What is feminism? Arguably for most, the meaning of feminism is still dependent on the eyes of the beholder. Different sides are contributing their voices to both the feminist movement and the opposition of such movement. However, many are still unaware of the history, notably the different waves of feminism and how each wave contributes to a new definition of women’s empowerment. This article however will explain the beginning of the feminism movement, dating back to the 19th century.
The Cult of Domesticity
During the Victorian era, women were branded to be the face of the culture of domesticity (also known as the culture of true womanhood), which places the value of women in the home and family. This positions women to submit to their partners because a woman’s identity was dependent on her husband’s. By this understanding, women were not suited for hard labour, politics and the competitive economy, and they had little to no influence in the public sphere. Yet still, women were not completely docile within their homes.
During this period, wives cooked, cleaned, did the laundry, sewed, took care of the children and oversaw numerous other labours within the household. This role also emphasizes the influence of women in the economy, despite them not being allowed to enter the competitive economy sphere. Women in households would often manage farm and garden products that would be sold in the market. However, industrialization would change the productive household economy into a consumptive one, and middle-class women would often find themselves in leisure since most productions are now adjudicated to factory systems.
But, the culture of true womanhood was only for the privileged white women in the middle to upper social class. The label of true womanhood didn’t shelter African-American women from their enslaved labour. The label of true womanhood also did not protect the women from working-class households, who would offer their services as street vendors, tavern keepers, garment workers, and prostitutes among other occupations.
Still, the cult of domesticity restricts women’s participation in society—which ideologies were also challenged throughout the first wave of feminism.
The Right to Vote
The first wave of feminism focused on their fight to obtain the right to vote which is related to ‘suffrage’. It was understood that the right to vote was linked to property ownership and citizenship. The fact that women in this time had their rights to own property becomes the reason that women should be able to have the autonomy to vote.
The suffragette movement commenced both in America and England. The American suffragette movement escalated from the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. All the participants gathered in Seneca Falls were invited by Elizabeth C. Stanton and Lucretia Mott. This meeting would conclude that women should be allowed their autonomy who deserve to be heard politically. The movement in America engage women organizing local and state campaigns, as well as lobbying with politicians—these acts were most prominent after the Civil War, around 1876 after the Reconstruction ended. Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, and Utah were the first places where women were allowed their right to vote. This was followed by the formation of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) in 1869 to press claims for state and federal women’s suffrage amendments which was granted in 1920.
In England, the start of the suffragette movement began in 1866 with the petition for Parliament to allow women to vote which had gathered 1500 signatures. However, the bill was declined and from this point on, parliamentary bills were presented annually from 1870 onwards to fight for suffrage. These petitions were able to gain media coverage and public awareness and raised participation from more women. At this time, petitions were also a tool used to directly confront male politicians. However, this act bore no fruit and the British suffragette took arms and started the suffragette militancy. By 1918, English women won limited suffrage and by 1928, that the majority of English women established their right to vote.
Challenging the Cult of Domesticity
The suffragette movement also challenged the cult of domesticity. The Suffragette militancy in England publicly contested the idea of true womanhood and the conventional conception of women’s role. With this fight for their autonomy, women no longer wanted to submit under the law of domesticity and wanted a bigger and much more impactful role in society. Murray and Wollstonecraft were perhaps the faces of this fight against true womanhood which portrayed women in a different light.
In America, Judith Sargent Murray writes in her essay titled ‘On the Equality of the Sexes’ about the sexual double standard that is imposed on women. In this regard, Murray argues that women and men should have equal opportunities for education, intellectualism, and spiritualism to provide a strong backbone for the household and their offspring. On the other side of the world, English-woman Mary Wollstonecraft writes ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ which shares a similar sentiment that highlights the powerlessness of women in politics and their homes.
Wollstonecraft specifically wrote her book to inspire a revolution in female manners. Her thirteen chaptered book outlines how women are owed their political autonomy as it is related to their citizenship and rights of property. Her second chapter discusses how women were stripped of their independence and highlighted how women were suggested to remain as virtual slaves at home by society. Following these discussions, Wollstonecraft highlights how women should be allowed reason and common sense and how these values should be implemented since early development—elaborating that modesty should not be the same as humility. Wollstonecraft also states that women should have their right to financial independence and women’s participation in the public sphere.
I attribute [the issues highlighted in the book] to a false system of education, gathered from the books written on this subject by men, who, considering females rather as women than human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than affectionate wives and rational mothers.Mary Wollstonecraft
Thus, the first wave of feminism has concluded. With the win over their right to suffrage, women of this time were able to write the first chapter in women’s history. It should be acknowledged that during this era, feminism was also in association with the abolitionist movement, supporting the right to suffrage for all races. However, we should remember that this history is centered on the Western sphere that follows Western ideologies. A further and more comprehensive discussion needs to be held regarding the development of feminism in Eastern philosophy.
On that note, the act of feminism did not stop there. The waves that come following this movement represents the ideals of women within each period and the struggles they face. Thus, this article will be followed with other writings to elucidate the second and third feminist waves respectively. Stay tuned!
1866 Suffrage petition. (2021). Parliament.uk. https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/electionsvoting/womenvote/parliamentary-collections/1866-suffrage-petition/
Fehlbaum, A. (2016). Cult of Domesticity. Encyclopedia of Family Studies, 1–4. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119085621.wbefs032
History.com Editors. (2009, October 29). Women’s Suffrage. HISTORY; HISTORY. https://www.history.com/topics/womens-history/the-fight-for-womens-suffrage
MacKethan, L., & Prof. Emerita. (2011, June 10). The Cult of Domesticity – America in Class – resources for history & literature teachers from the National Humanities Center. America in Class. https://americainclass.org/the-cult-of-domesticity/
Murray, J. S. (1790). On the Equality of the Sexes.
Rampton, M. (2015, October 25). Four Waves of Feminism. Pacific University. https://www.pacificu.edu/magazine/four-waves-feminism
The British Library. (2018). Women’s suffrage timeline. The British Library. https://www.bl.uk/votes-for-women/articles/womens-suffrage-timeline
Wollstonecraft, M. (1792). A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: With Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects.