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The Development of Modern Feminist Thought: A Summary

By Saarang Narayan

2016, Vol. 8 No. 02

Who is a woman? What does it mean to be a woman? Is she a mother-daughter-wife-sister? Or is she more than that? What is her role in society and how does it play out in various institutions? Does she really face oppression? If so, how? Is Feminism really an answer to her problems? And does she need emancipation? Who will bring about this emancipation and how?

These are certain basic questions that need to be asked again and again in every epoch. The patriarchal superstructure has adapted to the various material changes in the last 5000-6000 years. But a marked change has been seen in the last couple of decades, as the market has incorporated the agenda of feminism in itself. A formal denial of patriarchy is now part of the dominant discourse. But one must be weary and unmask the patriarchal vestiges that still survive in it. It is in this light that one should ask the above question again.

This paper looks to trace three broad themes in the scholarship of feminism: the conceptualization of women as a socio-political category, the various ideas of women’s oppression, and the idea of emancipation. In particular, the work of four influential scholars—Mary Wollstonecraft, Friedrich Engels, Emma Goldman and Simone de Beauvoir—is used to provide a brief summary of the subject and its development. Each provides foundational ideas in the scholarship of feminism, in addition to representing the shifting discourse in the two major waves of feminism in modern history. Excerpts of the writings of each of the aforementioned scholars are examined from Alice S. Rossi’s Feminist Papers: from Adams to de Beauvoir1.

Mary Wollstonecraft and the False System of Education

Mary Wollstonecraft was a British feminist author, writing during the French Revolution. Her book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) came as a response to the report in France’s National Assembly by Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord’s. The report argued for a mere domestic education for women, along the beliefs of the French philosophes that women must derive virtue from their relations with men. In critique, Wollstonecraft “did for woman what Rousseau tried to do for the natural man and Paine for the rights of man.”2

She postulates that education formalizes patriarchy. Wollstonecraft points out that the female is naturally inferior to the male in terms of strength. However, a “false system of education” deprives women of their right to virtue3, by not allowing them “sufficient strength of mind”4. They are “rendered…insignificant objects of desire”5 through false-education which begins right from their childhood as they are “taught by the example of their mothers” characteristics like “cunning…shortness of temper…outward obedience…”6

She thus develops the idea of an oppressed woman, equating her with a soldier. She writes that

Soldiers, as well as women, practice the minor virtues with punctilious politeness…[the difference between them] arises from the superior advantage of liberty, which enables the former to see more life…They were taught to please and they only live to please.7

Thus, Wollstonecraft attacks Rousseau openly; who argues that obedience is the grand lesson of virtue for women. She finds emancipation in non-private and non-domestic education. Her idea of a perfect education is one that is an “exercise of understanding…to strengthen the mind and form the heart”8. This mind would end blind obedience (to patriarchy).9

Wollstonecraft’s liberated woman would be one who exercises virtue, not sourcing it through her male counterparts, but on her own. She would be rid of all “epithets of weakness”10, ‘manners’ and ‘elegance’, which are inferior to virtue.11 And only thus can an ideal world be created, one where Truth is the same for both man and woman and the principles that govern their duties are uniform.12

Friedrich Engels and Class Oppression

Wollstonecraft was arguably the first feminist, in the modern sense of the word. It is natural that her explanations and ideas would have certain loopholes and/or vestiges of the patriarchal past she was trying to come out of. This does not mean that her theories proved to be worthless. The later feminists based their ideas upon her arguments, especially in the 19th century. One of them was Friedrich Engels.

In his book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), Engels brings, for the first time, class dynamics into gender relations. He adds to Marx’s idea of class antagonism in marriage that

The first class opposition…coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male.13

Elaborating on when this antagonism first appeared, Engels traces it back to the beginning of settled agriculture. It is here that the notion of private property originated, leading to social organization on the basis of monogamous marriage. This monogamous marriage, he further states, led to the unconditional slavery of woman, with the main purpose being to produce children of “undisputed paternity…because these children are later to come into their father’s property as his natural heirs.”14

And thus, monogamy turned into perpetual prostitutional slavery for women, who subsequently became adulterous, whereas the man gave himself to hetaerism.15 Although monogamous marriage has always been contractual, it is determined by either families or by class.16

True choice,17 as Engels puts it, is only exercised amongst the Proletarian class. Sexual love is the norm amongst workers; both parties are more or less equal. They are free from inequalities of wealth as both sexes work as breadwinners. Also, because neither owns any property, the notion of inheritance stands void.18

Thus, a Social Revolution, Proletarian in nature, can achieve equality of sexes. Full freedom of marriage can only be established through the abolition of capitalist production and private property. Although he hints that the real nature of monogamy would come out after the Revolution, he declares that it will only be determined by a generation that has grown up without knowing private property and unequal contracts of marriage ties.19

Engels20 and his ideas inspired the wave of feminism across the globe in the 19th and early 20th centuries. However, there were certain problems that arose within the same.

Emma Goldman’s Idea of False Emancipation

Emma Goldman wrote her essay The Tragedy of Woman’s Emancipation in 1906. By this time, feminism had gained a stronghold in politics. However, the First Wave of Feminism was nearing its twilight. Goldman highlighted its problems and for being a non-conformist to the movement in her time, she was denounced by many. However, her analyses proved to be instrumental a few decades later.

Goldman rejects the movement saying that emancipation of women turned into a new form of oppression. She argued that the movement had been reduced to “a battle of the sexes” and stood “for a reckless life of lust and sin, regardless of society, religion and morality.” Its scope was too narrow to permit “boundless love and ecstasy…deep emotion of the true woman…in freedom.”21 It merely involved a formal emancipation; only the overt shackles had been broken by it, further creating newer, inner shackles.

Thus, she argues, the emancipated woman is an artificial being22. She has been robbed of her essence, emptied her soul and not allowed the inner fetters to be broken.23 She is not trained to overcome her historical restraints. Thus, she is unable to match the male counterpart.

The only solution to these problems is for the woman to

…defy them all, to stand firmly on her own ground and to insist upon her own unrestricted freedom, to listen to the voice of her nature, whether it call for life’s greatest treasure, love for a man, or her most glorious privilege, the right to give birth to a child, she cannot call herself emancipated.24

Thus, women need to emancipate themselves from emancipation, as Goldman puts it25.

Goldman acknowledges that the position of the working girl is far better than her higher-class counterpart; as the latter is plagued by a hollow, dull, restless and incomplete life. Thus, emancipation should assure all humans the right to love with the right to be loved.26

Goldman proved to be instrumental in pointing out the loopholes in First Wave Feminism. She was highly influential in the Second Wave, as many feminists now broadened the idea of Woman, her oppression and her emancipation.

Simone de Beuvoir’s Second Sex

The Second Wave of Feminism began in the post-modern era and Simone de Beauvoir was one of Europe’s leading feminists.27 She was politically very active and was closely associated with Jean-Paul Sartre. Her book The Second Sex is full of details of her private life, which she had no hesitation in making public.

She shifted the discourse into new directions, arguing that the conceptualization of women was in itself patriarchal. They were defined (as subjects, Other) with relation to men (as the One, Absolute).28 This has not allowed women their emancipation. This is because women have been unable to break their relationship with men; they have no separate consciousness, shared past, history or religion.29 Men have further tried to prove how women are subordinate through the means of philosophy, law, religion, literature and science.30

Thus, she gave newer perspectives in conceptualizing women. For her, the oppressed woman “makes herself a thing” and tries to make “herself prey to reduce man to her carnal passivity” in which she occupies herself perpetually. Au contraire, the emancipated woman is one who wishes “to be active, a taker and refuses the passivity man means to impose on her”; all of which are “masculine values”31

She points out that this emancipation failed to happen as both sexes failed to recognise each other as peers. The women dream to perpetuate their submission (by seeking salvation through passivity) and men, their identification (of themselves as superiors, through a devaluation of femininity). Women are, since childhood, taught to praise lofty values of love, devotion, submission; they are deterred of taking charge of their own life, thus allowing themselves to be reliant upon their father, lover, brother, husband and so on.

Thus, in saying so, she rejects the idea that the nature of women is a universal given. She is just one step away from Judith Butler (who argues that gender is ‘performative’) in saying that the woman is constructed. Thus, a social evolution is the only means through which woman can shed their old skin and cut her own new clothes.32

Both love and sex can be great tools of transcendence to emancipation as Simone de Beauvoir argues. It is key for the adolescent, the teen to explore these freely, if contingency is to translate into transcendence33. Thus,

[Both sexes] have the same essential need for one another; and they can gain from their liberty the same glory. If they were to taste it, they would…[give up] fallacious privileges, and fraternity between them could then come into existence.34

Of the future, Simone de Beauvoir elucidates that one must not try to define it today. It is up to the imagination of those who live in the tomorrow to determine it. She claims that it will be novel; but not without love, happiness, poetry, dreams.35


Thus, we have seen the variations of the salient ideas and concepts that make up Feminism. There are marked differences between Mary Wollstonecraft and Simone de Beauvoir. If both were to have a discussion, there would be lots to disagree upon.

But we must keep in mind the historicity of each of these feminists; they are all writing in their specific contexts. In all cases, it is the achievements of the former that make the latter different.

Though, newer problems arose with newer solutions. As the Anarchist Emma Goldman points out, even emancipation can be oppressive. None of them, in fact, take up the finer nuances of patriarchal institutions; especially in the Third World, which are markedly different from that of the First.36 There is little universality amongst the feminist discourses discussed here, giving room to other forms of feminism, which may be problematic.37 There is even a rising opinion (especially in the global North) that we no longer need Feminism; that it has failed its goal. The ideological divisions within the feminist movement give more fuel to opinions of this sort.

However, let us not be cynics out of compulsion. There is more that all of them agree upon than the contrary. Each feminist points out, in their own terms, the disadvantages that women experience in institutions that they are a part of–marriage, sex, love, family, workplace, law, education, politics and so on.38 Despite their differences, there is a larger truth that is accepted by all feminists–the truth of inequality. It is therefore, now that we must ask the basic questions again. It is now that we must question the basics again. It is now that we must ask the Leninist question of “What is to be done?” once again. It is now that we need Feminism, more than ever.


de Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex (1952) pp. 672-705. In Alice S. Rossi (ed.) Feminist Papers: from Adams to de Beauvoir (1972, Northeastern University Press, Boston).

Engels, Friedrich. The Origin of the Family (1884) pp. 480-495. In Alice S. Rossi (ed.) Feminist Papers: from Adams to de Beauvoir (1972, Northeastern University Press, Boston).

Goldman, Emma. The Tragedy of Woman’s Emancipation (1906) pp. 508-516. In Alice S. Rossi (ed.) Feminist Papers: from Adams to de Beauvoir (1972, Northeastern University Press, Boston).

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) pp. 41-85. In Alice S. Rossi (ed.) Feminist Papers: from Adams to de Beauvoir (1972, Northeastern University Press, Boston).


1.) Rossi, Alice S. (Ed.) Feminist Papers: from Adams to de Beauvoir (1973, Northeastern University Press, Boston)

2.) Ibid. Introduction, p. 4

3.) “virtue” as found in the discourse of the philosophes, esp. Rousseau. The philosophes attribute virtue to men; Wollstonecraft extends it to women through this argument.

4.) Wollstonecraft, Mary ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ (1792) Rossi, Alice S. (Ed.) Feminist Papers: from Adams to de Beauvoir (1973, Northeastern University Press, Boston) p. 44

5.) Ibid. p. 43

6.) Ibid. p. 44

7.) Ibid. p. 47

8.) Ibid. p. 45

9.) Ibid. p. 48

10.) Soft language, susceptible heart, delicate sentiments and so on.

11.) Ibid. p. 42

12.) Ibid. p. 63 she develops that duties of both sexes are human duties and should be treated equally; neither should be given preference over the other.

13.) Engels, Friedrich ‘The Origin of the Family’ (1884) Rossi, Alice S. (Ed.) Feminist Papers: from Adams to de Beauvoir (1973, Northeastern University Press, Boston) p. 482

14.) Ibid. pp. 480-481

15.) Ibid. pp. 483-484. He adds to this by arguing that women were relegated household work, which in itself eventually lost its “public character,” thus becoming subordinate to the man’s occupation(s). This rendered the man as the bourgeois and the woman as the proletariat in the marriage, a most novel conceptualization of this relationship.

16.) Ibid. pp. 483-486 He does, however, point out that amongst the bourgeois-protestant nations, the upper classes do exercise choice, but only within their own class. Choice is completely absent in all Catholic nations.

17.) The notion of free and true choice is equated to sexual love, which is free from all obligations and inequality. Neither partner is supreme over the other in terms of reciprocation of love, economic status, socio-political identity etc.

18.) Ibid. p. 493

19.) Ibid. pp. 493-494.

20.) Not to forget his fellow companion Karl Marx.

21.) Goldman, Emma ‘The Tragedy of Woman’s Emancipation’ (1906) Rossi, Alice S. (Ed.) Feminist Papers: from Adams to de Beauvoir (1973, Northeastern University Press, Boston) pp. 511-513

22.) ibid. p. 509

23.) Ibid. p. 509,

24.) Ibid. p. 514

25.) If simplifying Hegel’s concept, this is an interesting Hegelian triad–a negation of negation.

26.) Ibid. pp. 511, 516

27.) De Beauvoir, Simone ‘The Second Sex’ (1952) Rossi, Alice S. (Ed.) Feminist Papers: from Adams to de Beauvoir (1973, Northeastern University Press, Boston) p. 672

28.) Ibid. pp. 676-678. Here, de Beauvoir gives both these terms their Hegelian weight. She argues that it is in this relationship that patriarchy laid in its true essence, as the One never truly formulates its own self without formulating the Other. However, women have been unsuccessful in giving up their role as the Other because they have been unable to resist sacrificing the benefits that this Otherness brings to them.

29.) Ibid. pp. 677-679. It is in this that she both equates and separates women from the proletariat.

30.) Ibid. pp. 681-686. De Beauvoir has developed this idea by citing various examples of Aristotle, Greek mythology, Roman Law, J.S. Mill, Jim Crow, the Laws of the USA, M. de Montherlant, Claude Mauriac and Christian Mythology.

31.) Ibid. p. 691.

32.) Ibid. pp. 697-699

33.) Here again, Simone de Beauvoir operates in the terminology of the Hegelian universe.

34.) Ibid. p. 701. It must also be noted at this point that she refutes those who claim that “women are already happy as they are” by deposing happiness as a positive emotion. She argues that it essentially is a sign of compliance, passivity and stagnation.

35.) Ibid. pp. 703-704

36.) It is in response to this absence that Dalit Feminism, Black Feminism; Third World Feminism et al came up roaring in the second half of the 20th century.

37.) The 21st century Third Feminist Wave has seen the rise of Liberal Feminism and New Age Feminism, which have a totally different discourse. These strands denounce structuralism and reduce feminism to individuals. They have relatively lesser solutions to offer, as pointed out by many critics, than their ancestors.

38.) Almost all feminists agree that these institutions are marked by inequality between the sexes; in a Hegelian way, they also perpetuate this inequality by acting as patriarchal agents. Perhaps a truly Hegelian solution would be to negate this negation by using these same institutions to counter patriarchy!

Narayan, S. (2016). "The Development of Modern Feminist Thought: A Summary." Inquiries Journal/Student Pulse, 8(02). Retrieved from

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