The influence of race on the position of first-wave feminists

In discourses of women’s issues and the history of development of feminist thought, the first-wave feminist movement is accorded a place that is secondary to the second-wave activism of the 1960s and 1970s.  One of the reasons for this is the relative lack of emphasis on racial equality in the first-wave movement.  To illustrate the point, we have to consider the historical and social context in which the first wave feminist movement was set.  The last decades of the nineteenth century and the first few decades of the twentieth century mark the period of first-wave feminism.  The agenda of feminist activists included such aspirations as equality with men in the fields of “education, professional careers, and culture; married women’s economic and legal dependence; sexual and moral double standards; women’s lack of control over their bodies; the drudgery of housework; low wages; and not least, women’s exclusion from politics” (LeGates, p.203).  It is quite obvious that disparities between racial and ethnic communities do not feature in this list.  This suggests that while racial minorities continuously strived for emancipation during this period, their struggles were recorded independent of the women’s movement.

This apparent inconsistency is reflected in the fact that the leading activists of the first-wave feminist movement were largely white women of middle-class socio-economic background.  A closer scrutiny of the movement betrays a double standard on part of the reformers, who, it seemed, “were content to accept the restraints of race and class as natural and inevitable”.(LeGates, p.197)  The issue of race was more pronounced in North America compared to Europe.  At the time of first-wave feminism, North America was largely inhabited by Caucasians who emigrated from Western European nations in the preceding two centuries.  The leaders of feminist movement saw new immigrants from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds as a threat to their own position of relative privilege.  They were only too willing to perpetrate the racial prejudices and discriminatory practices of their male compatriots.  As LeGates points out, “They used statistics to prove the numerical superiority of native-born Anglo-European women in the population, contending that the enfranchisement of all women would offset the foreign vote”. (LeGates, 257)

The epitome of such attitudes is captured in the following sentiment expressed by Canadian feminist Margaret McAlpine, who advised the prime minister in 1911 that “Canadian women (read white European) have the well-being of the country more at heart than the average foreign immigrant”. (LeGates, 260)  Equally reactionary attitudes were espoused by feminist counterparts in the United States.  Such liberal white suffragists as Susan B. Anthony also submitted to prevailing racial injustices.  When white suffragists were impelled to take a position against the practice of segregation on trains, a practice that made black women travelers vulnerable to sexual harassment, Susan Anthony, careful not to antagonize fellow white suffragettes, declared that “our hands are tied”.  These examples go to show the extent to which racial barriers remained the fabric of North American society at the turn of the nineteenth century (LeGates, 271).

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