Advancement for Women: Education, Employment & Rights

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  • 0:02 First Wave of Feminism
  • 1:53 Seneca Falls Convention
  • 5:02 Expanding Opportunities
  • 6:35 Women Get the Vote!
  • 8:24 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will take a look at the advancement of women's rights during the 19th and early 20th centuries. We'll learn about the key events and themes surrounding the 'first wave' of the feminist movement and see how they impacted society.

The First Wave of Feminism

Feminism has 'waves?' What? What does that even mean? Well, let's talk about it. Historians and scholars in a number of fields often refer to the feminist movement taking place in 'waves.'

While it is difficult to determine exact dates, the first wave of feminism is generally considered to have taken place throughout the second half of the 19th century and into the very beginning of the 20th century. Some scholars have chosen to date the first wave of feminism between 1848-1920 because the Seneca Falls Convention was held in 1848, and American women gained the right to vote in 1920. Don't worry, we'll discuss these events more in a little bit.

So what does the 'first wave' of feminism even mean? Well, feminism, in its most basic form, is a movement aimed at securing gender equality and drawing attention to issues affecting women. So, the 'first wave' refers to the time when modern feminism first became a force to be reckoned with.

Early feminism was concerned with securing basic civil rights for women, like the right to work, the right to vote, and the right to social equality with men. With a few exceptions, throughout most of history, women were not entitled to equality with men. This movement aimed to change that. Sometimes the first wave of feminism is used synonymously with the term 'women's suffrage movement,' or just 'women's suffrage.' This dynamic movement affected both American and European societies.

The Seneca Falls Convention

In the United States, women had been slowly and gradually making strides towards equality with men for decades prior to the first wave of feminism. Many scholars have pointed out how the American Revolution disrupted traditional gender roles and led to opportunities for women. For example, John Adams' wife, Abigail Adams, was a strong proponent of women's rights.

The big shift, however, took place during the mid-19th century. In July 1848, the Seneca Falls Convention convened in Seneca Falls, New York. This was the first modern women's rights convention. The convention was organized by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, among others. Elizabeth Cady Stanton is widely regarded as one of the leading figures of the first wave of feminism.

A number of well-known figures spoke at the Seneca Falls Convention, including Stanton and black abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The convention passed a resolution called the Declaration of Sentiments. Based off the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of Sentiments essentially stated that women were entitled to the same civil rights as men. This might seem like common sense to us today, but in 1848, this was pretty radical!

The Seneca Falls Convention fueled other conventions and the formation of numerous women's rights organizations, like the Equal Rights Association in 1867 and the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869. By the 1860s, women's rights had become a major issue. Increasingly, women began demanding the right to vote.

Many feminists during this time were also abolitionists, or those in favor of abolishing slavery. Many also tended to be anti-alcohol. Because of this, the Women's Christian Temperance Movement (WCTU) was often allied with the women's suffrage movement. One more thing: don't confuse first wave feminism with the radical feminism of the 1960s and today. First wave feminism was much more conservative to moderate and, in many cases, even religious in nature.

The first wave of the feminist movement struck Europe at about the same time as it did the United States. The movement particularly flourished in Great Britain. Barbara Bodichon was one of the leading British feminists. She founded the English Women's Journal in 1858 and was instrumental in forming suffrage societies, such as the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women. In 1867, Lydia Becker founded the National Society for Women's Suffrage. Generally speaking, the first wave of the feminist movement proceeded in Great Britain at roughly the same pace as it did in America.

Expanding Opportunities for Women

The first wave of feminism resulted in all kinds of increased opportunities for women. These were especially noticeable in the areas of education, marriage, family dynamics, and the workplace. Throughout the mid-19th century, many private colleges and universities began opening their doors to women. In 1855, the University of Iowa became the first public co-ed university in America. Other schools, like the University of Michigan, soon followed suit. Throughout the second half of the 19th century, the stigma associated with a woman pursuing higher education gradually decreased.

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