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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.

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