Mid Twentieth Century Feminism Essay

The feminist movement in the United States and abroad was a social and political movement that sought to establish equality for women. The movement transformed the lives of many individual women and exerted a profound effect upon American society throughout the twentieth century. During the first two decades of the century, women's groups in the United States worked together to win women's suffrage, culminating in the ratification of a constitutional amendment in 1920 that guaranteed women the right the vote. During the later twentieth century, women's groups would again band together, this time to formulate and advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Though this proposed constitutional amendment ultimately failed to gain approval in the late 1970s, it became a rallying point for diverse women's groups and drew national attention to the feminist cause.

The period between 1917 and the early 1960s was marked by two world wars and a subsequent economic boom that brought many American women into the workplace, initially to provide labor during the war, and then to help achieve and maintain a new higher standard of living enjoyed by many middle-class families. However, as women joined the workforce they became increasingly aware of their unequal economic and social status. Women who were homemakers, many with college educations, began to articulate their lack of personal fulfillment—what Betty Friedan in her enormously influential The Feminine Mystique (1963) called "the problem that has no name."

Other events in the United States, notably the civil rights movement, contributed to the rise of the feminist movement. During the early 1960s, the civil rights movement gathered momentum, aided by new anti-racist legislation, and reached a major goal in 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Many feminists interpreted the ban on racial discrimination, established by the Civil Rights Act, to apply to gender discrimination as well. The student movement was also at its height in the 1960s, leading many younger citizens to question traditional social values and to protest against American military involvement in Vietnam. Feminist groups followed the example set by these movements, adopting the techniques of consciousness raising, protests, demonstrations, and political lobbying in order to further their own agenda.

The founding of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966 marked the formation of an official group to represent and campaign for women's concerns. Leaders such as Friedan, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, and Gloria Steinem pressured politicians to become aware of women's concerns and to work on legislation that would improve the quality of women's lives. At the same time, many other organizations emerged to deal with feminist causes, including the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, National Displaced Homemakers, the battered women's movement, the Women's Equity Action League, Women Organized for Employment, and Women Office Workers. In the early 1970s feminist leaders also established a detailed program of proposed political and legal reforms, and in 1975 the National Women's Agenda was presented to President Gerald Ford, all state governors, and all members of Congress. In 1977, feminists organized a National Women's Conference in Houston, where they drafted an action plan that included twenty-six resolutions; the plan was subsequently distributed to government officials to remind them of their responsibility to female constituents. NOW and the newly organized National Women's Political Caucus worked to influence politicians and legislators while continuing their effort to keep women's issues prominent in the media.

During the 1980s, American society was colored by an increasingly conservative political climate and the feminist movement experienced a backlash within their ranks and from anti-feminist detractors. Feminism had always been criticized for being a predominantly white, upperclass movement and for its failure to adequately understand and represent the concerns of poor, African-American, and Hispanic women. The movement had already splintered in the 1970s along the lines of liberal feminists, who focused on the rights of women as individuals; radical feminists, who aligned themselves with revolutionary groups, viewing women as a disenfranchised class of citizens; and lesbians, who had been very much a part of the early feminist movement, but now found more in common with the gay liberation movement. Legislative gains achieved in the 1970s—notably Congress's passing of the ERA amendment and key judicial decisions, chief among them Roe v. Wade, which guaranteed women's reproductive rights—were under attack by conservative and religious antiabortion coalitions and an organized anti-ERA effort led by Phyllis Schlafly. Some state legislatures backtracked under pressure, overturning or diluting court decisions made in the previous decade. President Ronald Reagan also made his opposition to the ERA public. Due to a combination of political and social factors, the amendment failed to pass in the individual states. In addition, some women who had subscribed to the tenets of the feminist movement now voiced their displeasure at being negatively labeled anti-male and expressed regret at the loss of personal security that traditional women's roles offer. Their concerns echoed in the neoconservative writings of authors such as Naomi Wolf, Susan Faludi, and Camille Paglia.

Nevertheless, feminists pressed on, maintaining pressure on legislators to address women's issues such as reproductive rights, pay equity, affirmative action, sexual harassment, and the handling of rape victims in the courts. In retrospect, the early 1960s has been termed the "first wave" of the feminist movement, and the activists of the 1970s and 1980s have been called the "second wave." In the 1990s there emerged a "third wave" of feminists, still concerned with many of the same problems as their predecessors, but now wishing to work from within the political and legal establishments rather than criticizing them from the outside. This mostly younger generation of feminists would also stress the need to broaden the scope of feminism, emphasizing global networking, human rights, worldwide economic justice, and issues pertaining to race, gender, and class.

By Jackie Cavedon

Feminism: n, adj. The theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.  Organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.—Merriam Webster Dictionary

Two European women holding a sign for women's suffrage


Feminist ideas were abound across Europe in the nineteenth century.  Activists like Mary Wollstonecraft and Anna Wheeler fought for women’s rights in all aspects of society whether political, social, cultural, or economic.  I found that the major leaders who kept appearing in my research were from bigger, more industrialized countries like England and France, perhaps because they did not have such oppressive governments as other lesser countries.  The promotion of equality in marriage, parenting as well as attaining property rights for these women were of particular concern in the beginning of the century.  By the end, however, focus shifted to two different sectors.  Some feminists focused primarily on gaining political power through women’s suffrage while others were active in campaigning for women’s sexual and reproductive rights.  Although feminism had obviously been around before the nineteenth century, it is during this time period when the movement truly caught on and made progress.  Ultimately, at the close of the century, women had tried more than ever to advance the feminist movement even if it meant they would be executed.  This lead to a throng of new supporters dedicated to the movement going into the twentieth century.

My sources are a combination of academic articles, websites, dissertations and books.  Feminist historiography is mostly written by established professionals in books more so than the other sources.  I begin my annotated bibliography with an overview of online and offline sources in European feminist history in the nineteenth century.  I then move to explain the major leaders of the movement during this time period and their works providing arguments towards equality for men and women.  Because philosophic ideas were quite similar to that of feminists’, I conclude with a list of philosophes who can also be considered feminists although they may not have labeled themselves as such.


Background Sources (Text)

  • Anderson, Bonnie S., and Judith P. Zinsser. A History of Their Own: Women in Europe from Prehistory to the Present. Oxford University Press: New York, 1999.

This two-volume book covers the time period between when the first documented record of women campaigning for rights in the early 18th century to the present.  It focuses on the developments, achievements and changes in women’s societal roles.  The authors also describe woman’s low position in society and what they did to progress that position through several waves of feminism.  The book starts with a description of treatment and attitudes towards women in earliest recorded history and ends with a detailed account of how far the feminist movement had come in 1999 when the book was published.



  • Allen, Anne Taylor. Feminism and Motherhood in Western Europe, 1890-1970: The Maternal Dilemma. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Allen’s book details the problems feminist mothers face in the late 19th and 20th centuries.  Again, it was only a section of the book that was helpful in researching nineteenth century European feminism.  The first four chapters did, however, give insight on the role of mothers in the nineteenth century and the troubles they face in politics, marriage, and home life.  Allen demonstrates how a mother’s role in the home interfered with her ability to participate in movements.  Often, husbands did not want their wives participating in movements because men believed the woman’s job was to stay home to tend to their children, cook and clean.


  • De Haan, Francisca, Krasimira Daskalova, and Anna Loutfi.Biographical Dictionary of Women’s Movements and Feminisms in Central, Eastern and South Eastern Europe. Budapest: Central European University Press, 2006.

  • This 600-page work consists of 150 researched biographical accounts of those involved in feminist movements in countries throughout Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Of course, only approximately half of the book was relevant to my topic, but it does give considerable insight on how diverse the feminist population was. The book covers the works of teachers, philosophers, peasants, novelists, scientists and political activists among others. Of the biographies detailed were Molly Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mills both of whom I will be later profiling in the “Leaders of the 19th Century Feminist Movement” section of this annotated bibliography.


  • Moses, Claire Goldberg. French Feminism in the Nineteenth Century. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984.

Clearly, Moses’ book focuses on French feminism of the time period.  She expands upon the roots of French feminism, mainly from Saint Simonian ideas.  Because Moses focuses on such a specific area of Europe, she is able to talk more indepth about specifics of that area such as the bourgeois woman’s feminist experience and French feminist literature.  She mostly focuses, however, on politics which women were mainly involved in the French feminist movement like Olympe de Gouges and Maria Deraismes, who both lead feminists at different times in the nineteenth century.



  • Paletschek, Sylvia, and Bianka Pietrow-Ennker. Women’s Emancipation Movements in the Nineteenth Century: A European Perspective. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004.

Paletschek and Pietrow-Enneker put together a collection of essays that shed light on common problems for nineteenth century feminists in cultural, political and socioeconomic spheres in Europe.  The essays explain how women in major western European countries like Britain, France and Germany progressed their feminist movements at different paces and in different ways.  This book is different from others on feminist movements because it does not just focus on these major countries but focuses on a broader context of the movement including smaller scale countries like Hungary.



  • Robertson, Priscilla Smith. An Experience of Women: Pattern and Change in Nineteenth Century Europe. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982.

Like the other books in this section, Robertson’s novel gives a detailed description of women’s every day life in nineteenth century Europe.  It is a lesser known book because of its age, but still includes important information on nineteenth century feminism.  Robertson describes a time of political unrest for women trying to fight for their right to vote while maintaining their households and raising their children.  Robertson explains the patterns between women across Europe, such as how their feminist ideas pierced through the political and cultural agenda of society and made way for women’s rights.


  • Taylor, Barbara. Eve and the New Jerusalem: Socialism and Feminism in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983.

Although readers would not know from the title, Taylor’s book is actually on socialism and feminism in England, not Europe as a whole.  Despite this, Taylor does a good job of covering all the topics pertaining to feminist England.  She describes events using newspaper articles and quotes from prominent feminists of the time.  Taylor focuses on people more so than events and the movement itself, however.  She often introduces a significant person, like Mary Wollstonecraft or Anna Wheeler, and explains their roll in certain English feminist movements.  Taylor weaves information on socialist feminism in throughout the novel by explaining why socialism and feminism were so closely linked.


Background Sources (Online)


  • This article by UCLA history professor Ellen Dubois further explains the women’s suffrage movement of the nineteenth century.  Dubois explains the radicalist nature of the suffrage movement that was needed in order for others to take notice of the movement and not push it aside.


  • By Dr. Anne Scott for her class Europe 1700-1914: A Continent Transformed” at Birkback University of London.  As one can see by Scott’s article, she is clearly knowledgeable on feminism.  With the help of Michael Rapport’s Nineteenth-Century Europe and John Belchem and Richard Price’s A Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century History, Scott goes into detail with socialism and anarchism and their relation to feminism.  This goes hand in hand with Barbara Taylor’s Eve and the New Jerusalem, which I previously mentioned in the text portion of my background sources.


  • Professor Penny Welch created this culmination of feminist information for her class Women in Europe at the University of Wolverhampton in England. It outlines the waves of feminism and includes several lists of bibliographies for different European countries so students can research more on feminism in a certain area. The outline for her course includes pertinent information for nineteenth century European feminism.


Leaders of the 19th Century Feminist Movement

Mary Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft was one of the most prominent feminists in the late eighteenth century into the early nineteenth century.  She fought for change on all feminist fronts: political, social and cultural.  Below is a list of some of her works as well as background sources that include more information about what she did as a feminist to improve women’s lives.

Mary Wollstonecraft

  • Gordon, Lyndall. Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. Harper Perennial, 2006.
  • Wollstonecraft, Molly. “Wollstonecraft’s Philosophical Impact on Nineteenth-Century American Women’s Rights Advocates.” American Journal of Political Science. no. 4 (2004): 707-22.
  • Wollstonecraft, Molly. A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Boston: Peter Edes, 1792.

John Stuart Mill. As a British philosopher and public servant, Mill advocated for equality primarily through his work The Subjection of Women. I have included below a background source on men in the feminist movement, entitled Feminism and Masculinities, Mill’s essay, and a semi-recent response to it from a modern viewpoint.

John Stuart Mill

  • Mann, Hollie, and Jeff Spinner-halev. “John Stuart Mill’s Feminism: On Progress, the State, and the Path to Justice.” Nature Publishing Group. no. 2 (2009).
  • Mill, John Stuart. The Subjection of Women. London: Longman’s, 1870.
  • Murphy, Peter F. Feminism and Masculinities. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Pyle, Andrew. The Subjection of Women: Contemporary Responses to John Stuart Mill. London: Thoemmes Press, 1995.

Charles Fourier. Fourier was one of the most radical minds of the nineteenth century.  He was said to have coined the term “feminism” in the mid-century; a term popularized by women of the time period.  His work The Theory of the Four Movements explains the roots utopian socialism including the feminist ideas that go along with it.  These utopian themes are further analyzed in Leslie F. Goldstein’s article “Early Feminist Themes in French Utopian Socialism: The St.-Simonians and Fourier.” Professor Jonathan Beecher authored a biography on Fourier, and selected parts of that text can be found below.

Charles Fourier

  • Beecher, Jonathan. Bloomsbury Academic, “Bloomsbury Publishing.” Last modified 1986. Accessed April 29, 2013. http://www.bloomsburyacademic.com/view/Utopian-Moments/chapter-ba-9781849666848-chapter-016.xml.
  • Fourier, Charles. The Theory of the Four Movements. Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • Goldstein, Leslie F. “Early Feminist Themes in French Utopian Socialism: The St.-Simonians and Fourier.” Journal of the History of Ideas. no. 1 (1982): 91-108.

Josephine Butler. As a feminist, Butler was primarily concerned about the welfare of prostitutes.  She is widely known as an incredibly Christian feminist, once stating, “God and one woman make a majority.”  Her article “The Women’s Place in Work” detailed what she believed should be a woman’s true job, and that is to serve God in any way possible.  I also found a helpful dissertation written (in English) by a Spanish graduate student on Butler’s beliefs on religion and government.

Josephine Butler

  • Butler, Josephine. “The Women’s Place in Work.” The Christian Literature Co. (1892): 31-7.
  • Mdegish, Ainour Fathi. Josephine Butler: Women’s Rights Between Religion and Military. master\., Repositório da Universidade de Lisboa, 2010. RCAAP.
  • Wanrooij, Bruno P.F. “Josephine Butler and Regulated Prostitution in Italy.” Women’s History Review. no. 2 (2008): 153-171.

Feminism and Philosophy

Several prominent French philosophes could also be considered feminists because their ideas of equality and universal suffrage overlapped with the same ideas feminists had.  Below is a list of convincing academic articles that explain further why major philosophes of the eighteenth century and beyond were also sometimes feminists, and how their ideas influenced the feminists after them.  It is important to note that between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the ideas of equality and fairness for all did not change, just the philosophes themselves. Accordingly, several of the articles may be on eighteenth century philosophes, but do touch on how they impacted nineteenth century feminism.

  • Clinton, Katherine B. “Femme et Philosophe: Enlightenment Origins of Feminism.” Eighteenth-Century Studies. no. 3 (1975): 283-299. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.bu.edu/stable/2737750 (accessed April 29, 2013).
  • Groenhout, Ruth F. Philosophy, Feminism and Faith. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002.
  • Sepinwall, Alyssa Goldstein. “Robespierre, Old Regime Feminist? Gender, the Late Eighteenth Century, and the French Revolution Revisited.” The Journal of Modern History. no. 1 (2010): 1-29. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/650505 (accessed April 29, 2013).
  • Nye, Andrea. Feminism and Modern Philosophy. New York: Prentice Hall International, 1995.


“I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves” –Molly Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women


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