First-wave feminism

First-wave feminism refers to a period of feminist activity during the 19th and early 20th century throughout the world, particularly in the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands and the United States. It focused on legal issues, primarily on gaining women's suffrage (the right to vote).

The term first-wave was coined in March 1968 by Marsha Lear writing in The New York Times Magazine, who at the same time also used the term "second-wave feminism".[1][2] At that time, the women's movement was focused on de facto (unofficial) inequalities, which it wished to distinguish from the objectives of the earlier feminists.


  • Origins 1
  • Australia 2
  • Denmark 3
  • New Zealand 4
  • Netherlands 5
  • Persia 6
  • Sweden 7
  • United Kingdom 8
  • United States 9
  • Timeline of first-wave feminism worldwide 10
  • See also 11
  • References 12


According to Miriam Schneir, Simone de Beauvoir wrote that the first woman to "take up her pen in defense of her sex" was Christine de Pizan in the 15th century.[3] Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa and Modesta di Pozzo di Forzi worked in the 16th century.[3] Marie Le Jars de Gournay, Anne Bradstreet and François Poullain de la Barre wrote in the 17th.[3]

Mary Wollstonecraft published one of the first feminist treatises, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), in which she advocated the social and moral equality of the sexes, extending the work of her 1790 pamphlet, A Vindication of the Rights of Men. Her later unfinished novel, Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman, earned her considerable criticism as she discussed women's sexual desires. She died young, and her widower, the philosopher William Godwin, quickly wrote a memoir of her that, contrary to his intentions, destroyed her reputation for generations.

Wollstonecraft is regarded as the grandmother of British feminism and her ideas shaped the thinking of the suffragettes, who campaigned for the women's vote. After generations of work, this was eventually achieved.

A 1932 Soviet poster for International Women's Day.
Louise Weiss along with other Parisian suffragettes in 1935. The newspaper headline reads, in translation, "THE FRENCHWOMAN MUST VOTE".


The first wave of Australian feminism, which dates back to the late 19th century, was chiefly concerned with suffrage (women's right to vote) and consequently with women's access to parliaments and other political activities.[4]

In 1882, Rose Scott, a women's rights activist, began to hold a weekly salon meetings in her Sydney home, left to her by her late mother. Through these meetings, she became well known amongst politicians, judges, philanthropists, writers and poets. In 1889, she helped to found the Women's Literary Society, which later grew into the Womanhood Suffrage League in 1891. Leading politicians hosted by Scott included Bernhard Ringrose Wise, William Holman, William Morris Hughes and Thomas Bavin, who met and discussed the drafting of the bill that eventually became the Early Closing Act of 1899.[5]

Tribute to the Suffragettes memorial in Christchurch, New Zealand. The figures shown from left to right are Amey Daldy, Kate Sheppard, Ada Wells and Harriet Morison


The first women's movement was led by the Dansk Kvindesamfund ("Danish Women's Society"). Line Luplau was one of the most notable woman in this era. Tagea Brandt was also part of this movement, and in her honor was stablished Tagea Brandt Rejselegat or Travel Scholarship for women. The Dansk Kvindesamfund's efforts as a leading group of women for women led to the existence of the revised Danish constitution of 1915, giving women the right to vote and the provision of equal opportunity laws during the 1920s, which influenced the present-day legislative measures to grant women access to education, work, marital rights and other obligations.[6]

New Zealand

Early New Zealand feminists and suffragettes included Maud Pember Reeves (Australian-born; later lived in London), Kate Sheppard and Mary Ann Müller. In 1893, Elizabeth Yates became Mayor of Onehunga, the first time such a post had been held by a female anywhere in the British Empire. Early university graduates were Emily Siedeberg (doctor, graduated 1895) and Ethel Benjamin (lawyer, graduated 1897). The Female Law Practitioners Act was passed in 1896 and Benjamin was admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of New Zealand in 1897. See Women's suffrage in New Zealand.


In the Netherlands, Wilhelmina Drucker (1847-1925) fought successfully for the vote and equal rights for women through political and feminist organisations she founded.

Although in the Netherlands during the Conference of Badasht (1848) presented progress on the concerns of first wave feminism. There is a synchronicity in time and a likeness in theme and events between Persia (later named Iran) and the United States between the conference at Badasht and the Seneca Falls Convention.[7][8] First the conference happened over three weeks from late June to mid-July 1848 and the Seneca Falls Convention happened in mid-July 1848. Both conferences had women (Tahirih and Elizabeth Cady Stanton) take strong stances on the role of women in the public arena that some attending reacted to harshly. And lastly leading men present (Quddús and Frederick Douglass) supported these calls during the meetings healing the breach. Some even see a parallel in the background discussions that are partially documented to arrange how things would be brought up and settled.

The conference of Badasht is considered by Bahá'ís as a signal moment that demonstrated that Islamic Sharia law had been abrogated[9][10] as well as a key demonstration of the thrust of raising the social position of women.[11] Although the unveiling led to accusations of immorality[12][13] the Báb responded by supporting her position and naming her the Pure (Táhirih).[14] Modern women scholars review this kind of accusation as part of a pattern faced by women leaders and writers then and since[15] in a way that Azar Nafisi says "…the Islamic regime today… fears them and feels vulnerable in the face of a resistance that is not just political but existential."[16] See the Bahá'í Faith and gender equality.


Feminist issues and gender roles were discussed in media and literature during the 18th-century by people such as Josefina Deland in the 1850s.[18]

In 1856, Fredrika Bremer published her famous Hertha (novel), which aroused great controversy and created a debate referred to as the Hertha Debate. The two foremost questions was to abolish coverture for unmarried women, and for the state to provide women an equivalent to a university. Both questions were met: in 1858, a reform granted unmarried women the right to apply for legal majority by a simple procedure, and in 1861, Högre lärarinneseminariet was founded as a "Women's University". In 1859, the first women's magazine in Sweden and the Nordic countries, the Tidskrift för hemmet, was founded by Sophie Adlersparre and Rosalie Olivecrona. This has been referred to as the starting point of a women's movement in Sweden.

The organized women's movement begun in 1873, when Country Association for Women's Suffrage was founded.

In 1921, women suffrage was finally introduced. The women suffrage reform was followed by the Behörighetslagen of 1923 (Act of Access of 1923), in which males and females were formally given equal access to all professions and positions in society, the only exceptions being military and priesthood positions.[19] The last two restrictions were removed in 1958, when women were allowed to become priests, and in a series of reforms between 1980 and 1989, when all military professions were opened to women.[20]

United Kingdom

The first organized movement for English feminism was the

  • Dicker, Rory Cooke. (2008) A History of U.S. Feminisms. Berkeley: Seal Press. ISBN 1-58005-234-7
  • Rupp, Leila J. (2011): Transnational Women's Movements, European History Online, Mainz: Institute of European History, retrieved: June 22, 2011.
  • Biography of Mary Wollstonecraft with links to works.
  • Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly
  • Woodhull's attempt to run for President.
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  2. ^ First Wave Feminism | BCC Feminist Philosophy
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    • (at the time Azar Nafisi was a visiting professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.)
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  18. ^ Chief editor: Nils Bohman, Svenska män och kvinnor. 2, C-F (Swedish Men and Women. 2, C-F) dictionary (1944) (in Swedish)
  19. ^ Lilla Focus Uppslagsbok (1979)
  20. ^ Sundevall, Fia (2011). Det sista manliga yrkesmonopolet: genus och militärt arbete i Sverige 1865-1989. Diss. Stockholm : Stockholms universitet, 2011
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  38. ^ Christine Bladh (Swedish): Månglerskor: att sälja från korg och bod i Stockholm 1819–1846 (1991)
  39. ^ a b c d e f g Richard J Evans (1979). Kvinnorörelsens historia i Europa, USA, Australien och Nya Zeeland 1840–1920 (The Feminists: Women's Emancipation Movements in Europe, America and Australasia, 1840–1920) Helsingborg: LiberFörlag Stockholm. ISBN 91-38-04920-1 (Swedish)
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