Feminist Herstory Pt. 1 – It is discovered that Women are PEOPLE!!!

Some people find history boring. Then they go watch an episode of Downton Abbey. I love history and the history of feminist theory is pretty wild. In feminism we talk a lot about waves. (Are you a second or third wave feminist?) I’ve been working on a book on 4th wave feminism, but before we get there, we need some history. So I will periodically drop in some excerpts from my, hopefully not boring, “herstory.”

Feminist Herstory Pt. 1 – Roots, Galileo and Frankenstein

There’s a famous quote I use at the beginning of my social theory class by Cambridge professor Geoffrey Hawthorn,  “The sociologist who begins a history of social theories is at once very tempted to stop.” Finding starting points for ideas is only asking for trouble. Capitalism existed long before Adam Smith became the father of it. Punk rock existed before Patti Smith became the godmother of it. So finding a starting point is an exercise in futility. And then everyone is going to complain about what and whom you left out. “How could you not mention Emma Goldman in your history of feminism???”

For me, the whole thing started in second grade, when I heard Helen Reddy’s song, “I Am Woman,” on the radio. I loved that song. I loved that it used the word “embryo” as a rhyme. I loved how it went into the minor key for the “Yes, I’m wise” part. I loved seeing my mom sing it in the car. The song was source of discussion among my friends at school and in the neighborhood. Apparently there was this thing called Women’s Lib and (some) women were as pissed off as (all) black people. That was about the extent of my feminist consciousness at age seven. But I can still do a mean version of that song at karaoke after a few whiskeys.

So any history is incomplete, insufficient, and inconsistent.  It is important to say, though, that at every step of the evolution of feminist thought, men have been there. Sometimes just as supportive husbands and sometimes as primary movers and shakers. Famous male thinkers, like John Stuart Mill and John Dewey, had plenty to say on the equality of women. One of the first European intellectuals to identify patriarchy as a root cause of social inequality was Friedrich Engles in his 1884 book, Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Engles was Karl Marx primary collaborator and addressing the core matters of feminism.

This complex history has two threads in it and it’s not what Rush Limbaugh and his army  of “femi-nazi” haters think.  It is not that feminists think that women are the same as men or better than men (although some individuals may think that). It is that women and girls are human and therefore deserve the same basic rights that men and boys do. The second thread is that there is a structured system that benefits men and disadvantages women (patriarchy). We feminists think there is a better way to organize society, but our views are shaped by the times we live in. As C. Wright Mills once pointed out, our history is our biography.

Galileo’s head was on the block

You could make the case that 6000 years ago, you didn’t need feminists as pretty much all people living in civilized settings were feminists. As discussed in the work of Riane Eisler, those cultures did not view males and females as occupying an inherent power imbalance. It wasn’t until the advent of patriarchal religions that “original sinners” got demoted to bitches and hos.

The long reign of the Catholic Church plunged Europe into a dark age of patriarchal violence. Women (and men) who challenged the new order were tortured and executed. At the peak of the witch trials (1480- 1750) it is estimated that 100,000 people were executed as witches.

But the hegemony of the papacy wouldn’t last forever. The Protestant Reformation worked to put non-Latin Bibles in Christian hands and help folks figure out the meaning of the Gospels for themselves (which many used to justify slavery and more oppression of women). Perhaps more significantly was the finding of one man, Galileo Galilei. Using the theories of Copernicus, in the early 1600s Galileo discovered that the earth was rotating around the sun, not the other way around as proscribed by The Bible and the Church.

Galileo began to promote this heliocentric view of the universe and, boy, was the Church pissed off. If the Bible was wrong on this simple point, what other lies had the Church been covering up? Galileo was denounced by the Roman Inquisition in 1615 and placed under house arrest as a heretic. The good news is that the Catholic Church eventually pardoned Galileo. In the year 1992.

The observations of the little astronomer from Pisa represented the beginning of the end of the Dark Ages and the birth of the Age of Enlightenment. Enlightenment thought based knowledge on rationality and empirical evidence, not in blind faith of the unseen and the autocratic authority of church officials. Enlightenment philosophers across Europe and America ushered in a new age of science, philosophy, economics, and political thought, undermining the “divine right of kings.” Revolutions in America and France swept away monarchies and established governance based on the ancient rational process known as democracy.

It was in this period that the modern championing of women’s humanity began to take hold. You could argue that there is a long history of women standing up to the Man, or doing the job better than men, but it was never really based on a critique of patriarchal power. Joan of Arc was a badass, but she wasn’t a feminist. But in the 1700s, a chorus of voices took up the cause of female equality. American revolutionary Thomas Paine, author of The Age of Reason, argued that his new nation could not be completely free if its citizens could own slaves and its women could not vote. In 1775 he wrote:

“Nature herself, in forming beings so susceptible and tender, appears to have been more attentive to their charms than to their happiness. Continually surrounded with griefs and fears, the women more than share all our miseries, and are besides subjected to ills which are particularly their own. They cannot be the means of life without exposing themselves to the loss of it.”

If there is one name that stands out as the Enlightenment feminist, it is Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797). Wollstonecraft, who influence the work of Paine and others, was a British writer who covered many subjects. As a product of the Age of Reason, she applied the ethic of rationality to the wave of social change that was occurring in the late 18th Century. In A Vindication of the Rights of Man (1790), she assailed the aristocracy that had survived the French Revolution and advocated for true democratic forms of government. Her next book, A Vindication for the Rights of Woman (1792) is generally seen as the first feminist work published for a large audience. In Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft makes what we would think of now as a standard sociological case on gender; that the passivity of women is not due to biology, but socialization. She advocated for educations as the primary method to change the role of women.

A Vindication for the Rights of Woman was still written in the language of the era (there is much discussion of how women’s role as mothers is crucial), but for the first time the language was clear, females are as human as males. They could be wives, but as full humans they could be her husband’s companion, not his ornament. She links racism and sexism, stating that the justification for gender roles as tradition is the same for the justification of slavery as tradition. “If women be educated for dependence; that is, to act according to the will of another fallible being, and submit, right or wrong, to power, where are we to stop?” she writes.

If Mary Wollstonecraft had been born a hundred years earlier, she probably would have been burned at the stake. Instead her short life produced some of the most radical writings of her time. She died in childbirth at the age of 38 and her daughter, Mary, became one of the most famous female authors of all time. Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein 20 years after her mother’s death. Pretty much everyone knows Frankenstein. Not enough people know about the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft.

The following books were mentioned in this blog post and can purchased from Powell’s by clicking on the covers below.

Coming Soon: Part 2: Birth of the First Wave

5 thoughts on “Feminist Herstory Pt. 1 – It is discovered that Women are PEOPLE!!!

  1. I have changed my ideas about the waves and now believe that really the first wave began and was heavily influenced by black women and men seeking freedom from enslavement. It was this quest for freedom that many white women found inspiration and ideas from.


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