First Wave of Feminism in Politics and Literature

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

20 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of contents:

1. Introduction

2. The Political Ideology of the “First Wave Feminism”
2.1 The Situation of Women before the Rise of Feminism
2.2 The Rise of Feminism
2.3 The Feminist Movement and the Question of Suffrage

3. Feminism in Literature
3.1 Problems of early Women Writers
3.2 Gender on the Agenda

4. Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour”
4.1 Main Themes of “The Story of an Hour”
4.2 Feminism in “The Story of an Hour”

5. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: “The Yellow Wallpaper”
5.1 Main Themes of “The Yellow Wallpaper”
5.2 Feminism in “The Yellow Wallpaper”

6. Summary

7. Bibliographical References

1. Introduction:

The following work should give a short overview about the so called “First Wave Feminism”. It was the first recognized movement of women for equal treatment and for a society that must become aware of the special needs and desire of women which are not limited to the important question of suffrage.

Firstly, I will introduce some main ideas of the political ideology of the early women’s movement and their fight for the right to vote. I will try to point out which new and important thoughts the feminists of the late 18th and early 19th century shared and which goals they tried to achieve.

Secondly, I will focus on feminism in literature. How were the political ideas represented in literature of that time? With which problems had women writers to deal? What was the reaction of male authors towards the ´New Woman`, the ´scribbling women´? Therefore Chapter 2 concentrates on the problems of early women writer’s and the new theme ´gender´ on the literary agenda.

Thirdly, my work concentrates on Kate Chopin’s short story “The Story of an Hour”. Kate Chopin’s Work The Awakening is her probably best-known novel, dealing with a woman who demands her own direction and chooses her own freedom. But also her short stories contain a lot of feministic themes and questions. With a closer look at the main themes and the new feministic attitude at one of her shortest but most radical short stories, I will show what kind of feminism is ´hidden´ in “The Story of an Hour”.

Fourthly, the interpretation of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” will follow the same pattern as the interpretation of Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour”. What are her main themes and how does Charlotte Perkins Gilman deal with the themes of feminism in a gothic atmosphere? Is she more radical or has she a different view on the changes in society and the future role of women?

At last I will sum up the results and see what impact the so called “First Wave Feminism” has had on politics, literature and especially on women writers in the late 18th and the early 19th century and, perhaps, on the women of today.

2. Political Ideology of „First Wave Feminism“

2.1 Situation of Women before the Rise of Feminism

Most of all, Feminism is a politics. It is the recognition of the historical and cultural subordination of women. The only world-wide majority that was (or still is) treated as a minority. (Goodman, X) Therefore the situation of women before the Women’s Rights Movement (WRM) was different from what it is today or after the so called “first wave” of feminism.

Women at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century had no civil status under the law, they were pronounced civilly dead upon marriage or remained legal minors if they did not marry. They weren’t even allowed to sign a will or a contract and they had no control about their wages. It is said, that there was no need for them to control their wages because they were supposed to leave their jobs (when they had one) early in order to marry men who could provide economic security.

Also women were less educated and not allowed to attend colleges alone. The only education they got was in embroidery, china painting and French. “It is claimed that women were by nature physically frail and mentally limited” (Mauk/Oakland, 88), therefore they needed less education.

The proper place for women was at home to serve their male relatives and to take care of the children and their domestic duties in the household. The role of women before the Civil War was clearly defined: they were seen as “instruments of spiritual an moral refinement, existing to ennoble and spiritualize men” (Showalter, XXXVII).

2.2 Rise of Feminism

The first woman who did some groundbreaking work on the social change of the role of women was Emma Willard (1787 – 1870) with her book Plan for Improving Female Education, published in 1819. Her work included a first, but very short feminist program. What she wanted was a reform of society to ensure that women were treated equally with men. In both realms, social and political. Her further requirements were same rights for women and men and the independence of thought (Parini, 73).

Her thoughts were based on several changes throughout the first decades of the 19th century. These years were characterized by geographic expansion, industrial development, and, most important, the growth of social reform movements, and a general intellectual ferment with a philosophical emphasis on individual freedom, the `rights of man´ and universal education (Ruth, 452f).

Politically the first feminist movement had its roots in the abolitionist movement of the 1830´s. The issues of the abolitionists were the freedom of slaves and that issue was directly linked to the freedom of women. Slavery was said to be “an institution that perverted family ties and prevented women from fulfilling their roles as wives and mothers” (Barney, 230). During that time several dichotomies occured concerning the upcoming struggle between men and women: “free laborers and slaves, white and black, men and women, North and South. Within these dichotomies, slaves, African Americans, women, and the South represented dependence und unfreedom, while white, laboring, men in the North represented independence and freedom” (Barney, 225).

The best-known leaders of the growing feminist movement were Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony. In 1891, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of Women and Economics and the story “The Yellow Wallpaper” met Susan B. Anthony and she said: “She will go down in history as having seen the one first need of humanity today – Freedom and Justice for women!” (Hill, 187) And the early American Woman’s Right Movement (W.R.M.) was as radical as Gilman’s exclamation. Women, involved in the W.M.R., were to attack the family, the church, and the state. They were about to attack the very cornerstones of the Victorian society they lived in.

Having its roots in the abolitionist movement, it was only a logical step that the two movements merged in 1840 and worked closely together from there on. In 1840 the World Anti-Slavery Convention was held in London. The American delegation included a small group of women, among them Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. But they were totally excluded from the proceedings of the Convention. “Barred from the central gathering, they were required to sit in a separate curtained gallery, hidden from view, forbidden to speak” (Ruth, 460).

These events reinforced the women’s growing awareness that the battle for the abolition of Negro slavery could never be won without a battle for the abolition on women’s slavery and oppression. The idea of an American Women Convention occurred and was finally realized in 1848. On July 14 in 1848 a small notice appeared in the Seneca County Courier (New York), announcing a “Woman’s Rights Convention”. These convention got known as “Seneca Falls Convention”.

The women decided on a so called “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions” which was modeled on the “Declaration of Independence”. The main difference was that the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that all men are created equal; the mentioning of women being equal was nonexistent. The document was also partly drafted by men. Women on the other hand were confined to the home to take care of their domestic housekeeping duties. The “Declaration of Sentiments” included twelve resolutions, one was concerning the demand of suffrage, one the control of wages and earnings, one the guardianship of children for women and another one their right to divorce. “The arguments [were] clearly in the tradition of eighteenth-century Enlightenment liberalism and nineteenth-century reformism” (Ruth, 460). The Seneca Falls meeting became such a success that from 1848 until the Civil War, Woman’s Rights Conventions took place nearly every year.

The new movement had also many male supporters like William Lloyd Garrison and Horace Greeley (both were abolitionist leaders). But most men feared the idea of full equal status for women. The early feminists were ridiculed and branded as being “unfeminine”. Their meetings were often attacked. In literature feminists were portrayed as fanatics, like in Henry James “The Bostonian”. He painted a neurotic and rabid picture of a feminist.

2.3 The Feminist Movement and the Question of Suffrage

The Civil War and the westward movement caused a shortage of men in the East. Widows and single women were needed to fill the occupational roles of men (Mauk/Oakland, 88). Their new tasks meant that the women´s movement had to step back. The activities essentially stopped for the time of the War (Ruth, 456).

After the war the feminist movement, which had gained a lot of strength, split into several movements: the American Woman Suffrage Association, the National Woman’s Suffrage Association and smaller women’s clubs like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. The only issues one which all groups could unites was the right to vote for women. But they had different opinions why the right to vote was desirable.

By 1890 the American Woman Suffrage Association and the National Woman’s Suffrage Association merged into the National Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Critics raised the question whether this was the end of radical feminism or not. It seemed as if the single issue feminism, concentrating on suffrage, had won. But at that time several reforms had taken place. For example: women had entered the labor force in the service capacity and were educated in much larger numbers.


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First Wave of Feminism in Politics and Literature
University of Osnabrück
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ISBN (Book)
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This work includes an interpretation of Charlotte Perkins Gilman´s "The Yellow Wallpaper" and "The Story of an Hour" by Kate Chopin.
First, Wave, Feminism, Politics, Literature
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Magistra Artium Antje Kahle (Author), 2005, First Wave of Feminism in Politics and Literature, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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