standards within society.
  • Beginning of women’s collective action.
  • Recognition of “women as autonomous individuals with rights” implied that women were no longer under the authority of their fathers or husbands and were capable enough to make their own decisions.

Limitations of First Wave Feminism

  • Marginalized black women face the selective and exclusive nature of the movement.
  • Women of color were still practically disenfranchised, and the victory was only for white women.
  • Black women were stopped from exercising their right to vote through tedious disenfranchisement tactics, facing bodily harm and even arrest.
  • People of African and Asian descent were deprived of their franchise.
  • Their portrayal of the family setup as responsible for the exploitation of women didn’t resonate with working-class women. The issues of discrimination and exploitation that working-class women faced were more prevalent in public settings and at work. In a way. First-wave feminism empowered some but excluded many.

READ: Four Waves of Feminism – Summary

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Aastha, an engineering graduate turned Sociology student, is a passionate practitioner of self-reflexivity and the Sociological Imagination. Delving deep into sociological theories, she finds joy in experiencing her own 'Eureka' moments when understanding them. Fascinated by Sociology's power to connect her to social reality and ignite her curiosity, Aastha embraces it as a source of inspiration for her writing. As she embarks on her journey as a writer, she eagerly looks forward to sharing her profound insights about Sociology and gaining valuable perspectives from other individuals.