Feminism, a belief in the political, economic and cultural equality of women, has roots in the earliest eras of human civilization. In his classic Republic, Plato advocated that women possess “natural capacities” equal to men for governing and defending ancient Greece.
But many disagreed with the philosopher’s views. When the women of ancient Rome staged a massive protest over the Oppian Law, which restricted women’s access to gold and other goods, Roman consul Marcus Porcius Cato argued, “As soon as they begin to be your equals, they will have become your superiors!” (Despite Cato’s fears, the law was repealed.)
In The Book of the City of Ladies, 15th-century writer Christine de Pizan protested misogyny and the role of women in the Middle Ages. Years later, during the Enlightenment, writers and philosophers like Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, argued vigorously for greater equality for women.
Many of the feminists of the era specifically noted access to education, property and the ballot as critical to women’s equality. In letters to her husband John Adams, Abigail Adams warned, “If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice.”
The “Rebellion” that Adams threatened began in the 19th century, as calls for greater freedom for women joined with voices demanding the end of slavery. Indeed, many women leaders of the abolitionist movement found an unsettling irony in advocating for African Americans rights that they themselves could not enjoy.
At the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, abolitionists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott boldly proclaimed in their now-famous Declaration of Sentiments that “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal.” Controversially, the feminists demanded “their sacred right to the elective franchise,” or the right to vote.
Many attendees thought voting rights for women were beyond the pale, but were swayed when Frederick Douglass argued that he could not accept the right to vote as a black man if women could not also claim that right. When the resolution passed, the women’s suffrage movement began in earnest, and dominated much of feminism for several decades.
Slowly, suffragettes began to claim some successes: In 1893, New Zealand became the first sovereign state giving women the right to vote, followed by Australia in 1902 and Finland in 1906. In a limited victory, the United Kingdom granted suffrage to women over 30 in 1918.
In the United States, women’s participation in World War I proved to many that they were deserving of equal representation, and in 1920, with the passage of the 19th Amendment, American women finally earned the right to vote.
With these rights secured, feminists embarked on what some scholars refer to as the “second wave” of feminism. Following World War II, in which many women actively participated (making Rosie the Riveter a feminist icon), and the civil rights movement, women sought greater participation in the workplace, with equal pay at the forefront of their efforts. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 was among the first efforts to confront this still-relevant issue.
But cultural obstacles remained, and with the 1963 publication of The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan—who later co-founded the National Organization for Women—argued that women were still relegated to unfulfilling roles in homemaking and child care. By this time, many people had started referring to feminism as “women’s liberation.”
The Equal Rights Amendment, which sought legal equality for women and banned discrimination on the basis of sex, was passed by Congress in 1972 (but, following a conservative backlash, was never ratified by enough states to become law). One year later, feminists celebrated the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that guaranteed a woman’s right to choose an abortion.
Critics have argued that the benefits of the feminist movement are largely limited to white, college-educated women, and that feminism has failed to address the concerns of women of color, lesbians, immigrants and religious minorities. Even in the 19th century, Sojourner Truth lamented racial distinctions in women’s status by demanding “Ain’t I a Woman?” in her stirring speech before the 1851 Ohio Women’s Rights Convention.
More recently, feminists have pointed to prominent cases of sexual assault and “rape culture” as emblematic of the work still to be done in combating misogyny and ensuring women have equal rights. The #MeToo movement and women’s marches have provided feminists with a high-profile platforms for advocating on behalf of full rights for all women worldwide.
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