The History of Feminism(s) Around the Globe
As we already announced last month there is a little something extra for you every month: our monthly column. Here we present features related to the main topic of our platform: women in society. With this column we want to provide a space to express thoughts, share information and we hope that in the future there even will be space to explore research together.
The main aim of our platform is to create a diverse community that shines a light on different women from all around the world. So once a month, we also publish this column with additional information on topics which are relevant for us and related to feminism, diversity, inclusion etc. This column creates space for background information, scientific research and current debates.
Today we have the second column ready for you: one of our writers, Saskia Bultman, shines a light on the history of feminism. Saskia has a background in gender history and English literature. After ten years in academia, of which some years as a lecturer at the department of Literary and Cultural Studies at Radboud University Nijmegen, she decided to change perspectives and work as a freelance historical researcher. Lucky for us that led her to write and share her knowledge with our team and you, our readers. She already has written some insightful pieces for Women on the Timeline, e.g. the article on Madame C.J. Walker. And now we can add this column to the list!
Enjoy this column about the history of feminism and how it is presented all around the globe. Who knows maybe you will find new insights and even get kickstarted on your own feminist journey. See what long way it took to come where we are now and how representation has changed over time. We added a link to the PDF of the column so you can read it in the original format.
When you think of feminism nowadays your mind might go to #metoo, pink ‘pussy’ hats or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famous TED talk on ‘We should all be feminists’. But what are the roots of this huge movement? Maybe the best way to talk about the history of feminism, is to look at how this history has been told in the past, and how it is told today.
The history of feminism is traditionally told – in Western countries, school books and popular culture – as a series of ‘waves’. In this narrative, first-wave feminism (roughly late 19th-early 20th century) was focused on overcoming legal obstacles, and focused on issues such as the right to vote, or, suffrage. Second-wave feminism (1960s-1970s) had a more cultural focus, and criticized sexist institutions and practices of discrimination, focusing on issues such as the limited expectations of marriage and motherhood for women, reproductive rights such as access to abortion and birth control, rape, domestic violence and equal pay. Third-wave feminism (1990s-2000s) focused on a more intersectional understanding of feminism, criticizing former feminist movements for excluding non-white and working-class women. Besides becoming more inclusive of women of colour, the third wave also focused on sexuality, redefining women and girls as powerful and in control. Fourth-wave feminism (beginning in the early 2010s) focuses on issues such as body shaming, rape culture, #metoo, trans* rights, disability, and the representation of marginalized women in politics, culture and business.
The roots of this series of ‘waves’ are commonly traced back to a standard cast of well-known figures. Traditional histories of feminism begin, for example, with seventeenth-century writers, such as Aphra Behn (a playwright who depicted men and women as equals) and Sarah Fyge (who, as a teenager, wrote an impassioned poem in defence of women in response to an incredibly misogynist piece of verse by Robert Gould), who drew on Protestant religious traditions to claim women’s equality. The next figures to appear in this version of the story, are those who were inspired by the ideas of equality in the eighteenth-century American and French revolutions, such as the French activist Olympe de Gouges. In response to The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which asserted, in 1789, that all men ‘are born and remain free and equal in rights’, de Gouges wrote The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen, arguing that women should be included in the new revolutionary ideas on equality for all. Next, traditional narratives often move on to the nineteenth-century suffragettes, such as the Pankhursts in England and Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the United States (who campaigned for women’s right to vote), down to later twentieth-century figures such as Betty Friedan (whose work on the discontent of American housewives is said to have sparked the second wave of feminism) and Gloria Steinem (who criticized societal beauty standards in an exposé for which she went undercover as a Playboy ‘Bunny’).
In later years, figures such as the eighteenth-century author Phyllis Wheatley (the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry) and Sojourner Truth (a black abolitionist who demanded equal rights for African-American women) were added to the story.
While all of these figures are undeniably important (as is witnessed by their achievements), the traditional history of feminism remains predominantly white, and focused on the Anglo-Saxon world, particularly England and the United States.
Recently, however, the history of feminism has acquired a broader focus. As Lucy Delap argues in her recent (and really quite thrilling) book Feminisms: A Global History, there isn’t just one story of feminism to be told. Instead, there have been many feminisms, which were all shaped, from the outset, by women and men of varying historical contexts, nationalities, ethnicities, sexualities, ideological backgrounds, classes and ages. The metaphor of the ‘wave’, which presents feminist history as neatly progressing from one set of concerns to another, doesn’t do justice to this complexity. What’s more, it limits our focus to one part of the world.
As Delap shows, throughout at least the last 250 years, in other parts of the world things were happening that were just as much a part of the history of feminism. In 1886, for example, when women were campaigning for the right to vote in Europe and the United States, an anonymous woman in what is now Ghana (then under British rule) wrote a rousing letter to local newspaper Western Echo:
We Ladies of Africa in general are not only sadly misrepresented but are made the foot-ball of every white seal that comes to our Coast … We have been sadly abused by people of such description, and because we have said nothing they continue to abuse us with impunity … Although we have not white or angelic faces we are capable of as high a degree of culture as any white lady.
Examples such as this, from non-Western thinkers (which Delap’s book is packed with), are not often included in traditional histories of feminism. They are important, however, because they illuminate the diversity of the movement and its concerns, and highlight the contributions of non-Western feminists, which are often overlooked. Rather than suffrage, this anonymous woman’s concern was with an ‘African’ feminism that countered colonial ideas about women of colour.
This is all the more significant, considering that suffragettes in Europe and the United States – who are popularly depicted as the ‘only’ feminists active at the time – often expressed colonial attitudes in their activist work. When Dutch feminist Aletta Jacobs travelled through a series of African and Asian countries in the early twentieth century, for instance, campaigning for women’s right to vote, she characterized herself as a ‘motherly friend’ to the inhabitants of South-Africa, who she described as ‘children … who only need to be led’, as historian Ena Jansen has shown. As we can see, placing different feminist histories alongside each other can make us aware of the divergent struggles women around the globe had – which leads to a whole new narrative.
Viewing feminism in a global framework can also make its history less Eurocentric. With regard to women’s right to higher education, for example, Delap points out that the same developments were taking place all across the world: Britain’s first university college for women opened in 1869, and in Brazil women obtained the right to enter higher education only a decade later, in 1879. Connections like this give us a fuller understanding of the movement’s history, and prevent us from taking Europe or the West as our only reference point.
In her book, Delap calls for a new approach, which involves placing stories of feminisms from different parts of the world and different periods of history alongside each other, and studying their interactions and linkages, as well as the ways in which they were at odds with each other. This leads to a history of the movement that includes figures such as Alexandra Kollontai (an early-twentieth-century Russian revolutionary who advocated for free love) alongside groups such as the French ‘femmes en lutte’ (who, quite differently, emphasized the maternal qualities of women in the 1970s and 1980s), and figures such as German feminist Karin Schrader-Klebert (who envisioned a universal feminism arguing that ‘women are the Negroes of all nations’) next to African-American activist Frances Beal (who, around the same time, in 1974, envisioned a far narrower brand of feminism when she termed white women the ‘economic enemies’ of black women, saying: ‘If your mother worked in a white woman’s kitchen, she knows what I mean’).
Taking a global view also offers alternative starting points for the history of feminism. Rather than with seventeenth-century English writers or nineteenth-century suffragettes, it might begin in Sierra Leone in 1792, when female householders were given the right to vote (a right they lost when the country came under British colonial rule in 1808), or at the Rosetta Women’s Conference held in 1799, when Egyptian women came together to discuss their gendered roles in society, as Delap shows in her book.
From ‘waves’ of feminism and (white) feminist ‘foremothers’ to the expansion of the feminist canon with other important women (of colour), the telling of the history of feminism has changed over time. Hopefully the new focus on the global history of the movement will lead to new information being uncovered about the concerns, struggles and accomplishments of feminists, past and present, around the globe. Perhaps the stories of Women on the Timeline, which focus on women from all parts of the world and all periods of history, will lead readers to make new, unexpected connections, and prompt them to read about the achievements of women who have been forgotten, but who played an important role in the worldwide history of feminism. Every reader will be able to determine, for herself, which histories, and which feminisms, resonate the most.
Author: Saskia Bultmann
Image: Private Collection