Feminism in America: a Retrospective
What is feminism?
Feminism is a collection of movements aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, and social rights and equal opportunities for women. Feminism is mainly focused on women’s issues, but because feminism seeks gender equality, some feminists argue that men’s liberation is therefore a necessary part of feminism, and that men are also harmed by sexism and gender roles.
Some of the earlier forms of feminism have been criticized for being geared towards white, middle-class, educated perspectives. This led to the creation of ethnically-specific or multiculturalist forms of feminism.
Feminist activists have campaigned for women’s rights—such as in contract, property, and voting—while also promoting women’s rights to bodily integrity and autonomy and reproductive rights. They have opposed domestic violence, sexual harassment, and sexual assault. In economics, they have advocated for workplace rights, including equal pay and opportunities for careers and to start businesses.
Feminists and scholars have divided the movement’s history into three “waves”. The first wave refers mainly to women’s suffrage movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (mainly concerned with women’s right to vote). The second wave refers to the ideas and actions associated with the women’s liberation movement beginning in the 1960s (which campaigned for legal and social equality for women). The third wave refers to a continuation of, and a reaction to, the perceived failures of second-wave feminism, beginning in the 1990s.
First-wave feminism was a period of feminist activity during the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. In the U.S., it focused on the promotion of equal contract, marriage, parenting, and property rights for women. However, by the end of the nineteenth century, activism focused primarily on gaining political power, particularly the right of women’s suffrage, though some feminists were active in campaigning for women’s sexual, reproductive, and economic rights at this time.
|Published in 1792, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was the first great feminist treatise. Wollstonecraft preached that intellect will always govern and sought “to persuade women to endeavor to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonimous [sic] with epithets of weakness.”|
But Wollstonecraft’s book only represented the first widely read presentation of American first-wave feminist philosophy, not the beginning of the American first-wave feminist movement as such. Although some women (most notably U.S. First Lady Abigail Adams) would agree with her sentiments, what we think of as the first-wave feminist movement probably began at the Seneca Falls Convention of July 1848.
At the Convention, prominent abolitionists and feminists of the era, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton authored a Declaration of Sentiments patterned after the Declaration of Independence which asserted fundamental rights often denied to women, including the right to vote.
Photo: Library of Congress.
The 19th-century feminist movement had its roots in the abolitionist movement; it was, in fact, at a global abolitionists’ meeting that the Seneca Falls organizers got their idea for a convention. Still, despite their efforts, the central question of 19th century feminism was whether it was acceptable to promote black civil rights over women’s rights.
This divide obviously leaves out black women, whose basic rights were compromised both because they were black and because they were women. Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist and an early feminist, remarked in her famous 1851 speech: “I think that between the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon.”
Photo: Library of Congress.
But white men remained in control, partly because black civil rights and women’s rights were set against each other. Elizabeth Cady Stanton herself complained about the prospect of black voting rights in 1865. “Now,” she wrote, “it becomes a serious question whether we had better stand aside and see ‘Sambo’ walk in the kingdom first.”
In 1896, a group of black women, led by Mary Church Terrell (photographed on the left) and including such luminaries as Harriet Tubman and Ida B. Wells-Barnett, was created out of a merger of smaller organizations. But despite the efforts of the National Association for Colored Women and similar groups, the national feminist movement became identified primarily–and enduringly–as white and upper-class.
Photo: Library of Congress.
As four million young men were drafted to serve as U.S. troops in World War I, women took over many jobs traditionally held by men. At the same time this occurred, the women’s suffrage movement experienced a resurgence that dovetailed with the growing antiwar movement.
The result: finally, some 72 years after Seneca Falls, the U.S. government ratified the Nineteenth Amendment.
While black suffrage was not to be fully established in the South until the 1965 (continues to be challenged to this day by voter intimidation tactics), it would have been inaccurate to even describe the United States as a true representative democracy prior to 1920 because only about 40% of the population–white males–were allowed to elect representatives.