Making Moves: First Wave Feminism in the U.S.

     In tracing the history of feminism, there has been the tendency of scholars to break its events down into a series of “waves”. The “First Wave” of feminism in the United States is generally understood to have taken place between the years of 1848 to 1920. The reason 1848 is noted as the beginning of the First Wave is owing to an event called the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention. This affair is considered to be the first substantial assemblage of women declaring their fight towards the right to vote in history. It is Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton who are most noted for their involvement in this event, and their reconstruction of the period is narrated in a multi-volume book titled The History of Woman Suffrage.

susan-b-anthony-gallery  Elizabeth Cady Stanton

(1) Left: Susan B. Anthony             (2) Right: Elizabeth Cady Stanton

             Anthony and Stanton were a powerhouse of mobility. Anthony, being well-versed in politics, reserved in nature, and with an analytical and statistical mind, collaborated well with the passionate public speaking, philosopher, rhetorer, more emotional and compassionate personality of Stanton. While Stanton was tied domestically to a home life consisting of seven children, Anthony chose to reject the notion of marriage, and endured long journeys to do the “leg-work” for the movement.

Before the 1870’s, Anthony’s focus included dress reform (1850’s), the Married Women’s Property Act (passed in 1860, with some compromises), helping slaves to escape on the Underground Railroad, and working as the New York agent of the American Antislavery Society. Additionally, she helped Stanton found the Woman’s National Loyal League in 1863, which was organized to petition against slavery. Furthermore, Anthony started the New York Women’s Working Association in 1868 to support a campaign geared towards an eight-hour work day and equal pay.

It was in 1869 that Stanton and Anthony turned their focus severally towards the cause of women’s suffrage with their establishment of the Woman Suffrage Association. During the aforementioned Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention, Stanton read a document she’d authored titled Declaration of Sentiments. In it she proclaimed, “…in view of this entire disenfranchisement of one-half the people of this country, their social and religious degradation…and because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States.”

While it is these two pioneering women who are most prominent in the First Wave of feminism in the United States, members of this movement spanned across races, religions, and issues. Within the First Wave of feminism, there is what’s now deemed the “short wave”. While the right to vote is referred to as the central focus and biggest success of the First Wave, boundless issues in the realm of racial justice, prostitution, domestic abuse, divorce, sexual liberation, religious authority, labor rights, and international politics took their place in the process for not only women’s rights, but for global human rights as well. In fact, this wave is said to have taken specific inspiration from a group of radical activists operating in France in the 1830’s, a movement that called for spiritual and economic rights in consideration of gender and class equality and individual liberation from oppression. Such an influence is what Hurwitz and Taylor were describing as “cultural hybridization”, which is an idea introduced in my first blog post, wherein women’s movements mix and/or are transformed by other women’s causes.

The efforts in what’s termed the “short wave” within the longer “First Wave” timeline, is given to the period of the 1820’s to the 1870’s. Its’ activists consisted of white Quakers and free black communities in western and central New York state, plus eastern Pennsylvania. Allies also resided in New England, the Midwest, and even parts of Britain, Canada, and Europe. The most notable participants included Frederick Douglass, a free black slave man whose newspaper, The North Star, served as a key mode of communication for its advocates. Other prominent members were Abby Kelley, William C. Nell, Sojourner Truth, and Amy Post.

north star A section from the North Star newspaper (3)

     Complex in their causes and rich in their voices, these profound lecturers, writers, and organizers were the first heroines and heroes of feminism in the U.S. They served as the transmitters for the next wave of feminism, which will be introduced and discussed in the next blog post.


 Anthony, Susan Brownell, Elizabeth Stanton, and Matilda Joslyn Gage. History of Woman Suffrage. New York: Fowler & Wells, 1882. Print.

Hewitt, Nancy A,. “Feminist Frequencies: Regenerating the Wave Metaphor.” Feminist Studies 38.3 (2012): n. pag. Literature Resource Center. Web.

Rappaport, Helen. Encyclopedia of Women Social Reformers. Vol. 1. Santa Barbara:

                ABC-CLIO, 2001. Print.

 Rappaport, Helen. Encyclopedia of Women Social Reformers. Vol. 2. Santa Barbara:

               ABC-CLIO, 2001. Print.

Picture References:

1. Susan B. Anthony

2. Elizabeth Cady Stanton

3. The North Star newspaper


Who Are You Calling Feminist?


     The furthermost origins of the term “feminism” can be traced inwardly, where the biological differences between male and female lay. The segregation of women from their male counterparts has transpired since Biblical times, maybe farther back still, and stems both from the female process of reproduction and the symbolic expression of menstruation.

         It was within the confines of their red tents that women assembled in their specific ideologies, and where they became aware of and justified by themselves in their subordination. Later, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the seedlings of women’s movements were being quietly cultivated in neighborhood kitchens or church basements. There, women convened on issues “such as the price of food or sexual behavior and morality” (Goldberg Moses, 758).

       The first utterance of the term “feminism” seems to be linked to France in the 1880’s, where the word woman in French (“femme”) was united with “ism” to diagnose a political cause.

     Using two articles for reference, this introductory post will aim to expose readers to the broad definitions of feminism. It will also focus on how the mobilization of women under that term has succeeded in reorganizing gender meanings, as well as played a pivotal role in modernization, democratization, and revolution.

        Claire Goldberg Moses, in her article titled “What’s in a Name?” On Writing the History of Feminism, surveys the meanings behind the labeling of women’s collective causes “feminist” by historians. She says it is a term “neither stable nor fixed” (760). In particular, she explores how the label has affected the outcome of specific women’s movements across history. She begins by describing the issues which have spurred the organization of women and points how differing groups with diametrically opposed objectives have been classified under the same term.

     For example, she asks, where the word “feminist” didn’t exist yet, would we be right to call the women of nineteenth century privileged classes organizing to promote voting rights for themselves feminists? Would we also call former Black women slaves who established groups with the goal of overcoming the injustices of racism feminists? What is the difference between a women’s collective movement and being a “feminist”?

     Moses references one of the foremost writers on feminism named Marya Cheliga, who determined in her work that, “the feminist movement, without being designated by that title, is evident across all epochs…” (763). In short, what Cheliga, and ultimately Moses, are saying is that in defining feminism simply as a goal towards the establishment of equal rights for women, all women’s movements could be labeled “feminist” and all are valid in their cause.

      In her conclusion, Moses makes the case for how the idea of being a “feminist” is viewed today, where the movement has made the most impact under either broad or narrow definitions, and what we can learn from the history of feminism moving forward in our current political climate. She looks at decades like the 1970’s, where a surge of women’s collectives all under the term “feminist” spiked. According to Moses, “this was the moment in history when the use of the term “feminist” was perhaps the most widespread and seemed acceptable to the largest group of advocates for women’s equality, even though their views often differed sharply” (767). Interestingly, Moses also point out that a widespread use of the term was in conjunction with tremendous political gains for women. These included women’s rights to own property, women’s rights to higher education, rape seen as a crime for the first time in history, etc.

     In recent years, the term “feminist” has narrowed quite obviously again. Moses says that her students resent the images of the idea of “feminism” that pervade TV and movies now. In short, feminists have a bad rap. (More on this in a later post). What Moses is ultimately trying to teach her students is the fact that the term “feminist” has taken on so many meanings over the course of history, but the decades show that the most rights for women have been achieved under a broad usage of the term, and that presently, we must embrace these different meanings in order to learn from their successes and continue on for women’s rights today.

     From a slightly asymmetrical viewpoint, Heather McKee Hurwitz and Verta Taylor, in their article titled Women’s Cultures and Social Movements in Global Contexts, make a case not specifically for “feminism”, but simply for the power that occurs when women find community with each other. Like Moses, they examine the role of women’s movements in the aiding of political and social change, but in a more strategic style. Their focus is in the defining of women’s groups in the context of race, ethnicity, class, nationality, and political context. Additionally, they focus on specific outcomes which they define as “cultural convergence” (where institutions or groups trend towards resemblance), “cultural differentialism” (problems that occur between opposing groups and are influenced by cultural situations), and “cultural hybridization” (when women’s movements mix and/or are transformed by other women’s causes) (816). I’ll expand upon these ideas over the course of later posts.

     Conclusively though, they meet up with Moses’s views, where they maintain that women’s cultural movements have served as “cultural tool kits” (808) to reconstruct male-dominated realms of society and that “whether they are explicitly feminist or not, women’s cultures promote the formation of new gender meanings and practices that have the potential to influence the ideas, identities, tactical repertoires, and internal dynamics of social movements” (813).

     This blog will seek to find the lessons from history that can help the continuing cause of equality for women today by studying the historical ramifications of both violent and peaceful feminist movements across the globe. Ultimately, I want to figure out for myself what feminism means to me and what it really represents in our modern world.


Moses, Claire Goldberg. “What’s In A Name?” On Writing The History Of Feminism.”

     Feminist Studies 38.3 (2012): 757-779. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 3 Sept.


Heather McKee, Hurwitz, and Verta Taylor. “Women’s Cultures And Social Movements

In Global Contexts.” Sociology Compass (2012): 80 Academic OneFile. Web.

Sept. 2015.