600 Years of Feminism


It’s a common but mistaken belief that feminism was invented in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet by my reckoning, #Me Too is part of a 6th distinct period of movements for women’s rights in Europe and the United States. Other parts of the world have different timelines of intensified debate and activism. One Billion Rising is the first frankly global movement, also part of this sixth wave. Not much about the history of feminism is taught in public schools and colleges.

The first upsurge began about 600 years ago. This was the querelle des femmes, or quarrel about women, a literary debate among upper class Europeans that went on from the 15th to 17th centuries. The querelle began with the first feminist treatise, The Book of the City of Ladies, composed by Christine de Pizan at the French court in 1404-1405. Pizan said that once the female voice appears in history, nothing will silence it. So it has proved. https://herstoria.com/christine-de-pizan-and-the-querelle-des-femmes/ 

The second surge arose with the democratic ideals of the 18th century Enlightenment. In England, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote one of the great manifestoes of feminism, A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). Across the ocean, women took an active part in the American Revolution by organizing boycotts of English imports such as tea and cloth, as well as running farms and businesses while their men were away soldiering. Sixteen-year-old Sybil Luddington rode 40 miles through the night to tell American militia that the British were burning Danbury, Connecticut. (Not to take away from Paul Revere’s historic ride but Sybil rode twice as far.)

Might-have-been Founding Mothers included Abigail Smith Adams, who famously asked her husband to “remember the ladies” in the new Constitution—he ignored her. Abagail's friend Mercy Otis Warren published satirical plays about the Colonial government, comparing the governor to a crocodile, and eventually wrote a history of the Revolutionary era. Another feminist advocate, Sarah Hall, penned essays about the status of women at night while her ten children were asleep. Major issues of this era were women’s property rights and educational opportunities.

A third upwelling of feminist thought and action occurred mid-19th century from the convergence of abolitionism, evangelism, Quaker ideals and the temperance movement. The fortuitous meeting and partnership of two dedicated women—Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton—led to the first women’s rights convention in 1848 at Seneca Falls, New York. Stanton read out the “Declaration of Sentiments,” modeled on the U.S. Declaration of Independence, listing 18 “injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman.”

Other trailblazers were Susan B. Anthony, Sojurner Truth, and Lucy Stone. Margaret Fuller wrote the first major feminist work in the United States, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845).  In the following decades most states passed laws giving women control over their own property and wages, more colleges enrolled women, and according to Geraldine Ferraro, progress toward pay equity began in 1872.

Also in 1872, Victoria Woodhull—one-time spiritualist, first woman stockbroker on Wall Street, and friend of business tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt—ran as a candidate for U.S. president. Free love was one of the planks in her platform, and despite her enthusiasm for women’s rights, Woodhull was just a little too colorful to suit prominent feminists of the day. She also seems to have been expunged from the history books. However, a full-length feature film starring Brie Larson may be in the works.

The fourth surge or series of surges centered around the vote. Across the world, women have struggled for centuries to vote. In 18th century Sweden, women participated in many elections, then these rights were taken away again. The next post will focus on the little known and surprising history of universal women’s suffrage.  


Feminism, Christine de Pizan, Susan B. Anthony, Sojurner Truth, Victoria Woodhull