First Wave Feminism – A Hot Take on a Century Old Issue

                                                                                                        As opiniões expostas neste artigo vinculam exclusivamente os seus autores.

“Feminist method starts with the very radical act of taking women seriously, believing that what we say about ourselves and our experience is important and valid, even when (or perhaps especially when) it has little or no relationship to what has been or is being said about us.” Christine A. Littleton, 1989


Feminism can be defined, as John Hoffman (2001) presents it, as “a movement towards greater equality and freedom” between men and women; what this entails, however, has changed drastically over the years. Feminism as we know it to be today is not the same as when it first appeared in the nineteenth century, having different goals and challenges, accordant to each era. The first time the word Feminism was used to denote equality between and regardless of sex – and later gender – was, according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary (n.d), in 1892, mostly coinciding with the beginning of the First Feminist Wave – much associated with the Suffrage Movement and its Suffragettes. Of course, the notion of a “First Wave” arose only when another Wave of Feminists – with a different identity and different concerns from the previous era of Feminist – appeared. Thus, it was Martha Lear who introduced the term “First Feminist Wave” in March 1968 when she wrote about the Second Wave of Feminism in the New York Times. It is this First Wave of Feminist that concerns this article.

In the 19th century, throughout the Western World – with the US as our case in point –, women rose to demand and fight for their rights, specifically within the legal and political spectrum: the right to vote and to participate in the political life, the right to a good education, the right to be seen and heard; this led them to stand up to the patriarchy that dominated most, if not all, spheres of life – domestic and public. It was this inherently political and social movement that arose at the turn of the 19th century, which was later associated with the notion of “First Wave Feminism”, taking place from the late from the late 1800’s until the early years of the twentieth century. Despite of Early Feminism being intertwined with the abolitionist movement – which reached its goal in the US in 1862 (Rampton, 2008) –, and the fact that some Early Feminists weren’t white – most famously, Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells – , First Wave Feminism was led by white middle-class women, and notably disregarded black women, their fight and their problems completely (Harris, 1990).

That being said, first wave feminists were not all the same: some were very religious women – even leaders of the Temperance Movement, which sought to outlaw the consumption of alcohol – while some were rather more radical – for example, those who championed the abolitionist cause and Native American rights. These two groups had different positions and values, and between them sat the majority of women which could be described as moderate or conservative in today’s eyes. Their positions were agreeable with the status quo: these Feminists’ objective was not to overturn the status quo, but rather to be given political rights within it – which is natural, when one understands First Wave Feminism was led by white women who felt like outsiders in a World they considered to be theirs too. 

For most of these women their fight wasn’t an attempt to overturn the system, but to work within it in order to find a way to create space for Women: it was movement that, however revolutionary, lacked the power, strength and radicalism of subsequent waves. This is the reason why one can understand the difference between First Wave Feminism and Second Wave Feminism to be the rights each sought to insure to women: on one side, political rights and the inequality inscribed in the letter of the law – such as the right to vote, the right to an education or the right to property; on the other side, the inequalities not inscribed in law, but that lurk within society with no one to call them out – most famously, the right to equal pay for equal work, the right to abortion and the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment in the 70s (an Amendment whose first version was proposed by Alice Paul and Crystal Eastman, leaders of the Suffrage Movement, right after the approval of the Nineteenth Amendment).

No woman would be standing where they are if it weren’t for the valorous fight of these early feminists; however, it would be wrong not to highlight the deficiencies, blind spots and exclusionary politics of these early feminists’ political thought. First Wave Feminists misused the term “Women” – which is set to include all women and should therefore advocate on behalf of all women –, by excluding non-white women from it, particularly black women. In fact, this First Wave was, as mentioned above, led by white women that seemed to have no intention to take “neither issues of racial oppression nor black women themselves seriously” (Harris, 1990). For example: the main goal – the most emblematic at least – of the First Wave Feminists was the right to vote, a goal that was accomplished in 1919 in the US with the approval of the Nineteenth Amendment. This was, however, not entirely true. As Jones (2020) puts it: “For Black women, August 1920 wasn’t the culmination of a movement. It marked the start of a new fight”. The exclusionary politics of the US, especially the Jim Crow South, made it difficult, when not impossible, for black people to vote, and therefore the major victory conquered via the Nineteenth Amendment didn’t include black women. 

Even nowadays one can argue – as most black women do – that the white women’s experience and the black women’s experience is not at all the same, and when we talk about Feminism we tend to favour and take into account the experience of white women in detriment of black women’s experience (Harris, 1990). So how can a movement that advocates for equality not address the inequality within it? One could, of course, argue that women – all women – were imprisoned or enslaved, considered their father’s or husband’s property, with no political rights and no freedom; but to compare the experiences of middle or high-class white women to the experiences of black women – of black people in general – under chattel slavery, indentured servitude and, later, segregation is both a gross misrepresentation of History and a complete disregard for the suffering of others. One fought for the right to vote, the other for the right to be recognized as a human being.

Emancipation had a completely different meaning for white and black women. As Angela P. Harris (1990) illustrates with the matter of rape, if a man, black or white, raped a black woman, that action seldomly had consequences: 

“as a legal matter, the experience of rape did not even exist for black women. During slavery, the rape of a black woman by any man, white or black, was simply not a crime. Even after the Civil War, rape laws were seldom used to protect black women against either white or black men, since black women were considered promiscuous by nature.” (Harris, 1990). 

For white women, segregation, for example, was not a problem, as it wasn’t going to impact their daily lives and, therefore, wasn’t something worth fighting for – or even to be recognized as a problem. But it did impact the lives of every black woman in the US. This and the examples given above show that the idea of “Women” as including all women failed. Hence, the idea of a “unitary woman experience” has to be called into question, as it has been since the beginning of the feminist movement in the US, mainly by black women, arguing that they had a completely different life experience on what being a woman is (Harris 1990). Famous First Wave Feminists, such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Judith Sargent Murray – both still during the 18th Century, and therefore precursors to early Feminism –, Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Fuller, Alice Paul, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Victoria Woodhull, Matilda Joslyn Gage or Lucretia Coffin Mott shared similar experiences to a great extent as white middle-class women, some from affluent urban families. Their experiences were not the same as Sojourner Truth, which was sold as a slave when she was nine, Anna J. Cooper, who was born enslaved, or Ida B. Wells and Frances Harper, whose existence as black women made them face rampant racism and segregation. Put simply, “being a woman” is not a unitary, monolithic experience unaffected by other factors – such as race –, as First Wave Feminists thought it was. This is not a new argument: as Sojourner Truth, in 1851, claimed in her famous speech “Ain’t I a Woman?”:

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, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?

These two, or rather multiple, life experiences can’t be looked at as if they were equivalent, because they aren’t. If it’s true that, despite all their qualities and flaws, First Wave Feminists were crucial to get to where we are today, it’s also true that there was a lot of room for improvement – there still is within feminist politics.

Theoretically speaking, as Hoffman (2001) puts it, “there is both one feminism and many feminisms. Or, to put it less paradoxically, there is a feminism that can only be identified through its multiple forms.” He then adds, quoting Heidi Safia Mirza (1997, in Hoffman, 2001) in a statement regarding black feminism: “‘you can have difference (polyvocality) with a conscious construction of sameness’”. The “conscious construction of sameness” remains, to this day, the fight for “greater equality and freedom” (Hoffman, 2001) between men and women, but the multiple views cannot be disregarded or forgotten as they were in the First Feminist Wave – and sometimes still are –, because they’re all a part of the Feminist movement. Feminism can’t be used as an “umbrella term” to include all women unless an effort is made for it to take into account and fight for all women, regardless of race or anything else. If Feminist is to be understood – as it must be – as the fight for equality between the sexes/genders, one does well to remember that none are equal until all are equal.

Catarina Reis
Mestranda em Ciência Política e Relações Internacionais – Especialização em Relações Internacionais



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