Feminism Series Part 1: A Brief History of First Wave Feminism

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Content contains brief mentions of sexual violence. 


I struggle to identify with the mainstream feminist movement. The flaws in the mainstream feminist movement particularly the maintenance of White supremacy, capitalism, colonialism, imperialism and lack of diversity in leadership, transphobia, racism have put me off from the banner of mainstream feminism.

However, these critiques of feminism are not new. Since the late 1880s until present, the feminist movement in the United States has failed to build solidarity and meaningful allyship to those poor, non-white, disabled, trans, and non-binary. In this essay series, I want to explore the history of the feminist movement in the United States and the emergence of the Black feminist/Womanist movement, and imagine a better future for feminism.

I acknowledge that there will be flaws and gaps in this essay as I am one person writing, editing, and researching the information for these works. As I am an anthropologist (in training), it’s important that I recognize my positionality in writing this piece. I write this essay from my position as a Black womxn from a low-income background with disabilities. My critique and disappointment with the feminist movement is grounded in my identity and the racism, sexism, classism, and ableism I have faced in my life. This series of essays will be grounded in contextualized historical and academic texts to support my argument that mainstream feminism is not good enough to exact meaningful, collective change.

Black Women & Slavery

When I first learned about the feminist movement in middle and high school, I thought it was a revolutionary cross-cultural, racial, and class movement to give all women in the United States the right to be citizens and benefit from those rights. Now looking back, I realize how naive this was. The beginnings of the feminist movement in the United States are drenched in White supremacy and classism to restrict the right particularly to vote to only certain women.

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The first wave of the feminist movement began in the mid to late 1800s. The time marked a period of great change in institutional structures in the United States. Both abolitionists and women were seeking to restructure oppressive structures for empowerment.

These changes extended to how women were considered and treated as parts of society. Unlike the earlier Victorian period wherein women were seen as carriers of sexual sin, their role in society was transformed tot that of the pure mother responsible for the morality of men. This shift further pushed sexual demonization onto enslaved Black women. bell hooks writes that “at the onset of their arrival in the American colonies, black women and men faced a society that was eager to impose upon the displaced African the society of “sexual savage”  [1].

Rather than allying with Black women in their shared domination by White men, White women were able to protect themselves from unwanted sexual and physical assaults by their husbands, fathers, and brothers by allowing Black women to be targeted. If White women were underserving vessels of virtue, Black women represented subhuman Delilahs. And maybe slave-owning White women did see the brutality against Black women and it further coerced them into ignoring the violent behavior of men in their lives lest they face similar violence? I’m not sure, but being White allowed white women to access privileges to protect themselves from the sexual, physical, and reproductive to which Black women were subjected.

Again, bell hooks writes:

“Those black women suffered most whose behavior best exemplified that of a “lady”. A black woman dressed tidy and clean, carrying herself in a dignified manner, was usually the object of mud-slinging by white men who ridiculed and mocked her self-improvement efforts. They reminded her that in the eyes of the white public she would never be seen as worthy of consideration or respect 1hooks, bell. Ain’t I a woman : Black women and feminism. Boston, MA : South End Press, 1981..”

The sexualization and dehumanization of Black women was used to justify their lack of access to rights as they were seen as unworthy of accessing the benefits of womanhood in the 19th century.

Beginnings of the Feminist Movement

[image description: black and white photo of suffragettes carrying a cloth banner reading: “No self respecting woman should wish or work for the success of a party that ignores her sex” Susan B. Anthony 1872 and 1894]

Credit: Feminist Majority Foundation

The American feminist movement began more formally began in 1848 at the Seneca Falls Convention. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott issued the “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions”, a document declaring that certain rights should be afforded to women. The Declaration borrowed language from the Declaration of Independence declaring:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights 2https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Declaration_of_Sentiments.”

While this writing does not specify the race of those who are afforded these rights, neutral language can often times be Whiteness has often cited as a neutral presumed state that all other ethnic categories differ from. We’ll discuss this a bit later.

The Declaration further describes the limitations that men had put upon the sovereignty and autonomy of women. At the beginning of the women’s rights and suffragette movement, women sought to gain equal access to the political, education, social, and economic sphere as their male counterparts. But, who are these women that Elizabeth Cady Stanton hoped to empower with rights? Professor of History and Women’s Studies at Penn State Lori Ginzberg, author of Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life says:

“When (Elizabeth Cady Stanton) said ‘women,’ I think … that she primarily had in mind women much like herself: white, middle-class, culturally if not religiously protestant, propertied, well-educated. And my disagreement with Stanton is that she … came to see women like herself as more deserving of rights than other people 3http://www.npr.org/2011/07/13/137681070/for-stanton-all-women-were-not-created-equal.”

While calling herself an abolitionist and befriending Frederick Douglass, Cady Stanton’s was a racist. These racist beliefs were most apparent following Black men’s access to the vote following the ratification of 15th Amendment. For Cady Stanton, this it was the ultimate insult to the fight for White women’s right that they had to “suffer if these degraded black men are allowed to have the rights that would make them even worse than our Saxon fathers?”. I can only imagine the perceived affront to Elizabeth Cady Stanton is Black women got the right to vote before White women.

Other participants in the movement saw the focus on abolition as a cause for the delay in suffrage as too much focus was put on ending slavery. Rosalyn Terborg Penn writes:

“As northern and western suffragists allied with southern suffragists in accepting White supremacy, the alliance indicated that the feminists’ fight, for the most part, was for white women to be included in the rights and privileges of a racist society 4Terbog-Penn, Rosalyn. African American women in the struggle for the vote, 1850-1920. Indiana University Press, 1998. .”

Additionally, this anti-Black current in the suffragette movement became institutionalized by the National American Woman Suffrage Association. As the suffrage movement drew greater participants from slave-owning White women and racist Northern women, the movement sought to gain more support by focusing on the interests of Southern women to gain momentum. This came in the form of “educated suffrage” ideology. This belief was meant to exclude Black women from gaining the benefits of suffrage by arguing that only educated women are deserving of the right to vote. Terborg-Penn says:

“In 1903 the NAWSA passed a resolution stating that there were more white native-born women who could read and write than all Balck and foreign-born voters combined, so that “the enfranchisement of such women would settle the vexed question of rule by literacy, whether of home grown or foreign-born production” 5Terbog-Penn, Rosalyn. African American women in the struggle for the vote, 1850-1920. Indiana University Press, 1998. .” .

From feminists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to gain support it was imperative to ignore the rights of Black women to gain the support from White women.


As we reach 1300 words, I’m going to skimp over the suffragette movement because it’s common knowledge for the most part. Basically, due to the 15th and 19th amendments people of all races and women were able to vote. It’s necessary to note that Black women and men were limited to exercising their rights due to literacy tests, polling tests, and violence. Currently in the United States, voter IDs are hindering people’s right to vote to disallow many groups of people from voting.

In the next part in this series, we’ll begin taking a look at the Black feminist and Womanist movement in the United States.



Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions – http://ecssba.rutgers.edu/docs/seneca.html

For Stanton, Not All Women Were Created Equal – http://www.npr.org/2011/07/13/137681070/for-stanton-all-women-were-not-created-equal

hooks, bell. Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism.

Terbord-Penn, Rosalyn. African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920.

The 15th Amendment – https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/15thamendment.html

The New Suffragettes – https://www.uuwf.org/the-new-suffragettes-2/

The Women’s Rights Movement 1848-1920 – http://history.house.gov/Exhibitions-and-Publications/WIC/Historical-Essays/No-Lady/Womens-Rights/

Report of the Woman’s Rights Convention – https://www.nps.gov/wori/learn/historyculture/report-of-the-womans-rights-convention.htm