First-Wave Feminism: Breaking the Barriers of Social Norms

First-wave feminism was the beginning of a long, uphill battle for women’s rights and equality in a political world dominated by men.

Oct 9, 2022By Amy Hayes, BA History w/ English minor
First Wave Feminism
Suffragist group outside the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage headquarters with picketing signs by Harris & Ewing, 1917, via the Library of Congress, Washington DC

First-wave feminism focused heavily on women’s suffrage. Before the mid-19th century, women stood in the background of most political discussions. Most of their days were spent taking care of domestic tasks, such as cleaning the home, cooking, and caring for children. The lack of involvement in society beyond the household began to motivate women to speak out in an effort to have a say in their rights.


The Seneca Falls Convention: The First Official Event of First-Wave Feminism 

Declaration of Sentiments authored by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 1848, via the Library of Congress, Washington DC


The first wave of feminism officially began with the first women’s rights meeting at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. The initial idea for the convention came in 1840 at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. Women weren’t invited to attend the event. Despite being a men-only event, some women activists, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, still decided to show. Their unwelcomed attendance led to the men excluding them from speaking or participating in any discussions, but they were allowed to stay.


Stanton and Mott met on July 9, 1848, at the home of philanthropists Jane and Richard Hunt in Waterloo, New York to organize the first women’s rights convention. They wrote the “Declaration of Sentiments,” which outlined numerous statements declaring women’s equality. The Seneca Falls Convention was held less than two weeks later, on July 19 and 20. It occurred in the Wesleyan Chapel on Fall Street in the Seneca Falls village in New York. Topics of discussion included the current and future roles of women in a civil, social, and religious sense. Men were allowed to participate in discussions on the second day.


It’s estimated that about 300 men and women attended the Seneca Falls Convention. Some of the resolutions recorded in deliberations reflected the following: women are equal to men, women are morally superior just as men claim to be intellectually superior, and men should be expected to uphold the same level of behavior in public as women. The convention sparked the start of the women’s suffrage movement, which continued to be a focal point for women activists over the next several decades.


Movements That Inspired the First Wave of Feminism 

Women’s rights activists and abolitionists Elizabeth Cady Stanton (left) and Susan B. Anthony (right), via the Library of Congress, Washington DC


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First-wave feminism was built upon women activists who participated in other social movements. Women were at the heart of the temperance movement that appeared in the early 19th century. The movement pushed for the ban or limitation of drinking alcohol in the United States. Women established several temperance organizations. These organizations helped women gain more skills in navigating the political realm by carrying leadership roles.


The abolitionist movement began shortly before the start of the first wave of feminism. Many abolitionists were women who organized anti-slavery campaigns. Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton both lectured about ending slavery. There was a larger disconnect between the abolitionist and first-wave feminism movements. African American women were often not included in some first-wave women’s rights organizations or events. This would not change much until the appearance of second-wave feminism alongside the Civil Rights Movement.


Women became more comfortable and determined to insert themselves into political discussions in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was previously seen as unnatural for women to speak about political issues. As women began to join social movements and take on leadership positions, it encouraged more women to advocate for their beliefs and rights. During the first wave, common tactics for women’s rights advocates included petitioning, lobbying, and lecturing. Marching for rights became more common in the 20th century.


First-Wave Feminists

Envoy of suffragists a part of the Congressional Union “Suffrage Special” event touring Colorado, 1916, via the Library of Congress, Washington DC


A woman’s involvement in the political discussion was largely frowned upon for centuries. Numerous first-wave feminists ignored this dispiriting perspective in an effort to change women’s lives forever. Sojourner Truth lived through slavery until she escaped in 1826, seeking freedom and using her experiences as encouragement to advocate for the abolition of slavery and women’s rights. Truth attended the Woman’s Rights Convention of 1851 in Akron, Ohio, where she delivered a powerful and memorable speech. In the speech titled Ain’t I a Woman? Truth discussed how she is just as strong and capable as any man.


Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony all worked together as women’s rights advocates. They were considered some of the most influential first-wave feminists through their efforts in the suffrage movement. Along with helping organize the first women’s rights convention, Stanton was also an author who published multiple books on women’s rights issues. Mott was raised in a Quaker household. One of the core beliefs of Quakers included equality, which encouraged Mott to become an abolitionist and women’s rights activist.


Susan B. Anthony met Stanton and other activists at an anti-slavery convention in 1851. This led her to attend her first women’s rights convention the following year. Although Anthony died in 1906 before women won the right to vote, she had such a great impact on the movement that the 19th Amendment is often referred to as the “Susan B. Anthony Amendment.”


Organizations of the First-Wave Feminist Movement 

Women’s rights activists marching to advocate for school suffrage, 1915, via the Library of Congress, Washington DC


Several organizations had a significant role in pushing for suffrage and other women’s rights issues. However, first-wave feminism ran into some complications in the late 19th century, as activists had disagreements on how to advocate and win over women’s rights. These issues led large groups of suffragists and activists to split into different organizations, which lessened the power of the movement.


The National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) was established by Elizabeth C. Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, which focused on winning women’s suffrage on the federal level. Amid discussions about the 15th Amendment, the NWSA pushed for women to be included. The 15th Amendment was passed by Congress in 1869, only granting African American men the right to vote. This caused outrage among Stanton, Anthony, and other NWSA members. Stanton and Anthony heavily criticized the amendment for leaving women out of it and decided to denounce it publicly. Disagreements arose among women’s rights activists who supported the amendment, despite its exclusion of women. Activists split off into other organizations that better supported their beliefs.


Members of the National Woman’s Party picketing outside the White House by Harris & Ewing, 1919, via the Library of Congress, Washington DC


The American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) was founded by Lucy Stone in 1869 and focused on securing women’s suffrage at the state level. The divide between these two major women’s rights organizations crippled the suffrage movement. The NWSA and AWSA decided to hash out their disagreements and merge together in 1890 to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Stanton and Anthony were the first leaders of the organization. NAWSA received support from other groups, including the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and Women’s Trade Union League.


The National Woman’s Party (NWP) appeared later in 1913. The NWP, originally named the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, was founded by Quaker and activist Alice Paul. This organization took a more direct approach to women’s rights by picketing, practicing civil disobedience, and organizing mass rallies and protests. Paul was highly educated, having earned a master’s in sociology, Ph.D. in economics, and a law degree. Her more active approach to suffrage helped the movement gain popularity.


The NWP organized picketing protests outside the White House beginning in 1917, just at the start of World War I. Many women were arrested and assaulted, but the picketing continued for two more years. After the 19th Amendment was passed and ratified, the NWP turned its focus toward other women’s rights issues and discrimination. Alice Paul introduced the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to Congress in 1923. This was a significant stepping stone for future women’s rights that concentrated on eliminating social, civil, and political discrimination toward all women.


Major Events During the First Wave of Feminism

Head of the 1913 Woman Suffrage Parade in front of the US Capitol, via the Library of Congress, Washington DC


After the Civil War ended slavery, more questions concerning rights for women began to appear. Women activists took this as an opportunity to push for suffrage. Congressman Thaddeus Stevens created a Petition for Universal Suffrage in 1866. Some of the movement’s most notable activists and suffragists signed the petition, including Elizabeth Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Antionette Brown Blackwell.


A large-scale women’s suffrage procession was organized in 1913, known as the Woman Suffrage Parade. The parade was scheduled just a day before President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration on Pennsylvania Avenue. It was organized by the NAWSA and promoted the “New Woman” of the 20th century. The floats demonstrated women’s contributions and accomplishments from around the world. Over 5,000 marchers and more than 20 floats took part in the parade.


The almost century-long struggle to gain women’s suffrage came to an end when Congress passed the 19th Amendment on June 4, 1919. It was ratified a little over one year later, in August 1920. The amendment made it unlawful for US citizens to be discriminated against based upon sex when voting. Several states, mainly in the South, initially rejected the 19th Amendment. African American men and women still struggled to receive these rights because of Jim Crow laws. It took Mississippi more than 60 years to ratify the 19th Amendment. Michigan and Wisconsin, on the other hand, were quick to ratify it within just six days after it passed the US Senate’s vote.


The Impact of First-Wave Feminism

Women of Colorado watching the ratification of the 19th Amendment in December 1919, via the Library of Congress, Washington DC


Although the first-wave feminism movement had a narrow focus, it accomplished a great deal. Securing the right to vote for women allowed them to officially be recognized as active citizens who could participate in the political arena. First-wave feminism led to women being able to vote on issues that concerned women’s rights, which would be beneficial for future decisions.


The first wave of feminism died down after the 19th Amendment was passed and ratified. There were still women’s rights activists who continued to pursue new goals of equality. The revival of the feminist movement wouldn’t appear until 40 years later in the second wave of feminism. First-wave feminists heavily influenced new activists that emerged in the second wave to tackle women’s rights and equality issues.

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By Amy HayesBA History w/ English minorAmy is a contributing writer with a passion for historical research and the written word. She holds a BA in history from Old Dominion University with a concentration in English. Amy grew up in the historic state of Virginia and quickly became fascinated by the intricate details of how people, places, and things came to be. She specializes in topics on American history, Ancient and Medieval England, law, and the environment.