The history of feminism

1st Wave Feminism

It is worth noting, that we are aware of the fact, that the fight for women’s rights has existed long before what we now call first wave feminism.


(In the picture: Queen Elizabeth (1533-1603), Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), Aleksandra Kollontaj (1872-1952)) and  Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

Before first wave feminism:

First Wave Feminists were inspired by the early fight for women’s rights in 1770-1850, that included a spirit of resistance and rebellion in the fight for independence from Great Britain (which resulted in the Declaration of Independence in 1776) – fought by men and women. It also included the release of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Thoughts on Education of Daughters (1787) in England and the French Revolution (1789) (Chakravarty and Mortensen 2016: 9), and the abolitionist movement in the States, in which African Americans fought for liberation from ‘white supremacy’ and racism from the 1830s to 1870. From the abolitionist movement emerged prominent Women’s Rights activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) og Lucretia Mott (1793-1880) who became prominent figures within the Women’s Rights Movement (Web). One problem within the movement was:

[w]hile men led antislavery organizations and lectured, women were not allowed to hold these positions. When women defied these rules and spoke out against slavery in public, they were mocked

(Lange(a) 2015)

By the end of the 1830s many women had achieved experience as leaders, organizers, writers, and public speakers, despite the discrimination they were met with. These experiences became vital when it came to creating a new movement that fought for women’s rights (Lange(a) 2015).

First wave (1848-1920)

This lead to, among other things, The Seneca Falls Meeting in 1848, which has later been considered the meeting that sparked life into the women’s movement; The Suffrage Movement, whereby the fight for women’s rights reached both a national and international level of organizing. The idea for this convention already occured in 1840 at the World Anti-Slavery Conference in London, where Americans Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott participated (early American and British activists continued to stay in touch and be inspired by eachother) (Web).

Women were still being discriminated against at that time since they had no rights to economy, children, nor property and still did not have equal opportunities for education (Lange(b)).

Subsequently, the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) was founded in 1869 (Web). The fourteenth alteration in the constitution guaranteed the protection of the rights of all citizens and the suffragettes therefore believed that women had the right to vote. They tried to register as voters for the 1872 election. Susan B. Anthony succeeded in voting but was later arrested because of it. Her unsuccessful defence was to argue that she was put in front of a judge based on laws made by men, interpreted by men, administered by men, for men, and against women. This was evident, she argued, because of the fact that women were not considered citizens, since they were not allowed to vote (which was the right of any citizen) (Susan B. Anthony).

Sadly, they did not win the right to vote and therefore had to develop other strategies (Lange(c) 2015). They spoke in favour of birth control, education for African American children, laws for the protection of women in the workplace and so forth (Lange(c) 2015).

After 1913 the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) (an organisation formed in 1890 by the merging of NWSA og AWSA) broke up since a small part of the organization wanted to follow the methods of the militant, British suffragists (Lange(b) 2015): The National Society for Women’s Suffrage (NSWS) founded in 1871 (Andersen 2016).

By 1916 most suffragist organizations were in favour of a change in constitution that allowed women the right to vote. In 1920, the League of Women Voters was formed (Web) and women in States was granted the vote the same year (Chakravarty og Mortensen 2016: 40).

In 1923 suffragist leader Alice Poul suggested an alteration in the constitution, ERA, that would guarantee legal equal rights for all: Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex” (Web) – Once again, with no luck!

Internal disputes

The participation of African American women in women’s movements is often devalued (Lange(d) 2015). Dr. in English Literature, writer, feminist, and activist, bell hooks, elaborate on this, when she points out how former slave, abolitionist and women’s rights activist, Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) addressed the double standards imposed on African American women in her 1867 speech. This was in large due to the fact that the African American fight for equal rights ultimately was the fight for African American men’s rights. On the hand, working with white feminist organisations meant tolerating and accepting their racism (hooks 1990: 3). White feminist also saw African American women as a threat to their own womanhood (hooks 1990: 130). At the same time, white women’s fight for work opportunities did not include African American women, since they were seen as competitors. White women did not wish to compete against – or work with – African American women (hooks 1990: 132).

The Time In Between 1st and 2nd Wave

After winning the vote, a backlash happened. One De Beauvoir questions in 1949:

Enough ink has been spilled in quarreling over feminism, and perhaps we should say no more about it. It is still talked about, however, for the voluminous nonsense uttered during the last century seems to have done little to illuminate the problem. After all, is there a problem? And if so, what is it? Are there women, really?

(De Beauvoir 1997: 13)

De Beauvoir points to the fact, that women are ‘the Other’, since she is the opposite of man, the subject, the absolute (De Beauvoir 1997: 16). She wonders why women continue to allow for a continuation of being seen as ‘the Other’, when they are in fact the majority.

She finds, that one explanation is, that women had not been able to gather as a group since they lack their own history, religion and work/interest community. This, because women live of and with the man – and hence; separated from her sisters. Women were depended on man because of abode, economic interests and (man’s) social position.



De Beauvoir, Simone (1997): The Second Sex. Vintage Classics, London. ISBN: 9780099744214

Lange(a), Allison (2015): Women’s Rights Movement Emerges from the Abolitionist Movement. Found at

Lange(b), Allison (2015): Suffrage and the Seneca Falls Convention. Found at

Lange(c), Allison (2015): The Legal Case of Minor v. Happersett. Found at

Lange(d), Allison (2015): National Association of Colored Women. Found at

Mortensen, Hanne & Chakravarty, Dorthe (2016): De danske kvinders historie. Aarhus C, Systime. ISBN: 978-87-616-5846-3