First Wave Feminism

The historical development of feminism (especially in Britain and the USA) is commonly divided into several key periods, some characterised by a relative absence of feminist thought and mobilisation, and others by the sustained growth both of feminist criticism and of activism with a high public profile . The apparent pattern of rise and fall of feminism over time has led to the ‘wave’ analogy; the peaks and troughs of the feminist movement are characterised as following the motion of tidal water, with its ongoing cycle of gradual swelling, eventual cresting and final subsiding. The wave analogy developed along with the resurgence of feminism in the 1960s, which had been immediately preceded by a period of relative dormancy. A distinction was drawn between the resurgent feminism dating from the 1960s and an earlier period of similarly prolific, highprofile feminist analyses and political activism. The earlier period (dating from at least the mid to late nineteenth century up until about the 1920s), became ‘first wave’ feminism. In turn, the resurgent feminist analyses and activism dating from the 1960s became ‘second wave’ feminism.

In broad historical terms, the period of first wave feminism may be dated to include pre-nineteenth-century expressions of concern about the rights of women. In particular, the French Revolution of 1789 is often identified as the arena in which the first concerted demands for women’s rights were made. Moreover, it was an important influence on Mary Wollstonecraft, whose Vindication of the Rights of Women, published in Britain in 1792, is widely recognised as the first substantial and systematic feminist treatise. However, first wave feminism (in Britain and the USA) is most often dated as occurring between c.1880s and the 1920s. It had as its principal concern women’s attainment of equality with men and therefore feminist analyses and campaigning centred around securing legislational change. Sylvia Walby (1990) is not alone in her view that the first wave feminist movement in Britain was of central importance in bringing about a change from ‘private’ to ‘public’ patriarchy, via the struggle for the vote, for access to education and the professions, to have legal rights of property ownership, rights in marriage and divorce and so on.

In Britain, the origins of first wave feminism lay in the widespread social and economic changes of industrialisation, one aspect of which was the extension of constitutional rights to wider sections of the (male) population. ‘The most significant feminist statements of the period [1750–1850] were direct responses to new legislation granting men rights which were not being extended to women’ (Barbara Caine 1997: 11). In Britain, the 1840s saw the spread of feminist ideas among middle-class women and feminism as an organised movement first emerged in the mid-1850s, centred around a small group of women based in London (‘the Langham Place group’; see Olive Banks 1981). This early feminism was concerned with the education and employment rights of women and with improving the legal rights of married women. The question of suffrage (or the right to vote) came to prominence in the mid-1860s, particularly after John Stuart Mill’s attempt to get women included under the provisions of the 1867 Reform Act. Banks (1981) identifies two other main strands of first wave feminism, in addition to this long-standing tradition of ‘equal rights’ feminism. ‘Evangelical’ feminism developed out of religious evangelical movements. Its adherents sought to protect and morally reform those less fortunate than themselves, such as workingclass women, ‘fallen’ women, children and the poor. The other main strand of feminism identified by Banks is ‘socialist feminism’. Randall (1982) describes as ‘social feminism’ the branch of nineteenth-century feminism concerned with social and legal reform, and gives as an example Josephine Butler’s campaign against the Contagious Diseases Act. Although less influential than either evangelical feminism or equal rights feminism, this was (according to Banks) the most wholeheartedly feminist of the three traditions: it questioned current forms of marriage and the family and advocated the collectivisation of child care and housework (see also Dyhouse 1989).

By the early twentieth century, the question of the suffrage was the predominant concern and it was the issue on which public campaigning activity was focused. The issue of the vote, seen as the key to placing the equality of women on the legislational agenda, united almost all feminists into a single campaign. There emerged, however, a fundamental difference of opinion over tactics. The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies was formed in 1897, with Millicent Garrett Fawcettas the President, and consisted of mainly well-connected middle-class women. In 1903, the Emmeline Pankhurstset up a separate organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union, which employed more militant tactics. Thousands of suffragettes were imprisoned; many went on hunger strike and were subjected to force feeding. The outbreak of World War One in 1914 put an end to the militant activities of the suffragettes and further diversified the women’s movement, since some of its leaders supported the war while others followed a pacifist line (Alberti 1989). The war itself is generally thought to have broken down many traditionally held views about women, following their being drawn into the labour force as replacements for the absent men. The ending of the war brought expectations for change in many spheres of life and in 1918, the Representation of the People Act widened suffrage to include all men over 21 and women over 30 who were householders, or the wives of householders or had been to university.

British first wave feminism did not focus exclusively on the suffrage question (see Dyhouse 1989; Ryan 1978) but its importance as an issue is apparent from the effect it had on the women’s movement in the post- First World War period. For example, Banks has argued that the struggle for the vote bestowed a façade of unity upon the women’s movement and in doing so, ‘disguised the differences between them that were to become all too evident in the years after the vote had been achieved’ (1981: 116). Kent (1988) describes the posture of the feminist movement during and after the First World War as ‘defensive’, a sharp contrast to the confidence and assertiveness which it had displayed in the pre-war era. Kent argues that at least two developments contributed to the decline of feminism as a mass movement in the inter-war years. First, the rise of anti-feminism in Britain, which focused on women and work and was concerned with ‘persuading’ women that they should give up their war jobs and return to their traditional roles. Second, the ideological and institutional divisions within the ranks of organised feminism itself. Following the partial granting of the vote to women in 1918, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies underwent reorganisation. It changed its name to the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC), and under the leadership of Eleanor Rathbone, it shifted its priorities and embodied the belief that the equality of women with men had been achieved. Feminists could now turn to the needs of women as women and thus issues such as family allowance or endowment, birth control and protective legislation were on the agenda. The ‘new feminist’ demands thus centred on the role of women in the home and their roles as mothers. Such priorities were an anathema to traditional ‘egalitarian’ or‘equal rights’ feminists, who wanted women to broaden their horizons and look beyond the home. They opposed all protective legislation, including maternity leave, on principle (Lewis 1980).

The issue of protective legislation finally split the first wave women’s movement, largely along class lines, with middle-class feminists opposing protective legislation and working class feminists supporting it (Banks 1981). By the end of the 1920s, equal rights feminists were no longer dominant within the women’s movement. However, throughout the 1920s, the NUSEC acted with the Women’s Freedom League and the Six Point Group to ensure that women’s issues were constantly brought to the attention of Parliament. They continued to fight for equal suffrage, and also for the equal guardianship of children, the opening of the legal profession to women, equal pay, equal standards of morality, and a widow’s pension plan (Banks 1981: 163–4). In the context of the 1930s, a decade of depression and unemployment and concerns over a declining population, it was the ‘new feminism’ that gained pre-eminence, with its emphasis on women’s maternal role and the contribution this enabled them to make to social welfare (Randall 1982; Lewis 1980). This divergence of the two feminisms in the 1920s and 1930s marks the ‘subsiding’ of the first wave in Britain.

This account of developments in late nineteenth- and early twentieth century British feminism suggests that the analogy between the action of waves and the rise and fall of feminism has its uses. It draws attention to the trough and peak, and further trough, of feminist thought and active during this period. However, the wave analogy should not be used uncritically. It can lead to attention being overly focused on the ‘crest’ of the wave, on the periods of successful growth and mass activity, at the expense of the recognition due to important feminist analyses, feminist activists and real achievements that occurred both before and after the first wave, and before the onset of the second wave in the 1960s (Spender 1983). Further, the wave analogy may encourage an understanding that the cycle of rise and fall of feminism is, for whatever reason, an inevitable and unbreakable one (Code 2000).

Source: Fifty Key Concepts in Gender Studies Jane Pilcher and Imelda Whelehan Sage Publications, 2004.


A first-hand account of British feminism of the first wave is given by Strachey (1978 [1928]), whilst Liddington and Norris’ (1978) account has the benefit of a longer historical perspective. Bolt (1995) looks at first wave feminism in England and the USA, while international developments in first wave feminism are covered in volumes edited by Daley and Nolan (1994) and Sarah (1982).

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