Since the earliest days of human civilization, women have suffered a great deal from unfair and unjustified social structures. Feminism today stands on the shoulders of the giants before it, taking up a mantle as old as humanity itself. The banner of equality has a proud history indeed. To see this, let’s take a ride through the annals of the past—so we can understand the paths of the present. Here are the most badass moments in the history of feminism.
The struggles of feminism are old. Though many people reserve the term ‘feminism’ for the concrete movements from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, the fight to advance women’s rights predates the so-called first-wave feminism of the 1900s by thousands of years.
There’s been some societies over time which have developed social and political systems more or less equal than others. Take Spartans, for example. Ancient Sparta was a source of fascination for their contemporaries in many ways, not least because Spartan women enjoyed far more rights and privileges than anywhere else in ancient Greece. It was said that the strongest warriors are born of the strongest women, so both genders were expected to eat as much as each other, as well as partake on the same rigorous training programs. Though equality was not absolute, Spartan women were allowed to own property, and were required to have the same level of education as the men.
From ancient philosophy
Around that time, over 24 centuries ago, Plato, the great Greek philosopher, was already arguing for the complete political and sexual equality of women in his most famous text, The Republic. Plato’s teacher, Socrates, was supposed to have been the disciple Diotima of Mantinea, a prophetess and philosopher whose views about love and philosophy play a big role in The Symposium, Platos’s arguably most beautiful dialogue. Her ideas are the root of the celebrated notion of “Platonic love.”
Many scholars now agree that Diotima was an actual person, a woman of great intelligence who influenced Socrates and showed both him and Plato how women were as apt at philosophy as men, which explains why Plato would advocate for women’s equality.
The Middle Ages and slightly after
Fast forward several centuries up to the Middle Ages to find Christine de Pizan (1364-1430s), an Italian-French writer and author of The Book of the City of Ladies. In that book, de Pizan combats her time’s misogynist prejudices and argues that women are valuable participants, rather than mere passive members, of society. She also advocates for women’s education. According to prominent feminist Simone de Beauvoir, de Pizan was the first woman to denounce misogyny and to question the status quo of the two genders.
More writers who defended women’s rights sprung up across the world at the time, including Italy’s Modesta di Pozzo di Forzi and Germany’s Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa in the 16th century, as well as England’s Hanna Woolley, Mexico’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, France’s Marie Le Jars de Gournay, and America’s Anne Bradstreet in the 17th century.
But the world of arts and literature was far from the only sphere in which women proved to be more capable than many men. Even in military affairs, women showed prowess. As such, another woman who fundamentally challenged the preconceptions of her time was none other than Joan of Arc, who single-handedly proved women could be extraordinary military leaders, something virtually inconceivable in the medieval Western world.
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An Awakening in the 18th Century
The 18th century was pivotal for modern feminism as we know it. The Age of Enlightenment had dawned upon humanity, and with it came a crucial awakening. Women were on the rise. More advocates of feminism than ever appeared on every corner of society—and now the male-dominated world of prestigious academia gave women a voice. Sure, since society at the time was still ruled by men, it was men who would speak up in the name of those amazing women who stood behind them. A first step, which eventually led to rightful emancipation.
A feminist utilitarian
Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham was one of those men. He admitted that when he was 11, seeing how women were systematically placed on an inferior position than men in the eyes of the law and society made him choose to become a social reformer. Through philosophy, he attempted to do just that. He emphatically argued that both men and women deserved complete and total equality before all institutions. This included the right to vote and participate in the government. Bentham radically opposed the notion that women had inferior minds, as he cited many examples of extraordinary female rulers throughout history. Thus, he criticized every nation who denied them rights based on that prejudice.
First political attempts
Still, for all the defense and traction these appeals to humanity were gaining, no reformation was initially forthcoming. In 1789 and 1790, a French mathematician called Marquis de Condorcet had appealed to the National Assembly for women’s suffrage to be officially established in France. They refused to listen to him.
But then, from the very heart of the female ranks, came Marie Gouze, aka Olympe de Gouges, a French playwright and social activist. In 1791, she published the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, which emulated the same writing style as an important human civil rights document from 1789, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. This gave de Gouges’ cause a powerful reference, which, if ignored, would point to the very double standards her society was keen on denying.
De Gouges' fate and Mary Wollstonencraft
De Gouges did not outright succeed to ensure women’s rights, but she did set an important precedent for all the feminists that followed. Unfortunately, she was executed by guillotine during France’s Reign of Terror for challenging and attacking the regime of the Revolutionary government. Condorcet was also eventually imprisoned. He died in his cell.
Just one year after de Gouges published her famous document, another colossal figure in the history of feminism published her own work in 1792, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. It was Mary Wollstonecraft, who is now widely considered one of the founding philosophers of feminism as we know it. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is not only Wollstonecraft’s most famous work, but also a cornerstone for the very foundations of modern feminist thought. In it, she argues that women are not naturally inferior to men, and if they appeared to be it was only because they didn’t have proper access to education.
Wollstonecraft died at the age of 38, leaving many incomplete manuscripts behind—eleven days after giving birth to Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, aka Mary Shelley, who grew up to become a rather famous writer herself.
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19th Century Revolution
Early in the 1800s, women still had no real voices nor was there any recognizable movement systematically attempting to challenge society’s misogyny. This would change over the course of the century, with more and more people joining in the fight against social oppression.
In the midst of Victorian sexism
Initially, the 19th century was dominated by the Victorian model of femininity, which promoted a clearly marked distinction between men's and women’s social spheres. According to the social standards of the time, women naturally belonged to the private sphere of housekeeping and childbearing, whereas men belonged to the public sphere of politics and business. Both spheres were theoretically off limits to one another. In practice, however, this mindless distinction couldn’t be sustained forever, and tensions soon built up. The revolution had begun.
Several female figures questioned the increasingly repressive domination of men, to the point where there were people like Caroline Norton, in Britain, who was forced to advocate for changes in British law when she found herself awfully oppressed by the government upon entering an abusive marriage. The patently obvious unfairness of the situation for women in such cases inevitably forced authorities to recognize that, yeah, their legal system was terribly broken. The public slowly pressured Queen Victoria to order important changes thereafter. Around the same time, another remarkable woman called Marion Reed was calling for a worldwide movement in defense of women’s rights.
Towards an organized movement
Figures like Norton and Reed inspired further organized movements. They, and those before them, also influenced many to follow, including social reformer and the founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale, British writer Anna Wheeler, and philosopher William Thompson, who, together with Wheeler, wrote around 1825 one of the first English texts advocating for full equality between men and women, titled Appeal of One Half the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, to Retain Them in Political, and thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery.
As more feminist voices joined the fight, the movement began to take a more recognizable shape. One of the first concerns for women’s rights, aside from voting, was education. Activists like Frances Power Cobbe called for a full education reform in order to elevate all women to their true potential. By 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became one of the first American women to graduate in medicine, and she lectured in Britain about the cause herself. Physician Elizabeth Garrett was, on her part, the first woman to qualify in Britain as a physician and surgeon, as well as the first female to be elected to a school board. Slowly, women started to gain ground.
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The First Wave of Feminism
The so-called first-wave feminism was one of the first identifiable organized movements to systematically advance women’s rights across the West, especially in the English-speaking world. It sought to secure women's suffrage, education rights, better working conditions, and to dismantle gender double standards. In short, first-wave feminism took the first step towards real social fairness by fighting for basic political equality between men and woman. Their goals were certainly not too lofty by our contemporary standards, but it was an uphill battle at the time. Society is stubborn, and prejudice and discrimination are too hard a beast to kill.
abolition of slavery even before struggling for women’s rights. Figures like Frances Willard, Elizabeth Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony all belong to first-wave feminism. The American version of this movement is considered to have ended around 1920, when the right to vote was granted to white women after the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution passed in a historic victory. A battle had been won. The war, however, was nowhere near its end.
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Enter the Second Wave
Though the end of first-wave feminism in America can be drawn at 1920, across the world, women kept fighting for the same rights. Then came World War II, which served as a wake-up call regarding basic human rights in every corner of our planet, not only for women, but for all minorities and vulnerable groups as well. The war’s drafts were also based on sexist ideals, affording women the opportunity to serve in limited, mostly non-combatant roles at the time. This meant the vast majority of soldiers who died during the war were men, leaving all areas of society with a sudden void of male dominance. And the void was quickly filled.
A second wave to follow a second global war
In academia, this gave many feminist voices the opportunity to reinvigorate their cause. So, as a direct result, a second wave of feminism arose from the early 1960s all the way to the late 1980s. These voices pointed to the inexorable link between the political inequalities women still faced and a deeply embedded cultural inequality. It was no longer enough to seek political justice. The world now called for cultural and social justice as well.
Second-wave feminists focused on exposing the sexist power structures which dominated all levels of social life, from the political and economic to the ethical and domestic. Everyday life was itself riddled with sexist standards and expectations beyond lack of opportunities. Sure, women could now vote and study—but they were still expected to attend to “feminine activities” and thus were afforded less opportunities than men in subtler ways. They could graduate, but women were nonetheless pressured into domestic roles after graduation, as they were hardly ever taken seriously to occupy male-typical positions in the professional world. First-wave feminism had to secure suffrage and education for women. Second-wave feminism now had to turn its attention to deeper and wider cultural issues, such as putting an end to gender discrimination as a whole.
Simone de Beauvoir and the voices of feminism
This is when such figures as Simone de Beauvoir became most influential. Beauvoir’s seminal 1949 book, The Second Sex, launched feminism to new heights, which led to the popularization of the 1960s rallying cry “Women’s Liberation” to represent the very spirit of the feminist movement across history. The ‘60s were thus crucial for contemporary feminism, as the whole revolutionary nature of that decade saw more women than ever enrolling in universities and the cementation of feminism as a full-fledged academic study. This empowered feminism beyond the previous generations' wildest dreams and suddenly gave women not only awareness, but the drive and voice to enact cultural changes at the deepest levels of society.
In the end, second-wave feminists dealt with subtler—though no less important—issues than first-wave feminists. They delved into the complexities of sexuality, workplace, family, reproductive rights, ongoing practical inequalities, as well as pervasive legal injustice. Aside from Beauvoir, second-wave feminism includes figures like Kate Millett, Gloria Steinem, Shulamith Firestone, Juliet Mitchell, Germaine Greer, Gloria Anzaldúa, bell hooks, and many others. This period in the history of feminism brought cornerstone victories such as Roe v. Wade (1973), which secured women’s rights over their own bodies. The Civil Rights Movement also promoted the rights of African-American women across the US.
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Which brings us to the so-called third wave of feminism, starting in the 1990s. This wave is concerned with an even wider range of issues than both the first or second waves, and deals with how other social problems and historically repressed groups intersect with feminism’s worries and causes. Up to this point, feminism had focused mostly on white women, but third-wave feminism sought to include more women of color into the conversation, and to question the status quo beyond the tense relationship between male and female. To do so, feminists now look into how we can deconstruct traditional concepts like binary sexuality, patriarchy, prejudices against the LGBTQ+ community, etc. Just like women of color felt sidelined from the first and second waves of feminism, lesbians had been left out as well until the third wave.
While first and second wave feminism struggled against clear and explicit biases in society, third wave feminism is concerned with implicit bias as well. Contemporary feminists like Jennifer Saul have written extensively on this topic, which questions the double standard behind several cultural behaviors. As such, third-wave feminists also encourage the sexual liberation of women, seeking to suppress taboos, sexual repression, blame culture, and shaming practices against women regarding their sexual lives.
Third-wave feminism also brought the feminist movement to a global level, no longer restricting its focus to Western civilization.
The Fourth Wave?
Some authors think we’re currently undergoing a fourth wave of feminism. Filmmaker Jennifer Baumgardner, for example, argues that since 2008, a new distinct movement has taken shape, which author Kira Cochrane defines in terms of technological connection. Since the nineties, new social elements have driven society in a different direction, and feminism must now be understood under different cultural paradigms, according to many contemporary feminists. Current politics and media offers new challenges, and new concerns are emerging in all areas of society. Sexual harassment in all its forms, culminating in #MeToo, as well as toxic masculinity, body-shaming, work-place discrimination, wage gaps, online misogyny, male feminism, online harassment, and intersectionality are some of the new concerns that characterize a distinctly new wave.
Throughout its history, feminism has fought an uphill battle. Even today, when things finally seem to be looking better for women across the world, there are many dangers in the difficult path towards ultimate equality. New bouts of resistance from the sexist corners of culture and politics threaten to undermine much of the progress made until now, and women around the world must keep their guard up still.
Many battles have been won. But the war is not yet over.
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