Although women had been fighting for equal rights in various areas since the late eighteenth century, around the time that Mary Wollstonecraft wrote her seminal A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), most historians consider modern feminism to fall into two time periods. The first period, known as first-wave feminism, consists of the efforts of women—primarily in Europe and the United States—in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to gain more rights, mainly legal rights such as voting, or suffrage. Second-wave feminism, a movement that reached its height in the 1960s and 1970s, had a larger focus and strove for equality between the sexes in every category. Second-wave feminism is commonly known as the women’s movement.
During the first-wave feminism period, in the first decade of the twentieth century when Gilman wrote ‘‘Three Thanksgivings,’’ women’s rights were a hot issue. Says J. M. Roberts, in his Twentieth Century: The History of the World, 1901 to 2000: ‘‘Virtually nowhere could women be said to enjoy as much freedom or so high a legal status as men.’’ This situation differed little from the situation that women had faced for much of recorded history. However, following the American Civil War, when blacks—but not women—were given the right to vote, more women began to organize and demand the right to vote, and women’s issues became a hot topic. Says Roberts, ‘‘By 1901, the words ‘feminism’ and ‘feminist’ had come (from France) to be well-established in English in association with the promotion of women’s rights.’’
By far, the biggest issue that women fought for in the beginning of the twentieth century was suf frage. The issue was complicated by the fact that there were two major women’s suffrage organizations, with opposing viewpoints, which fought each other. The National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), which was founded in 1869, was the more radical of the two, as it did not accept male members, and it denounced the Fifteenth Amendment for not including women. Formed later that same year, the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) was a more conservative organization, and it praised the Fifteenth Amendment as a necessary first step. The organization, which was founded by both men and women, also accepted men as members. In 1890, these two organizations joined forces to become the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).
By the turn of the century, several American states and territories in the West had given women the right to vote. Although women’s suffrage is not one of the major issues in ‘‘Three Thanksgivings,’’ Mrs. Morrison does mention it briefly to Mr. Butts when discussing how much higher the interest is in Colorado: ‘‘Do you know the average interest they charge in Colorado? The women vote there, you know.’’ However, in the eastern United States, there was a greater battle for women to win the right to vote, and women spoke out on many occasions. The formal, opening rally of the American suffragettes took place in 1907 in New York City, when a group of women spoke to a group of hundreds, mainly men, many of whom supported their suffrage efforts.
Women in the Workforce
While suffrage was the main issue during firstwave feminism, some women wanted to pursue equality in other areas. Says Paul Johnson, in his book, A History of the American People : ‘‘They had to secure, for instance, equality of pay and equality of opportunity in job selection and promotion, and over a whole range of other matters.’’ The situation for American women in the workforce in the last two decades of the nineteenth century was bleak. The three fields commonly open to most women were domestic service, nursing, and teaching. This situation began to change somewhat by the turn of the century. Says Johnson, ‘‘By 1890 there were 4 million employed women, rising to 5.1 million in 1900 and 7.8 million...
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