What was the First Wave Feminist Movement?

Figure 1. Mary Wollstonecraft arguably was one of the first modern writers advocating for feminist causes.

While there is no clear consensus as to when 'first wave' feminism occurred, most accept that in the 19th century, as industrialization progressed, 1st Wave feminism emerged. The term itself was only coined in 1968 by Martha Lear, who also coined the term Second Wave Feminism. There is also a Third Wave Feminist Movement that began in the 1990s. First Wave feminism focused on what we now consider basic issues of inequality in light of more recent developments.

What were the Origins of the First Wave Feminist Movement?

Although feminism can be argued to have its roots in many ancient periods, modern feminism begins around the late 17th and 18th centuries, during the Enlightenment in Europe. One of the early feminists was Mary Wollstonecraft, who mostly wrote in the late 18th century (Figure 1). She was heavily influenced by Rousseau and French political thinkers who began to advocate that societies, and individuals specifically, should have rights that the state provides. Individual rights, separate from teaching from the church, began to become a key focus for philosophers during this period. Individual liberty, as argued, was to be upheld by the state. Similarly, English philosophers, such as John Locke living earlier, had taken up similar ideas.

However, philosophers and writers often ignored women and Wollstonecraft was among the first to call for gender equality. She believed reason and education should be the foundation of social order that included equality for women. Her books (A Vindication of the Rights of Women, published in 1792, and Maria, or the Wrongs of Women, published in 1798, were controversial in their day but also demonstrated her ideas. She saw the lack of focus in educating women as making them appear less informed as men in society. Although we see her views as largely expected and normal today, for over a century her writings and influence were minimized or even avoided by later feminists due to the morals of the day. She had at least two highly publicized affairs that produced at least one child out of wedlock and was explicit about her sexuality. The focus on her behavior, rather than ideas, unfortunately, diminished her influence in the early 19th century as feminists ideas increasingly emerged.[1]

When was the Birth of the Social Reform Movement?

Figure 2. The suffrage movement and suffragettes helped create momentum for the right to vote for women.

In the United States, early 19th century women emerged advocating emancipation for slaves, temperance, and greater freedom for women compared to men. These campaigns were a direct outgrowth of the Second Great Awakening. The Second Great Awakening in the United States (1790-1830) was a religious revival that not only brought in new converts to Christianity, but it inspired female reformers in the United States.

The leaders of this Christian movement argued that people had control over their lives and salvation in opposition to views of the existing Calvinist churches. As part of this movement, women were encouraged to build new churches and push for moral reforms in the United States. Fairly quickly women became moral advocates, while most women joined the Temperance Movement others were attracted to the abolition of slavery and expanding rights for women.

The Seneca Convention, in 1844, was the first organized convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women. This was led by Quakers, who were also leading abolitionists. Prominent women that began to emerge from this convention and its later offshoots included Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and, among the most well know, Susan Brownell Anthony. Interestingly, many early congresses calling for the emancipation of slaves often shunned women or gave them secondary roles.

One key obstacle was many had interpreted their faith to stand against slavery, but at the same time, they saw or interpreted that God created the sexes differently. In effect, women were not equals to men concerning rights. This contradiction, therefore, became an obstacle for early feminists working within the abolitionist movements.[2]

Elizabeth Stanton and Susan Anthony, after the Civil War and in 1868, began to focus on creating a platform for women to rally around. They created a newspaper called The Revolution. This publication helped to rally support for what they saw was one of the first great obstacles to greater freedom, which was the right to vote. In effect, this helped to launch the suffrage movement in the United States. Other countries also, at about the same time or even earlier in some cases, began to have women organizations calling for greater female rights and literature advocating voting for women. This movement included Scottish activist Marion Reid, who collaborated with American feminists and began to see that greater interest in the ideals of a virtuous woman in Victorian Britain creating a repressive standard for women.[3]

While some women, such as Barbara Leigh Smith, focused on employment and education for women as critical areas to focus on, others saw other goals as more of a key focus. Increasingly, more feminists began to see that obtaining voting rights was perhaps among the most important steps before other rights could be secured. Throughout the 19th century, Biblical interpretation of women's role in the house and family prevented their ability to advance feminist ideals. To counteract the power of the church's or some religious interpretation of sex-based hierarchy, Stanton produced an influential work called The Woman's Bible, written in 1895. Although it was much maligned by Biblical scholars, Stanton tried to argue for equality using the Bible. This helped to provide some religious justification, at least for some, for emerging feminism in the period.

Furthermore, the National Woman Suffrage Association, already established by 1869, became a prominent organization advocating for woman suffrage, which took more radical approaches, such as rejecting the 15th Amendment unless it included woman suffrage. The other significant movement was American Woman Suffrage Association, which advocated for state by stat campaigning to achieve suffrage. There was a full split among feminists regarding the approach. However, in the late 19th century it became clear that having rival groups weakened the suffrage movement. In 1890, the two groups merged and formed the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).[4]

In 1869, John Allen Campbell, the first Governor of Wyoming, granted women the right to vote, making Wyoming the first territory or state women had specific laws that expressed their rights to vote. The National Woman's Party emerged in 1916 as another suffrage organization, which broke from the NAWSA, which had focused only on states rather than any federal laws. They held high profile protests in front of the White House during World War I, as they saw targeting the federal government as the most expedient way to gain the right to vote. Although their protests were often ignored, arguably effort by women during the war, mostly in replacing men in factories, helped many to see that women did have equal skills to men. This helped to persuade, along with the feminist organizations, many in Congress that women should have the right to vote.

Congress passed the 19th Amendment in 1919, and enough states ratified the amendment by 1920, making the right for women to vote legal in the United States in 1920. While the process itself was contentious, often with hunger strikes and even mob violence, sometimes by both sides in the argument, there continued to be problems in the 1920s. Some regions tried to argue the 19th Amendment was unconstitutional and tried to bar women from holding office or voting. Nevertheless, with the gradual acceptance of women as voters, what can be considered the First Wave of feminism had culminated in achieving a major success for women (Figure 2).[5]

Why was First Wave Movement a World Movement?

While there has been much focus on feminists in the United States, feminists movements had also developed in various periods, most notably after the 18th century, in many countries. Southern Australia was among the first places women could vote, wherein in 1895 the right to vote was achieved by women there. Catherine Spence was a prominent figure who had campaigned for the vote.[6]

In Denmark, they had already achieved not only voting rights but equal rights laws that protected a woman's access to education, work, and marital rights during the 1920s. In effect, they had begun to move to topics that only were more fully addressed by second-wave feminists in other countries by the 1960s. In Iran, at the time of the Seneca Falls convention, in 1848, a religious movement, called Babism, represented a view that God wanted women to be equal to men and had been among the earliest religious movements in the Islamic regions of the Middle East to advocate the removal of veils and greater freedom for women. The movement helped eventually start Bahaism, a religious idea that sought unity among many religions and also advocated greater roles and equality for women.

Although these movements have largely been suppressed, it helped to launch or influence feminist ideas in non-Western regions. In Russia and China, the rise of socialist and eventually Communism helped to create greater feminist equality. Although women did gain the right to vote and were considered equal to men in Soviet society, at least by party ideals, voting was restricted to the Communist party. Women, however, gained rights in other areas that Western women could only dream about for many decades. This included generous maternity leave, free childcare, abortion rights, and generally had greater access to higher education. Some of these have yet to be achieved in the West. However, by the later half of the 20th century, women did not make as many gains in holding political power or even high-level job roles in the Soviet Union.[7]

In the UK, women gained the right to vote in 1918, although their rights were not fully equal to men until 1928. The suffragettes were often notorious for their militancy in trying to achieve their goals. Perhaps the most prominent agitator was Sylvia Pankhurst, a famous socialist who helped campaign for women equality and many other causes she considered part of social injustice. By the 1910s, society in the UK had also increasingly saw that it was natural to have women be given the right to vote. The UK also had other restrictive laws, such as prohibition from wealthy women from controlling their property, that was not fully removed until the late 1890s. In the 1850s, divorce became an issue that was moved to the civil courts rather than requiring the Church to be responsible for.[8]

What was the Significance of the First Wave Feminist Movement?

First wave feminism was instrumental in giving women basic rights such as to vote and even administer their property. World War II and the recovery period that saw men retaking many of their old jobs, in some ways, slowed down the feminist movement. However, by the 1960s the political climate in the West began to change and accept more liberal ideals. While first wave feminists achieved their key goals, it was evident in countries such as the UK and the US that equality in voting did not translate to equality in the workplace or aspects of social acceptance such as marriage.

Communist states emerged as early countries that embraced more equality, but in the West, this took time as social norms began to change in the context of major wars and increasingly greater roles women played in society, both in a civil and political sense. Nevertheless, the key foundation for second wave feminism required the rights earned by first wave feminists, mainly in giving women political power through the vote.


First wave feminism was critical in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in giving women the right to vote and basic rights such as property. While the roots of this feminism are not clear, new movements from the Enlightenment and industrialization began to focus on female rights and individuality. The 19th century was a time where people questioned basic rights and who had access to them. It emerged that both sexes, as well as different races, should have basic given rights such as emancipation, rights to vote, and rights to own property, even though the battles for equality continued into the 20th century. Achieving the right to vote was generally seen as the major achievement for first-wave feminists.


  1. For more on Wollstonecraft, see: Taylor, B. (2003). Mary Wollstonecraft and the feminist imagination. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York: Cambridge University Press.
  2. For early 19th century feminists and the Seneca Convention, see: Roediger, D. R., Blatt, M. H., & Lowell Conference on Industrial History (Eds.). (1999). The Meaning of slavery in the North. New York: Garland Pub.
  3. For more on Stanton and Anthony, see: Stanton, E. C., Gordon, A. D., & Anthony, S. B. (1997). The selected papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press.
  4. For more on emerging suffrage movements in the late 19th century, see: Tetrault, L. (2014). The myth of Seneca Falls: memory and the women’s suffrage movement, 1848-1898. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.
  5. For more on the late 19th century and early 20th-century path for women in gaining the right to vote, see: Smith, K. M. (1994). New paths to power: American women, 1890-1920 New York: Oxford University Press.
  6. For more on Australia's struggle for the right to vote for women, see: Oldfield, A. (1992). Woman suffrage in Australia: a gift or a struggle? Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.
  7. For more on these feminist movements, see: Boles, J. K., & Hoeveler, D. L. (2004). Historical dictionary of feminism (2nd ed). Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press.
  8. For more on the suffragettes and suffrage movement in the UK, see: Pankhurst, E. S. (2015). SUFFRAGETTE: the history of the women’s militant suffrage movement. Dover Children's.

Updated December 9, 2020