The Beginnings of Feminism

By Nicholas Klacsanzky

Though feminism is seen as a modern-day perspective and philosophy, its history extends far back. In fact, feminism does not have, like many movements, a linear history. Its beginnings are difficult to trace, but in the following paragraphs, I will do my best to unravel the earliest recorded works on feminism and works that added to the discourse of the advancement of women within societies.

Strangely enough, the first person credited as advocating for the equality of women was a man: the philosopher Plato. During his lifetime, which was about 24 centuries ago, he “[argued] for the total political and sexual equality of women, advocating that they be members of his highest class, … those who rule and fight” (Baruch, Elaine Hoffman). The next important figure in history to challenge the status quo was French writer Christine de Pizan (1364 – c. 1430). She is said to be the first woman in history to denounce misogyny in writing. Her books The Book of the City of Ladies and Epistle to the God of Love were landmark volumes in her time, and were even presented to Queen Isabeau of Bavaria (de Beauvoir, Simone).

After de Pizan, many other feminists worked to get out their message of the equality of the sexes. For instance, in the 16th century, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa and Modesta di Pozzo di Forzi were prominent literary figures pushing a feminist agenda. And in the 17th century, Hannah Woolley, Inés de la Cruz, Marie Le Jars de Gournay, Anne Bradstreet, and François Poullain de la Barre were the key literary proponents of feminism (Schneir, Miram). However, one 17th-century writer outshone others during her time in terms of being an advocate for women’s rights: Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Many feminist scholars refer to her as a shining example of how education could shape a woman’s intellect and outdo men’s intelligence. She was said to be brighter than most of men she encountered, which was revolutionary in the 17th century (Makin, Bathsua). Most women in the 17th century were not afforded a proper and full education.

The more formal introduction of feminist ideals were made in the Age of Enlightenment. In this more secular and introspective time, many writers began to support the equality of women in society as a whole. Jeremy Bentham’s Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation published in 1781 proposed that we should not deny women’s rights based on preconceived notions of women’s lack of intelligence. He gave many examples of intelligent and able women in this volume (Williford, Miriam). Around the same time, Nicolas de Condorcet, a mathematician, politician, revolutionary, and defender of human rights published De l’admission des femmes au droit de cité (For the Admission to the Rights of Citizenship For Women). As a French revolutionary, he was an advocate for women’s suffrage in the fresh French government of 1790 (Williams, David). In 1791, a compatriot, Olympe de Gouges, saw de Condorcet’s failure to appeal to the French National Assembly to change women’s rights, and wrote and printed the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen. This document set a precedent in the way of writing about women’s rights, which was to satirize the style of existing legislation written by men (Hesse, Carla). However, the most essential feminist writer of the time was Mary Wollstonecraft. She is mentioned as the first feminist philosopher, and published the pivotal A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. In this work, she noted that the perception of women came almost exclusively from the male perspective, and that both genders contributed to inequality. She determined that both genders needed a proper education to understand and work towards equality. Wollstonecraft had set the stage for writing unabashedly about women’s standing, and what to work towards and how in relation to women’s rights (Foundation for Economic Education).

Though feminism is thought of as a new trend, advocates of women’s rights have been active since Classical Greek times. Plato was the first to be famous for proposing equality among genders, though it was not until Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792 that feminism claimed a respectable place in literature. Though early feminist literature had been criticized harshly, by the Age of Enlightenment and the Victorian Era, feminist literature had become more commonplace and even respected. In between Plato’s lectures and Wollstonecraft’s essays, there were many other key figures that established what we know of as feminism today. Without their advocacy, the natural born rights of women would not have been achieved on an almost global scale.

References

Baruch, Elaine Hoffman. Women in Men’s Utopias, in Rohrlich, Ruby, & Elaine Hoffman Baruch, eds., Women in Search of Utopia, op. cit., p. [209] and see p. 211 (Plato supporting “child care” so women could be soldiers), citing, at p. [209] n. 1, Plato, trans. Francis MacDonald Cornford, The Republic (N.Y.: Oxford Univ. Press, 1973), Book V.

de Beauvoir, Simone. English translation 1953 (1989). The Second Sex. Vintage Books. p. 105. ISBN 0-679-72451-6.

Schneir, Miram, 1972 (1994). Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings. Vintage Books. p. xiv. ISBN 0-679-75381-8.

Makin, Bathsua (1673). An Essay to Revive the Ancient Education of Gentlewomen. London: Printed by J.D., to be sold by Tho. Parkhurst.

Williford, Miriam. Bentham on the rights of Women, Journal of the History of Ideas, 1975.

Williams, David. “Condorcet, Feminism, and the Egalitarian Principle.” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 5 (1976): 151+.

Hesse, Carla. The Other Enlightenment: How French Women Became Modern (2001), 42.

“Mary Wollstonecraft – Equal Rights for Women.” Foundation for Economic Education.

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