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Feminism - Origins of Feminism

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Essay title: Feminism - Origins of Feminism

Demands by women for equality with men have been a continual theme in Western Society for at least the last 200 years. As early as 1777, women have been fighting for their rights. One such activist was Abigail Adams. She wrote to her husband john, then sitting in the Continental Congress, and warned him not to put such unlimited powers in the hands of the husbands. She went on to threaten that if particular care and attention was not paid to the ladies, they would most definitely foment a rebellion (Buechler, 1990).

Origins of Feminism

This concern demonstrates one of the two main precipitants of feminist sentiment in the Western World: the change in social values that justified an attempt to change social relations. The development of democratic values and the legitimisation of rebellion that resulted from the French and American revolutions were used by the Western women as a philosophical basis for their own rebellion (Amin et al 1990). Mary Wollstonecraft wrote the first major feminist tract, 'A Vindication of the Rights of Woma', in 1792 in reaction to the revolutionary French Declaration of The Rights of Man. The American Declaration of Independence was the model for the Declaration of Sentiments drawn up by the first feminist convention, in Senea Falls, N.Y., in 1848 (Amin et al 1990).

The other major cause was industrialisation, which disrupted the entire economic structure of society and with it the family as the basic unit of production. Women and children until the 20th century have always worked. But until the development of the free labor market in which individuals were hired and paid cash for their labor, women worked as subsidiaries to the male head, who received the remuneration for family labor. Women produced goods primarily within the home until technology displaced the major female functions outside it. Concomitantly, the increasing monetization of economy meant that displaced female production had to be paid for in cash. A large part of the rise in the national product was accomplished by the monetisation of activities that were never before counted in its computation because money did not change hands for their performance (Buechler, 1990). This cash had to be obtained by employment. If the social values prevented women from working outside the home then men had to supply, indirectly, what women had once produced directly. This monopolistic access to the necessary resources for survival logically gave men more power over women, made women more dependant, and contributed to the feeling of many women that they were useless dependants. In effect, women had to enter the labor market in order to get the wherewithal to buy what they had once produced in their own homes (Frechet, 1993).

Economic necessity quickly brought women of the new masses into the labor market to work for substance wages. But the values of the emerging middle class, especially the'cult of the lad' and the emphasis on female leisure and consumption as signs of their husband’s success, prohibited paid employment for middle class women (Amin et al 1990). Thus they were kept in what might be termed as a feudalistic relationship to their husbands.

Given this different effect of Industrialisation, it should not be surprising that feminism has always been largely a middle class movement, with working class women fighting their battles primarily in the labor movement and often envying the leisure of the middle class female without seeing the devastating effects of economic dependence. However, the women’s movement did not reach its zenith until middle class and working class women were able to ally in the struggle for suffrage (Buechler, 1990).

The first national suffrage bill of any kind was submitted to the British Parliament by John Stuart Mill in 1867. It did not pass, but two years later, Wyoming Territory became the first modern political entity to give women the vote. However, suffrage did not become a primary issue until many decades later. Throughout the 19th century the major thrust of the feminist movement was for educational opportunities, entry into the profession and the abolition of laws that denied married women legal rights, leaving them unable to act in any capacity without the permission of their husbands.

In the United States, the impetus for feminism came when women began to work in the abolitionist movement and found that their effectiveness was hampered by their exclusion from many abolitionist societies and by the social stigma against women speaking in public. American women attending a World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840 were prohibited from participating and made to sit in the balcony behind a curtain. Among them were Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who organized the first Women’s

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