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Female Leadership: A History of Frustration (Pt. 1)

Updated: Mar 24, 2023

“Be a Leader, not a Follower. Never let anyone tell you what you can and cannot be.”

These words from Vernon Davis express perfectly the attitude of today’s culture. Ralph Waldo Emmerson said it more poetically: “Go… where there is no path and leave a trail.” Over and over again, we are told to take ownership, to shoulder our way forward, and to take the lead - in the words of Longfellow: “Be not like dumb, driven cattle; be a hero in the strife.” More recently, women especially are encouraged to speak up and step into leadership roles, only to have their career objectives end in failure. We see women, like Liz Truss, the former Prime Minister of England, who promise to lead but ultimately step down in disgrace under pressure. Then, there are female activists, like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who take things too far. As AOC’s views on misogyny show, these activists see a problem, blow it out of proportion, and propose an even more bizarre solution. No one, except their devoted groupies, likes or listens to them unless they start screaming in the most outrageous way. Greta Thumberg, for example, almost completely stopped eating and speaking until she succeeded in manipulating her parents to change their lifestyle, even getting her mother to quit her job because it involved air travel. Now, she is famous for skipping school to prove her point about climate change. These types of women try so hard to change the world around them but rarely get concrete results, even though they are doing everything they are ‘supposed to be doing’. They step up, take the lead, bring awareness, and still end in ridicule, even with organizations helping them. Something is going wrong. The truth has become painfully obvious: they are despised by their leaders, peers, and subordinates; the public sees them as extremists; even the press ridicules them! These feminists normally accuse everyone around them of holding them back, but what if it is more fundamental than that? What if it is the feminist mentality that is the problem - the mentality that pushes them to compete with men as their equals and to make them believe they can do anything better than men? Has the feminist movement actually failed these women?

According to a study made by Pew Research in 2020, 61% of American women say the term ‘feminist’ “describes them well,” and 40% of American men say that the term “at least somewhat describes them.” Additionally, an astonishing 72% of women with a minimum of a bachelor’s degree identify as feminists. As this study shows, the feminist movement is deeply rooted in society, but not many people accurately define the term, as there are conflicting opinions on the success or failure of the movement. (Barroso)

Feminism, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of equality of the sexes.”

Of the two parts to feminism, the lynchpin is the belief that men and women are equal in everything, with no difference whatsoever between the sexes. Consequently, feminists argue that women should have the same exact rights as men, to be applied in the same exact way.

From the very beginning of the movement, feminists have firmly held this principle. The roots of feminism can be found in ancient cultures such as Rome, where it is recorded that Roman matrons protested a law that restricted how much gold a woman could own so that the Republic could unjustly enrich its treasury. (Reese) It is difficult, though, to get a complete picture of ancient history due to a lack of sources and a natural bias in ancient historians. Female historians were either extremely rare or non-existent, further affecting what was recorded in the history narratives. Also, since women were considered only a little better than personal property even when they were not officially slaves, it’s likely that any demonstrations or bids for more freedom never gained much traction and were quickly quelled. During the Middle Ages, queens and princesses had varying degrees of power, and there were some brilliant female scholars, notably Hildegard von Bingen, who was a saint and Benedictine Abbess. (“Hildegard of Bingen”) Throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, however, most women remained the keepers of the home, finding their dignity in domestic life. (Iacob) Later, there were a few women numbered among the philosophers of the Enlightenment. Some of their male counterparts even debated the equality of the sexes and the intellectual capacity of women, but this didn’t directly affect many women. (“Women in the Enlightenment”) Well into the age of imperialism and colonization, women were excluded from politics and denied access to higher education, (Stanton) except in convents, where they could be certain of receiving a thorough, excellent education. (Thorpe) Laws restricted the freedoms of women, such as the law of Coverture, which held that a woman’s personal property became the sole property of her husband upon her marriage, though any real estate she owned remained in her name and couldn’t be sold without her permission. Married women were also restricted in obtaining divorces: while the laws varied from state to state, women couldn’t obtain a divorce as easily as men. Single women, on the other hand, could enter into contracts, use their personal property, and sell or buy real estate as they wished. But no matter their marital status, all women were excluded from politics, and only white men who owned real estate could vote. (Salmon)

The groundwork for modern feminism had been laid during the Enlightenment, but the movement as we know it began in earnest in America in the 1830s. The Industrial Revolution was taking root, especially in New England, which caused the steady growth of female workers in factories. The textile industry particularly would recruit young ladies from rural communities to work in their factories, providing boarding houses since the factories were so far away from the girls’ families. With higher wages than anything a farm could offer, women were drawn to the factories, where they could both financially assist their families back home and save money for their eventual marriage. It gave them a new-found independence that soon blossomed into demonstrations against their employers when wages didn’t keep up with rising costs or when they had to maintain the twelve-hour days in the factories in spite of faster machines. In an attempt to do something about these unjust working conditions, some of these women joined in the women’s rights conventions, organized by upper-class ladies, that took place in New York and Massachusetts. (Dublin)

As the outbreak of the Civil War approached, the political atmosphere in the United States intensified rapidly. The abolitionist movement proved to be the training ground for many feminists. Women like Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811 - 1896) worked hard, both by promoting awareness of the horrors of slavery through her writing, as well as by assisting the Underground Railroad to hide fugitive slaves. She, like other women of her day, saw the black slaves as an image of herself, writing:

“[T]he position of a married, in many respects, precisely similar to that of the negro slave. She can make no contract and hold no property; whatever she inherits or earns becomes at that moment the property of her husband.... Though he acquired a fortune through her, or though she earned a fortune through her talents, he is the sole master of it, and she cannot draw a penny.... [I]n the English common law a married woman is nothing at all. She passes out of legal existence.” (“Harriet Beecher Stowe”)

The abolitionist movement also brought together other notable feminists, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. The two met at the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840, which their husbands attended but they, being women, could not. Instead, they and other like-minded women formed lasting relationships, exchanged ideas, and strengthened their confidence in their belief in women’s rights. (“Elizabeth Cady Stanton”) Eight years later, Stanton and Mott organized the Seneca Falls, New York Convention as a kind of practice-run to test how far the women’s rights movement had spread. About three hundred people attended the two-day convention, mostly locals, and men were not allowed to attend the first day. (“Seneca Falls Convention”) The notable achievement of this convention was the drafting and publication of the Declaration of Sentiments. Copying the language of the Declaration of Independence, the document laid out the grievances of women against men, which could be summed up in the complaint that men had trained women, by deprivation of a thorough education and by oppressive legislation, to be humiliatingly dependent on men. (“Declaration of Sentiments”) This declaration became the foundation of the feminist movement going forward and played an important part in the First and Second National Women’s Rights Conventions in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1850 and 1851. (“First National Woman's Rights Convention Ends in Worcester”; “The Second National Woman's Rights Convention Worcester, MA October 15-16, 1851”)

Interestingly, Amelia Bloomer - Stanton’s next door neighbor - was the editor of the first lady’s newspaper, called The Lily, and was highly influential in lady’s fashion. In 1849, Stanton and some of her friends tried ‘Turkish pantaloons with a knee-length skirt’ as an alternative to the dangerously restrictive corsets and heavy floor-length skirts of the day. After some hesitation, Bloomer adopted it, and her newspaper coverage of the outfit earned her the distinction of having it named after her: bloomers. Feminists openly admitted that this new outfit was a symbol of their desire to shift society’s perspective of women. But after several years of amusement and even ridicule, bloomers were gradually replaced once more by floor-length skirts, though of a much lighter fabric than before. (Boissoneault; Norwood) Women in pants, however, was a feminist theme from that point forward.

From the first, the main goal of the feminist movement was Women’s Suffrage. The feminists predicted that once women had a voice in politics, they could achieve their other objectives, including equal treatment in society. Harriet Beecher Stowe echoed the sentiments of many women of the time when she said:

“All places where women are excluded tend downward to barbarism; but the moment she is introduced, there come in with her courtesy, cleanliness, sobriety, and order. When a man can walk up to the ballot-box with his wife or sister on his arm, the voting places will be far more agreeable than now …” (Atlas)

Harriet’s opinion was very definite: in her and many of her contemporaries’ eyes, the male-dominated politics of the day was headed in a downward spiral without the guiding hand of a woman. Yet, having witnessed the steady incorporation of women into politics in our own time, it’s easy to wonder if she was correct in her declaration. When female politicians start slinging mud, where does the ‘courtesy, cleanliness, sobriety, and order’ come into play?

While the focus was on Women’s Suffrage, feminists also sought to address the “social, civil, and religious rights of women….” (“Seneca Falls Convention”) Stanton, being the daughter of a lawyer, advocated for equal education for men and women. On January 18, 1892, at the age of seventy-seven, she delivered an impassioned speech entitled ‘the Solitude of Self’ to the US Congressional Committee of the Judiciary. In it, she developed the theme that each individual is essentially alone when facing the greatest crises that life throws at us, and based upon that, men and women must both be developed by equal education to face these crises. (Stanton) She believed in an equal playing field - everything had to be exactly the same for everyone. This tied directly into the questions of equal pay in the workforce and the position of women in Protestant religions, which were also questions that were important even at this stage of the movement. (“Seneca Falls Convention”)

With the entrance of the United States into World War I on April 6, 1917, the whole nation focused on the war effort. While men entered the Armed Forces, women stepped up to fill the gaps left on the home front, in the factories, and even on the battlefield. Mothers at home signed pledge cards that promised to conserve food, grow and preserve their own vegetables at home, and minimize the use of meat and fats. Female nurses and doctors volunteered with the Red Cross and other organizations or joined the Army and Navy to serve on the front lines. Over the course of this war, more than two hundred Army nurses sacrificed their lives, and many more were wounded. At a time when automobiles were a new and developing technology, women who knew how to drive volunteered as ambulance drivers and convoy drivers, even on the front lines. Also worthy of note were the Signal Corps Female Operators Unit, a communications corps composed completely of female switchboard operators who assisted near the front lines. Still other women enlisted under the title of “Yeoman (F)” in the Navy through a little loophole in Navy regulations on who could enlist. These female yeomen replaced their male counterparts on naval bases state-side with the same duties and pay. In all, more than six hundred patriotic American women lost their lives during the Great War. (“Women in WWI”) (“Women in World War I”)

As one source put it, “Five million men were mobilized for service in the Great War. Over nine million women mobilized themselves.” (“Women in World War I”) The feminist ideology was a motivating factor for these patriotic women. They were not content to stay at home and tend gardens; they had skills to offer. They saw that their country needed them, and they answered the call courageously, thereby freeing more men for active combat duty. But some of them also saw a means of furthering their fight for a voice in politics. They achieved a signal victory in 1918, when President Woodrow Wilson, sometimes called a ‘lukewarm supporter’ of the movement, finally took a stand in his speech before Congress in 1918:

“We have made partners of the women in this war… Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?” (GWLI Staff)

To be continued....

Works Cited

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  • Barroso, Amanda. “61% of American women see themselves as feminists; many see term as empowering, polarizing.” Pew Research Center, 7 July 2020, Accessed 20 January 2023.

  • Boissoneault, Lorraine. “Amelia Bloomer Didn't Mean to Start a Fashion Revolution, But Her Name Became Synonymous With Trousers.” Smithsonian Magazine, 24 May 2018, Accessed 20 January 2023.

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  • Thorpe, JR. “Here's How Women Fought For The Right To Be Educated Throughout History.” Bustle, 11 May 2017, Accessed 20 January 2023.

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  • “Women in WWI.” National WWI Museum, Accessed 20 January 2023.

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