The Big F: A History of Feminism – Part 1.

history of feminism first wave


The following is part one ‘The Big F’ – a three part series that offers a quick peek inside the vast, illustrious and tumultuous history of Feminism; around the world and in India – written by SMIW contributor Aishwarya Upreti.

The series will present a high level view of the advent, struggle and rise of the feminist movement and the various stages it went through to reach where it is today. This is by no means meant to be a scholarly or academic account, instead it is an effort to give a crash course in the journey of the gender equality movement to those who are unfamiliar but interested in it or have been recently introduced to it and are eager to get their feet wet.

The series also aims to familiarise readers with important events and authors associated with early days of feminism and put into context the struggles and drastic challenges we have overcome; while staying honest about challenges that still exist.



First wave feminism is said to have officially originated in 1789 with the French Revolution. At the time, despite advancements in legal and political spheres, the condition of women remained backward. The previous two centuries had already been marked by writers like Christine de Pizan (15th century), Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa and Modesta di Pozzo di Forzi (16th century) and Marie Le Jars de GournayAnne Bradstreet and François Poullain de la Barre (17th century) – calling for equal rights for sexes. However, Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft, which published in 1792, is widely regarded as the first true beacon of feminist literature.

The focus of the movement was understandably limited to a call for equal rights in the workforce, politics and parliament. Widely known as the suffrage movement, first wave feminism made a clarion call to get women the right to vote in the western world – something they did not have till then. Here’s how some of the spheres reformed as a result of first wave feminism.



In the West, women were expected to stay at home, take care of their children and family. In the popular novel Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell describes the suffocating and strenuous life of women in the 19th century, ”Ellen’s life was not easy, nor was it happy, but she did not expect life to be easy, and if it was not happy, that was a woman’s lot. It was a man’s world, and she accepted it as such…” In India, it was the same story, but colonial oppression by the British added to the misery of women as they were invariably relegated to the bottom rung of the pyramid. Feminist groups in the West campaigned for legal rights and won the right to execute wills, inherit property, manage property in their own name and finally, a right to vote in 1920. prominent western feminists of this time included Lucretia Coffin MottElizabeth Cady StantonLucy Stone, and Victoria Woodhull and Matilda Joslyn Gage.

Closer home, Feminist groups in India started work against regressive social practises like dowry, Jauhar, Sati, Devdasi and Purdah. As recorded by Shilpa Phadke in Thirty Years On: Women’s Studies Reflect on the Women’s Movement, ”The anti-dowry agitation marked the feminist assertion of the personal as political through an activist agenda. Atrocities that took place in the private spaces of the homes and were passed off as, among other things, ‘kitchen accidents’ were brought to public light”.

In India, Women right’s activists such as  Jyotirao Phule, Ram Mohan Roy and Ishwar Chandra Vidya Sagar worked for the betterment of women. Ishwar Chandra worked extensively for legalization of widow remarriage (1857)  while Ram Mohan Roy demanded property rights for women and played a major role in abolition of the Sati practice and spoke out against child marriage(1829). Practises like Devdasi and Jouhar were also abolished. Despite this, things like education were still out of reach for a large population of girls, because it was believed that a girl does not need any education. Whatever she requires in terms of house-keeping, could be learnt in the family. In fact, there was a strong belief that if a girl is educated she becomes a widow! In this atmosphere of total apathy towards opening the doors of knowledge to girls, the social reformers in the nineteenth century recognized the value of women’s education in reforming Indian society. Of course, for them, women’s education at the time meant studying up to middle school level.



Till the late 19th century, women in the west were only considered a reserve army of labour, expected to enter the public sphere only when their men were at war. Legal working rights for women were not well established anywhere in the world at this time, but during times like war, concessions were made. In the UK, during Industrial Revolution, women competed and worked side by side with men for wages due to economic crisis. In the U.S, during the Civil War, women took up jobs in textile industries, factories, domestic services, weaving, spinning.However, after things returned to normalcy,  competition between men and women broke out for work – with men wanting women to return to being just housewives and women wanting to continue working. Ultimately, after the women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, N.Y, women began working regularly from mid 19th century and were accounting for half the labour force in the US by the 1960s.

In India, after the Government of India Act 1935 gave provincial autonomy, men and women started working side by side. But in reality, a lot of women continued to do domestic or agricultural labour that largely went unpaid while men mostly worked in return of wage.



The woman in the 19th and early 20th century was to be chaste, pure and modest. She was supposed to have sex with her husband and talking about sex and sexuality were considered taboo (ineresting how this is comparable with a lot of rural and even some urban settings in modern day India). Women had no access to sex education and many had no knowledge of their own sexuality until marriage.

Novels like Tess of the D’Urbervilles depict the tragic end of heroines for losing their virginity before marriage, despite being a good and loving wife. Marital rape was not recognized and women were expected to “bear these things for the compensating joys of motherhood” (Gone with the wind). Despite restrained sexuality, mothers trained their daughters in the art of attraction and flirting from a young age and girls were expected to be married before the age of 18 – otherwise they were in danger of being termed as ‘old maids’. In A Vindictation of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft rebuked philosophers like Rousseau over how the entire education of women should be based on ways to please men. Similarly, political thinker J.S Mill wrote about the socio-cultural conditioning of women and men against femininity  in his book Subjectation of Women that campaigned for female rights in the Parliament.

In India, much of the above was the same expect that a girl was not even allowed even the liberty to choose her own husband and most girls were married off in adolescent or early teen years. Parents arranged their children’s marriage before onset of puberty to prevent their children, especially daughters, to go astray and have an affair which could ‘ruin their reputation’. As for marital rape, it is still not recognised as a crime in India despite various women’s groups and civil society organisations calling for its criminalisation and back then, the naari ka kartavya har tarah se pati ki sewa karna hai ( a woman’s duty is to server her husband in every way) narrative was only more readily accepted than it is now.

As it is today, one of the biggest challenges the feminist movement faced in its first wave was that of double standards – by society and the men who control it. Writer Sor Juana Ines De La Cruz, an 18th century feminist poet attacked these double standards of men of the medieval in her poem, You Men. Here’s an extract as follows:


“After you’ve won by urgent plea
the right to tarnish her good name,
you still expect her to behave–
you that coaxed her into shame.

You batter her resistance down
and then, all righteousness; proclaim
that feminine frivolity,
not your persistence, is to blame.

When it comes to bravely posturing,
your witlessness must take the prize:
you’re the child that makes a bogeyman,
and then recoils in fear and cries.

Presumptuous beyond belief,
you’d have the woman you pursue
be Thais when you’re courting her,
Lucretia once she falls to you.”


The first wave of feminism had its pitfalls and misplaced heroes. While it made the first few strides towards the once Utopian equality of sexes, there was a lot left to be done in the spheres of workforce, education, media representation of women and sexuality. Some of these were addressed by the second wave in feminism. We’ll talk about that in the next installment of this series. Stay tuned!


About the Author:

Aishwarya is a feminist and an atheist who loves to read and write.


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