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The First Wave of Feminism

Many of you reading this article likely identify as feminists, as do many members of the Q.WIL team. The term is ubiquitous in today’s society. Though it holds various meanings for different people, at its core, feminism is about equality between women and men, and the rich history of the feminist movement should be valued by all. Those who progressed feminist ideals worked to develop new norms that we take for granted today, such as the right to vote. Over the past century, the position of women in society has changed significantly, and those affecting change as feminism progressed faced opposition we cannot fully understand in the current climate. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be exploring the history of feminism and seeing how influential women of the past worked to establish new norms and a more equitable society for both women and men. We hope you enjoy this series and can learn something new every week!

“The education of women should always be relative to men. To please, to be useful to us, to make us love and esteem them, to educate us when young and take care of us when grown up, to advise, to console us, to render our lives easy and agreeable: these are the duties of women at all times and what they should be taught in their infancy.” ~ Jean-Jacques Rousseau

In the above quote, the famous Genevan philosopher, Rousseau (1712-1778), paints a picture of women as individuals whose life’s purpose is to serve men. Despite being regarded as a proponent of liberty and equality, it is clear Rousseau did not extend these ideals to women. As one of the most respected philosophers of the Enlightenment period, Rousseau greatly influenced public opinion at the time, and many shared his views. Women were expected to submit to their fathers, husbands, and brothers, and while men were regarded as rational and moral, women were viewed as untrustworthy, foolish, sly, and naïve.

In accordance with these views, women’s rights were severely limited. Women were not allowed to own property or initiate divorce, their children were the property of their husbands, and it was legal for men to abuse their wives and even imprison them should they attempt to escape. A university education for a woman was a preposterous idea. A woman’s body was regarded as too fragile for such an arduous undertaking. Instead, women spent their time learning what were considered more practical skills such as drawing, playing the piano, and embroidering. These skills, it was thought, would help them attract an agreeable suitor, which was considered the ultimate goal. The following quotation highlights the common view held during this time that the weaker a woman, the more appealing she was.

“If a woman fainted easily, could not abide by insects, feared thunderstorms, ghosts, and highwaymen, ate only tiny portions, collapsed after a brief walk, and wept when she had to add a column of numbers, she was considered the feminine ideal.”  (Gordon, 2018)

Women were oppressed well before this period of history, but this helps paint a picture of the conditions present in society right before the first wave of feminism began. One of the first individuals to challenge Rousseau and the beliefs of this time was Mary Wollstonecraft, who penned The Vindication of the Rights of Women. In her writing, Wollstonecraft argued that women were equal, rational beings who deserved an education. Her work influenced much of the beliefs of the first wave of feminism. Jane Austen was another individual who advocated for the merits of women.

However, there were a few individuals to advocate for equality even before this time. For example, 15th century author Christine de Pizan is considered to be the very first individual to write about this issue. She was later followed by other individuals in the 16th and 17th centuries. However, it wasn’t until the late 19th century (after Wollstonecraft’s work) that women joined together to create a unified movement and the first wave of feminism began.

The first wave of feminism, occurring from the late 19th to early 20th century, commenced with the goal of combatting some of the issues noted above: the right to own property, contract rights, and men’s ownership of their wives and children. However, the focus later shifted with the main goal becoming women achieving the right to vote, also known as suffrage.

The suffragist movement in Canada was led mainly by white, middle-class women who believed that gaining the right to vote would bolster the status of their class. However, Black abolitionists as well as unionists, socialists, and temperance activists also supported this movement. Prominent Canadian leaders in this movement include Nellie McClung (a member of Canadian Women's Press Club and a well-known author); Emily Howard Stowe (one of Canada’s first female doctors who, alongside her daughter, led the Ontario Suffragist movement for 40 years); and Emily Murphy (a prominent journalist and Canada’s first female magistrate) among others. In the fight to gain the right to vote, most Canadians employed peaceful campaigning (public education, petitions, etc.). There were, however, a few who were members of the Women’s Social and Political Union in the United Kingdom and the militant suffragettes led by Emmeline Pankhurst (1858–1928).

In Canada, although women campaigned for the right to vote at all levels of government, they focused mainly on gaining rights at the local level first. Women gained the right to vote and run for office in some library, municipal, and school board elections by 1900. The first province to grant women the right to vote was Manitoba in 1916, and Quebec was the last province in 1940. In 1917, the Canadian federal government granted voting rights to a small group of women. This was later changed to include most women in 1918; however, Asian men and women would not gain the right to vote until after World War II, and until 1960, indigenous men and women were also excluded. Black men and women were not officially excluded from voting after the abolishment of slavery in 1834, but they faced stigma due to their race and black women had to overcome the barriers associated with both race and gender.

If you want to learn more about this period of history (but would rather not sift through a textbook), I recommend watching the first season of Downton Abbey or reading Jane Austen (I recommend Pride and Prejudice!).


Strong-Boag, V. (2016, June 20). Women's Suffrage in Canada. Retrieved June 10, 2018, from

Rampton, M. (2015, October 25). Four Waves of Feminism | Pacific University. Retrieved June 2, 2018, from

History and theory of feminism. (n.d.). Retrieved June 2, 2018, from

Gordon, C. (2018). Frankenstein: Introduction and Suggestions for Further Reading. Penguin Classics.

1 Comment

Unknown member
Nov 10, 2023

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