Los Angeles High School of the Arts

Feminism: featuring Victorian era to present day

Starting from the Victorian era through the 20th century, feminist movements played a large role in American History by advocating for equal rights. During this time, many women were oppressed by men who believed they deserved a superior lifestyle, creating a domino effect that led to many disadvantages for women, as their voices were silenced. While gender inequality persisted throughout the 20th century in America, women’s movements in the 1970s made great strides to bring women closer to their goal of becoming men’s equals. Though there has been progress in achieving the goals of Victorian feminist movements, women continued to challenge a lack of equal pay, access to birth control and gender roles that demonstrated that work was still needed.

The Victorian era was a conservative period in which women were raised to cook and clean, while men were taught to pursue jobs in the workforce. During this period, women were considered properties of men. For a young woman, marriage perceived to be the only route to take as they had no other choice, but to go under the wings of a man in order to survive. Women were exceptionally limited during this era because society had already placed them into the role of motherhood; framing women to preclude themselves of any sort of outside experience, political or social.  Meanwhile, men were accepted into society as workers and leaders who would lead the family, and took on career-leading pathways.

This environment sparked the motivation to fight for a change, and break the stereotype for women. Even in the late 1800s, many women disagreed with this way of life. A leading example of a famous activist who made strides to elevate the status of women was Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She, along with many other suffragettes, fought to represent women as politically intelligent, and fully capable of taking on the same tasks as men. Her dedication to overturn the image placed on women resulted in the starting mark of women’s movements in America.

Although movements were beginning to emerge in America during this period, social expectations such as the “proper” way to dress and act in society continued to be established, setting a role for each gender. Women were expected to act in a vulnerable and feeble manner, supporting the image of a women’s inferiority compared to man’s superior status. Unreasonable restrictions were placed on women during this era; from not being able to smoke, to having certain dress codes–long dresses, corsets, hoop skirts, which ultimately rendered women from expressing themselves freely in public.

The expectations of how a woman should act in public reflected the disparity between women and men. Victorian behavior largely impacted American women as the image of a vulnerable woman propelled feminists to seek power. During this era, it was very “normal” for men and women to have completely opposite roles. Men would usually work, and be involved with politics, while women would stay home to take care of their children and fulfill house chores. This era became a major trigger to push for more women’s rights as women became more aware of the unjust nature of American society.

The first of such efforts surfaced in 1884 when the Victorian Women’s Suffrage Society emerged with restricted success. In the course of this period, only a few women within the upper class possessed jobs, but were paid significantly less than the average male worker in the same field, and were forced to undergo a substantial amount of harassment. Although a small percentage of women were starting to make appearances in the workforce, they continued to be deprived of reasonable working wages that men were titled to.

Similarly, a notable amount of progress was made in women’s suffrage movements during the era. Politics, which had once been ignored by Victorian women, was now beginning to manifest into a major concern for women who were entering into the workforce as they began to encounter disadvantages in the field. Because women were still seen as “property” during this period, women were not allowed to own any sort of property, yet alone possess their hard-earned money. These conditions failed to improve until women’s suffrage movements began to fight for their rights to improve working wages.

In addition to the advances made in voting rights, women began to challenge the code of conduct that society had placed on their dress codes. The Victorian dress reform movement surfaced as women desired clothing that would offer more comfort than the heavy layer of garments that hindered them from moving freely.  This movement to redesign the fashion of women’s clothing influenced the ability of women to perform tasks more efficiently.

Although feminists were attempting to break the trend of male dominance, fighting for causes such as the right to have an abortion, or the right to equal pay rate was slowly moving forward. Feminists would have to put in laborious hours of work to continue being heard. The women’s movement in the Victorian era set a bar for the group of feminists to fight towards their cause against inequality. They focused on rights that had been long overdue and continued to strive for a better future.

The efforts of feminists in the Victorian era subsequently impacted the 1920s, a period is widely known as the birth of “new women.” By this time, women were finally allowed to express their opinions openly in public. Although the influence of the Victorian era still existed, the image of an independent, successful woman was becoming increasingly apparent. The 1920s encouraged women to explore political and social freedoms that had been scarce in the Victorian era. Women were now able to take pride in their body images and dress in more revealing clothing. Tight corsets and long-layered dresses were long gone and replaced with carefree attitudes and a new wardrobe.

Although feminists adopted masculine roles in working white-collar jobs, women were still being robbed of equal pay rates. This leads back to the question of how much more progress would be needed to finally end discrimination against women?

Throughout the early ’60s to late ’70s, new feminist movements arose, as cultural changes were developing in America. Since the roaring twenties, women continued to embrace their womanhood and freedom. Women were beginning to form new fashion trends that outlined their bodies, ultimately creating a standup image for feminists. However, all these new advances gradually faded away as women re-entered into the state of oppression as society forced women back into the stereotypical housewife category. Women were placed back into the Victorian era stage, and once again feminists seemed to be back where they started, trapped and powerless. Many women returned back to their house chores, satisfying the needs of their husbands. The apparent freedom that women had in the 1920s seemed to have disappeared by the late ’70s.

The power of womanhood seemed to make its decline until the publishing of Betty Friedan’s book, “The Feminine Mystique.” Friedan’s book not only revealed the hidden secrets of the internal thoughts of women but also shined a new light on how society had forced women to represent themselves as inferior to men. Although feminists were pushed ten steps back, women took an optimistic view on their situation, and continued to strive towards the forward movement women’s freedom: socially, economically, and politically.

Advocating for women’s rights required a great deal of effort, but resulted in positive changes that would ultimately help create awareness for Americans against discrimination. The women of new feminism were now able to tackle several topics, which would aid future women along the line. These topics included women’s rights to vote, the accessibility to birth control, and a significantly reduced amount of discrimination in the workforce. Despite the fact that women performed a majority of the working tasks and men made all the decisions, feminists aimed to break the mold that society had formed between men and women.

Although the scope of women’s rights has greatly broadened over the course of the 20th century, a significant amount of progress was still needed in order to put an end to discrimination against women. Even though feminists proceeded to advocate for the equal treatment of women, the debate on whether these women have really been heard is an ongoing dispute. Similarly, regardless of voting rights that were granted to women in the 1920s, feminist movements still continue to challenge the prejudice workforce in which has substantially underpaid women, even after they have proven to work longer hours in the same field of men.

Although the progression of feminist movements has significantly improved, continuance efforts and motivations are still needed in order to make a lasting impression for the next generation of Americans. Discrimination against women is still present today as they are deprived of equal working wages, shortages regarding maternity leaves and abortion. Women from the Victorian era to the late 1970s mark a new beginning to a revolution for American women today, as they continue to be inspired and fight ongoing discrimination against women.