Gender Identity, Essentialism, and Social Contructivism

Ever wondered what might happen if parents tried to raise a child without a prescribed gender identity?

Watch the story of Baby Storm on NBC Today.

A Feminist Political Party? Sweden’s Feminist Initiative Changes the Conversation

Can you imagine living in a country where you could vote for a feminist candidate or support a feminist party? You can in Sweden.

Over the last few years, Sweden’s Feminist Initiative party has gained increased support as many citizens have pushed back against the racist and sexist remarks and scandals of the country’s center-right party currently in power in Parliament. Read the short article at Ms. magazine.

Sweden's Feminist Initiative Party

Sweden’s Feminist Initiative Party

Racial Profiling: Reading Race, Gender, and Representations of Criminality

Just as being able to read someone’s gender clearly reassures us that we will know what kind of behavior to expect (and what our own behavior should be) , we have expectations of what someone’s behavior should be based on their race as well.


So both race and gender shape our social interactions according to our expectations of how others should behave based on their “role.” For example, watch how individuals in a public park react to three different actors in the same situation in the following social experiment:

Here’s a similar experiment on racial profiling involving an African-American woman in an upscale boutique. Notice that in this scenario, they also dress the woman up and down to change how others might read not just her race but her class as well:


In their essay on racial formations in the U.S., Michael Omi and Howard Winant discuss the importance of the media in both shaping and disseminating racial caricatures:

“Film and television…have been notorious in disseminating images of racial minorities which establish for audiences what people from these groups look like, how they behave, and ‘who they are.’ The power of the media lies not only in their ability to reflect the dominant ideology, but in their capacity to shape that ideology in the first place [...This] has led to the perpetuation of racial caricatures, as racial stereotypes serve as shorthand for scriptwriters, directors, and actors” (17).

These caricatures have serious real-life consequences for people of color. As the author of “White Privilege Radically Changes Appearance of Tsarnaev Brothers” points out, recent portrayals of Muslims in the media since 9/11 reinforce “the current dehumanizing ‘Other’ label that whiteness has constructed as a sanctioned target for violence in US popular culture” (emphasis mine).

Consider how the decision to lighten or darken the skin color of the following two celebrities makes an argument about who is “othered”:

In 1994, former football running back O.J. Simpson made headlines after a dramatic police chase. Simpson was arrested and accused of murdering his wife Nicole Simpson, and the trial was widely televised. He was eventually acquitted of the murder charges, but opinions about his innocence or guilt divided the public for years. Compare the representation of Simpson on these two covers.

In 1994, former football running back O.J. Simpson made headlines after a dramatic police chase. Simpson was arrested and accused of murdering his wife Nicole Simpson, and the trial was widely televised. He was eventually acquitted of the murder charges, but opinions about his innocence or guilt divided the public for years. Compare the representation of Simpson on these two covers.

On the other hand, consider how often the complexion of Black performers and models are often lightened:

A photograph of Beyonce (left) compared to the representation of her in L'Oreal's advertising campaign for Feria hair color.

A photograph of Beyonce (left) compared to the representation of her in L’Oreal’s advertising campaign for Feria hair color (right).

Debate erupted about whether Rihanna had been airbrushed to appear whiter on the November 2011 cover of British Vogue magazine.

Debate erupted about whether Rihanna had been airbrushed to appear whiter on the November 2011 cover of British Vogue magazine.

What Privilege Sounds Like


This viral video, which inspired an array of spin-offs, makes fun of what unacknowledged privilege sounds like to someone who doesn’t have the same privilege.

Okay, let’s define “privilege.” In her article “White Privilege and Male Privilege,” Peggy McIntosh describes privilege as “an invisible package of unearned assets that [we] can count on cashing in each day, but about which [we were] ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks.” Basically, having privilege gives us an unfair advantage; how much privilege we enjoy might change according to context, but some of us have more privilege than others. How aware we are of that privilege is another story.

So why is it important to think about privilege?

In Michael Kimmel’s lecture “Mars, Venus, or Planet Earth,” he notes that  the moment he first understood what privilege was and that he had it as a white man. We’re often taught to see racism sexism, etc. as something the creates disadvantage for others, and so we focus on their oppression; however, the other side of that coin is the work of privilege, which requires another group’s oppression. We cannot change one without changing the other.


Do you recognize any of the statements from “Derailing for Dummies”? Chances are someone has said some version of these to you in your lifetime. Or perhaps you’ve relied on some of them yourself without thinking.

The problems with derailing comments aren’t that they “hurt others’ feelings” or that they “offend someone” or that they’re not “politically incorrect.” The problem with derailing comments is that they reinforce a power dynamic in a given conversation that allows one person to assert his or her privilege in a way that automatically dismisses or devalues the other person’s ideas or experiences, and/or shuts down any chance for actual dialogue and human growth – for both parties.

Some of the time, we use derailing comments to deflect our own feelings of guilt or discomfort with the fact that we have privilege. That is, we may want to deny the knowledge of another’s oppression because it inevitably raises questions about our own advantages – and where exactly they come from.

So how do we turn knee-jerk derailment into compassionate listening and the potential for creative change? And how do we move beyond simply feeling guilty, which is often paralyzing, when we are called out for saying something sexist or racist or otherwise insensitive or ignorant? Guilt is unproductive: “as long as any difference between us means one of us must be inferior, then the recognition of any difference must be fraught with guilt” (Lorde 118).



Feminism’s Third Wave: New Tactics, Old Lineages


“[w]hen has it ever been a good idea to trust a master narrative?” – Lisa Jervis

What we call third wave feminism (the wave we are theoretically still riding) began in the late 1990s (though some say inklings began as early as the 1980s) and is sometimes framed as: 1) a response to the shortcomings of second wave feminism; or 2) as a generational feminism (i.e., the daughters of second wavers now turned activists in their own right). There is some truth to both of these, but these are often overly simplistic and problematic ways to think of the third wave.

Let’s turn to the Third Wave Foundation and a quote from Rebecca Walker’s (the daughter of African American writer and feminist Alice Walker) foundational article in Ms. Magazine:

“So I write this as a plea to all women, especially women of my generation: Let Thomas’ confirmation* serve to remind you, as it did me, that the fight is far from over. Let this dismissal of a woman’s experience move you to anger. Turn that outrage into political power. Do not vote for them unless they work for us. Do not have sex with them, do not break bread with them, do not nurture them if they don’t prioritize our freedom to control our bodies and our lives. I am not a post-feminist feminist. I am the Third Wave.”

– Rebecca Walker

(*In 1991, Anita Hill, an African American attorney and professor, alleged that then-Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas, had sexually harassed her when he was her supervisor at the U.S. Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Despite these allegations, Thomas was appointed to the Supreme Court anyway. The “dismissal of a woman’s experience” that Walker here refers to is the dismissal of Anita Hill’s testimony. However, Hill’s public testimony focused national attention on issues of workplace sexual harassment for the first time.)


Third wave has exploded how we think of feminism and its goals, how we collaborate and define ourselves as feminists – particularly as young feminists – how we approach activism, and how and where we publish, debate, and organize as feminists around the globe. While second wavers grew up with John F. Kennedy, the Civil Rights movement, and the Vietnam War, third wavers have grown up amidst almost constant armed conflict, the Internet, hip hop, and punk.

Third Wave Feminism:

  • Continues to challenge essentialism: the argument that by virtune of one’s biological sex, one also possesses certain inherent characteristics or tendencies often associated with that sex (e.g., weakness or kindness in women; aggression in men); and the assumption that there is a universal female identity around which we can (or need to) create solidarity.
  • Sees all binaries (black vs. white, male vs. female, good vs. bad) as artificial social constructs that limit possibility, not as just “the way things are.”
  • Has worked to reclaim negative terms (e.g., cunt or bitch) and change the context of such language rather than censoring it. For example, the feminist publication Bitch magazine.
  • Recognizes greater diversity through intersections of gender, race and ethnicity, sexuality, and class (thanks to the work of second wavers like bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Maxine Hong Kingston, Gloria Anzaldua, and others).
  • Is transnational, forging intellectual, artistic, and activist links with women around the globe.
  • Has given rise to Third World Feminisms and increasing dialogues among women about what feminism looks like around the globe (and how women around the globe can help one another).
  • Embraces sex positivity; that is, sees sexual identity and sexual expression as a positive aspect of one’s life; argues for a broader definition of sex and more complex analyses of the relationship between oppression and empowerment where sex is involved (e.g., in relationships, but also in pornography, sex work, etc.).
  • Has opened new fields of study and dialogue like queer theory* (the study of queer identities, which includes bisexual, transsexual and transgender, gay and lesbian identities); post-colonial theory (the study of colonized or previously colonized peoples and cultures, e.g., Native Americans or Filipinos or the Irish, etc., and intersections of imperialism and militarism with gender, race, and class oppression); and masculinity studies.
  • Embraces technology and uses blogs and other social media to dialogue, publish, and organize around the world.

*Note: “queer” is still a controversial term and not everyone in gay and lesbian communities embraces it.


Third wave feminism has sought to bring attention to and change an even broader range of issues than the second wave, who built the foundation on which these contemporary activists have expanded, which include tackling:

  • Gender-based violence (intimate partner abuse, rape, “femicide,” as well as violence against those in gay, lesbian, and transgender communities).
  • Reproductive rights: access to adequate healthcare, contraception, safe and legal abortion, and information about choices regarding sexual health, family planning, and sexual pleasure.
  • Negative images of women in pop culture and media, including in music, art, film, and advertising.
  • Increasingly unrealistic (and unhealthy) expectations regarding weight and beauty (e.g., issues like body image, cosmetic surgery, dieting, eating disorders, etc.).
  • The glass ceiling, maternity (and parental) leave policies, and childcare and support for single parents in the workplace and through public policy.
  • Both domestic and global labor practices, including the feminization of poverty, sweat shops, unionizing, and liveable wage.


Eve Ensler & The Vagina Monologues

In the 1990s, Eve Ensler interviewed countless women for what became The Vagina Monologues, a play still performed all over the world and linked with V-Day activism (V for Valentine’s Day, but also for vagina appreciation or celebration day, and for ending violence against women). Ensler originally performed the play solo off-broadway and it was an instant hit. The monologues chronicle individual women’s stories about everything from their first periods and pubic hair to war-time rape and lesbian sex work to giving birth.  Here is Eve Ensler performing one of the funnier monologues, “My Angry Vagina”:

The Radical Cheerleaders

Turning a traditionally feminine, sideline activity in pro-woman feminist activism. A Chicago group of the national phenomenon Radical Cheerleaders performs one of their pro-girl cheers. For more cheers, visit Radical Cheerleaders.

Women Artists Unite: The Guerilla Girls

The Guerilla Girls formed in response to an exhibition of global artists at the famed MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) in New York, a show which had only 13 women (and even fewer artists of color) out of 169 artists invited. The curator stated that any artist who had not been included in the show should rethink his [sic] career. Guerilla Girls challenge racism and sexism in the art world. All of the activists are anonymous, donning gorilla masks during their exhibitions and protests and assuming the names of famous female artists (like Frida Kahlo). Here is one of their posters, displayed on sandwich boards and carried around during one of their protests in Shanghai in China:

A Guerilla Girls poster challenging the place of women artists in the art world.

A Guerilla Girls poster challenging the place of women artists in the art world.

Women in Music: Riot Grrrls

The Riot Grrrl movement took off in the 1990s and embraced a punk, DIY (do it yourself), and anti-capitalist/anti-corporate philosophy. Riot Grrrls advocated to help women artists gain and maintain control over their voices and their artistic expression in music and visual art and generated countless underground zines. They also focused a great deal on the issues and needs of adolescent girls. All-girl punk bands like Bikini Kill (below) were part of the Riot Grrrl movement.

Protest Movements: Slutwalk

A more recent phenomenon, which showed up on Purdue’s campus last fall in the form of FACT’s Clothes (are) Not Consent Walk, is Slutwalk. Now an international phenomenon, the first SlutWalk was held in Toronto in April 2011 in response to a police officer who stated that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order to not be victimized.” Women marched through the city dressed like “sluts” to challenge this tired blame-the-victim rhetoric. On Purdue’s campus, both men and women participated.

A photo from the first Slutwalk in Toronto, April 2011.

A photo from the first Slutwalk in Toronto, Canada, April 2011.


  • 1981: Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua publish the book This Bridge Called My Back, an edited collection of feminist writings by women of color exploring intersections of gender and race.
  • 1990: philosopher Judith Butler publishes Gender Trouble, a challenging text challenging the notion that women need an essential feminine or universal “woman” identity on which to build feminist solidarity.
  • 199os: four women were elected to the U.S. Senate (and joined two already there); the second woman was appointed to the Supreme Court (Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who joined Sandra Day O;Connor); we elected the first female Attorney General and the first female Secretary of State; and we saw the first First Lady (Hillary Clinton) to have her own independent political, legal, activist, and public service career.
  • 1991: Anita Hill accuses Clarence Thomas (a Supreme Court nominee) of sexual harassment at work, bringing the issue into the public eye and sparking conversations about gender and race in the workplace.
  • 1991: the Senate votes overwhelmingly to open combat positions for women aviators.
  • 1991: Feminist writer and activist Naomi Wolf publishes The Beauty Myth, arguing that the booming beauty industry served to reinforce impossible standards as a form of social (and economic) oppression for women.
  • 1992: Rebecca Walker (daughter of author Alice Walker) and Shannon Liss start the Third Wave Direct Action Corporation and commence the Freedom Rides to register voters in poor communities, focusing especially on women.
  • 1994: Violence Against Women Act becomes law (allotting funds for the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women).
  • 1996: The Vagina Monologues premiers in New York, starting a movement.
  • 1996: the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the male-only admissions policy of the state-supported Virginia Military Institute violates the Fourteenth Amendment (it was on of the last strong-holds).
  • 2004: the March for Women’s Lives was held in Washington, D.C., to support the right to abortion, access to birth control, scientifically accurate sex education, and information regarding sexual health, and to show public support for mothers and children.


Our New Congress

As of this past November, the 113th U.S. Congress now has record numbers of women and minorities.

The House now has 81 women while the new Senate includes 20 women. There will be 44 African Americans in the House and one in the Senate. We voted in nine new Latino members, making it the largest Latino class in history (28 House seats and three Senate seats). We also elected the first openly gay senator, Democrat Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, and the first openly bisexual representative, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. We swore in our first disabled member of Congress, Ladda Tammy Duckworth, to the U.S. House of Representatives; Duckworth was also the first female double-amputee in the Iraq War, sustaining her wounds while serving as a U.S. Army helicopter pilot. We also have more religious diversity in our Congress, with two Buddhists, a Hindu, and several Muslims.

For the first time ever, white men will be a minority among House Democrats. Thank the ongoing efforts of activists for such diversity.

113th US Congress

Feminism’s Second Wave


The 1930s in America was a time of unprecedented policy and social reform and is often called The Progressive Era. Women’s social and political activism continued throughout this period. Even the first lady Eleanor Roosevelt set an example. During the New Deal, she was a key figure in advocating the appointment of women to positions within the administration.

However, America also saw a new emphasis on domesticity after World-War II. Thousands of women had entered the workplace in the 1940s to take over jobs that were left unfilled when many men enlisted. The women who stepped into these jobs were often making munitions and supporting the war effort. While the government actively recruited these women to take on such work in order to support the war effort, they did not do so out of a sudden interest in gender equality and they had no interest in permanently changing women’s economic roles; their entry was seen as a temporary and necessary solution. (If war often creates unusual opportunities for women to transcend or escape traditional gender norms, its climate and aftermath can just as easily work to reinforce a reliance on such roles. Consider our traditional war narratives: men fighting bravely on the frontlines, women “protected” on the homefront.)

"Rosie the Riveter," first published in 1942, remains a cultural icon and is often seen as a symbol of women's economic empowerment.

“Rosie the Riveter,” first published in 1942, remains a cultural icon and is often seen as a symbol of women’s economic empowerment, especially among working class feminists.

When American soldiers returned after WWII, women were almost uniformly fired and forced out of the jobs they had learned and worked at for years in order to give these jobs “back” to men returning from military service (and not necessarily the same men who had held them before the war). Women were expected to return to their private sphere and their duties of domestic chores and child-raising – and to do so without complaint – but the opportunity to be part of the labor force left an impression and a desire to be an equal part of the national work force.

Second wave feminism was a reaction to this post-war obsession with the ideal of the contented housewife and suburban domesticity, a lifestyle that often isolated women and severely limited their choices and opportunities.

This 1960s-era ad from Hoover draws on the ubiquitous image of the "happy" housewife Betty Friedan discusses in "The Problem That Has No Name" from her famous book The Feminine Mystique.

This 1960s-era ad from Hoover draws on the ubiquitous image of the “happy” housewife Betty Friedan discusses in “The Problem That Has No Name” from her famous book The Feminine Mystique.

The popular television show Mad Men and its characters may be fiction, but its portrayal of sexism and racism in the 1960s workplace is especially powerful. Below is a clip of Joan Holloway (the office manager/head secretary at the Madison Avenue advertising agency Sterling-Cooper) showing new secretary Peggy Olson the ropes on her first day at the office. Notice that Joan’s advice to Peggy has largely to do with how to please the men in the office, not how to further her own career or fulfill her own ambitions.


Feminism’s second wave began in the early 1960s; Betty Friedan is often credited with starting this wave of the feminist movement with the publication of her book The Feminine Mystique in 1963. Friedan herself was influenced by the French feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir and her book The Second Sex (1949), which argues against psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s claim that “anatomy is destiny”; that is, the belief that one’s biological sex automatically determines one’s role in society.

For the first time, the government, led by President John F. Kennedy, also issued the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women (chaired by former first lady and activist Eleanor Roosevelt), which concluded that women did experience discrimination in American life (visibility!).

In addition, radical feminist activist Robin Morgan and the members of the organization New York Radical Women protested the Miss America Pageant in 1968, which made headlines across the country.

Feminists protest outside the 1968 Miss American Pageant, comparing the national pastime of judging women’s bodies to judging livestock.

Women hold protest signs at the 1968 Miss America Pageant.

When the movement began, it was first called Women’s Liberation (or, derogatorily, Women’s Lib) and its participants were sometimes referred to patronizingly as Women’s Libbers or, later, bra burners. (Contrary to popular belief, second wave feminist activists did not protest patriarchy by burning their bras.)


In general, the second wave and their activist efforts focused not just on legal barriers to civil equality, as the first wave had largely done, but also examined social inequalities. Second wave feminists:

  • Spanned the period between the 1960s and roughly the late 1980s.
  • Focused on discussing and changing a broad range of pubic and private injustices, including: discriminatory laws and policies, sexuality and sexual identity; marriage and child-rearing; workplace environment; reproductive rights; and violence against women (rape and battering).
  • Questioned the very structures of power (e.g., government, labor, education, and religion) that continued to perpetuate legal and social inequalities for both women and people of color.
  • Were more conscious of parallels between sexism and racism (what we now call ” intersectionality”).
  • Were often simultaneously active in the Civil Rights Movement. Some activists also collaborated on behalf of gay rights.
  • Were also often involved in the Peace Movement, taking part in “Ban the Bomb” protests and opposing nuclear power, militarism and imperialism, and the Vietnam War.
  • Formed local, state, and federal government groups on behalf of women as well as many independent organizations that fought for women’s, and human, rights – meaning human rights and women’s social and civil equality were now becoming a growing part of the country’s political agenda.
  • Sought to create new, more fully human and positive images of women in both pop culture and the media to fight the negative images and messages so commonly in circulation (e.g., the image of Friedan’s “happy housewife”).
  • Created their own pop culture, including music, art, writing, and film to expand the “single stories” previously heard about women and minorities.

Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” (1971) is still considered something of a Feminist anthem:



  • Submission of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to Congress. It was narrowly defeated, and in only three states, by an anti-ERA faction led by Phyllis Schlafly, who argued that passage of the amendment would mean women would be drafted into the military. (Presently, only 21 states have an ERA in their state constitutions.)
  • 1960: FDA approves the oral contraceptive pill for women.
  • 1963: Equal Pay Act.
  • 1966: Betty Friedan founds the National Organization for Women (NOW).
  • 1967: full Affirmative Action rights for women.
  • 1968: Coretta Scott King (Dr. Martin Luther King’s wife and fellow activist) assumes leadership of the African-American Civil Rights movement and expands the movement’s platform to include women’s rights.
  • 1968: Shirley Chisholm, first African-American woman elected to Congress, on Democratic ticket (she would later run for the party’s nomination for president in 1972).
  • 1970: Title X, ensuring access to healthcare and family planning.
  • 1970: Lutheran Church allows women to be ordained.
  • 1970: Labor giant AFL-CIO discusses the status of women in labor unions.
  • 1972: first Women’s Studies program in the U.S. (San Diego State).
  • 1972: passage of Title IX, ensuring equal funding for women’s opportunities in education (e.g., scholarships and sports teams).
  • 1972: Gloria Steinem founds Ms. Magazine (still in print today…adn online!).
  • 1973: Roe v. Wade, the landmark case ensuring women’s access to safe and legal abortion.
  • 1974: Equal Credit Opportunity Act.
  • 1975: Military academies admit women.
  • 1978: Pregnancy Discrimination Act.


 The Feminist Movement in the U.S. worked increasingly to collaborate with African-American women and other feminists of color, as well as lesbians and gays. However, feminists were sometimes divided on issues like abortion, the role or use of pornography, and other issues surrounding sexual identity (e.g., the role of trans women in lesbian communities, or the role of lesbian women in the Feminist Movement). For example, even though Betty Friedan was largely credited with sparking the second wave, she was also notorious for coining the phrase “The Lavender Menace” to describe lesbians within the movement.


Beginning in the 1980s, heated debates, sometimes referred to as the “Sex Wars,” pitted anti-pornography feminists  against sex-positive feminists. Anti-porn feminists like writer Andrea Dworkin linked violence against women to the ubiquity of pornography and other images of male sexual domination of women, and pushed for limitations on porn. Feminists who identified themselves as sex-positive feminists argued that sex work (e.g., prostitution, stripping, pron stars, etc.) should be seen, and thus regulated as, economic labor, and that such work was not automatically degrading to women but may even be empowering at times. A great example of this is Julia Query’s documentary Live Nude Girls UNITE!, which follows the successful efforts of a group of exotic dancers to unionize the strip club at which they work. (It’s streaming on Netflix.)

Note: While the term Sex Wars implies that there are two clear-cut sides to these debates, the reality of feminists’ diverse viewpoints on these matters are in reality much more complex and no so tidily divided into warring sides. In fact, our culture’s default binary thinking (either/or, male/female, white/black…or describing everything as a war between two opposing sides) is a kind of thinking that feminists often critique as one root of problematic power relations (e.g., us vs. them) that fuel inequality and oppression.

History of Feminism: The First Wave


Feminists and Women’s Studies scholars often refer to feminism’s “three waves,” particularly in America and Great Britain. This metaphor was first introduced in the 1970s as a way for second wave feminists of the 1960s and 70s to acknowledge their activist foremothers, women like Alice Paul, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Ida B. Wells, Lucretia Mott, and others from the 19th and early 20th centuries, and to denote strong “peaks” in feminist activism and protest in history. The first wave of feminist movement in America is often referred to as the Suffrage Movement and early feminist activists as suffragettes, because much of their activism focused on gaining the right to vote (i.e., suffrage) for women.

However, some feminists criticize the wave metaphor because it leaves out the ongoing activism of women throughout history, including women’s efforts to challenge the institutions and practices of patriarchy in the many centuries preceding the 1800s. It’s also rather ethnocentric, since these “waves” don’t take into account feminist activism outside the western world. In fact, they make it seem as though feminism and women’s activism began in the west when it did not.

The term “feminist” wasn’t coined until the late 1800s, in France (feminisme). The word wasn’t introduced to the U.S. until the early 1900s and was not used popularly until the beginning of the U.S. women’s movement in the 1960s, or the beginning of the second wave. Early feminists were more likely to identify themselves as suffragists.


Suffragettes hanging posters advocating women's right to vote.

Suffragettes hanging posters advocating women’s right to vote.

A suffragette with a poster challenging President Woodrow Wilson's hypocrisy (c. 1913) in being alarmed at the Germans' lack of freedom while overlooking women citizens' lack of freedom in his own country.

A suffragette with a poster challenging President Woodrow Wilson’s hypocrisy (c. 1913) in being alarmed at the Germans’ lack of freedom while overlooking women citizens’ lack of freedom in his own country.


 “[Y]our Declaration of Independence declares, that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. And as women have never consented to, been represented in, or been recognized by this government, it is evident that in justice no allegiance can be claimed from them …”

-From the letter penned by 44 married New York women who petitioned the Assembly in March 1848 to pass the state’s Married Women’s Property Act.

To put the time period in perspective, consider that at the time of first wave feminism, women were legally prevented from:

  • owning property
  • executing wills or signing legal documents
  • serving on juries (even if the defendent was a woman)
  • voting in elections (or even local meetings)
  • refusing to have sex with their husbands
  • attending university (or depending on race, class, and region, attending school at all)
  • having legal custody of their children (both wives and children were legally owned by husbands)
  • divorcing their husbands

Think of first wave feminism not as the beginning of women fighting for equality, but as the beginnings of an organized, nation-wide movement advocating women’s rights in the western world, including the United Kingdom, Canada, and the U.S. Members of organizations like the American Women’s Suffrage Association (AWSA ) focused solely on one issue: gaining the right to vote state-by-state as a precursor to gaining a federal amendment granting women the right to vote. Other organizations like the National Women’s Suffrage Association (NWSA) had broader goals for greater social equality and were considered more radical.

 Characteristics of The First Wave:

  • Spanned the early 19th through the early 20th centuries (1800s through early 1900s).
  • Focused on women gaining civil rights, or rights as full citizens, including the right to vote (suffrage), equal access to education and health care, and the right to enter and practice in the professions; that is, the right to enter and shape the public sphere.
  • Sought to articulate women’s public (legal) and private (in the home) oppression and make such oppression visible; and questioned the arguments that God and nature justified such inequality.
  • Grew out of and was often linked with the abolition movement, the fight against slavery.
  • Was heavily influenced by the Religious Society of Friends, or the Quakers, who believed in egalitarian relationships between husbands and wives, but also by Christian charity (pity for the “less fortunate”).
  • Employed mostly moderate activist tactics (e.g., using available political channels like signing petitions, lobbying, etc.), but sometimes more radical activism (e.g., hunger striking and picketing), as portrayed in the film Iron-Jawed Angels.
  • Was aided in some ways by the onset of World War I, when many women went to work outside the home for the first time (though they were limited to factory and domestic labor).


1913 March for Women’s Suffrage

Force Feeding Suffragists in the Work House (feat. Hilary Swank as Suffragist Alice Paul)

 Landmark First Wave Moments:

  • 1833: first co-educational university in U.S. (Oberlin).
  • 1848: Seneca Falls Convention in Seneca Falls, NY, the first women’s rights convention, organized by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, with others.
  • 1854, Florence Nightingale establishes female nurses as adjuncts to the military.
  • 1851: Sojourner Truth delivers her famous speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, OH, bringing race into the conversation.
  • 1855: first co-ed public or state university (Univ. of Iowa).
  • 1860: New York’s revised Married Women’s Property Act (allows women shared ownership of children and a say in their wills and wages; allows women to inherit property).
  • 1892: Investigative African-American journalist and activist Ida B. Wells  (a freed slave) publishes and lectures from her book Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.
  • 1896: Wells founds the National Association of Colored Women and the National Afro-American Council.
  • 1913: (In)famous March for Women’s Suffrage in Washington, organized by Alice Paul; often considered the moment when the fight for women’s rights was desegregated. (Portrayed in the movie Iron-Jawed Angels.)
  • 1915: American Medical Association begins to admit women.
  • 1916: Margaret Sanger opens the first birth control clinic in the U.S. (led to her arrest); opened the first clinic with all-female staff and the first clinic in Harlem staffed entirely by African-Americans.
  • 1918: Marie Stopes publishes Married Love, more popular than works by both Einstein and Freud at the time, in which she argues for the importance of women’s sexual desire (unthinkable at the time).
  • 1920: 19th Amendment passed in U.S. (gives women the right to vote).
  • 1921: Sanger, who coined the term “birth control,” forms the American Birth Control League (later called Planned Parenthood).

Overall, first wave feminism saw many women, state-by-state, gain control over their wages, property, and inheritances and finally have a say in their wills, and acquire trade licenses and enter professions, including medicine and law, gain access to higher education, and, finally, to vote in elections. But it’s important to remember that this affected only some women.

Problems and Limitations:

While it made unprecedented strides in gaining women legal rights and a foothold in the public sphere, first wave feminism was not without its limitations. First, reform often granted married women more rights than single women, or even widowed women. Second, although many suffragettes were also abolitionists, Black women (and “foreigners,” or immigrants) and men were sometimes ignored or denied participation in meetings and demonstrations, and arguments of whether or not African-Americans should be granted the right to vote (before or even after) white women was a divisive issue in the movement. Overall, most prominent feminists tended to be white, middle- and upper-class women with leisure time and some education. Finally, first wave feminists often based their arguments on the belief the because women were mothers, they were “naturally” more nurturing, kind, and moral, and would therefore make better leaders and politicians than men because of this virtue.


From the beginning of women’s fight for equal rights, female activists and suffragettes were often portrayed negatively in posters and other print media that sought to discredit their efforts and arguments. They were often depiected as unattractive with large teeth and shrill voices, sometimes wielding a threatening umbrella – or, on the other hand, as completely ineffectual and weak. Some images even advocated violent or inhuman punishment of such women.

An early 20th century poster arguing against women's entry into the public professions, implying that their (more important) work of taking care of the children and the home will suffer. Note the expression on the husband's face.

An early 20th century poster arguing against women’s entry into the public professions, implying that their (more important) work of taking care of the children and the home will suffer. Note the expression on the husband’s face.

A British postcard depicting noted activist Emmeline Pankhurst. Notice how the poster interprets the suffragette's arguments as emasculation.

A British postcard depicting noted activist Emmeline Pankhurst. Notice how the poster interprets the suffragette’s arguments as emasculation.

Another British anti-suffragette postcard, using a pun on the word "plain" to describe both their ideas and their looks.

Another British anti-suffragette postcard, using a pun on the word “plain” to describe both the ideas and the looks of these female activists.

Another postcard "humorously" depicting a violent punishment for a suffragette.

Another postcard “humorously” depicting a violent punishment for any suffragette. Notice she is still portrayed as “witch-like,” with snaggly teeth and hair.