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Refocusing Feminist History

Updated: Mar 5, 2019

This article is not another attempt to define feminism, but it is a call to understand feminism’s history and its mission because contemporary feminists and pop culture may still be missing the bigger picture. When starting to write this article, I wanted to learn the etymology of the word feminism because regardless of all of my feminist reading, I haven’t actually come across a good historical account of the word. After reading through several articles in mainstream media, I kept seeing its origin briefly attributed to the French utopian writer, Charles Fourier, followed by an immediate jump to the Suffragettes and second wave feminism. The frustrating search for a comprehensive history of feminism reveals a scattered and narrow focus of activism in American history on one hand, or a complex web of feminist subgroups and identity politics on the other.

Whatever subsections feminists create for themselves, Feminism has always been aligned with social change--and that the term was first coined by a utopian visionary makes for an interesting discussion point. Readers may quickly skip over Fourier to get to the heavy hitters like Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan, but Fourier actually is a great place to pause because he offers interesting insight into a much longer history of women’s movements and points to other great writers like Suzanne Voilquin, a member of the Saint Simonian Feminist movement in early 1800’s who, along with other women in the movement, founded the first feminist newspaper, Tribune Des Femmes. I knew nothing about these activists until I paused at Fourier. As problematic as some of Fourier’s ideas were, he and others like him saw women’s liberation as essential to all social problems—the eradication of slavery, the emancipation of industry, liberation from oppressive institutions, the instrument of education, provisions for civil liberties, an end to prostitution, and so on (Goldstein 96). In short, these French visionaries new then that women’s liberation was necessary for the end of abuse and oppression caused by unequal distribution of power.

Essentially, Fourier and other French philosophers saw “the extension of women’s liberty [a]s the key to social progress” (Goldstein 102). Fourier was proposing radical ideas that women’s struggles were not only social and political but that “the denial of [women’s] sexual freedom is equated with the denial of the mortal soul” (Goldstein 102). A critique of the institution of marriage, which for women was another form of legal slavery, was critical to women’s sexual liberation and thus independence. The feminist contributors to the Tribune were already foreshadowing issues within second wave feminism as they sought to end class division and forge female solidarity among their own groups—“We have had enough of men’s advice, direction, and dominance; it is up to us now to march in the direction of progress without a tutor. It is up to us to work for our liberty by ourselves’” (Claire Moses 257).

Feminism as a word may have originated within 19th century French philosophy, but the ideas have been happening for hundreds of years before. This isn’t news to women in academia, but the mainstream feminist discussion may be less inclined to include a full historical account in their understanding of feminism, especially when confronted with the heavy task of defining feminism. These concerns of French philosophers and activists became in the United States the same concerns of first and second wave feminists, but a longer legacy of resistance and change had already been happening. An historical look at feminism shows that women have been stirring the pot long before Seneca Falls.

Women have been speaking out against abuse of power for hundreds of years. One can go back as far as the first known female poet Enheduanna (2285 BCE-2250 BCE). Discussions about her and other early female authors are not easy to find. When the printing press was developed in the 15th century in Europe, women began to read, and write, and shape the literary landscape. A part of their primary tasks in the beginning was to critically examine religious doctrine that was being used against them. This fight continued for hundreds of years with seemingly little effect as Elizabeth Cady Stanton was still dealing with religious interpretation and female subjugation in her book, The Women’s Bible: A Classic Feminist Perspective published in the late 1800s. Early semi-educated women like Margarey of Kempe, Julian of Norwich, Cristine Pizan, were presenting female experience and interpretation to a society that believed outspoken women and educated women, especially in religious matters, were criminals. Hundreds of thousands of women of all ages and social status were imprisoned, tortured, burned at the stake for being so-called heretics or witches (Barstow, Witchcraze). According to Silvia Federici’s research in her book, Caliban and the Witch, women were coming from all over for a common cause constituting “…a true women’s movement developing within the frame of the different heretic groups” (39).

Seventeenth and Eighteenth century writers like Bathsua Makin and Mary Wollstonecraft were advocating for women’s education. Writers like Margaret Cavendish were pushing the boundaries of female sexuality and celebrating women’s intimacy and friendship. Aphra Behn created sympathy for African people with Oronooko or, The Royal Slave, while others female writers, including African American women like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and poet, Phyllis Wheatley, advocated for the abolition of slavery. There are so many female writers and activists prior to first wave feminism that there is no room here to account for them all. If one wants a comprehensive look at the literary history of feminism, A Handbook of Literary Feminism by Shari Benstock et al. is a good starting point, although the writers ignore centuries of women being persecuted during the witchcraze. Even this book is inept at covering the history of women in other cultures across the globe as it deals primarily with European/American history.

The marketplace feminism that Bitch Media cofounder, Andi Zeisler, discusses in the podcast episode, Feminism For Sale is concerning because once the feminist movement is co-opted by mainstream media, like all good things commodified, it gets diluted and rebranded and packaged in order for companies to capitalize on the movement’s popularity. On the one hand, pop culture and mainstream media have a way of demystifying and normalizing a controversial or taboo subject, but they may do equal harm by stripping the issue down, so that women identifying with the movement, but not investing in the education are left with feminist slogans, t-shirts and sound bites that may not speak to women’s historical experiences.

This is why each semester my classrooms fill with young women that have never been exposed to feminist thinkers or feminist theory written before 1960, and this is looking pretty far back for them. I agree with Karen Offen when she writes, “What feminists today must do—and are now beginning to do—is to reappropriate the relational path of our intellectual heritage” (156). In other words, an historical approach to feminism is useful in that women understand the long lineage of women fighting for their rights and the rights of other oppressed groups. The midcentury backlash in the US from which feminism is still recovering is the same backlash women have been dealing with every time they speak their voices and demand to be included in the building blocks of society--education, religion, science, philosophy, art, law making, literature, and on and on. We should as Offen says, be “armed with a richer history” (156) and not give into confusion about the word feminism as a movement or not get sidetracked by the multitude of social goals that fall under the umbrella of feminism.

Take radical feminism for example. In its onset in the mid-twentieth century, radical feminism received much backlash, primarily because of the critical lens it offered, especially its critique of the institution of the family and because many were afraid of the kind of social change radical feminists sought. According to Bell Hooks, “[women] fear letting go of the benefits. They are not certain what will happen to the world they know most intimately if patriarchy changes” (xiii). Radical feminism was also criticized for failing to include the historical experiences of other groups as it only seemed to answer the problems of white, middle class women. Coming back to French utopianism, many Americans were so proselytized against any radical social reform, including concepts like socialism, universalism, and utopianism that they were and continue to be vilified. These movements, overlooking their real-world applications, are almost always trying to eradicate social injustices and oppression while imagining egalitarian social structures. According to Claire Moses, “The feminism of the Saint-Simonianism was developed in conjunction with the movement’s pacifism and socialism” (242). These seeds of feminism can be found in many social reform movements and utopian writings because feminism has always been aligned with ending systems of oppression and abuse. This is the foundation we need to keep returning to.

There has to be some kind of way to unify various sects of feminist thinking and to provide a solid answer to women that feel disinclined to call themselves feminists. The answer may be in realizing that feminism is “a rapidly developing major critical ideology, or system of ideas, in its own right” that has always been aligned with women’s rights and social change even before the word feminism was used (Offen 150). Radical feminism isn’t really radical when one places feminism in its full historical context. It is feminism. Feminism is the female voice--the voice that has been unapologetically criticized or silenced for hundreds of years. Feminism is the battle cry to rectify things that are causing harm in the world whether the issues are lack of education, slavery, hunger, poverty, war, racism, sexism, ageism, environmental abuse, violence, and so on. Feminism is a woman’s creative spirit and intuition that must undeniably be liberated from all systems of hegemony and validated as an equal contribution within any given society. Even when men advocate for feminism, they are ultimately recognizing that the female voice is essential to change—that all voices are essential to the harmonious existence we all want.

Feminism is also the recognition that that there is an inherent fault in any system where women have been left out or marginalized. Women are historically an oppressed group. As Karen Offen says, “To allow so many to get away with saying, ‘I’m not a feminist, but…’ seems highly problematic in the light of current political necessities” (118). And what about the status of women in other cultures across the globe? Feminist history also needs to be more comprehensive to include the history of women in all parts of the world, especially where basic human rights are still being denied to women—“ we must develop a more historically grounded, more realistic, more encompassing sociopolitical vision, one that goes beyond stark individualism…[to] accommodate [women’s] actual range of diversity and differing needs” (Offen 157). Being a feminist requires rising above the inevitable backlash that happens with any call to change or demand for equality. When women come together, we shake the very foundations of oppression until one day they no longer exist. We have long been on this path. History shows us this.

By Leigh Bancroft, Jan 2019

Article by Leigh Bancroft


Barstow, Anne Llewellyn. Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts. San Francisco, Pandora, c/o HarporCollins Publishers, 1994.

Benstock, Shari, Suzanne Ferriss, and Susanne Woods. A Handbook of Literary Feminisms. New York, Oxford University Press, 2002.

Ervin, Caroline. Interview with Andi Zeisler. “Feminism for Sale” Stuff Mom Never Told You, 15 Jun 2016,, accessed 7 Jan 2019.

Federici, Silvia, Caliban and the Witch: Women, The Body and Primitive Accumulation. Brooklyn NY, Autonomedia, 2004.

Goldstein, Leslie F. “Early Feminist Themes in French Utopian Socialism: The St Simonians and Fourier.” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 43, No. 1, 1982, pp.91-108.

Hooks, Bell. Feminism is For Everybody: Passionate Politics. New York, Routledge, 2015.

Moses, Claire G. “Saint-Simonian Men/Saint-Simonian Women: The Transformation of Feminist Thought in 1830’s France.” The Journal of Modern History, vol. 54, No. 2, 1982, pp. 240-267.

Offren, Karen. “Defining Feminism: A Comparative Historical Approach.” Signs, vol.14. No. 1, 1988, pp. 119-157.

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady. The Woman’s Bible: A Classic Feminist Perspective. New York, Dover Publications, 2002, (originally published 1895-1898).

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