Holly Kemble / Women’s Museum of California
First Wave Feminism occurred in the late 19th to early 20th centuries with the mission of legally changing the rights of women.
During this time there were a variety of laws that kept women silent both professionally and at home. First Wave feminists saw that this was a problem and made it their aim to grant women legal rights in the United States. With legal equality in mind, pioneering feminists such as Alice Paul, Margaret Sanger, and Frances Willard tackled issues like women’s suffrage, contraception, and domestic abuse.
What was profound about the work that these women and others did during First Wave Feminism, was that it was instrumental to other causes that did not pertain to women. The Women’s Suffrage Movement first banned together with the Abolitionist Movement to secure the rights of all peoples, the use of contraceptives was produced as a means to control poverty rates, and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union used their influence to fight for labor laws and prison reform. With these aspects in mind, it is fair to say that First Wave Feminism was not just about implementing laws to improve the lives of women, First Wave Feminism was also about bringing awareness to other marginalized groups.
First Wave Feminism is said to have gotten its footing at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. The Seneca Falls Convention was the first women’s rights convention that discussed, “the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman.” The Seneca Falls Convention was highly popularized and served as the home for the signing of the Declaration of Sentiments, which was an ode to the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Sentiments declared, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The Declaration of Sentiments, along with a list of accompanying resolutions, served as the founding documents for the Women’s Suffrage Movement.
The Women’s Suffrage Movement is a movement derivative of the Abolitionist Movement who sought racial equality from the mid to late 1800’s. During the Abolitionist Movement, leaders in the movement, such as Frederick Douglass, realized that the best way to gain racial equity was to unite with women who had a similar goal of gaining gender equity. Understanding that both groups would vote for the other should one group gain suffrage, the two formed a close partnership that sought that suffrage of all peoples. Although the Women’s Suffrage Movement and the Abolitionist Movement worked together for some time, the Women’s Suffrage Movement decided to cut their ties with the Abolitionist Movement after the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments. The 14th and 15th Amendments, which granted citizenship and voting rights to African Americans, served as the basis for the founding of The National American Woman’s Suffrage Association.
The National American Woman’s Suffrage Association, also referred to as NAWSA, was helmed by Susan B. Anthony who believe that women’s suffrage and the suffrage of African Americans should no longer be an interconnected issue. Under Anthony’s leadership, NAWSA became a group of middle to upper-class white women who used racist nationalist arguments as the principles for women’s suffrage. The general argument of NAWSA was that if black, uneducated, migrant men could vote, why couldn’t women? While NAWSA had high membership and a strong public approval rating, in 1910 the group fractured resulting in the creation of the National Woman’s Party.
The National Woman’s Party, unlike NAWSA, was an organization that sought women’s suffrage on a federal level. Led by Alice Paul, the National Woman’s Party refrained from nationalist arguments in favor of highly publicized militaristic protests. The NWP is known for chaining themselves to the White House fence, denouncing the patriarchy, and going on hunger strikes. Although the NWP was radical for its time, the organization’s practices garnered enough attention to replace anti-suffrage senators in the 1918 Congressional elections. With these senators gone, the 19th Amendment was ratified and women were granted the right to vote on August 18, 1920.
From the mid-1800’s until the early 1900’s, women were fighting for not only their suffrage but for the right to their own bodies due in large part to the accomplishments of Margaret Sanger. Margaret Sanger was the innovative figure for women’s reproductive rights who rallied behind the idea or family planning and coined the term “birth control.” As a labor and delivery nurse in New York city, Sanger often treated women who suffered from pregnancy complications and botched abortions. Many of these women asked Sanger to help them prevent further pregnancies, but Sanger was unable to share her knowledge due to the Cornstock Law, which made it illegal for medical professionals to share contraceptive information on the grounds obscenity.
Growing up in an impoverished family of 13, Sanger saw just how financially draining multiple children could be for poor families. Realizing that limiting birth control was a systemic problem that hurt women and kept poor families poor, Sanger pursued her passion of helping women take control of the size of their families. Sanger did this by writing columns for The New York Call, where she would share information on women’s reproductive health. Although Sanger’s columns did not teach women how to prevent contraception, they did discuss women’s health, which was deemed obscene, and therefore illegal.
After her columns were shut down for obscenity, Sanger started The Woman Rebel magazine in 1914, which urged women to use contraceptives. Due to the impudence of her writings, Sanger was arrested and awaited prosecution under the Cornstock Law. Before her trial, however, Sanger printed and distributed 100,000 copies of her pamphlet Family Limitations, which finally told women how to prevent conception. While many women and men were pleased to find a solution to stop childbirth, many saw Family Limitations as an inappropriate form of bawdiness and scrutinized her writings as such. Although Sanger had no regrets about releasing her pamphlet, she self-exiled herself to England where she shared her contraceptive information to those abroad. When Sanger and her family finally returned to the U.S. for her trial, her youngest daughter fell ill and passed away from pneumonia at the age of five. Realizing the support that Sanger had both at home and abroad, the prosecution decided not to make a martyr out of Sanger and dropped the charges.
Following Sanger’s public trial, Sanger opened up the first birth control clinic in 1916. Although Sanger had over 500 registered clients, she was arrested again and sentenced to 30 days in prison. After her release, Sanger continued to garner more and more support for birth control and women’s reproductive rights. With more people accepting contraception in the United States, Sanger founded and presided as president of the American Birth Control League, which would later be known as the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. After her retirement at age 80, Sanger encouraged philanthropists to donate to biologist Gregory Pincus who used these donations to develop the contraceptive commonly known as “the pill.” Although Sanger remains a controversial figure to this day, her efforts show how increasing women’s rights can often times help other suffering communities.
As seen with the Women’s Suffrage Movement and Margaret Sanger’s quest to normalize birth control, First Wave Feminism was the beginning of women mobilizing themselves in order to promote legal change for women. Although both of these efforts amassed great support, by far, the most prolific group during First Wave Feminism was the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union or the WCTU.
The WCTU was an organization made up of women who protested against the sale and consumption of alcohol in order to stop domestic abuse. In the late 19th century, domestic abuse was a major concern for women as alcoholism became a national problem. Drinking rates increased heavily in the mid 19th century with the average American drinking about 7.1 gallons of alcohol per year compared to the 5.8 gallons they were drinking in the late 18th century. The rise in alcohol consumption in the United States, unfortunately, gave rise to the severity and frequency of domestic abuse. Not only this, but women during this time were also concerned about their family’s finances as their husbands would often be laid off for drunkenness, or would squander their limited income on liquor.
Due to these pressing problems, women began mobilizing in nonviolent protests demanding that drinking be stopped. In December 1873, women who had never protested before joined forces to participate in pray-ins at their local saloons and after three months, women had driven liquor out of 250 communities. With the success of these pray-ins, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union was founded in 1874 as a group of women who could come together to stop domestic abuse.
The main priority of the WCTU was, “protection of the home,” which the movement thought could be done through prohibition. As the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union quickly grew to 150,000 due-paying members, members of the movement wanted to use the power of the WCTU to argue for other social issues. In 1879 Frances Willard took authority of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and turned the WCTU into the most influential women’s rights group in the United States. Under Willard’s leadership, the WCTU became the largest organization endorsing women’s suffrage. In 1896, the WCTU expanded their mission to help marginalized groups when they devoted 25 of their 39 departments to non-temperance issues like labor laws, prison reform, and women’s suffrage. Willard led the WCTU under the veil of her own personal motto, “do everything,” which encouraged women to see that reform is interconnected and therefore the WCTU should, “do everything,” in their power to fight for the rights of all marginalized social groups.
In an attempt to keep promoting the issues that the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union was concerned about, the WCTU was one of the first organizations to keep a professional lobbyist in Washington D.C. After much lobbying by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, in 1901 every state in the nation had some kind of program that taught children in public schools about the dangers of alcohol. While this was a promising accomplishment for the movement, the WCTU lost their momentum after the death of Frances Willard in 1898. Soon the prohibition movement was taken over by the male led anti-saloon league which garnered enough support for the passage of the 18th amendment. Although the passage of the 18th Amendment, which prohibited alcohol, led to organized crime, corruption of justice, and excessive consumption of alcohol, prohibition should also be remembered as one of the first times that women joined forces to make the legal change in the United States.
First Wave Feminism was a profound time for women in the United States. From the late 19th to the early 20th centuries, first wave feminists mobilized their power to create legal change for women and other marginalized groups. With Women uniting for the suffrage movement, fighting for their rights to contraception, and organizing the largest women’s organization to end drinking, women in this era used their efforts to support the abolitionist movement, seek to end poverty rates and stop domestic abuse. First Wave Feminism was the first step of the feminist movement where regular women noticed problems in their local communities and used lobbying and nonviolent protests to pave the way for change. Although some moments during First Wave Feminism remain controversial, First Wave Feminism should be remembered as the beginning of women organizing themselves, speaking in public, and lobbying for special interest groups.