How did women start protesting and acquiring their social, economic and political rights? In Western history, women were confined to the domestic sphere while men could enjoy public life. The history of feminism is as long as western history.
In the ancient world, in the 3rd century BCE, there is evidence of one of the first organized protests against the limiting status of women. Roman women filled the Capitoline Hill and blocked every entrance to the Forum, where consul Marcus Porcius Cato was strongly against the repeal of laws limiting women’s use of expensive goods. The rebellion proved to be exceptional. Unfortunately, for most recorded history, only a few isolated voices spoke out against the inferior status of women.
In the Middle Age in Europe, women did not have the right to own property, study, or participate in public life in any kind of social, economic or political way. Women needed a male representative, be it a father, husband, brother, legal agent or even a son to conduct any business. In addition, women had little or no access to education and were barred from most professions. Reproduction was considered their only purpose.
It is in the 14th and early 15th century France, that the first feminist philosopher, Christine de Pisan, known for her works about women’s heroism and virtue, challenged the status and condition of women and made a bold call for female education.
Later in the century, the Venetian woman Laura Cereta published a volume of letters that gathered women’s complaints, from denial of education and marital oppression. This started the defence of women as a literary subgenre, where emerging feminist authors would produce long lists or tests gathering women's courage and accomplishments. They would also proclaim that women would be the intellectual equals of men if they were only given equal access to education.
It is only until the 16th century that the debate about women reached England when pamphleteers such as Jane Anger and polemicists joined the struggle and debate about the true nature of womanhood.
Despite the many feminist voices during the Renaissance, this was not enough to form a coherent philosophy or movement.
The Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century
During the Enlightenment, philosophers focused on and debated the inequities of social class, freedom, and caste. However, philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and French revolutionaries that wrote the Declaration of the Right of Man and the Citizen failed to address the legal status of women or even to qualify them as 'silly and frivolous'.
However, some male philosophers did defend the rights of women, such as Jeremy Bentham and Marquis de Condorcet. Both were fierce defenders of human rights, the equality of women and their right to vote and participate in government; including their participation in political life and debates and advocacy for women's suffrage.
This period was characterized by secular intellectual reasoning and philosophical writing, even female intellectuals began to demand new reforms of rhetoric about liberty, equality and natural rights be applied to both sexes.
Olympe de Gouges even published the Declaration of the Right of Woman and of the [Female] Citizen in 1791, as a response to the lack of equality for half of the population and of consideration for the women's status in the Declaration of the Right of Men and of the Citizen from 1789. In her text, Olympe declares women to not only be the men's equal, but their partner.
In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Right of Woman, where she challenges the notion that women only exist to please men. She identified the education and upbringing of women, dictated by the male perspective, to be one of the main reasons for their limitations. She wrote that women and men be given equal opportunities regarding education, work, and politics would contribute to stopping the inequality of both genders.
Feminism in the 19th century
The 19th century was the beginning of the suffrage movement through the very lively activism of women on different fronts in Europe and the United States.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the image of the Victorian woman was still very dominant and the ideology was that women belonged to the private sphere of society. Meaning that women had the sole purpose of everything domestic, such as the household and children. This 'feminine ideal' also called The Cult of Domesticity was typified and fond in Victorian conduct books but also in literature.
Parallel to this 'feminine ideal' depicted in books, feminism was strongly present in fiction books. Among the authors depicting women's misery and frustration, Jane Austen, Charlotte, and Anne Brontë, but also men authors recognized the injustices against women in their books and novels, such as George Meredith, George Gissing and Thomas Hardy.
In the United States, John Neal is remembered as the first lecturer on women's rights in America. He contributed to the advocacy of women's rights through his articles, novels, public speaking and essays, where he declared intellectual equality between men and women, demanded suffrage, equal pay, and better education and working conditions for women. Neal's feminist essays are considered to fill the intellectual gap between feminist writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft and other Seneca Falls Convention successors like Margaret Fuller or Sarah Moore Grimké.
Seneca Falls Convention
The Seneca Falls Convention was the first women's rights convention. It was held in the town of Seneca Falls, New York and women gathered to discuss the social, civil and religious conditions and rights of women, among other feminist ideas.
This convention was the pioneer in women's rights discussion and movements, it gathered women from different parts of the United States but also from different parts of the world that had come all this way to participate. This revolutionary convention marked the beginning of the struggle and the women's rights movement.
Political and education reforms
By the mid 19th century, there was little sign of change in the political or social order, nor any evidence of a recognizable women's movement. Meanwhile, the emphasis on feminine virtue and role increased, this stiffer social model and code of conduct imposed on women was described as confining and repressive and was what finally stirred the call for a woman's movement.
In 1850, the Ladies of Langham Place, including Barbara Leigh Smith, Bessie Rayner and Anna Jameson and their friends met regularly in London's Langham Place to discuss the united women's voice to achieve the necessary reforms focused on education, employment and marital law.
Inspired by the Seneca Falls Convention, they collected thousands of signatures for legislative reform and petitions in the United Kingdom, some of which were successful. Such as the education reform efforts to give women access to some education and later access to the universities. Together with Emily Davies, Barbara Leigh Smith founded the first higher education institution for women, which later became Girton College, Cambridge (1869), Newnham College, Cambridge (1871) and Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford (1879).
In the political scene, campaigns gave women the opportunity to express themselves and create different social reform groups. Josephine Butler's work demonstrated the potential power of organized women groups. She is an example of a charismatic and natural leader that represented the Ladies National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act in 1869.
Suffrage or The First Wave
The late 19th century and early 20th century is known as the 'first wave' of feminism in the English-speaking world, which is characterized by women's suffrage, female education rights, better working conditions and the abolition of gender standards.
In the United States, first-wave feminism was considered to have ended with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (1920), which granted women the right to vote in the United States. The women's right to vote movement in America was initiated in 1869 by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were the founders of the women's suffrage movement and had spent over 30 years encouraging women to protest in the streets and achieve the women's right to vote.
In the United Kingdom, The Langham Place ladies set up a suffrage committee in 1866, which later would be renamed as the London Society for Women's Suffrage in 1867. The group became very active and spread across the country, they started raising petitions, writing feminist journal articles but despite the women's accrued political experience, there was slow progress at the local government level and no evolution on women's rights.
This kept on building a generalized frustration and pressure, leading to more radical women's movements. The more militant form of suffragism was visible in public women's march, through the distinctive green, purple and white emblems and colours, as well as the Artists' Suffrage League dramatic graphics. The protests became more violent each year but still did not achieve universal suffrage.
It will be until later with the first and second world wars that women's work would be recognized as valuable and that feminists kept on fighting discrimination between the wars. British women would have to wait until the electoral reform in 1928 to achieve equal suffrage.
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