The Early History of Feminism

Updated on March 10, 2020
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The struggle for equality between men and women has been a long one, and it’s far from over. While women in the Western world enjoy equal rights, they still receive pay for the same work that is less than that men receive. They are also still frequently subjected to sexual harassment and domestic violence. Women are far more likely than men to live in poverty. While feminism has raised the awareness of inequality between men and women, it has yet to sweep aside all the old patriarchal attitudes.


A Long-Standing Issue

Since ancient times, women have been pushed into a secondary role. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, who lived 2,300 years ago, gave his opinion that, “The relation of male to female is naturally that of superior to inferior, of the ruling to the ruled. This general principle must similarly hold good of all human beings generally.”

While some women rose to positions of great power (Cleopatra, Elizabeth I of England, and Catherine the Great of Russia spring to mind), Aristotle’s sexist view pretty much dominated for two thousand years.

Aristotle. Perhaps, it's only the female pigeons that have expressed their opinion.
Aristotle. Perhaps, it's only the female pigeons that have expressed their opinion. | Source

The First Feminists

A few voices were raised in opposition to Aristotle's sexism. Some experts say the poet Sappho of Lesbos (c. 630 – c. 570 BCE) dealt with feminist themes although most of her work has now been lost.

In the 12th century, Hildegard von Bingen was a German Benedictine abbess who some historians regard as a feminist because she campaigned fearlessly for better rights for her sisters in orders.

Christine de Pizan was a late medieval writer whose 1405 Book of the City of Ladies argued that women should be accorded a highly valued position in society. She also called for the education of women.

Of course, her arguments fell on deaf ears and the struggle for equality fell dormant until the 18th century.

Sappho of Lesbos.
Sappho of Lesbos. | Source

The Birth of Feminism

So, the attitude of Aristotle marched virtually undiluted through two millennia. Then, along came Jeremy Bentham.

The liberal English philosopher wrote in 1781 that women existed in a condition of virtual slavery. Miriam Williford (Journal of the History of Ideas, 1975) notes that Bentham “argued for almost total emancipation―for a political freedom that would allow women to vote and to participate as equals in the legislative and executive branches of government.”

He also said women should have the right to seek a divorce and that the double standard in sexual matters was outmoded and in need of banishment.

A few years later, a French nobleman with the magnificent name of Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet agreed with Bentham.

In 1790, he published a pamphlet entitled On the Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship, in which he argued that the Declaration of the Rights of Man, passed the year before by the French National Assembly, should apply equally to both sexes. Olympe de Gouges expressed a similar view.

Mary Woolstonecraft

In England, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97), was writing about the need for the emancipation of women. In 1792, she produced a book-length essay entitled Vindication of the Rights of Women. She argued that women were not naturally inferior to men and that it was simply lack of an education that held them back from displaying complete equality.

At the time she wrote, women in Britain had no rights to own property or to enter into legal contracts. As far as education was concerned, females were all-but banned from learning anything of an academic nature. Women were seen as delicate creatures that, in Wollstonecraft’s view, were put on a pedestal that was inside a prison.

In her 2006 book, Feminism: A Very Short Introduction, Professor Margaret Walters states that Wollstonecraft’s book was the cornerstone of feminism. Not everybody agreed.

Her radical views did not go down well with the establishment. The writer Horace Walpole summed up the prevailing male judgement that Mary Wollstonecraft was “a hyena in petticoats.”

Mary Woolstonecraft.
Mary Woolstonecraft. | Source

Support for Mary Wollstonecraft

Another Brit, this time a man, took up Wollstonecraft’s ideas and pushed them a little further along. John Stuart Mill wrote The Subjection of Women in 1869 in which he contended, as Jeremy Bentham had, that women were essentially slaves who should be freed and accorded equality with men, including the right to vote.

Meanwhile, in the United States, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her friend Susan Anthony began campaigning for equal rights for women. Their work in the second half of the 19th century sprang from the abolition of slavery movement.

The Slow Path to Voting

While Woolstonecraft, Stanton, and Anthony pressed for equal rights very little of any consequence happened in their lives. It was left to later feminists to stand on their shoulders and drag men, kicking and screaming in protest, to an acknowledgement of equality.

New Zealand became the first country to grant the vote to women in 1893.

Other major nations took their time: Canada (1919), United States (1920), and the United Kingdom (1928). Women in many developed countries had to wait longer: France (1944), Argentina (1947), Japan (1947), Switzerland (1971).

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia granted women the right to vote in September 2011. However, the act of voting in an absolute monarchy is completely meaningless.

Bonus Factoids

  • Historians divide the history of feminism into four waves. The first wave was from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries and focussed on getting the right to vote. The second wave was from the 1960s and 1990s and pushed for economic and reproductive rights. The third wave worked for gender equality but also campaigned for social justice for all oppressed groups. A fourth wave has emerged since 2012 and this is using social media to raise issues such as sexual harassment and violence against women. One of its leaders, Prudence Chamberlain, says it’s based on “incredulity that certain attitudes can still exist.”
  • In the late 1960s, beauty pageants such as Miss America became the focus of feminist attacks. In New York a group called Redstockings showed their displeasure about the objectification of women’s bodies. They held a counter-pageant and crowned a sheep as Miss America. Then, they tossed girdles, bras, false eyelashes, and all the other paraphernalia of adornments for male pleasure into a trashcan. Of course, they were mocked by people who didn’t grasp the symbolism of the rejection of the artifacts of oppression.



  • “Justice: A Reader.” Michael J. Sandel, Oxford University Press, USA, 2007.
  • “The History of Feminism.” Edward N. Zalta (editor) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  • “Bentham on the Rights of Women.” Miriam Williford, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 36, No. 1, Jan. - Mar., 1975.
  • “Feminism: A Very Short Introduction.” Margaret Walters, Oxford University Press, USA, 2006.
  • “Four Waves of Feminism.” Matha Rampton, Pacific University Oregon, October 25, 2015.

© 2018 Rupert Taylor


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    • Miebakagh57 profile image

      Miebakagh Fiberesima 

      21 months ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

      Hello Rupert, no wonder, many women are still championing for women's right. Driven by men especially in the third world for political relevance. I don't think the women can still attain the height the men folks reach due to their feminine status. Thank you.


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