World History: Seneca Falls Convention

While it is difficult to determine exact dates, the first wave of feminism is generally considered to have taken place throughout the second half of the 19th century and into the very beginning of the 20th century.

Some scholars have chosen to date the first wave of feminism between 1848-1920 because the Seneca Falls Convention was held in 1848 and American women gained the right to vote in 1920.

Early feminism was concerned with securing basic civil rights for women, like the right to work, the right to vote, and the right to social equality with men. With a few exceptions, throughout most of history, women were not entitled to equality with men. This movement aimed to change that. Sometimes the first wave of feminism is used synonymously with the term ‘women’s suffrage movement,’ or just ‘women’s suffrage.’ This dynamic movement affected both American and European societies.

First Wave of Feminism: Seneca Falls Convention

In the United States, women had been slowly and gradually making strides towards equality with men for decades prior to the first wave of feminism. Many scholars have pointed out how the American Revolution disrupted traditional gender roles and led to opportunities for women. For example, John Adams’ wife, Abigail Adams, was a strong proponent of women’s rights.

The big shift, however, took place during the mid-19th century. In July 1848, the Seneca Falls Convention convened in Seneca Falls, New York. This was the first modern women’s rights convention. The convention was organized by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, among others. Elizabeth Cady Stanton is widely regarded as one of the leading figures of the first wave of feminism.

A number of well-known figures spoke at the Seneca Falls Convention, including Stanton and black abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The convention passed a resolution called the Declaration of Sentiments. Based off the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of Sentiments essentially stated that women were entitled to the same civil rights as men. This might seem like common sense to us today, but in 1848, this was pretty radical!

The Seneca Falls Convention fueled other conventions and the formation of numerous women’s rights organizations, like the Equal Rights Association in 1867 and the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869. By the 1860s, women’s rights had become a major issue. Increasingly, women began demanding the right to vote.

Many feminists during this time were also abolitionists, or those in favor of abolishing slavery. Many also tended to be anti-alcohol. Because of this, the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement (WCTU) was often allied with the women’s suffrage movement. One more thing: don’t confuse first wave feminism with the radical feminism of the 1960s and today. First wave feminism was much more conservative to moderate and, in many cases, even religious in nature.

The first wave of the feminist movement struck Europe at about the same time as it did the United States. The movement particularly flourished in Great Britain. Barbara Bodichon was one of the leading British feminists. She founded the English Women’s Journal in 1858 and was instrumental in forming suffrage societies, such as the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women. In 1867, Lydia Becker founded the National Society for Women’s Suffrage. Generally speaking, the first wave of the feminist movement proceeded in Great Britain at roughly the same pace as it did in America.

Expanding Opportunities for Women

The first wave of feminism resulted in all kinds of increased opportunities for women. These were especially noticeable in the areas of education, marriage, family dynamics, and the workplace. Throughout the mid-19th century, many private colleges and universities began opening their doors to women. In 1855, the University of Iowa became the first public co-ed university in America. Other schools, like the University of Michigan, soon followed suit. Throughout the second half of the 19th century, the stigma associated with a woman pursuing higher education gradually decreased.

In the domestic realm, which is a fancy way of saying ‘in marriage and in the home,’ women’s roles were changing as well. In Great Britain, the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 reformed existing divorce laws, widening women’s ability to obtain a divorce on civil grounds. In 1918, British author Marie Stopes published an extremely influential book called Married Love. The book promoted gender equality and emphasized the role of female sexual desire.

On both sides of the Atlantic, it became increasingly common for women to work outside the home. Educated women typically worked in clerical positions, while uneducated women were more likely to labor in factories.

Voting Rights of Women

Throughout the early 20th century, women became more determined than ever to secure equal voting rights. Demonstrations and marches raged throughout America and Great Britain. Great Britain passed the Representation of the People Act of 1918, granting women over 30 the right to vote if they met specific qualifications. Of course, this did not grant women universal suffrage because only about 40% of all women met the qualification to vote. Ten years later, however, British women were given equal voting rights with men.

American women were granted the right to vote in 1920 under the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution. This amendment granted women full, universal voting rights. Interestingly enough, the amendment was introduced by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1878 but did not become law until 41 years later.

Susan B. Anthony was another leading first wave feminist. Her contributions to the movement were monumental. She served as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and today she is well-known for her appearance on the dollar coin that was minted from 1979-1981 and in 1991.

By the mid-1920s, feminism had made profound strides, exemplified by ‘flappers.’ Flappers were young women of the 1920s who defied social conventions by drinking, smoking, and engaging in other ‘reckless’ behaviors that had previously been relegated to men.