The History of Feminism


Feminism is one of the most recent ideologies to emerge, although its origins can be traced far back into history. We examine its historical roots and identify and discuss the different forms of feminism that have developed over the last two centuries. We then link feminism with other ideologies and conclude with a critique and assessment of feminism in the modern world.

History of Feminism

Feminism has a core belief: that women are and have been, disadvantaged and oppressed because of their sex. Feminists have highlighted what they see as a political relationship between the sexes, the supremacy of men and the subjection of women in most, if not all, societies. Nevertheless, feminism has also been characterized by a diversity of views and political positions.

Christine de Pisan's Book of the City of Ladies

Feminist views can be traced back as far as the ancient civilizations of Greece and China. Christine de Pisan's Book of the City of Ladies, published in Italy in 1405, foreshadowed many of the ideas of modern feminism in recording the deeds of famous women of the past and advocating women's right to education and political influence. Nevertheless, it was not until the nineteenth century that an organized women's movement developed. The first text of modern feminism is usually taken to be Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women [1792], written against the backdrop of the French Revolution.

Feminists been divided over revolutionary and reformist strategies, and feminist theory has at times drawn upon quite different political traditions and values.

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–97) social theorist and feminist. Drawn into radical politics by the French Revolution, Wollstonecraft was part of a creative and intellectual circle that included her husband, the anarchist William Godwin . She died giving birth to her daughter Mary, who later married the poet Shelley and wrote Frankenstein. Wollstonecraft's feminism drew upon an Enlightenment liberal belief in reason and a radical humanist commitment to equality. She stressed the equal rights of women, especially in education, on the basis of the notion of ‘personhood’. However, her work developed a more complex analysis of women as the objects and subjects of desire, and also presented the domestic sphere as a model of community and social order.


First-wave feminism

Focused on the legal and political rights of women. By the mid nineteenth century the women's movement had acquired a central focus: the campaign for female suffrage most famously in the UK through the suffragette movement, which culminated in equal suffrage with men in 1928. Female suffrage was its principal goal because it was believed that if women could vote all other forms of sexual discrimination or prejudice would quickly disappear.

In the USA, the Seneca Falls convention, held in 1848, marked the birth of the US women's rights movement. It adopted a Declaration of Sentiments, written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902), which deliberately drew upon the language and principles of the Declaration of Independence and called, amongst other things, for female suffrage. The National Women's Suffrage Association, led by Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906), was set up in 1869 and merged with the more conservative American Women's Suffrage Association in 1890. Similar movements developed in other western countries.

In the UK, an organized movement developed during the 1850s, and in 1867 the House of Commons defeated the first proposal for female suffrage, an amendment to the Second Reform Act proposed by John Stuart Mill. John Stuart Mill's On the Subjection of Women ([1869] 1970), written in collaboration with Harriet Taylor, proposed that society should be organized according to the principle of ‘reason’ and that ‘accidents of birth’ such as sex should be irrelevant. Women would therefore be entitled to the rights and liberties enjoyed by men and in particular the right to vote.


The British suffrage movement adopted increasingly militant tactics after the formation in 1903 of the Women's Social and Political Union, led by Emmeline Pankhurst (1858–1928) and her daughter Christabel (1880–1958). From their underground base in Paris, the Pankhursts coordinated a campaign of direct action in which ‘suffragettes’ carried out wholesale attacks upon property and mounted a series of well-publicized public demonstrations. ‘First-wave’ feminism ended with the achievement of female suffrage, introduced first in New Zealand in 1893. The Nineteenth Amendment of the US Constitution granted the vote to American women in 1920. The franchise was extended to women in the UK in 1918, but they did not achieve equal voting rights with men until 1928'

Second-wave feminism

A radically new development occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, the so-called ‘second wave’ of feminism, inspired by such writers as Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (1953), Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (1963), Kate Millet, Sexual Politics (1970) and, most famously, Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch (1970). It shifted the entire debate from what might be generally considered political to the psychological, cultural and anthropological fields.


Simone de Beauvoir (1906–86) French novelist, playwright and social critic. De Beauvoir taught philosophy at the Sorbonne from 1931 to 1943, and later became an independent writer and social theorist. The Second Sex (1949) had a massive influence on the feminist movement by effectively reopening the issue of gender politics and foreshadowing some of the themes later developed by radical feminists. De Beauvoir was a long-time companion of Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80). De Beauvoir insisted that women's position was determined by social and not natural factors, and developed a complex critique of patriarchal culture. Her work highlights the extent to which the masculine is represented as the positive or the norm, while the feminine is portrayed as ‘other’. Such ‘otherness’ fundamentally limits women's freedom and prevents them from expressing their full humanity. De Beauvoir placed her faith in rationality and critical analysis as the means of exposing this process and of giving women responsibility for their own lives.

Simone de Beauvoir (1906–86)

Betty Friedan

The publication in 1963 of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique did much to relaunch feminist thought. Friedan set out to explore what she called ‘the problem with no name’, the frustration and unhappiness many women experienced as a result of being confined to the roles of housewife and mother.

Betty Friedan (born 1921) US feminist and political activist, sometimes seen as the ‘mother’ of women's liberation. Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963) is often credited with having stimulated the emergence of ‘second-wave’ feminism. In 1966, she helped found the National Organization of Women (NOW) and became its first president. Friedan attacked the cultural myths that sustained female domesticity, highlighting the sense of frustration and despair that afflicted suburban American women confined to the role of housewife and mother. She aimed at broadening educational and career opportunities for women, and has been criticized by radical feminists for focusing on the needs of middle-class women and ignoring patriarchal structures in the ‘private’ sphere. In The Second Stage (1983) Friedan drew attention to the danger that the pursuit of ‘personhood’ might encourage women to deny the importance of children, the home and the family. led to the popularity of the idea of ‘post-feminism’, which suggests that, as feminist goals have been largely achieved, the women's movement has moved ‘beyond feminism’.

Second-wave’ feminism acknowledged that the achievement of political and legal rights had not solved the ‘women's question’. Indeed, feminist ideas and arguments became increasingly radical, and at times revolutionary. Books such as Kate Millett's Sexual Politics (1970) and Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch (1970) pushed back the borders of what had previously been considered to be ‘political’ by focusing attention upon the personal, psychological and sexual aspects of female oppression. Women needed radical social change and political emancipation if they were to be ‘liberated’ from thousands of years of male oppression.

Liberal and radical feminism agreed in their demand for both elements to improve women’s lot. Both equal rights legislation and considerable social change, especially in popular attitudes on gender issues, are needed to improve the lot of women and redress the power balance between men and women. In Britain, a great deal of legislation has been introduced to advance the cause of greater gender equality: Abortion Law Reform (1967), Divorce Law Reform (1969), Equal Pay Act (1970), Sex Discrimination Act (1975), Employment Protection Act (1975) and Domestic Violence Act (1977). However, there has been very limited progress in dealing with the forces of structural gender inequality in society and enforcement of legislation is weak.

Some second-wave feminists argued for greater inclusion of women on the grounds of female moral superiority. Women were especially endowed with sympathy, emotion and a culture of co-operation as a consequence of their experience of motherhood. Men were seen as being tough, competitive and emotionally limited. Human history was a struggle between these conflicting male and female virtues between and within people. Feminists involved in the peace movement, for example, argued that the potential for destruction is now so great that it is vital that the female side of humanity gains more influence in politics and society to avoid nuclear war and environmental destruction.

The goal of ‘second-wave’ feminism was not merely political emancipation but ‘women's liberation’, reflected in the ideas of the growing Women's Liberation Movement. Such a goal could not be achieved by political reforms or legal changes alone, but demanded, modern feminists argued, a radical and perhaps revolutionary process of social change. Since the first flowering of radical feminist thought in the late 1960s and early 1970s, feminism has developed into a distinctive and established ideology, whose ideas and values challenge the most basic assumptions of conventional political thought. Feminism has succeeded in establishing gender and gender perspectives as important themes in a range of academic disciplines and in raising consciousness about gender issues in public life in general. By the 1990s, feminist organisations existed in all western countries and most parts of the developing world.

Third-wave feminism,

In the 1990s, was concerned with the idea that feminism had solely focused on white middle-class women, failing to recognise the concerns of women of other cultures. By the 1990s some feminists argued that second-wave feminism was becoming rather dated. Major civil liberties and legal advances for women had occurred. Technological developments, such as the contraceptive pill and household labour-saving devices, had liberated women from the burdens of unplanned childbearing and the grind of housework that had held back earlier generations.

Some of the major writers of second-wave feminism, such as Germaine Greer in Sex and Destiny (1985), became sympathetic to the importance of family life and child rearing for women.

In The Female Eunuch (1970), Greer suggested that women are conditioned to a passive sexual role, which has repressed their true sexuality as well as the more active and adventurous side of their personalities. In effect, women have been castrated and turned into sexless objects by the cultural stereotype of the ‘eternal feminine’. Greer's work was influenced by new-left writers such as Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957) and Herbert Marcuse , who had proclaimed the need for ‘sexual liberation’ and criticised the repressive nature of conventional society.

Camille Paglia, in Sex, Art and American Culture (1990), questioned the ‘victim’ status of women in much feminist writing. The 1990s, it wa

s claimed by feminists of what might be called ‘third wave’ or ‘new’ feminism, was the time to consolidate what had been achieved. Women are still disadvantaged in many areas of life in modern societies, but the principle of female equality, now largely accepted and backed by legislation, needed to be made a stronger reality in practical rather than just theoretical terms.

A number of issues of gender discrimination remain to be addressed: female pay in Britain remains, on average, around 75 per cent of male wages; women are more likely to be found in low-paid, part-time, low-status, insecure, low-skilled and temporary work than men are; few women are at the top of the major professions of law, medicine, academia, the media and the senior civil service. In addition, in 2001 40 per cent of the FTSE Index companies were identified as having no women on their board and the proportion of leading businesses with women on the board fell from 69 per cent in 1999 to 57 per cent in 2001.


Unlike second-wave feminism, contemporary feminism doubts the importance of conventional political activity in changing structures of inequality in society. Natasha Walter, in The New Feminism (1998) and On the Move: Feminism for a New Generation (1999), is an important contemporary feminist writer. She addresses some of the issues raised by the position of women in contemporary society and argues that, while a great deal of gender inequality still exists in modern societies, there are a number of changes to be considered. Women’s lives cannot be seen just in terms of ‘oppression’, or inequalities addressed by politics. Women have new forms of power in work, politics and the media available to them to redress gender inequalities. Besides, women do not need a ‘feminist’ movement as such to advance their interests. They can use the existing power structures in work and the many other organisations in which women participate to forward the feminist cause while advancing their own individual interests. Finally, these changes in feminist thinking amount to a new form of feminism, one much more in tune with the individualistic and apolitical world in Western societies.



• Fourth-wave feminism-New Feminism

Some suggest that a new wave of feminists are reacting against inequality based on media images of women, online misogyny and issues arising through the expansion of social media. New feminism can be criticised on similar grounds to its second-wave predecessor. It concentrates on privileged women – white, middle-class, well-educated, Western, Christian, employed, heterosexual – and does little for the vast majority of women in the world. Women in developing countries face far worse forms of gender inequality than those in the West, with far fewer resources than their sisters in industrialised nations, and receive little help in their struggle. Today, any self-respecting Western woman would see herself as a ‘feminist’, with considerable choice in lifestyle and career, and not automatically dependent on a male. Feminism is not associated only with the radical or political left of politics. Women of all political persuasions argue for female equality in principle. Neither is it only a movement confined to the developed world. Women in developing countries increasingly see a crucial role for themselves in social and economic progress, in population control and environmental protection. They look to both the traditions of their own society and the major elements of Western feminist thinking for inspiration. Two processes have accompanied these developments.

The first is a process of deradicalization, whereby there has been a retreat from the sometimes uncompromising positions that characterized feminism in the early 1970s. The second process if one of fragmentation. Instead of simply loosing its radical or critical edge, feminist thinking has gone through a process of radical diversification, making it difficult, and perhaps impossible, any longer to identify ‘common ground’ within feminism. In addition to the ‘core’ feminist traditions – liberal, socialist/Marxist and radical feminism – must now be added postmodern feminism, psychoanalytical feminism, black feminism, lesbian feminism and so on.


Marxist feminist Juliet Mitchell, in Woman’s Estate (1971) and Psychoanalysis and Feminism (1974), argues that female oppression in capitalist society is not just economic, but involves many aspects of psychology and culture that can and must be changed. Equality must therefore operate, for example, in terms of childcare and other domestic responsibilities, the control of one's own body, and sexual expression and fulfilment. Despite tensions between them, these egalitarian positions are united in viewing gender differences in a negative light.

Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice, published in 1982, gave attention to the concept of difference feminism. She wrote that men and women think and speak in different ways and argued that women’s voices and experiences had been ignored because they sounded so very distinct from men’s. She argued that she was not making moral judgement about the differences, but just acknowledging they were there. Difference feminists call for highlighting and valuing the differences between men and women, rather than encouraging women to deny their distinctiveness and seeking to be ‘like men’. They believe that, by celebrating women’s special and unique qualities, they will create a more female- oriented culture. They argue that traditional equality feminism has encouraged women to replicate men’s behaviour and deny their own nature, which only alienates women from themselves. Difference feminism seeks to encourage women to accept and respect their own female qualities, which are (at the very least) as important as men’s.


Some difference feminists go further, stressing the superiority of women’s cultural values – such as compassion and pacifism – believing that these will overcome masculine qualities of selfishness, violence and lack of self-control in sexual behaviour. Cultural feminism also challenges the dominant cultural argument that women are inferior and subservient to men. An extension of this view comes in the form of separatism and political lesbianism. Separatist feminism is not a unified view. Some separatists suggest that women should create permanent separate societies from men, while others suggest that women should, from time to time, create separate spaces and spend time without men in order to separate themselves from patriarchal society, allowing themselves to reconnect with their female values. Charlotte Bunch in Learning from Lesbian Separatism (1976) ‘in a male-supremacist society, heterosexuality is a political institution and the practice of separatism is a way to escape its domination’. This suggests that any relationship with a man is based on power and control, and the only equal relationship a woman can have is with another woman – so lesbianism is a political choice. Sheila Jeffreys was a proponent of this view and co-wrote Love your Enemy? in 1979. It is worth noting that difference feminism has been extremely controversial among other feminist groups. They argue that suggesting that women have a passive, nurturing, caring nature takes women back hundreds of years and undermines all the progress that the women’s movement has made.

6195408d054fb40012de7d14.mp3

MacKinnon on Patriarchy

Catharine MacKinnon’s Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (1989) challenges two dominant ways of thinking about politics: liberalism, which wants to protect us from the power of the state, and Marxism, which wants to liberate us through the power of the state. What if neither is good enough to emancipate women? Mackinnon explains why patriarchal power permeates all forms of modern politics. David Runciman

discusses what she thinks we can do about it.