What was the First Wave Feminist Movement?


Suffragettes in 1921

While there is no clear consensus as to when ‘first wave’ feminism occurred, most accept that in the 19th century, as industrialization progressed, First Wave feminism emerged. The term itself was only coined in 1968 by Martha Lear, who also coined the term Second Wave Feminism. First Wave feminism focused on what we now consider basic issues of inequality in light of more recent developments.

Although feminism can be argued to have its roots in many ancient periods, modern feminism begins around the late 17th and 18th centuries, during the Enlightenment in Europe. One of the early feminists was Mary Wollstonecraft, who mostly wrote in the late 18th century (Figure 1). She was heavily influenced by Rousseau and French political thinkers who began to advocate that societies, and individuals specifically, should have rights that the state provides. Individual rights, separate from teaching from the church, began to become a key focus for philosophers during this period. Individual liberty, as argued, was to be upheld by the state. Similarly, English philosophers, such as John Locke living earlier, had taken up similar ideas.

However, philosophers and writers often ignored women and Wollstonecraft was among the first to call for gender equality. She believed reason and education should be the foundation of social order that included equality for women. Her books (A Vindication of the Rights of Women, published in 1792, and Maria, or the Wrongs of Women, published in 1798, were controversial in their day but also demonstrated her ideas. She saw the lack of focus in educating women as making them appear less informed as men in society.

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