History of Feminism: First-Wave

By Alice Barrett

The history of feminism is long, nuanced, often unrepresentative, and misrepresented.  In this series, we will look at the popularized conception of feminism in the United States.  By no means will the posts following this topic be detailed enough, fully appropriate in perspective, or historically superior to the many articles and histories online.  This is, however, an attempt to introduce our readers to what most historians generally categorize as the three waves of feminism.

Feminism today is a word associated with controversy and unease.  People think of the radicalism of the 1960s and 70s and begin to fear a world where women treat men as men currently treat women.  This thought process is dumb, of course, ignoring very basic definitions of equality and submitting itself to availability heuristic.  Feminism seeks the economic, political, and social equality of women.  The end goal is not to be rid of men.  People who do believe this, while definitely responsible for the outlandishness of their perspective, hold these views almost understandably.  A movement possesses less merit and credibility when written off as extremist, unnecessary, and foolish. Popular culture and people with power want to tell us that feminism embodies those three characteristics wholly.

Later posts will discuss how feminism became associated with radicalism and absurdity.  For now, I will discuss the first-wave of feminism, during which suffrage was sought.


Most historians mark the beginning of feminism in the United States as the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, the first women’s rights convention.  During this convention, some 300 women and men discussed the role of women in society and debated and perfected the ideas of two prepared documents, one of which was the Declaration of Sentiments, a shocking yet reasonable compilation of the ways men held/hold irrational power over women.  Some of the sentiments include:

  • “He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.”
  • “He has so framed the laws of divorce, as to what shall be the proper causes of divorce, in case of separation, to whom the guardianship of the children shall be given; as to be wholly regardless of the happiness of the women – the law, in all cases, going upon a false supposition of the supremacy of a man, and giving all power into his hands.”
  • “He has created a false public sentiment by giving to the world a different code of morals for men and women, by which moral delinquencies which exclude women from society, are not only tolerated but deemed of little account in man.”

This convention, in addition to making actual progress, also symbolizes the dynamics of early feminism.  Much of what women believed they deserved–the right to speak in public, to vote, to choose their own futures and beings–was viewed, even by other women, as too radical.

While these demands for equality appeared extreme at the time, in reality early feminists were typically conservative or moderate.  Many, including most of the members of the American Women Suffrage Association (AWSA), felt that they would need to use the political system in order to make gains; additionally, they believed that they must focus on the concrete, realistic goal of suffrage.  While suffrage and abolition coincided ideologically in many important ways, criticism of first-wave feminism centers on its limited definition of women.  Early feminists sought suffrage for white women and often, although generally supportive of abolition, ignored the plight of black women.  Still, many black women, including Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells, made important philosophical and tangible contributions to early feminism.  In Sojourner Truth’s 1851 “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech–during which, according to my Women and Gender Studies professor and relating to the delayed written transcription of the speech, Truth actually said “Aren’t I a woman?”, only to have her words changed to suit how leaders wanted her presented (uneloquent, charming)–Truth challenged conceptions of women’s place with her rousing, unrecoverable elocution.

“Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, because Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him…. If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they are asking to do it, the men better let them.”

First-wave feminism is most basically associated with the suffrage movement.  It contained different ideological groups: the AWSA, which was more conservative, and the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), which was more radical and resembled the future second wave of feminism.  The NWSA focused on gaining a federal amendment for women’s suffrage and had broad, societally-implicative goals, while AWSA worked to gain suffrage on a state-by-state level and employed as its strategy lobbying, delivering speeches, applying political pressure and gathering signatures for petitions.  Many historians cite the first wave of feminism’s end with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 which gave white women the right to vote.

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