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


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