The Relevant and the Ridiculous: A Guide Through Feminist History

Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management was a guide for women, teaching them to run a Victorian household. Published in 1861, it was considered typical of the kinds of information women were thought to need, while requiring little or nothing else.

Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management was a guide for women, teaching them to run a Victorian household. Published in 1861, it was considered typical of the kinds of information women were thought to need, while requiring little or nothing else.

1. Early feminism had a point. There were actual societal changes that needed to be made.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, feminism was fairly easy to understand. It was a movement of those who believed that women should enjoy the same freedoms as their male counterparts. This included access to the same level of education and freedom in choosing what they wanted from life–marriage, family, a career. Early feminists were fighting for this equality of status, to be seen as equal to men and, if married, to have rights separate from their husbands. Much of this was a reaction against the “feminine ideal” in Victorian society, which argued that women belonged in the home rather than in educational institutions or the workplace. Hooray for these early pioneers of equality!

2. Women had to get active politically to assert their rights as individuals.

To fight for equality, changes had to be made on a legislative level. Women with opinions? No way! At long last, women finally began to share their thoughts more freely on politics, successfully campaigning in many states for the rights of married women to own and dispose of property. This was a huge step forward for women, as they were legally seen as an entity separate from their husbands.

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Women sharing opinions on politics? Yes!

3. First-wave feminism meant meaningful change.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these ideas solidified into what is commonly known as “first-wave feminism.” Those in this movement sought the vote, rights for education, better working conditions, and overall equality between the genders. These ladies were still on track, fighting for equality that mattered.

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Look at all those women folk with opinions!

4. Women fought for issues like prohibition and abolition of slavery before turning to the right to vote.

The antislavery campaign and temperance movements were seen by some as corollary to the women’s movement. Many women working in these movement were, in fact, feminists, who later turned their attention to suffrage. It’s a good thing prohibition didn’t stick like suffrage did.

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I’m not sure they got a lot of sober kisses, but thanks for the right to vote!

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5. The relaxation of clothing reflects the relaxation of gender roles… but neither was completely relaxed.

In the Edwardian era of the early 20th century, strict gender roles began to blur, giving women more freedom. They had more employment opportunities and, reflecting this relaxation of societal mores, clothing became less restrictive. For example, the corset, which had been at the height of its popularity in the Victorian era, was falling out of fashion. Not a moment too soon…they weren’t too good for women.

Learn more about Susan B. Anthony, one of the key warriors in the battle for women’s suffrage:

6. Look out, world, women can vote!

The end of first-wave feminism is considered to be August 19, 1910. On this date, the 19th Amendment was passed, which gave women the right to vote. After decades of fighting, women had achieved this essential step towards legal equality, and a major victory for feminism. Hooray for issues that mattered!

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Women work in a munitions factory in London during World War One

7. War means changes, and a World War means they are even greater.

The advent of World War I meant big changes for women. More women entered the workplace, and were in a greater variety of positions. Many women found these new roles fulfilling, only to be forced to give up their jobs when men returned home. Women were making progress, but still took a back seat to men and traditional gender roles in a lot of ways.

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Look, a horrible person!

8. Birth control was supposed to mean freedom for women, but the methods used were unsafe and purveyors like Margaret Sanger had questionable motives.

As women became more liberated in the workplace, they wanted to exert more control over their bodies as well. In the 20th century, this led many women to desire access to contraception. While feminists were legally barred from discussing contraception or abortion, the information was still circulated, and women sought to control their futures by controlling the timing and number of their pregnancies.

This is where some women began to go too far. Women like eugenics cheerleader Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, shared hugely unsafe ways for women to prevent and end a pregnancy. This great disservice to women continues to be her legacy at Planned Parenthood today.

WWII newsreel footage shows women breaking into new roles:

9. Another large step for women came again with the outbreak of World War II.

When we think of women’s power today, many of us still picture Rosie the Riveter, the symbol of women taking to the factories to support men at war. Women were also recruited to play sports such as baseball to provide levity and entertainment while the men were away.

However, like World War I, when World War II ended, many factories closed, and the men came home to reclaim their jobs, and positions on athletic teams. While women had gotten a taste of life without men, many aspects of life went back to the status quo upon their return. The next generation, however, would take it a step further.

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10. Equality under the law means victory for true feminists, but that doesn’t stop the next wave from finding something to fight.

In the 1960s, feminism exploded across college campuses with this new generation of women enrolling in college in huge numbers. The 1964 Civil Rights Act mandated equal opportunities for women,  and they were planning for careers rather than just jobs, which required more education. In the late ’60s, colleges began offering courses in women’s studies, and these became fully-fledged programs in the early 1970s.

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Really? This is your biggest problem?

11. Second-wave feminism: Wherein this writer begins to think feminists are insane.

A new brand of feminism, the second wave, came about with female activists of the 1960s, and it’s pretty much where feminism loses me. Women had achieved equality under the law, so they fought against inequalities in culture, taking on such institutions as the Miss America Pageant. In 1968, nearly 400 feminists staged a protest outside the pageant. When the winner was crowned at the end of the night, protestors who had snuck into the building unfurled a banner from the balcony that read “Women’s Liberation.”

If the Miss America Pageant is your biggest problem, you don’t have very big problems.

12. The sexual revolution was heralded as being empowering for women. Was it?

Another aspect of this era of feminism was sexual liberation, which challenged traditional societal conventions from the 1960s through the 1980s. Sexual liberation came in many forms, including sex outside of marriage (thanks to the pill, which hit the market in 1960) and homosexuality. Another piece of this sexual freedom was the legalization of abortion under Roe v. Wade in 1973. While heralded as an advancement for women, even Roe (real name Norma McCorvey) is now against abortion.

13. Reaching out to all women? That’s a good thing. Even more than in the second wave, however, the third wave was fighting largely unimportant battles.

In the 1990s, women took up the torch their sisters had lit 30 years previously with what is generally considered to be the beginning of “third-wave feminism.” With equality granted under the law, these feminists continued to push society, with goals like the abolition of gender roles, defending sex work and pornography and embracing sexuality. It reached out to gay and non-white women as well.


Rosie the Riveter told us we could do it, and we did! Now it’s time to enjoy and protect what these women won for us.

14. Lighten up, ladies.

What are we to expect from the future of feminism? With equality enshrined in law and, with rare exceptions, the norm in society, empowered women should now be the status quo. The mantle of feminism must now be worn by women who wish to embrace this rather than perceive victimhood. Many of today’s prominent “feminists,” however, seem to relish the victim card a little too much to let it go.


image illustrations via wikimedia commons