WS3300 Women in Europe 2002-2003

Week 1 First Wave Feminism in Europe

International Woman Suffrage Alliance meeting 1914.
Helix - Social & Political History of Britain Record
Copyright of Hulton Getty Picture Collection


According to K. Offen in her article in Signs, 14/1, 1988, the term 'feminism' originated in France and was not widely used until the 1890s.  We don't want to use the term anachronistically, but we do know that what we call feminism - i.e. collective action by women to improve women's position/condition - did occur before the 1890s.  Offen calls it 'pro-woman advocacy' - I think we could more usefully refer to women's rights activity.
Many feminist historians refer to women’s rights activity from the 1840s to the 1920s as ‘First Wave feminism’ and to contemporary women’s movements as ‘Second Wave feminism’.
Feminism is ‘advocacy of equal rights for women coupled with organised and sustained action for the purpose of achieving them’.
Boxer, M. (1982) 'First-wave feminism in 19th Century France', Women's Studies International Forum 5/6, p. 552.


In the USA women's rights activity started around 1848, in Germany the General German Women's Association was formed in 1865 and in France the Society for the Demand for Women's Rights was set up in 1866.  In 1867 the first women's suffrage groups started in Britain and in Sweden, the Association for Married Women's Property Rights was formed in 1873.  There were also women's rights groups in Russia from the 1860s and in Italy from the 1890s.
First Wave feminism not limited to USA & Europe - also women’s movements in China, Persia, India, Palestine & Argentina - quite a lot of contact between organisations in different countries - International Council of Women formed 1888 and the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance in 1902.

Main Concerns

Across Europe, groups of predominantly middle class women began campaigning for access to higher education and the professions, for married women's property rights, for the reform of (male) sexual conduct and, eventually, for the vote.

For suffrage, see

A World Chronology of the Recognition of Women's Rights to Vote and to Stand for Election
Encyclopedia Americana

In Britain, working class women were a significant minority in the feminist movement but in Germany, the middle class and working class feminist organisations remained divided.
Many middle class feminists of the mid-nineteenth century came from families which were unconventional in some ways - for example, Quaker or Unitarian in religion and/or involved in other movements for political reform. Many working class feminists were active in trades unions and political parties.
The shape and strength of the movement varied from country to country, and the differences were predominantly due to the different political circumstances in the different countries.

Why did the women's movement emerge from the middle of the nineteenth century in so many countries?

  1. Economic and Social Change

    Industrial capitalism developed first in Britain and then in mainland Europe – parts of Southern and Eastern Europe remained mainly agricultural until WW2.
    Industrial capitalism can be seen as the second stage of capitalism, following on from mercantile capitalism (when capital was amassed as a result of trade in raw materials, goods and enslaved people) - industrial capitalism characterised by technological innovation, mechanisation, large scale factory production and urbanisation.

    For definitions, see

    Industrial Revolution

    Accompanied by the development of commercial institutions like banks and the expansion of the professions - the manufacturing, commercial & professional middle classes grew in wealth, status & self confidence in industrialised countries.

    The men of the middle classes demanded political rights and access to political power commensurate with their economic power and status.
    It can be argued that the position of middle class women (relative to middle class men) was getting worse because of the separation of the home and the workplace and the exclusion of middle class women from professional work.
    ‘The increasing importance of property and wealth, as opposed to land and title, as the basis of power and status, quickly led to the articulation of middle class women’s desire for formal legal recognition of their right to an independent share in the newly-acquired riches of the bourgeoisie.’
    R J Evans (1977) The Feminists 1840-1920, p. 30

    Large scale factory production brought together large numbers of workers who were overwhelmingly dependent on their wages (the industrial proletariat) - working class men and women formed trades unions and political parties to improve their economic conditions and to demand political rights.
    Many middle class women feared that working class men would get political rights before they did.
    ‘One of the major drives behind feminism was the need felt by middle class women to reassert their superiority of status over socially or racially 'inferior' men to whom political and social change was bringing rights and thus status, which they were still denied.’
    R J Evans (1977) The Feminists 1840-1920, p. 239

  2. Intellectual and Ideological Change

    The idea that human beings had natural rights by virtue of being born human and in possession of reason was attractive to middle class men as a basis for challenging monarchical and aristocratic power which rested on concepts of divine rights and hereditary rights.
    Ideas of natural rights developed from eighteenth century onwards - for most middle class men, however, these natural rights were limited to men of property and education - excluded working class men and all women.
    Working class men were deemed to be uneducated and therefore not fully rational and irresponsible because they owned no property.
    Women were generally seen as less rational than men - almost defined as a different type of human being - designed to nurture children and support men.

    One of the central documents of the French Revolution is the

    Declaration of the Rights of Man

    For women’s role in the French Revolution

    Women and the Revolution

    Some writers sought to extend the principle of natural rights to all human beings, for example, in the

    Olympe de Gouge
    Declaration of the Rights of Women 1791
    Mary Wollstonecraft, The Vindication of the Rights of Woman 1792

Tasks for students

Look again at the issues nineteenth century feminists campaigned on.  Do you know exactly what they demanded?  Can you work out how the different issues are linked together?  Do you know how they campaigned?
What happened to feminism in Europe between the 1920s and the 1960s?
Follow up some of the internet links on this page and/or read two or three chapters/articles from the reading list. Make some notes, remembering to write down the precise references of your sources.
For guidance on citing interent sources, try

Reading List - First-wave Feminism in Europe

Some of these sources are not available in Wolverhampton Library. If they are vital for your assignment, order them through Inter Library Loan.

General\ Europe-wide
Evans, R (1977) The Feminists: Women's Emancipation Movements 1840-1920
Rendall, J. (1985) The Origins of Modern Feminism: Women in Britain, France & USA 1780-1860
Boxer, M. & Quataert, J. (eds) (1978) European Socialist Feminism in the 19th and 20th Century 301.412094
Slaughter, J. & Kern, R. (eds) (1981) European Women on the Left: 1880-to the present
Evans, R. (1987) Comrades & Sisters: Feminism, Socialism & Pacifism 1870-1945
Reynolds, S. (1986) Women, State & Revolution: Essays on Power & Gender in Europe since 1789
Offen, K. (1987) 'Liberty, equality & justice for women: the theory & practice of feminism in 19th Century' in Bridenthal, R et al (eds) Becoming Visible: Women in European History
Offen, K. (1988) 'Defining Feminism: a Comparative Historical Approach' Signs 14/1
Hurwitz, E. (1977)'The International Sisterhood' in Bridenthal, R et al (eds) Becoming Visible: Women in European History
Boxer, M. & Quataert, J (2000) Connectingspheres. European women in a globalizing world, 1500 to the present.
Anderson, B. The Lid Comes Off: International Radical Feminism and the Revolutions of 1848
McMillan, J. The Development of Women's Movements, 1789-1914
Women’s Politics: The Feminist Movement (draft book)

Frevert, U. (1989) Women in German History: from Bourgeois Emancipation to Sexual Liberation
Zetkin, C. (1994) On the History of the German Working-Class Women's Movement
Thonnessen, W. (1973) The Emancipation of Women: the Rise and Decline of the Women's Movement in German Social Democracy 1863-1933
Hackett, A. (1976) 'Feminism & Liberalism in Wilhelmine Germany 1890-1918' in Carroll, B. (ed) Liberating Women's History
Evans, R. (1980) 'Bourgeois Feminists & Women Socialists in Germany 1894-1914', Women's Studies International Quarterly 3/4
Wickert, C. et al (1982) ' 'Helene Stocker and the Society for the Protection of Motherhood' in Sarah, E. (ed) Reassessments of 1st Wave Feminism
Allen, A. (1985) 'Adele Schreiber, Helene Stocker and the Evolution of the German Idea of Motherhood 1900-1914', Signs 10\3
Gerhard, V. (1982) 'Reflections on the History of Germany's Women's Movements', Women's Studies International Forum 5/6
Quataert, J (1978) 'Unequal Partners in an Uneasy Alliance: Women and the Working Class in Imperial Germany', in Boxer, M. & Quataert, J Socialist Women:European Socialist Feminism in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries
Neumann, R. (1974) 'The Sexual Question & Social Democracy in Imperial Germany', Journal of Social History 7/3
Honeycutt, K. (1979) 'Socialism and Feminism in Imperial German', Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society,5, pp. 30-41.

Macmillan, J. (1991) The Place of Women in French Society 1870-1940
Spencer, S.(ed) (1992) French Women and the Age of Enlightenment
Sowerine, C. (1982) Women & Socialism in France since 1876
Faure, C (1991) Democracy without Women: Feminism and the Rise of Liberal Individualism in France
Hause, S. (1984) Women's Suffrage & Social Policy in the French 3rd Republic
Hause, S. & Kenney, A. (1981) 'The Limits of Suffrage Behaviour: legalism & militancy in France 1876-1922' American Historical Review, October.
Scott, J. (1989) 'French Feminists and the Rights of 'Man': Olympe de Gouge's Declarations', History Workshop Journal No 28.
Macmillan, J. (1981) 'Clericals, Anti-Clericals & the Women's Movement in France under the 3rd Repulic', Historical Journal 24/2.
Boxer, M. (1982) 'First-wave feminism in 19th Century France', Women's Studies International Forum 5/6 (Also in Sarah, E. (ed) (1982) Reassessments of 1st Wave Feminism)
Boxer, M. (1981) 'When Radical and Socialist Feminism were joined: the extraordinary failure of Madeleine Pelletier' in J Slaughter& R Kern (eds) European Women on the Left.
Boxer, M. (1978) 'Socialism faces Feminism: the Failure of Synthesis in France 1879-1914' in Boxer, M. & Quataert, J. (eds) European Socialist Feminism
Graham, R. (1977) 'Loaves and Liberty: Women in the French Revolution' in Bridenthall, R. & Koonz, C. (eds) Becoming Visible
Mitchell, C. (1989) 'Madeleine Pelletier 1874-1939: the Politics of Sexual Oppression" Feminist Review No 33.

Banks, O. (1981) Faces of Feminism
Rowbotham, S. (1973) Hidden from History
Caine, B. (1982) 'Feminism, Suffrage & the 19th Century English Women's Movement', Women's Studies International Forum Vol 5 No 6.

Kaplan, T. (1982) 'Female consciousness & collective action: the case of Barcelona 1910-1918', Signs 7/3.
Kaplan, T. (1977) 'Women and Spanish Anarchism' in Bridenthal, R & Koonz, C. (eds) Becoming Visible: Women in European History
Nash, M. (1996) 'Political Culture, Catalan Nationalism and the Women's Movement in Early C20th Spain', Women's Studies International Forum, 19/1-2.

Russia\Soviet Union
Edmondson, L (1984) Feminism in Russia 1900-1917
Stites, R. (1978) The Women's Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism and Bolshevism 1860-1930.
Engel, B. (1983) Mothers and Daughters: Women of the Intelligentsia in 19th century Russia 301.4120947ENG
Heitlinger, A. (1979) Women & State Socialism Part 2
Lindenmeyer, A. (1993) 'Women in Russian Charity 1762-1914' Signs 18/3
Bobroff, A. (1974) 'The Bolsheviks & Working Women 1905-1920' Soviet Studies Vol 26
Engel, B. (1977) 'Women as Revolutionaries: the case of the Russian Populists' in Bridenthal, R. & Koonz, C. Becoming Visible: Women in European History
Fieseler, B. (1989) 'The Making of Russian Female Social Democrats 1890-1917' International Review of Social History 34\2
Clements, B. (1973) 'Emancipation through Communism: the Ideology of A Kollantai' Slavic Review No 32
Meyer, A. (1977) 'Women and the Women's Movement' in Atkinson, D. et al (eds) Women in Russia
Rosenthal, B. (1977) 'Love on the Tractor: Women in the Russian Revolution and after' in Bridenthal, R. & Koonz, C. Becoming Visible: Women in European History
Farnworth, B. (1978) 'Bolshevism, the Woman Question and Aleksandra Kollontai', in Boxer. M. & Quataert, J. European Socialist Feminism
Condit, T. Alexandra Kollontai

Other Links

More Quotations
Chronologies of First Wave Feminism

Week 1 /Week 2 /Week 3 /Week 4 /Week 5 /Week 6 /Week 7 /Week 8 /Week 9 /Week 10


Created by Penny Welch September 1999/Updated July 2002 & September 2003

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