Origins & Development
· While the term ‘feminist’ may be of recent origin, and indeed an organised women’s movement only in existence the last 200 years or so, feminist views can be traced back as far as ancient civilisations such as China and found in the political thought of such great thinkers as Plato in Ancient Greece. One major text that predates the rise of feminism is Christine de Pisan’s Book of the City of Ladies published in 1405, which aimed to provide a historical record of famous deeds & contribution to society by women.
· Despite this an organised movement did not take shape until the 19th Century, following the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), a text seen by some commentators as a rebuttal to Thomas Paine’s revolutionary pamphlet Rights of Man (1791) and like political liberalism, early feminism was a product of the Enlightenment. The primary goal of so called first-wave feminism was political and legal equality, but it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that the movement began to grow at a rapid pace. The aim, to secure women’s suffrage, was inspired by the increasing enfranchisement of working class men, which in Britain had been done by Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli who introduced the Second Reform Act (1867) in response to the demand for the vote to be extended to working class men by the growing and militant socialist & labour movements.
· Suffrage was the movement’s original aim because they believed that all forms of inequality would disappear if they were able to vote believing they would be able to elect more MPs who were supportive of their campaigns, a factor which had proved vital in winning previous victories such as the Divorce & Matrimonal Causes Act (1857) and the Custody of Children Act (1839,) the first meaning that divorce could occur through courts instead of Parliamentary Act ensuring it was less expensive and therefore more accessible for women to initiate, and the latter which extended custody rights to the mother, who previous had had no legal rights to their children in the event of divorce. Both of these Acts were early victories that helped improve the social position of women.
· The emerging movements were strongest where parliamentary democracies were already well established, largely because there was already a large middle class of educated women eager for more political and legal rights. The US’ women’s movement began at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, convened by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and inspired by the abolitionist movement that was growing and active at the time. At the Convention, they adopted the Declaration of Sentiments, a document that was deliberately modelled on the language of the US Declaration of Independence, and in its wake was formed the National Women’s Suffrage Association (1869).
· Following the growth of the movement in the ‘50s…