The history of feminism reaches far back before the 18th century, but the seeds of the feminist movement were planted during the latter portion of that century. The earliest works on the so-called "woman question" criticised the restrictive role of women, without necessarily claiming that women were disadvantaged or that men were to blame.
Prior to 1850
Feminist thought began during The Enlightenment with such thinkers as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and the Marquis de Condorcet championing women's education. The first scientific society for women was founded in Middleberg, a city in the south of the Dutch republic, in 1785. Journals for women which focused on issues like science became popular during this period as well. Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) is one of the first works that can unambiguously be called feminist, although by modern standards her comparison of women to the nobility, the elite of society, coddled, fragile, and in danger of intellectual and moral sloth, does not sound like a feminist argument. Wollstonecraft believed that both sexes contributed to this situation and took it for granted that women had considerable power over men.
Late 19th century
The movement is generally said to have begun in the 18th century as people increasingly came to believe that women were treated unfairly under the law. The feminist movement is rooted in the West and especially in the reform movement of the 19th century. The organised movement is dated from the first women's rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848.
Emmeline Pankhurst was one of the founders of the suffragette movement and aimed to reveal the institutional sexism in British society, forming the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). Often the repeated jailing for forms of activism that broke the law, particularly property destruction, inspired members to go on hunger strikes. As a result of the resultant force-feeding that was the practice, these members became very ill, serving to draw attention to the brutality of the legal system at the time and to further their cause. In an attempt to solve this the government introduced a bill that became known as the Cat and Mouse Act, which allowed women to be released when they starved themselves to dangerous levels, then to be re-arrested later.
Other notable 19th-century feminists include, Emma Goldman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Margaret Sanger.
The Feminist movement in the Arab world saw Egyptian jurist Qasim Amin, the author of the 1899 pioneering book Women's Liberation (Tahrir al-Mar'a), as the father of Arab Feminist Movement. In his work Amin criticized some of the practices prevalent in his society at the time, such as polygamy, the veil, or women's segregation, and condemned them as un-Islamic, and contradicting the true spirit of Islam. His work had an enormous influence on women's political movements throughout the Islamic and Arab world, and is read and cited today. Less known, however, are the women who preceded Amin in their feminist critique of their societies. The women's press in Egypt started voicing such concerns since its very first issues in 1892. Egyptian, Syrian and Lebanese women and men had been reading European feminist magazines even a decade earlier, and discussed their relevance to the Middle East in the general press.
Many countries began to grant women the vote in the early years of the 20th century, especially in the final years of the First World War and the first years after the war. The reasons for this varied, but included a desire to recognise the contributions of women during the war, and were also influenced by rhetoric used by both sides at the time to justify their war efforts. For example, since Wilson's Fourteen Points recognised self determination as a vital component of society, the hypocrisy of denying half the population of modern nations the vote became difficult for men to ignore. (See: Women's suffrage)
The 1920s were an important time for women, who, in addition to gaining the vote also gained legal recognition in many countries. However, in many countries, women lost the jobs they had gained during the war. In fact, women who had held jobs prior to the war were sometimes compelled to give up their jobs to returning soldiers, partly due to a conservative backlash, and partially through societal pressure to reward the soldiers. Many women continued to work in blue collar jobs, on farms, and traditionally female occupations. Women did make strides in some fields such as nursing.
In both World Wars, manpower shortages brought women into traditionally male occupations, ranging from munitions manufacturing and mechanical work to a female baseball league. By demonstrating that women could do "men's work", and highlighting society's dependence on their labour, this shift encouraged women to strive for equality. In World War II, the popular icon Rosie the Riveter became a symbol for a generation of working women.
The rise of socialism and communism advanced the rights of women to economic parity with men in some countries. Women were often encouraged to take their place as equals in these societies, although they rarely enjoyed the same level of political power as men, and still often faced very different social expectations.
In some areas, regimes actively discouraged feminism and women's liberations. In Nazi Germany, a very hierarchical society was idealized where women maintained a position largely subordinate to men. Women's activism was very difficult there, and in other societies that deliberately set out to restrict women's, and men's, gender roles, such as Italy, and much later Afghanistan.
Early feminists and primary feminist movements are often called the first wave and feminists after about 1960 the second wave. Second wave feminists were concerned with gaining full social and economic equality, having already gained almost full legal equality in many western nations. One of the main fields of interest to these women was in gaining the right to contraception and birth control, which were almost universally restricted until the 1960s. With the development of the birth control pill feminists hoped to make it as available as possible. Many hoped that this would free women from the perceived burden of mothering children they did not want; they felt that control of reproduction was necessary for full economic independence from men. Access to abortion was also widely demanded, but this was much more difficult to secure because of the deep societal divisions that existed over the issue. To this day, abortion remains controversial in many parts of the world.
Many feminists also fought to change perceptions of female sexual behaviour. Since it was often considered more acceptable for men to have multiple sexual partners, many feminists encouraged women into "sexual liberation" and having sex for pleasure with multiple partners. The extent to which most women in fact changed their behaviour, first of all because many women had already slept with multiple partners, and secondly because most women still remained in mainly monogamous relationships, is debatable. However, it seems clear that women becoming sexually active since the 1980s are relatively more sexually active than previous generations. (See: Sexual revolution)
These developments in sexual behavior have not gone without criticism by some feminists. They see the sexual revolution primarily as a tool used by men to gain easy access to sex without the obligations entailed by marriage and traditional social norms. They see the relaxation of social attitudes towards sex in general, and the increased availability of pornography without stigma, as leading towards greater sexual objectification of women by men. Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin gained notoriety in the 1980s by attempting to classify pornography as a violation of women's civil rights.
There is a so called third wave, but feminists disagree as to its necessity, its benefits, and its ideas. Often also called "Post-Feminist," it can possibly be considered to be the advancement of a female discourse in a world where the equality of women is something that can be assumed—rather than fought for.
In many areas of the world women are still paid less than men for equivalent work, hold much less political and economic power, and are often the subject of intense social pressure to conform to relatively traditional gender expectations. Feminists continue to fight these conditions. The most high profile work is done in the field of pay-equity, reproductive rights, and encouraging women to become engaged in politics, both as candidates and as voters. In some areas feminists also fight for legislation guaranteeing equitable divorce laws and protections against rape and sexual harassment. Radical feminism was a significant development in second wave feminism, viewing women's oppression as a fundamental element in human society and seeks to challenge that standard by broadly inverting perceived gender roles along with promoting lesbian and gay rights.
In the Arab and Islamic world, feminist movements face very different challenges. In Morocco and Iran, for example, it is the application of Islamic personal status laws that are the target of feminist activity. According to Islamic law, for example, a woman who remarries may lose custody over her children; divorce is an unqualified male privilege; in certain countries polygamy is still legal. While not attacking Islamic law itself, these women and men in different Islamic countries offer modern, feminist, egalitarian readings of religious texts. In Egypt feminist gynecologist Nawal al-Sa'dawi centers her critique on the still-prevalent custom of female genital mutilation. Feminist groups in other African countries have targeted the practice as well.
One problem feminists have encountered in the late 20th century is a strong backlash against perceived zealotry on their part. This backlash may be due to the visibility of some radical feminist activism that has been inaccurately perceived as representing the feminist movement as a whole. Many women, and some men, have become reluctant to be identified as feminists for this reason. Outside of the West, feminism is often associated with Western colonialism and Western cultural influence, and is therefore often delegitimized. Feminist groups therefore often prefer to refer to themselves as "women's organizations" and refrain from labeling themselves feminists.