History of the Feminist Movement in Britain

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‘Feminism’ is variously used to mean the ideology, movement, campaign or activism for gender equality. Feminism is sociologically significant since it is concerned with social structures and inequalities, in particular those related to gender. Although Europe and America are usually seen as the birthplace of feminism, this view has been critiqued for being American- and Euro-centric. Indeed, it would be more appropriate to refer to feminist movements since feminism has not been singular or consistent across the globe[1].

This resource will introduce the history of, and contemporary developments in, feminism in Britain. The earliest feminist thought in Britain is often attributed to Mary Wollstonecraft, known as the grandmother of British feminism, who wrote The Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. The historical development of the feminist movement in the country can be summarised through the ‘wave model’.
The first wave of the feminist movement in Britain, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was mostly concerned with women’s civil rights. The campaign for the right to vote was led by suffragettes and suffragists, united under the leadership of Millicent Fawcett, and grew particularly strong and militant at times. Women above the age of 21 got the right to vote on par with men in 1928 in Britain.

The second wave of feminism in Britain, in the 1960s and 70s, also known as the Women’s Liberation Movement or Women’s Lib, expanded feminist discussions to equality in marriage and the workplace; sex and sexuality; and violence against women. Notable developments included the introduction of the contraceptive pill (1961), sewing machinists at the Ford factory in Dagenham striking for equal pay (1968), and the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act (1975).
From the 1990s onwards, the debate within feminism over diversity grew bigger. This third wave of feminism criticised the movement so far for focussing on issues of white, middle class women and ignoring the diverse experiences of women of different ethnicities, classes and cultural backgrounds. Instead, they argued, the movement should pay attention to how different kinds of discrimination overlapped, a process often referred to as intersectionality, in order to understand the complexity and diversity of women’s lived experiences[2].

While the early feminist movement focussed specifically on ‘women’s issues’, contemporary feminism prefers ‘gender equality’ to refer to the power relations between people of different genders, including those who do not identify with the gender binary. As contemporary feminism continues to develop, some argue that we are witnessing the fourth wave of more diverse and global feminism in the 21st century, while others have suggested that we’re now ‘post-feminist’. If Theresa May can be Prime Minister, does that mean that feminism has achieved its goals? Or is there much left to do to get women into leadership positions? What should be the key issues for gender equality today? We will further discuss the historical and contemporary relevance of feminism in the activities.

Learning outcomes
• To understand the various waves of feminism and the history of the feminist movement in Britain.
• To be able to critically reflect on the origins, presence and influence of feminism across the globe and specifically in Britain.
• To gain an insight into the contemporary relevance of, and issues concerning, feminism.

[1] Margolis, D.R. 1993. Women’s Movements Around the World: Cross Cultural Comparisons. Gender and Society, 7(3), pp.379-399.
[2] Crenshaw, K. 1989. Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race And Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Anti-Discrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Anti-Racist Politics. The University of Chicago Legal Forum, 140, pp.139-167.