History of Feminism

Delainey Root, MVC writer

History.com defines feminism as “a belief in the political, economic and cultural equality of women.” Feminism has always been an extensively debated topic, but most people do not know the history behind the movement.

Feminism started out in “Republic,” a book written by the philosopher Plato. He explained that women had “national capacities” equal to men when it came to defending and governing ancient Greece. In the same time frame, the women of ancient Rome staged protests against the Oppian Law. This law stated that women could not own more than half an ounce of gold. Marcus Porcius Cata responded to the protests, saying, “As soon as they begin to be your equals, they will have become your superiors!” Despite protests, the law was eventually removed. 

In the 15th century, Christine de Pizan wrote “The Book of the City of Ladies.” In this book, Pizan protested the Middle Ages’ role of women. Later in the Enlightenment, female writers such as Margaret Cavendish and Mary Wollstonecraft wrote about rights for women. 

Another big move for feminism was the ideas of first lady Abigail Adams. Wife of 2nd President John Adams, she thought that education, property and female suffrage were all necessary for women’s equality. Adams even told her husband in letters that the women would eventually start a rebellion and would not follow laws. 

At the Seneca Fall Convention in 1848, feminism was becoming a bit more than an idea. Abolitionists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lecretia Mott fought for women’s rights to vote during this convention. Many attendees of the convention thought that the argument was completely off-topic to the discussion of abolitionism; however, they were swayed when Frederick Douglass, an influential abolitionist speaker, said that he could not accept the right to vote if women could not vote as well. 

Starting in 1893, women slowly started to gain the right to vote. The first nation to give women the right to vote, also called sufferage, was New Zealand. In 1902, Australia allowed female suffrage, followed by Finland in 1906. In 1918, the United Kingdom granted suffrage to women over 30. In the US, women gained a lot of respect due to their participation in World War I, but were still not allowed the right to vote until 1920, with the passing of the 19th constitutional amendment. 

Following the Great Depression, women were becoming much more commonly seen in the workforce. In World War II, many women were very active in industries that were previously only open to men due to all the men being off at war. Characters like Rosie the Riveter, who represented the women who worked in factories and shipyards during World War II, became incredibly popular feminist icons. 

After the Civil Right Movement, women sought more participation in the workplace and equal pay. The first attempt to solve this problem was when the Equal Pay Act of 1962 was passed to combat women getting paid less for the same work for the same amount of time as men. 

In 1963, Betty Friedan published the book “The Feminine Mystique.” She also later co-founded the National Organization for Women. She explained that she felt women were still expected to take main roles in homemaking and taking care of the children. Many people had also started referring to it as “women’s liberation” instead of feminism. In 1971, Bella Abzurg and Gloria Steinem joined Betty Friedan in founding the National Women’s Political Caucus. Steinem made Ms. Magazine, which was the first magazine to feature feminism as a subject on the cover. 

In 1972, Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment. This amendment sought legal equality for women and banned discrimination based on the sex of an individual. In the following year, feminists celebrated the passing of Roe v. Wade. 

Many critics argued that all the previous feminist movements after women’s suffrage were limited to white, college-educated women and neglected women of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants and religious minorities. However, current feminism looks to make sure all women are treated equally, no matter what. 

By the 2010s, feminists began pointing out cases of sexual assault as proof that there was still work to be done about misogyny. The #MeToo movement gained momentum in October 2017, after the New York Times published an expose of the sexual harassment allegation made against Harvey Weinstein. Many women felt inspired by the movement and came forward with allegations about other powerful men who they previously had felt too scared of to speak up. 

Today, feminism is still going strong. Protests and women’s marches have only continued to grow; especially after the overturning of Roe v. Wade in 2022. Feminism has had a long history, and does not appear to be coming to a halt anytime soon.