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Women on Top: A Brief History of Feminism Close

Sarah Grochala | July 8, 2016



Pre-history: It has been argued, mainly on the basis of the discovery of a number of prehistoric sculptures of female figures, such as the 35 000 year old Venus of Willendorf, that Palaeolithic (2.5millon-10,000BC) societies were matriarchal and worshipped a mother goddess. There is sadly no conclusive evidence to support this.

1400-1100BC: According to Greek mythology, the Amazons, a race of all female warriors from the area around the Black Sea, fought in the Trojan war against the Greeks. Homer describes them as ‘those who fight like men’. The Amazons were expert archers and often fought from horseback. They are credited with inventing the cavalry. These all female warriors lived in an all-female communities, having sex with men from neighbouring tribes or with prisoners of war in order to procreate. Male children were killed at birth. The existence of the Amazons is supported by the discovery of graves in the Black Sea area containing women dressed for battle and armed with bows.

630-570BC: The Greek poet Sappho living and writing on the island of Lesbos and later in exile in Sicily. She is considered, by the scholars of ancient Alexandria, to be one of the canon of nine great lyric poets worthy of study. She is the only woman on the list.

69-30BC: Cleopatra, the last active pharaoh of Egypt. When the Romans occupy Alexandria in 48BC, Cleopatra smuggles herself into Caesar’s palace wrapped inside a carpet. She becomes Caesar’s mistress and persuades him to back her claim to the Egyptian throne. After Caesar’s murder in 44BC, Cleopatra supports his allies, Mark Anthony and Octavian in the war that follows.  Mark Anthony and Octavian win the war and share power in Rome. Mark Anthony falls in love with Cleopatra and moves to Alexandria to be with her. Mark Anthony and Octavian then fall out, perhaps because Mark Anthony is actually married to Octavian’s sister. Rome goes to war against Egypt and Egypt loses. Cleopatra and Mark Anthony commit suicide as Octavian enters Alexandria.

60-61AD: Boudica, queen of the Iceni tribe, leads an uprising against the Romans. When her husband, an ally of Rome, dies he leaves the kingdom jointly to his daughters and to Rome. The Roman’s ignore the will. Instead of sharing power, they flog Boudica and rape her daughters. Boudica is, naturally, a little bit upset about this. She leads her tribe to war, destroying three major Roman settlements at Colchester, St Albans and London and killing around 70,000 people. Boudica is defeated in a battle somewhere along the Roman Road, now known as Watling Street. She poisons herself after losing the battle to avoid being taken captive by the Romans.  

98AD: Tactitus in his account his Germania notes the existence of a tribe with powerful fleets of oared ships called the Sitones ruled by women in the area that is now modern day Sweden.

400-415AD: The Greek mathematician, astronomer and philosopher, Hypatia, becomes the head of the Neo-Platonic School in Alexandria. She is described as being the wisest philosopher of her time. In 415BC, she is violently murdered by a Christian mob, who accuse her of beguiling the rulers of the city with her pagan witchcraft .

1099AD: Pope Joan, the legendary first and only female pope, is murdered by a mob. As a young girl, she disguises herself as man in order to get an education. She turns out to be an excellent student and is soon well-respected for her learning. She rises to the position of Pope. Her reign as Pope is ended when she accidentally gives birth to a child during a procession. Furious, the citizens of Rome tie her to a horse and drag her to death through the streets.

1137AD: Eleanor of Aquitane inherits the Duchy of Aquitaine on the death of her father William X. She becomes one of the most powerful and wealthy women in Western Europe during the High Middle Ages. She marries twice, becoming Queen of France from 1137-52 and Queen of England from 1154-1189. She participates in the Second Crusade as the feudal leader of the soldiers from her Duchy. Unhappy in her first marriage, she manages to get it annulled. Within eight weeks of the annulment, she marries the future Henry II of England. In 1173, she supports a revolt against Henry led by one of Henry and her sons. Henry imprisons her for the next 16 years. When Henry dies in 1189, her son Richard the Lionheart succeeds to the throne and releases her. She rules England while Richard is away on the Third Crusade and negotiates his ransom when he is captured.

1364-1430AD: French writer Christine de Pizan writes The Book of the City of Ladies. She argues that women should be valued participants in society and should be educated. She denounces misogyny.

1412-1431AD: Joan of Arc advises the French army in their campaign against the English during the Hundred Years’ War and leads them to many victories. She is eventually captured by the English and burnt at the stake as a witch.

1533-1603AD: Elizabeth I rules Britain. She defeats the Spanish Armada and supports the rise of the Protestant church. She never marries. She insists that she is married to her subjects and her kingdom.



1791AD: During the French Revolution, French playwright Olympe de Gouges publishes the Declaration of the Rights of Woman. She points out that the revolution is failing on its promise of ‘egality’ because it appears to have forgotten the female population of France, who she argues are also entitled to equal rights.

1792AD: Mary Wollstonecraft publishes A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in which she argues that women are not inferior to men but only seem so because they lack education.

1843AD: Ada Lovelace publishes the first computer programme. What is remarkable about her ideas is that she foresees that computers, which at the time were simply adding and subtracting machines, will be able to handle and manipulate data that goes beyond just simple numerical calculations. Her work is largely ignored for the next hundred years.

1848AD: Feminists in America hold the first women’s rights convention, the Seneca Falls Convention. A declaration for women’s independence is drafted.

1849-1853AD: In America, Amelia Bloomer publishes The Lily, a bi-weekly newspaper pre-dominantly concerned with women’s rights. Bloomer argues that women’s dress should be altered so that it is less restrictive. During the 1850s, along with another feminist Libby Miller, she adopts a more rational style of dress - long loose trousers gathered at the ankle and a short dress. The trousers became known as bloomers.

1851AD: Harriet Taylor Mill publishes The Enfranchisement of Women, in which she argues for civil and political equality for women.

1860AD: Florence Nightingale observes that women have all the potential of men but none of the opportunities.

1861-1908AD: Empress Dowager Cixi effectively controls the Chinese government. The daughter of an ordinary official, Cixi starts her life in the palace when she is selected to be a concubine in 1851. She rises to power when her five year old son Zaichun is selected Emperor in 1861. She solidifies her control over the country by installing her nephew as Emperor when Zaichun died in 1875. While in power, Cixi bans foot binding and passes legislation aimed at turning China into a constitutional monarchy. At the same time, she is also reported to be incredibly ruthless in her quest to hold onto power.

1865AD: Elizabeth Garrett Anderson becomes the first English women to qualify as a doctor. She founds a hospital for women and children that specialises in gynaecological conditions. She argues against male medical views of women’s ‘delicate’ constitutions as unable to stand ‘over-exertion’. Garrett Anderson argues instead what women need, is not rest and protection, but education, fresh air and physical exercise.

1869AD: Emily Davies founds Girton College at Cambridge, which allows some women limited access to higher education. Women are allowed to take the university exams from 1881 but are not entitled to be full members of the university until 1948.

1870AD: Married Women’s Property Act gives married women the right to own any money they earn, any investments they have, any gifts they are given or anything they inherit.  Before this act, a woman’s property automatically became her husband’s property when they married.

1886AD: Josephine Butler succeeds in getting the Contagious Diseases Acts repealed. These acts allowed the police to arrest women on the suspicion of being prostitutes and then subject them to compulsory checks for venereal disease.

1903AD: Emmeline Pankhurst founds the Women’s Social and Political Union, which is dedicated to getting women the vote through deeds not words. Its members smash windows, assault police officers and commit arson. In prison, they go on hunger strike and are brutally force fed.

1913AD: Suffragette Emily Davison steps in front of the king’s race horse during the Epsom Derby. She dies from her injuries 4 days later.

1918AD: Women over 30 are granted the right to vote.

1921AD: Marie Stopes opens the first birth control clinic in London.

1923AD: In Egypt, Huda Sha’arawi decides to stop wearing her hijab and founds the Egyptian Feminist Union. She argues that women should no  longer be confined to the house or the harem. She organises educational lectures for women on subjects of interest to them and opens a school for girls. She protests against the British occupation of Egypt. Within ten years of Huda’s public decision to remove her veil, most women in Egypt stop wearing their veils.

1928AD: Women over 21 granted the right to vote, making women finally equal with men in this respect.

1929AD: Virginia Woolf publishes A Room of One’s Own, in which she argues that a woman must have money and room of her own if she is be able to write. Most women, over the course of history, have not had the opportunity to write because they lacked these things. She tells the story of Shakespeare’s sister, demonstrating how even if she had possessed the same genius as him, the conditions under which she lived as a woman would have put insurmountable obstacles in her way to becoming as great a writer as him.

1939-1945AD: Many women take on traditionally male roles during the Second World War.

1940AD: Khertek Anchimaa-Toka becomes the first ever female head of state, when she is appointed chairwoman of the parliament of the Tuvan People’s Republic.


1949AD: Simone de Beauvoir publishes The Second Sex, in which she argues that women need to become the subject of their own narrative rather than the object of a male narrative. In other words, women need to think of themselves as driving the action of their own lives, rather than just being an object of desire in men’s lives.

1960AD: In Sri Lanka, Sirimavo Bandaranaike becomes the world’s first ever female prime minister.

1963AD: Betty Friedman publishes The Feminine Mystique, in which she explores why so many American women were unhappy and frustrated with their roles as home-makers in 1950s and early 1960s, despite living in material comfort. She concludes that women need more than a husband, a family and a home. Women, just like men, need meaningful work to achieve self-actualization

1963AD: Valentina Tereshkova becomes the first woman in space.

1967AD: In America, Valeria Solanas publishes the SCUM Manifesto, which argues that men are inferior to women because the Y chromosome is a deformed X chromosome that is missing a leg. As men are incomplete women and have ruined the world, Solanas argues that the best thing to do would be eliminate them completely. Solanas became notorious in 1968, when she attempts but fails to kill Andy Warhol.

1969AD: 400 feminists attend a demonstration against the Miss America pageant and supposedly burn their bras. The bra burning never happened. They did however symbolically throw a range of feminine items, including false eyelashes and mops, into a ‘Freedom Trash Can’.

1970AD: Germaine Greer publishes The Female Eunuch in which she argues that traditional family life supresses women and desexualises them. Women, she claims have become separated from their libido and need to re-find their sexuality. Women need to get to know their bodies again and reject  both celibacy and monogamy.

1970AD: The equal pay act establishes that men and women should be paid the same for the same work. In practice, however, men are still paid more than women over the course of their careers.

1970AD: In America, the Radicalesbians publish The Woman Identified Woman, in which they argue that the lesbian community is the forefront of the struggle for women’s liberation. Lesbianism defies traditional definitions of women’s identity in terms of male sexual partners and expresses the primacy of woman relating to woman.

1973AD: American cultural critic Jill Johnston publishes Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution, in which she argues in favour of lesbian separatism. She claims that heterosexuality is a form of collaboration with the patriarchy and, therefore, women should make a total break with men and male dominated institutions.

1974AD: Isabel Martinez de Peron is appointed the President of Argentina becoming the first ever female president in the world.

1975AD: Susan Brownmiller publishes Against Our Will, which explores male violence against women. She condemns pornography. She argues that, in terms of sexual violence, pornography is the theory and rape the practice.

1976AD: American poet Audre Lord publishes Coal, a book of poems, in which she explores the idea of intersectionality. She argues that the category of women is full of subdivisions. Women’s experiences differ depending on their class, race, age,  gender and health. She argues that feminism needs to acknowledge difference and not subsume all women in a single general category of ‘woman’.

1976AD: Maxine Hong Kingston publishes The Woman Warrior, in which she explores the experiences of women within the Chinese community in America.

1979AD: Margaret Thatcher becomes Britain’s first female prime minister.

1979AD: American lawyer Catharine McKinnon publishes Sexual Harassment of Working Women, in which she argues that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination. In 1986, the Supreme Court rules that sexual harassment may violate sex discrimination laws effectively making it illegal. With Andrea Dworkin, Mackinnon is also pivotal in arguing for anti-pornography laws. She argues that pornography is a form of ‘forced’ sex. She supports the case of Linda Lovelace, the star of Deep Throat, who argues that she had been coerced by her husband into making pornographic films against her will.



1984AD: American academic Bell Hooks publishes Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. In it she addresses the fact that, in existing feminist theory, the voices of non-white women and lower class women have been marginalised. She asks feminists to consider feminism’s relationship to class, race and sexual orientation more carefully. Third wave feminism explores the idea that both first and second wave feminism are almost exclusively white middle-class movements. Third wave feminism attempts to address the situation of all women.

1987AD: In America, Gloria Anzaldua publishes Borderlands: The New Mestiza, in which she explores the condition of women in Chicano and Latino cultures.

1990AD: Naomi Woolf publishes The Beauty Myth, in which she argues that, as women have risen in social power and prominence, the pressure they feel to adhere to unachievable standards of physical beauty has grown stronger, driven by advertising and mass media. This leads women into unhealthy patterns of behaviour and creates a pre-occupation with physical appearance making it harder for them to be effective within society.

1990AD: Judith Butler publishes Gender Trouble, in which she argues that gender is a kind of improvised performance. While sex is biologically defined, gender is a cultural construct. We learn how to perform our gender. Gender is not innate.

1995AD: The United Nations sign The Beijing Platform for Action, articulating a commitment to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women through gender mainstreaming or by letting women and men experience equal conditions for realising their full human rights and have the opportunity to contribute and benefit from national, political, economic, social and cultural development.

2005AD: In America, Ariel Levy publishes Female Chauvinist Pigs, in which she argues that the rise of ‘raunch culture’ is a worrying phenomenon. She questions whether the idea of a woman embracing her sexuality by appearing in a wet T-shirt contest or watching explicit pornography should be seen as a symbol of female empowerment and liberation. She sees such ‘raunch culture’ as the downfall of feminism rather than its triumph.

2008AD: Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s Her Naked Skin becomes the first original play written by a living female playwright to be staged on the National Theatre’s Olivier stage.

2010AD: American film director Kathryn Bigelow becomes the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar.

2011AD: Caitlin Moran publishes How to Be a Woman, in which she aims to make feminism more accessible through talking about it within the context of her own life story. She argues that we need to stop seeing feminists as radical men-haters and realise that all women are feminists, unless they explicitly reject the idea of personal freedom. The book re-ignites a general interest in feminism in the UK.

2012AD: Laura Bates starts The Everyday Sexism Project. Her website collects examples of everyday harassment from women around the world.

2013AD: In America, Sheryl Sandberg publishes Lean In, in which she highlights how women struggle to command careers on top of their home lives. It causes huge controversy and is seen as anti-feminist by many.

2013AD: Kira Cochrane argues that feminism has now entered a fourth wave that focuses on highlighting everyday inequality manifesting as street harassment, sexual harassment, workplace discrimination, body-shaming, media images, online misogyny and intersectionality. The movement uses online platforms to share and gather women’s individual experiences in order to create political impact.