Although the battle for gender equality began many years ago, feminism as a movement started during the nineteenth century. A long and hard struggle which has resulted in many breakthroughs, but still has a long way to go.
“If all men are born free, why are all women born slaves?”.
This is a question which holds validity in some countries today. However, this quote comes from a book published in 1700 by Mary Astell, who is considered the first English feminist.
Throughout history, particularly from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, there have been a number of women who have opposed the male dominated culture. Almost all of them have come from well educated and privileged backgrounds.
Writer Virginia Woolf called them “daughters of educated men”. These “daughters of educated men” went against their fathers and brothers who, even though they gave them access to education, it was worth nothing because the society in which they lived had no opportunities for them. They would respond to this by criticising works published specially by men who attacked women and marriage in their pages.
However, there was no real organised movement as such until 1837, when the word feminisme appeared in the French language. This word attempts to publicly support women’s rights in society.
Even though there have been a large number of feminist movements and theories throughout history, it is possible to divide feminism into three stages by going back no more than 200 years. The first stage is from the nineteenth century to the first decades of the twentieth century. The second stage is from the early sixties until the late eighties and the third stage started during the early nineties and continues today.
During this first stage, feminist struggles aimed to reform the social and legal inequalities women were subject to during the nineteenth century. Around 1855 a group of women organised a feminist movement in London. They were to become the Ladies of Langham Place.
The name comes from the address of the English Women’s Journal, based at 19 Langham Place, London, W1. The ladies of Langham Place used the journal to express their points of view.
The group was made up of well educated and privileged women who started to develop what is known in politics as “liberal feminism”. This theory promoted topics related to education, job opportunities and reforms to the Married Women’s Property Act.
Those were basically the matters of concern of the first wave, where the movement responded in most part to the unfair treatment women had suffered. The first wave’s greatest breakthrough was in the higher education sector, where they achieved the inclusion of women in national exams and broadened their access to a variety of professions, including medicine.
Besides this Women’s suffrage was the most significant advance, achieved by the movement in 1918, giving women over the age of 30 the right to vote.
This wave had a strong impact in the UK among the working class. Proof of this was a Ford factory strike where the workers demanded equality in salaries, almost bringing the country’s Ford factories to a complete standstill. The result of this was the Equal Pay Act.
Women then began to climb the management ladder, such as Barbara Castle, who became the first woman to be appointed as Minister of Transport in 1965.
The slogan “the personal is political” summarises the way in which this wave not only struggled to expand the range of social opportunities, but also obtain progress in matters regarding sexual reproduction. For instance, decriminalising abortion in specific cases and access to the morning-after pill through the Family Plan.
The second wave made substantial changes in women’s legal and institutional rights. However, the third wave aimed to go further by changing the stereotypes towards women in the media. It aimed to change the language used to define women.
The theory of this wave includes elements such as battling racism against women of colour, liberal feminism and sexual exploitation.
The third wave saw great achievements, such as in 1993, when the United Nations declared that violence towards women is an assault against their basic rights. And rape within marriage started to be seen as a crime.
Barbara Leigh, a member of the Ladies of Langham Place, can be counted among many notable English feminists. Leigh fought emphatically for many causes, among them the “Married Women’s Property Committee”. Through this committee, married women were able to keep their own property, whereas before they were obliged to automatically transfer all their property to their husbands.
Another important woman was Ethel Smyth a friend of Virginia Woolf’s and a leader of the women’s suffrage movement. She composed “The March of the Women”, which later was to become the movement’s anthem.
Writer Virginia Woolf is another notable feminist. Woolf wrote an essay called “A Room of One’s Own”. This essay became one of the movement’s most cited works, due to an extract which reads: ” in order for a woman to write fiction she must have two things, certainly: a room of her own and enough money to support herself”. This extract reveals how difficult it was for women to achieve success in writing, which at the time was dominated by men.
Since the beginning of time there have been exceptional women, and this can be seen today: Presidents, Nobel Prize laureates, Olympic medal winners…
For women who have been denied their rights in the UK, there are many associations which fight for equality among men and women, such as: UK Legal Feminist Group http://www.legalfeminist.org/, UKFEMINISTA http://ukfeminista.org.uk/, the f Word http://www.thefword.org.uk/ and London Feminist Network http://londonfeministnetwork.org.uk/.
In the meantime, there is still a long way to go. Even in the twenty-first century there are countries were women cannot vote, maintain sexual relations or drive a car because they are not given permission by men.
(Translated by David Buchanan – Email: email@example.com)