New Internationalist

Simply… A History Of Feminism

Issue 227

new internationalist
issue 227 - January 1992

Simply...
a history of feminism

The term 'feminism' may belong to modern times -
but the roots of feminism go back much further.
Illustrations by ANGELA MARTIN

[image, unknown] 1 Rebels and thinkers
[image, unknown] There have always been independent feminists. In sixth century BC Greece, Sappho wrote lesbian poetry and ran a girls' school. The fifteenth century French writer Christine de Pisan is now regarded as a feminist thinker. In the seventeenth century English adventurer and political activist Aphra Benn was getting embroiled in the West Indian slave rebellion - and writing 13 novels. The radical way in which some men were thinking during the Age of Reason incidentally changed attitudes towards women. Thinkers like Newton, Locke, Voltaire and Diderot believed that science and reason could explain the world. They began to analyse women in terms of what they deemed 'natural' rather than what was divinely ordained. This was not necessarily better for women.

 

2 Mothers of the revolution
Women played a major role in the 1789 French Revolution and the ideal of 'Republican Motherhood' took shape. But, some argued, if women had the task of 'bringing up the new citizens', they should also have status. Feminist pamphlets proliferated. In her Rights of Woman, Olympe de Gourges wrote: 'Woman is born free and her rights are the same as those of man... if women have the right to go to the scaffold, they must also have the right to go to Parliament.' Parisian women formed political clubs and associations to campaign on issues affecting them. But the male leaders of the Revolution were basically hostile and in 1793 they outlawed all women's clubs. A woman's place was in the home, they ruled. This hostility persisted through the nineteenth century. The Napoleonic Code gave all management of family funds to the husband. Not until 1909 did French women have control over their own earnings. Not until 1944 did they get the vote.

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3 Radical sparks
Meanwhile, In North America, women took part in the independence struggle and exercised their power as consumers to boycott British goods. Even in Britain there was a rash of radical - and reactionary - writing about women. Closely watching events in France was British journalist and translator Mary Wollstonecraft. She worked to support her family but in 1787 came to London to live by her writing. She joined a radical circle of intellectuals. A year after Thomas Paine wrote The Rights of Man (1791) Mary Wollstonecraft produced her A Vindication of the Rights of Women. It was the first fullscale book favouring women's liberation and was widely read. She was dismissed by the male conservative press as 'a strumpet'.

 

 

[image, unknown] 4 Missions and manacles
For black women living in slavery in America the late eighteenth century was a turning point, as Protestant evangelism combined with the anti-slavery movement. Women made up a large part of revival congregations - both in white and black churches. Women were not supposed to preach but some - like the former slave Jarena Lee - ignored this. Black women realized that freedom from whites was not enough. They had to have freedom from men too. But uniting white and black women was not easy. When black feminist, Sojourner Truth, stood before the Second Annual Convention of Women's Rights in Akron Ohio in 1852 white racist women tried to stop her speaking. There were many black women activists but Sojourner Truth was the most outspoken, arguing publicly that black women should have the vote.

 

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5 Industry and protest
During the Industrial Revolution unmarried women were leaving home to work in the cities, often for low wages in appalling factory conditions. Meanwhile the idea of female education became firmly entrenched and middle class women were demanding access to a much wider range of occupations. On both sides of the Atlantic women started taking part in industrial action. During the 1808 Weavers Strike in Britain The Times singled out striking women weavers as 'more turbulent and insolent' than the men. In the US the first all-women strike took place in 1828 at Cocheco Mill, New Hampshire. In Britain in 1854 Barbara Leigh Smith drew together for the first time a group of women who called themselves feminists and campaigned to change laws. A strike by women in an East London match factory helped create the British trade union movement.

 

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6 Invasion and rebellion

In Asia and Africa women were resisting both traditional and colonial oppression. Chinese feminists who joined the Taiping Rebellion of 1850-1864 called for an end to foot-binding and demanded communal ownership of property and equal rights for women and men. Colonizing Europeans made alliances with groups that were the most conservative and often most oppressive of women. So the British in India encouraged the dowry system, arranged marriages and education for men only. But by 1905 Indian women were participating in the Swadeshi movement to boycott foreign goods and in 1917 the Women's Indian Association was set up with links to the British movement for women's suffrage. In parts of Africa women were banned from entering the cities and their traditional access to land - as Africa's principle farmers - was also denied. But in 1923 the Egyptian Women's Federation was formed and in 1924 it got the age of marriage for girls raised to 16.

 

[image, unknown] 7 Suffering for suffrage
Women's call for the vote was echoing around the world. It was first answered in Aotearoa / New Zealand in 1893. In Britain mass meetings organized by Emmeline Pankhurst and her two daughters Sylvia and Christabel drew crowds of up to 500,000. Determined militants chained themselves to railings and caused civil disturbances. In 1908 the Pankhursts were arrested and imprisoned. They went on hunger strike and were force-fed - causing public outcry. But only in 1918 did women (over the age of 30) get the vote in Britain. The US followed in 1920. In India Provincial Assemblies were allowed to enfranchise women in 1919. And in 1931 the Indian National Congress Party pledged itself to sexual as well as caste and religious equality in independence. The first Latin American country to give women the vote was Ecuador in 1929, followed by Brazil, Argentina, Cuba and Chile during the 1930s.

 

[image, unknown] 8 Reds and beds
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels saw women's liberation as part of the socialist revolution and Rosa Luxembourg, Clara Zetkin and Alexandra Kollantai became respected political leaders. In 1918 the first Women's Conference was held in Moscow and during the 1920s- under Lenin - the Soviet Government promoted equal rights. Marriage, divorce and contraception were made simple. But in the 19308 and 1940s Stalin turned the clock back. Divorce was made difficult, abortion banned, contraception restricted. In China the 1949 Revolution brought formal equality for women and men. But both here and in the USSR women did the housework as well as their jobs. In the West feminism lay dormant. Radicals were preoccupied with fighting unemployment, fascism, then McCarthyism.

 

[image, unknown] 9 The Second Wave
But during the 1960s feminism burst into life again in the US as part of a radical culture that included Civil Rights and sexual liberation. Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique was a bestseller in 1963. Feminist groups campaigned on issues such as childcare, health, welfare, education, abortion. Consciousness-raising groups proliferated. In Europe, Canada and Australasia too, new ideas and laws were changing society. Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch was an eye-opener. And in 1975 the United Nations announced an International Decade for Women. Revolutionary movements in Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique and Nicaragua were including women's liberation in their ideology. In Europe the peace movement became the focus for feminist activism - especially at the US air base at Greenham Common, UK. And feminism boomed in Latin America after the restoration of democracy during the 1980s.

All illustrations by ANGELA MARTIN

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