First Wave Feminism

The movement that is taken for granted

Historical development of feminism is divided into several periods. These periods are marked by differences in approach toward empowerment of women. Some periods are characterized by a relative absence of feminist thought, while others by sustained growth of feminist criticism and of activism. This rise and fall of feminist thought over a period of time led to wave analogy. The word ‘wave’ is used to categorize feminism because it illustrates the forward motion and then the resistance or loss of the forward motion of feminist thought and activism. Each wave of feminism pushed forward with progress and change. The result was often a backward motion. In Gender Studies, this is also called backlash. This article sheds light on first-wave feminism.

Simply put, the efforts of women in the 19th century that led to the passage of women’s right to vote in the 20th century, is often referred to as ‘First-wave feminism’. In particular, the French Revolution (1789) is often identified as the watershed when the first concerted demands for women’s rights emerged. “Vindication of Rights of Women” by Mary Wollstonecraft (1792) is recognized the first and the substantial feminist treatise. Walby, among others, is of the view that first-wave feminist movement in Britain was instrumental in bringing about a change from ‘private’ to ‘public’ patriarchy through struggle for vote, for access to education and the choice of profession, to have legal rights of property ownership, rights in marriage and divorce, and so on.

In Britain, Industrial Revolution changed the social and economic complexion of the society. This also resulted in the extension of the constitutional rights to the wider section of the society, especially to men, which were denied to them in the pre-industrialization era. When women saw the extension of rights to men only, they started demanding the same rights. The most significant feminist statements of the period (1750-1850) were direct responses to the new pieces of legislation granting men the rights which were not being extended to women. (Caine 1997:11).

In 1840s, the Britain witnessed the spread of feminist ideas among women belonging to the middle class. Feminism as an organized movement first emerged in the mid-1850s. A small group of London-based women pioneered the spread of the movement. This early feminism centred on the following issues:

1) Educational rights of women
2) Employment right of women
3) Improving legal rights of married women

It is pertinent to remark here that question of suffrage became one of the main planks of their movement when J.S. Mill tried to get women included under the provision of the 1867 Reform Act. However by the early 20th century, the issue of suffrage came to prominence. It became the issue on which public campaigning activity was based. The issue of vote united all feminist strands into a single campaign because right of vote was seen as an instrument to achieve equality on legislative front.

However there emerged fundamental differences regarding methods and approach of getting these rights. Resultantly, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and Women’s Social and Political Union were established in 1897 and 1903 reactively. The latter employed more militant tactics in connection with achieving their goals. Thousands of suffragettes were arrested and put behind the bars while others went on hunger strike. The outbreak of First World War brought an end to the militant activities of the Suffragettes. This, however, intensified the women’s movement further because some feminist leaders supported the war while others opposed it. The war is also believed to have broken traditionally held views of women. They (women) were attracted to the labour force as a replacement to men engaged in wars. The ending of war brought many changes in different spheres of life. In 1918, Representation of the People’s Act widened the suffrage by extending the right of vote to women over 30 who were householders, the wife of the householders or had been to university.

First-wave feminism in Britain did not focus on suffrage question only. According to Dyhouse and Ryan, the importance of suffrage as an issue can be gauged from the effects it had on women’s movement in post-WWI era. According to Banks, struggle for vote bestowed a facade of unity upon the women’s movement to the extent that it disguised the differences between them that were to come to the fore in the years after right to vote had been achieved.

Kent is of the view that there is difference in feminist manifestation and approach before and after the First World War. In the pre-war period, feminism displayed confidence and assertiveness. Kent is of the view that two factors contributed to the decline of feminism. First, the rise of anti-feminism in Britain focused on the fact that women should leave their war-time jobs and return to their traditional roles. Second the ideological differences within the ranks of the feminist movement also contributed to its downfall. When the right to vote was granted to women in 1918, though partially, the National Union of Women’s Societies re-organized itself. It even changed its name to the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC) and under the leadership of Elean Rathbone; priorities were shifted that embodied the belief that through right to vote, the equality between women and men had been achieved. The new feminist demands thus centred on the role of women in home and their role as mothers. According to Lewis, such priorities were an anathema to traditional egalitarian or equal rights feminists who wanted women to broaden their horizons and look beyond their homes. All protective legislation was therefore, opposed.

The protective legislation finally split the first-wave feminism and that too along the class lines. The middle-class feminists opposed the protective legislation, whereas the working-class feminists supported it. By the end of 1920s, equal rights feminists were no more dominant. However throughout the same period, the NUSEC, along with Women’s Freedom League and Six Point Group, tried to ensure that women’s issues were brought to the attention of the parliament. They fought for the following rights;

1) Equal suffrage;
2) Equal guardianship of children;
3) The opening of legal profession to women;
4) Equal pay;
5) Equal standards of morality; and
6) Widows’ pension plans.

The decade of 1930s was marked by depression, unemployment and concerns over declining populations. With this background, it was new feminism that started to get prominence by its emphasis on women’s maternal role and their contribution to social welfare. This divergence of the two feminisms in 1920s and 1930s marks the end of the first wave in Britain.

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