Historical Origins of Feminism
The title of this essay and of my book, “No Turning Back,” refers to the historical momentum that has propelled feminism, a word I use to describe broad efforts to achieve full political and economic citizenship for women.3 Feminist movements reject a political theory of patriarchy, which assumes that men should naturally have authority over women. Although the term “feminism” has specific origins in nineteenth-century France, it has acquired multiple meanings over time. Moreover, not all efforts to empower women originated in modern Europe, nor do they all necessarily adopt the feminist label. Thus, at the outset, I want to acknowledge that long before explicitly feminist movements formed, women in all world regions resisted or modified patriarchy, finding unique ways to appropriate authority for themselves. They continue to do so today, alongside formal social movements.
Women’s historical resistance to patriarchy has taken many forms. Some scholars use the label “indigenous feminisms” to refer to customary female authority or forms of women’s resistance that preceded or paralleled explicitly political movements. In peasant communities, for example, women banded together to exert group pressure on abusive husbands or withheld economic services to gain leverage within the family. Beginning long before colonial rule, West African women who acquired wealth as traders could regulate personal and economic disputes in the marketplace. In Europe and Asia, women who wished to avoid marriage joined Christian or Buddhist convents, where some exercised important spiritual, intellectual, or creative authority. Throughout the world, even when denied formal education, women have used their minds and the arts, as did poets in early modern Japan and mystics in medieval Europe. Rather than challenging patriarchy through social movements, however, most of these women resisted it as individuals.
Formal critiques of patriarchy did not appear until two historical transformations — one political and one economic — made them both possible and necessary. Wherever democratic politics and wage labor systems have converged to transform societies, some form of feminism has emerged. Politically, feminism calls for extending the democratic rejection of hierarchical rule by questioning the gender privileges retained by men. Economically, the transition from a family to a market economy fueled feminism by creating a double bind for women, as mothers and as wage workers.
Feminist politics have repeatedly responded to the contradictions in women’s lives wrought by democracy and capitalist economic growth. In parts of Europe and North America, where these transitions first converged after 1800, feminists began to agitate for education, property rights, and full citizenship. By 1900, an international women’s movement was beginning to advance these goals in urban areas of Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia as well. In the twentieth century, anticolonial and democratization movements, as well as a global economy, continued to extend these historical processes. Today, transnational communications have brought ideas about women’s rights to regions that have neither democratized nor industrialized. While no single narrative can do justice to the complexities of unique regional histories, a framework that emphasizes the recurrent effects of democratization and wage labor, along with international communications, illustrates the multiple, malleable politics that constitute feminist histories.