The impact of the idea of ‘social purity’ on first wave feminism

The first wave movement in America and Britain was a direct result of the existing interconnections between the physiological rights and political rights of women in the nineteenth century. This meant that the feminists strove to bring about just laws for protecting women’s rights. They attempted to purify the society of immoral practices such as rape, incest, physical and emotional abuse. Social purity, in hence one part of the larger first wave feminist movement that specifically addresses issues related to women’s bodies. Marlene LeGates illustrates this relation succinctly thus:

“The rights of women to participate freely in the abolition struggle and to speak out in public were by far not the only items on the white feminist agenda. In the 1840s, women’s health became an issue, widely discussed in female physiological societies. Reform also came from a different direction, in the form of a protest against the lack of married women’s property rights. Among the campaigners in New York State were Ernsestine Potowski Rose, Paulina Wright Davis, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, all to be active in the following decades…”(LeGates, p.124)

Further, as part of their effort to hand women more control over their own bodies, feminist leaders of the day paid special attention to issues of family violence. In Britain, such luminaries as Harriet Martineau agitated against domestic violence in the 1850s. Parallel developments were taking shape in France and Germany as well, under the leadership of Louise Dittmar. The relative freedom enjoyed by the press allowed Frances Power Cobbe to publish her renowned article “Wife-torture in England”. But, the underlying reason for this various counts of injustice against women of the nineteenth century were all different manifestations of the then prevalent notion of “social purity”. The intellectuals of the day saw the subordinate status of women as one of many social problems. The founding of the Protective Agency for Women and Children in Chicago in 1885 and the repeal in Britain of the Contagious Diseases Act were the fruition of the social purity campaigns, which were an integral part of the larger feminist movement and gave it thrust (LeGates, p.215).

Works Cited:

Marlene LeGates, In Their Time: A History of Feminism in Western Society, Published by Routledge, 2001, ISBN 0415930987, 9780415930987, 406 pages