Feminism: The First Wave

Feminism: The First Wave "When Anthony Met Stanton" sculpture (2018)
National Women's History Museum

Feminism: The First Wave 2 Feminism Collage (1900 - 2017)
National Women’s History Museum

The "Waves" of Feminism

For generations, the feminist movement has forged ahead advocating for women's rights. Many scholars and activists assume that there are three distinct "waves" of feminism, with the “#MeToo Movement” marking a contemporary fourth wave. However, the history of the feminist movement is much more complex.

Feminism: The First Wave 3 College day in the picket line - 1917 National Women’s History Museum

The metaphor of “waves” representing the various surges of feminism began in 1968 when Martha Weinman Lear published an article in the New York Times called "The Second Feminist Wave." Lear's article connected the suffrage movement of the 19th century with the women's movements during the 1960s. This new terminology quickly spread and became the popular way to define feminism.

Although this metaphor of "feminist waves" is helpful for people to distinguish between different eras of women's activism, it is impossible to accurately pinpoint specific dates that started or ended each wave of feminism. In reality, each historical era was inspired by a long tradition of activism that transcended generational lines.

Feminism: The First Wave 4 Image Collage: Social Movements (1851 - 1897)
National Women’s History Museum

The Origins of the Movement

The first wave of the feminist movement is usually tied to the first formal Women’s Rights Convention that was held in 1848. However, first wave feminists were influenced by the collective activism of women in various other reform movements. In particular, feminists drew strategic and tactical insight from women participating in the French Revolution, the Temperance Movement, and the Abolitionist Movement.

Feminism: The First Wave 5 Women's March on Versailles (1789)
National Women’s History Museum

The French Revolution

“The French Revolution marked the beginnings of the organized participation of women in politics.” --Historian R.B. Rose in "Feminism, Women and the French Revolution." As the French Revolution began in 1789, women were frequently on the front lines advocating for their rights. Even though they were considered “passive citizens,” these women took an active role in the political climate of their country. On October 5, 1789, thousands of armed French women marched from markets in Paris to the Palace of Versailles. They demanded that the King address their economic concerns and the drastic food shortages happening across France. Unfortunately, their fight was far from over.

Feminism: The First Wave 6 Olympes De Gouges
National Women's History Museum

A few months prior, reformers were able to persuade the French National Constituent Assembly to adopt the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.” This document provided citizenship rights to various members of the population. Unfortunately, it still excluded women and other minority groups from citizenship. When this document became the preamble to the French Constitution in 1791, many women shifted their focus to gaining citizenship and equal rights.

One of these women, playwright Olympes de Gouges, wrote “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen” in 1791. Gouges’ declaration begins as follows: “Women are born free and are man's equal in law. Social distinctions can be founded solely on common utility.” Her statement also includes the various rights that both men and women should possess. This document and the collective activism of the women in the French Revolution became a source of inspiration for first wave feminists.

Feminism: The First Wave 7 Temperance (1540 - 1610)
National Women’s History Museum

The Temperance Movement

First wave feminists were also influenced by the widespread activism of women during the temperance movement. In the early nineteenth century, many United States citizens began to promote “moral reform.” In an effort to fight against immorality, the temperance movement developed in the 1820s to limit or prohibit the consumption of alcohol. For many middle-class white women who were deemed the “moral authorities of their households,” drinking was considered a threat to the stability of their homes. These women, along with male supporters of temperance, began to create cartoons, pamphlets, songs and speeches about the harms of alcohol usage.

Feminism: The First Wave 8 Temperance Illustrations (1835-1856)
National Women's History Museum

Temperance Illustrations: The Bible and temperance (top), The fruits of temperance (bottom), representing the benefits of an alcohol-free society.

Feminism: The First Wave 9 Women's Christian Temperance Union (1911)
National Women’s History Museum

By 1826, the American Society for the Promotion of Temperance (American Temperance Society) was formed in Boston, Massachusetts. The society quickly spread, with temperance activists starting local chapters all across the country. In addition, by 1831 there were over twenty-four women's organizations dedicated to the temperance movement. One of the notable groups that developed later in the movement was the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. Thousands of women from this organization marched into liquor stores and bars demanding that owners sign a pledge to stop selling alcoholic beverages. As these women advocated for temperance and the affairs of their homes, they also demanded to have an equal role in public activity.

“The temperance movement, in fact, gave women the opportunity to be engaged in public political life for the first time.” --Tara Isabella Burton in “The Feminist History of Prohibition”

Feminism: The First Wave 10 Enslaved Family (1862)
National Women’s History Museum

The Abolitionist Movement

As many of those women began to advocate for their political voice, women from different ethnicities and backgrounds were also fighting to have basic human rights. In the early nineteenth century, much of the African American population in the United States was enslaved. With the first group of enslaved Africans arriving in the early 1600s, African American men and women had been fighting for freedom and citizenship for centuries. Their collective activism was the foundation of the abolitionist movement that pushed for the end of slavery.

Feminism: The First Wave 11 Phillis Wheatley

African American women were central to early nineteenth century abolitionism. During the 1820s and 1830s, these women established social and literary organizations, as well as religious groups to challenge slavery and support their communities.

On February 12, 1821, two-hundred working–class African American women established the Daughters of Africa Society in Philadelphia. This society provided support to their members, and a weekly allowance of $1.50 when they were sick. Similarly, the Colored Female Free Produce Society was formed in 1831 to boycott the exploitation of enslaved labor by only selling items that were produced by free African Americans.

Several literary societies also formed during this time that were devoted to the “diffusion of knowledge and the suppression of vice and immorality.” The Female Literary Association, the Afric-American Female Intelligence Society, and the Colored Ladies Literary Society were all formed in the early 1830s.

Feminism: The First Wave 12 Am I Not A Woman And A Sister (1837)
National Women’s History Museum

In addition to their work establishing organizations, African American women went on extensive lecture tours across the country and published letters, poems, and slave narratives to fight for the abolition of slavery. Women like Maria Stewart, Jarena Lee, Sarah Louise Forten and Sarah Mapps Douglass all openly spoke out against slavery while advocating for women’s education, and citizenship rights.

Feminism: The First Wave 13 Colorized photo of Sojourner Truth
National Women’s History Museum

“If not all female abolitionists became women’s rights activists, pioneering feminists owed their public careers to abolition.”

--Historian Manisha Sinha in The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition

Feminism: The First Wave 14 Suffrage Collage (1850)
National Women’s History Museum

The Woman Question

Building on the activism of the women in these social movements, many upper and middle-class white women joined the abolitionist movement. Women like Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone and sisters Angelina and Sarah Moore Grimké joined various white anti-slavery organizations. However, these societies were dominated by men and they often did not allow women to speak publicly in front of male audiences. When women ignored these societal rules, they were mocked and scorned. For example, the Grimké sisters were ridiculed for their writings and the General Association of Congregational Ministers of Massachusetts wrote a public statement against them for giving speeches in front of men. Abolitionist women took matters into their own hands and convened the first Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women in New York City in 1837.

Feminism: The First Wave 15 Representative Women/Library of Congress (1870)
L. Schamer | National Women’s History Museum

As these women pursued reform, their collective disenfranchisement became even more apparent. In 1840, the first World Anti-Slavery Convention was held in London. Unfortunately, the organizers made it clear that only men could attend the meeting. Lucretia Mott attended anyway and was joined by several other women activists including Elizabeth Cady Stanton. After hours of debate, the male organizers decided that only men would be allowed to be speak and vote at the convention. The women were sent to the spectator’s gallery and were only allowed to watch and listen. After this meeting, Mott and Stanton decided to form a society and hold their own convention to advocate for women’s rights.

Feminism: The First Wave 16 Our Roll of Honor. Listing women and men who signed the Declaration of Sentiments
National Women’s History Museum

Eight years later, Mott, Stanton, and three-hundred other women held the first Women’s Rights Convention. This group of women and male supporters met in July of 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York. At this meeting, they discussed and voted on the “Declaration of Sentiments,” organized by Stanton. Closely resembling the “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen” written by Olympes de Gouges’ during the French Revolution, Stanton declared that “all men and women are created equal.”

The document also advocated for women’s education, right to property, and organizational leadership. One of the most controversial topics on the program was women’s suffrage. Although not everyone agreed, many of these women’s rights activists believed that their goals would be hard to accomplish without the right to vote. After the first convention, this group of women began meeting regularly, and the growing feminist movement started to shift to focus on achieving suffrage and political power.

Feminism: The First Wave 17 Elizabeth Stuyvesant (1914 - 1918)
National Women’s History Museum

For the next 70 years, the central goal of the feminist movement was for women to achieve the right to vote. Although they continued to participate in other social movements, many first wave feminists believed that suffrage was the key to unlocking other rights.

However, for other groups of women, the right to vote was not only tied to their gender, but it was also tied to their race and social class. As the movement progressed, the concerns of women of color were often overlooked by first wave feminists. Despite often being uninvited or excluded from fully participating in white organizations, women of color spoke out about facing not only sexism, but also racism, and classism.

Feminism: The First Wave 18 Mary Church Terrell (1920 - 1940)
National Women’s History Museum

“The first and real reason that our women began to use clubs as a means of improving their own condition and that of their race is that they are PROGRESSIVE.” --Mary Church Terrell, co-founder of the National Association of Colored Women

Feminism: The First Wave 19 Image Collage: African American Women
National Women’s History Museum

African American women advocated for women’s rights alongside their fight for freedom and the wellbeing of their communities. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was a founding member of the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) in 1869 alongside white abolitionist Lucy Stone and Frederick Douglass. Black women, like Sojourner Truth and Charlotte Forten, joined AWSA to promote universal suffrage. Forten’s aunts Harriet Forten Purvis and Margaretta Forten were also two of the “chief actors” to help organize the Fifth National Woman’s Rights Convention in Philadelphia.

However, African American women still faced discrimination and often had to join segregated suffrage associations. In 1876, Mary Ann Shadd Cary wrote a letter to the National Woman Suffrage Association on behalf of ninety-four black women requesting that their names be added as signers of Stanton’s “Declaration of Sentiments.” Unfortunately, the names of these women were never included.

On March 3, 1913, Stanton’s National American Woman Suffrage Association organized their first suffrage parade held in Washington, D.C. Even though they required that African American women march in the back of the parade, black women still participated in the event, including the founders of the National Association of Colored Women.

Feminism: The First Wave 20 Image Collage: Asian Women
National Women’s History Museum

Asian women also fought sexism, racism, and classism to advocate for their rights. The Page Act of 1875 banned Chinese women from immigrating to the United States, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prevented Chinese immigrants from attaining citizenship and voting rights. This did not stop Mabel Ping-Hua Lee from leading almost 10,000 people in the 1912 New York suffrage parade on horseback.

Two years later, she gave a speech at the Women’s Political Union’s Suffrage Shop encouraging the civic participation of Chinese women. Unfortunately, when women in the state of New York were granted the right to vote in 1917, the Chinese Exclusion Act still prevented Lee from voting. However, when women in California earned the right to vote in 1912, Tye Leung Schulze became the first Chinese woman to vote in the United States.

Women from the Philippines also advocated for their rights. In the 1900s, the Philippines was a colony of the United States, but these women could not vote in either location. In 1905, the Asociacion Feminista Filipina (Philippine Feminist Association) was founded to encourage the “participation of women in public affairs.” Some of the members met with First Lady Florence Harding at the White house in 1922.

Feminism: The First Wave 21 Image Collage: Latina Women
National Women’s History Museum

Latina women also fought for women’s rights while promoting social reform. In 1917, suffragist Adelina Otero-Warren was asked by the National Woman’s Party (Congressional Union) to lead their New Mexico chapter. Otero-Warren advocated that suffrage literature was published in both English and Spanish, so it was accessible to Latinx audiences. She was also instrumental in the ratification of the 19th Amendment in New Mexico, granting women the right to vote.

Luisa Capetillo used a grassroots approach instead as a labor advocate and writer to promote worker’s rights and education for women. In 1909 she published “Mi opinión sobre las libertades, derechos y deberes de la mujer” (My Opinion About the Rights, Liberties, and Responsibilities of Women) that became the first feminist thesis written in Puerto Rico. She also edited Puerto Rico’s first feminist newspaper “La mujer” (The Woman) founded by Ana Roqué de Duprey.

Duprey was also a well-known feminist and in 1917, she established the Puerto Rican Feminist League. Along with other members of this league, she also created the Suffragist Social League, the Puerto Rican Association of Suffragist Women, and the Island Association of Voting Women.

Feminism: The First Wave 22 Jeannette Rankin / Library of Congress (Aug 1, 1916)
Unknown | National Women’s History Museum

As these women of color and first wave feminists pursued their goals, they were able to accomplish many small victories towards women’s rights along the way. For example, in 1916, Jeannette Rankin became the first woman elected to the House of Representatives. That same year, Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the United States, even though New York state law prohibited the distribution of contraception. She later established the clinic that became Planned Parenthood. However, first wave feminists had to wait until August of 1920 to witness the ratification of the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote. Unfortunately, it would take much longer for women of color to be able to exercise their right to vote due to racial discrimination.

Feminism: The First Wave 23 [Hedwig Reicher as Columbia] in Suffrage Parade/Library of Congress (Mar 3, 1913) Bain News Service | National Women’s History Museum

The End of the First Wave

After the ratification of the 19th Amendment, the momentum of the first wave began to dwindle. For many, the 19th Amendment was the major legislative achievement they had been fighting for. However, other women continued to advocate for their rights within local organizations and special interest groups. Militant suffragist and National Woman's Party founder Alice Paul believed that the 19th Amendment was not enough to ensure women’s full equality. In 1923, she presented the Equal Rights Amendment to congress to solidify women’s constitutional rights. However, many other feminists opposed this legislation because it put women’s labor protections at risk. These ideological differences further separated feminists, as this chapter of the movement came to a close. The next sustained large-scale feminist surge would not be until the “second wave” in the 1960s.


Exhibit written and curated by Kerri Lee Alexander, NWHM Fellow 2018-2020

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