What is Feminism?

19-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Friday, June 19, 1914: Simply nothing.

Recent picture of McEwensville
Recent picture of McEwensville

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Nothing days are good days to contemplate deep questions. Did Grandma ever ask herself questions like: Do I believe that women should have more rights?. . . Am I a feminist? . . .

Here’s the beginning of an article on feminism that was in the May, 1914 issue of Good Housekeeping:

What is Feminism?

Has the question reached your hometown yet? If it has not, it soon will. And if the people in your home town are like the people in mine, the answers will be various and sundry—as many different answers probably as there are people.

“Femi-what?” your average citizen will venture. “Feminism? Something about women, isn’t it?”

“It’s the woman’s movement”—“It’s the furthering of the interests of women”—“It’s the revolt of the women”—”It’s the assertion of woman’s right to individual development”—“It’s the doctrine of freedom for women”—“It’s woman’s struggle for the liberation of her personality”—

The suggestions have crowded one on the heels of the other so rapidly, and so dogmatically, during this early part of the twentieth century, that the onlooker may be forgiven for deciding that there are a so many definitions of feminism as there are feminists.

Yet what distinguishes the contribution of the times on the subject is the really synthetic effort back of all the definitions, the effort to get “the woman question” assembled on a broader base than any from which it has as yet been projected. Higher education for women, economic opportunity for women, right of person and property for women, political enfranchisement for women—all begin as parts of something greater, vaster.

Whether or not we have found it in feminism is still an open question. Some draw back because they say, it means too much. Some don’t like it because they say it doesn’t mean enough. Some want the woman question to stay concentrated upon suffrage. . .

22 thoughts on “What is Feminism?

  1. I too wonder how much women’s rights were openly discussed back then. I figure it may have been whispered about between the teens but I wonder if the Mothers discussed it much.

  2. I guess I’m surprised that the term “feminism” was being used in 1914. Of course women were looking for equal rights but I associated that word so completely with the 1970s-present!

    1. I hadn’t thought about it until you mentioned it, but you’re absolutely right–feminism still is a word that has different meanings to different people.

  3. Women didn’t even have the right to vote yet. I wonder if Helena and her friends ever talked about that!

  4. Using the terms feminism and woman’s movement back then is a surprise!… The fact that many of these questions persist is not. Always enjoy your research – thanks.

    1. It surprised me, too. Until I read the article in the old magazine, I would have guessed that the term “feminism” originated in the 1960s.

    1. LOL. . . thanks for sharing how it appeared in the reader.

      And, thanks for the link. I hadn’t realized how many years to it from the beginnings of the US women’s movement until they got the right to vote. . . . whew, 70+ years is a long time.

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