A Brief History of Feminism


Feminism is now the rallying cry of the modern liberal. It is a term which is so inseparable from the leftist stigma that it pains the mind to think of it being separate. To be a feminist is to be for the welfare state, to support social democracy, to be against racial injustice, to be a supporter of multiculturalism, and much else. The feminist label, more so than any other in modern discourse has been subverted by the reigning political ideologies of our time. Due to its tremendous impact on our lives and its incredible success it is worthy of a full treatment here on PlatoShrugs.

Let’s begin.

Historical Relationships between Men and Women

To our modern knowledge, there are no known societies which were unambiguously matriarchal. There are some which have incorporated lineage via the female (Kendake in Ethiopia, potentially the Elamite civilization, potentially Scythia, and others), but these are the exceptions to the rule.

The most pressing question for the astute observer is, why?

The answer to this question has become an ideological one as anthropology has few answers. Those against feminism will frame the answer to fit their own conclusions (men being superior to women, men are natural xyz) and those for feminism will do the same (men repressed women, gatherer->hunter societal switching, etc). This answer is a key piece of ideological framing regarding the females place in the world. Like later political philosophers who attempt to derive a human’s “State of Nature” (that is, life without civilized society), the Feminist thinkers of our day ponder long and hard on why women lost so much power in the political world.

In some societies women and men lived in separate, but equally respected spheres of life. In others, men dominated and women are treated as property akin to cattle. From the first stratification of society through the 1700s, the plight of women didn’t change much, but something very important did.

That is, the ratio between the Farmer:Non Farmer. As time has gone on, we have moved from a workforce of around 90%+ farmers to 1% of the modern era. This impact of specialization, improved medical technology, and leisure has profound impacts on gender relationships for the world at large.

First Wave Feminism: The Industrial Revolution

The industrial revolution was a real turning point in human history. For much of our miserable existence a substantial portion of human labor was required to feed, clothe, and provide for much of the population. With the advent of machines, the productive capacity and (subsequently) material wealth of society exploded. Simultaneously, the rapid spread of Classical Liberal ideals (which included the equality of all men under god), the eradication of slavery, and religious doctrinal changes all culminated to support a general conclusion that women should be treated better.


The usage of the term ‘waves’ to indicate differing ‘phases’ of feminism can be attributed to Martha Lear writing in New York Times Magazine, 1968

With these pesky, freedom loving, equality driven ideals came the awakening and acceptance of women’s rights in a legal context. Primarily, equality of contract, suffrage, marriage, parenting, and property rights. The wave ended, after a lot of protests, campaigns, and hard work with the 19th amendment to the US constitution in 1919 gaining women the constitutional right to vote. Things went silent on the women’s rights front through the 1920, 30s, and 40s. The booming 20s followed by the great depression meant that people were struggling to eke out a living and public support for civil rights waned. With the 40s came mobilization for the war effort and greater participation of women in the workplace as the nation’s men were sent to Europe.

The call to duty was sounded as men were sent to war and women expected to do their part. With the end of the war and the subsequent involvement of women in the working roles traditionally used by men (factory work and welding), the scene was set for renewed effort on female rights.

Second Wave Feminism: Civil Rights

Post World War 2 America was both prosperous (kind of a given when half the industrialized planet in is ruins) and deeply segregated. While slavery was made illegal, segregation was not. During the same time that African Americans were staging protests and fighting for their legal rights women pressed the issue further to clean the slate of legal inequality based on gender.

While the first wave did decent work at making the law gender neutral, it did not address reproductive rights, workplace legal protections, domestic violence, and marital rape. The great liberal consensus from the 1950s-1960s came with the medical advancement known as the oral contraceptive pill. This allowed for women, for the first time in history to control their reproductive cycle. Including women in the political framework of the nation became the credo of the age.

The Kennedy administration made it a policy initiative to involve more women in the US government, filling important cabinet posts and bureaucratic positions with females. In 1967 there was an affirmative action right extended to women and from the 60s liberal consensus came the eventual tidal wave of the ‘reformed’ view of constitutional interpretation; the US Supreme Court prohibited laws against abortion as unconstitutional in 1973. The second wave of feminism ended with these legal victories around 1980s amid open questions within the movement regarding sexuality and pornography as well as a looming technological revolution on the horizon.

Third Wave: Societal Oppression

It is here that feminism takes a turn. Most laws in the United States now, with respect to the dichotomy gender view (male/female only, ignoring transgender) were gender neutral, but (as is claimed by feminists at the time) the interpretation of those laws was sexist. This is the transition between legal oppression to cultural oppression that the current ‘wave’ of feminism is attempting to combat through media, the internet, campaigns, and protest. Gender violence, reproductive rights, rape (on college campuses especially) are taking center stage as females once more stand up to convince others to treat women differently.

Amid this growing discontent with how females are culturally treated comes the merging of the feminist movement and the liberal movement within the United States. While feminism has never been a strictly conservative/liberal issue per-se, as the 1919 constitutional amendment was a bipartisan agreement and the 1960s saw little conservative political influence (so it’s difficult to say with certainty). The liberal political movement, influenced by more radical Marxist/Classical Liberal ideological viewpoints on absolute ‘tabla rasa’ equality (that is, the nature vs nurture argument on human behaviors) came with a natural confluence of feminist principals. Combine this with labor unions and communist support for the civil rights movement and female rights during the 60s; then these ideological alliances with the left seem natural.

The political alliance with leftism has now transformed feminism into a whole new venue of feminist framed cultural oppression. The arguments of race, social class, gender identity, homosexual oppression, transgender rights, and economic rights, once the subject of long papers written by ivory tower Classical Liberals (and Communists) have entered the discussion within the framework of feminism where before it was a separate and alien concept. And so through the use of the internet and media, feminism, like all political ideologies is changing and molding to the times; in an attempt to become relevant and convince more of their righteous zeal the history of feminism marches on and is unlikely to go away any time soon.




  1. Are you suggesting that feminism was a good thing at first but took a wrong turn somewhere? In truth, each wave was an attempt to solve the problems caused by the previous wave, but only made things worse.

    The more emancipated women are, the more miserable they are. 19th century women couldn’t vote, but they were loved and protected and didn’t need a cocktail of antidepressants to get through the day. Women yearn to be owned and ruled over by a strong man, and will even convert to Islam and/or vote for mass Islamic immigration to get this.

    Women never evolved the ability to make good life choices, because for 99% of human history, those choices were made for them. Evolution requires selection, and no society could afford to cull half its females in every generation like they routinely do with males.

    1. Dave, your post is an excellent example of what I bring up in this paragraph,

      “The answer to this question has become an ideological one as anthropology has few answers. Those against feminism will frame the answer to fit their own conclusions (men being superior to women, men are natural xyz) and those for feminism will do the same (men repressed women, gatherer->hunter societal switching, etc). This answer is a key piece of ideological framing regarding the females place in the world. ”

      I treat feminism like I treat any other ideological movement within this blog, which includes fascism and communism. You can read my About page for more. But on the onset I will concede that any attempt at explaining “history” which isn’t strictly a recitation of scientific evidence brings with it some revisionism as the author attempts to argue some greater theme.

      In this case yes, I think it is wrong to legally allow a society to rape, beat, and subjugate women as if they were cattle. The waves of feminism have everything to do with dealing with these particular injustices, the rape issue in particular.

  2. I would love to hear more about what you think about third wave feminism, and it’s connection to the left. I’m currently mulling over the idea of the ‘speech acts’ of contemporary feminists. They define feminism as something very universal and basic, like ‘believing in the equality between the sexes’, or the ‘flourishing’ of women. This very definition, I think, is an act of assertion that feminists must now be the ‘gatekeepers’ to these concepts of flourishing and equality. So if you want to believe in female flourishing and equality between the sexes (who doesn’t?), then you have to self-identify as a feminist. But this, I think, is problematic, since the self-identification with feminism almost always includes identification with the ‘leftist’ way of going about equality and ‘flourishing’. Conservative women like me are left standing alone – we want equality and flourishing, too, but not in a post-Marxist kind of way that feminism seems to require. It feels like a ‘capture the flag’ kind of game.

    1. Hi Holly,

      Thanks for stopping by yet again, I remember you from my other feminism article so you’ll have to excuse my long response. I think your comment on the logical association of feminism->female rights is an appropriate one. Feminists appear to want to ‘own’ the ideological space of female equality, now, I don’t think that’s inappropriate or anything; they are the movement which claims to be FOR female equality. But as you point out, third wave feminists especially have aligned themselves with the left leading conservative women out in the woods with a difficult choice; do they align with a party for the welfare state of 100% of the population just to gain the rights of 50% (females), or do they align with the ‘right wing’ which claims to respect and love women and save America.

      Then you get people like Trump who completely ruins any attempt at the conservative right to borrow feminist principals and gain the support of those women who believe in feminist principals but are leery of leftism.

      Since I have a captive audience of 1 i’ll answer your other point. I think the alliance of third wave feminism and the left was one of expedience. It’s alluded to in the above post but I do think there is some historical alignment between feminism and communists/labor unions/social democrats. But look, it was successful. Feminists got what they wanted and they continue to win. It seems that Feminists don’t need the conservative women to get what they want, and this is the saddest revelation of all I think. Because in the broadest strokes, feminism should have 90-100% of women supporting them. If I invented a political movement which said, lets take money from 49 states and funnel it into Washington State to build X. You better hope that everyone in Washington would support this proposal.

      Feminism in this guise can be seen as a denouncement of power of one group (men) to rise up the other, in order to build an equality. But the alliance goes a little further than just convenience, there is also a native push to align with people who seeks to fix the world through policy.

      I think there can be little debate on 1st or 2nd wave feminists (and part of 3rd wave) that there was, knock on wood, legal oppression against women which needed to be fixed through political action (the use of government). If the mantra of the modern conservative is to remove the governments role from society then by a heuristic, it’s only leftism which can find its mate with feminism. What other movement would be more willing to accept the axiom of fixing the world we live in through public policy?

      As an aside (while I have a captive audience), I think the belief in using government action to fix our world (and the presupposition of the Tabula Rasa on human nature) is really what sinks the left into the inane and often bizarre ‘splitting’. What keeps the left wing so shattered and the right wing so unified in comparison? I think its the fact that there are a million ways to write policy, but only one way to destroy it. The right wring wants less policy and the left has millions of theories and ideas, from the stoner kid down the block to the ivory tower liberal about how to feed the poor. So what a sad state of affairs it is when the right wing gets so thoroughly demolished over ‘gimme’ elections like this most recent one; partially from the feminist question but also because Trump is spitting on every minority group he can find.

      I think feminism is a tough sell to the conservative who likes to think of the heuristic ‘government = bad’ and the general belief that the legal system of the united states is blind. So a matching of feminism and the right wing in this regard would be an uneasy one. I think what’s happening now (ignoring trump for a moment) is that conservatives are slowly moving to the ‘left’. In the next few decades I think the religious right is going to lose influence and with it, the resistance to common feminist stances on abortion and subsidized birth control. Leftist feminism is going to enter a tail spin as it attempts to control the conversation by telling women that they need to be for [racial issue] [economic redistribution] [other leftist things] in order to be ‘for women’, but it’ll lose in the long run. The right wing, more than anything else, is going to be sick of losing these elections. They are here to play the game, not lose it. When Trump loses in November republicans are going to get desperate like the democratic party was desperate just a few decades ago and instigated the super delegate system.

      I think the Feminist question aligns really well with the right wing in this country and its an integral part of our ideological future. Thanks for the question Holly and thanks for reading my blog.

      Take care

  3. “When Trump loses in November republicans are going to get desperate like the democratic party was desperate just a few decades ago and instigated the super delegate system.”

    …well, that unfortunately did not happen.

    “…and the left has millions of theories and ideas, from the stoner kid down the block to the ivory tower liberal about how to feed the poor. ”

    Everyone loves a good stereotype. The right/left thing has gotten old.

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