History of Feminism in the U.S.: 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 depicted 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.


To see more anti-woman’s suffrage propaganda, check out “Posters That Warned Against the Horrors of a World with Women’s Rights.”


6 thoughts on “History of Feminism in the U.S.: The First Wave

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