Emancipated Surf

Rebekah Curtis on the Unintended Consequences of First-Wave Feminism

Feminism, among those who would not call themselves feminists, is usually considered a mixed bag. Abortion, never; let's try to keep down the no-fault divorce; single moms, whatcha gonna do? Isn't it pretty bad stewardship for a smart lady to be stuck in the house all day? Who could seriously oppose women voting or owning property? Alexandria Brown, yikes; Betty Friedan, blah; Susan B. Anthony, wow! As we grow accustomed to riding the waves of feminism, the crests in the historical distance look less treacherous.

Feminism's so-called first wave in particular appears to have been a necessary enlightenment. It lacks the Christian deal-breakers of the sexually depraved and murderous third wave, in which we now live. Neither does it suffer from the ambiguity of the second wave. The contemporary monstrosities surely gained their inexorable momentum in feminism's gains between 1960 and 1990, when lifelong marriage, fathers, and the completion of pregnancies became optional. But the second wave is also when it became normal for married women to work away from home, whether for money or diversion. It is now a thoughtcrime to suggest that this may not have been an unmitigated good. As for the first wave, the franchise seems every bit as fair as the Lord's ruling on the daughters of Zelophehad (more on them later). However, it is unlikely we would be living in the third wave of feminism if our very-great-grandparents had not lived in the first. Here we will seek to identify the connections.

"First wave feminism" is a term that retrofits the feminist ideal of radical equality between the sexes into the historical time when that ideal began gaining measurable legal traction. The activists who are now called first wave feminists called themselves "suffragettes," because women's suffrage was their primary cause. In addition to suffrage, temperance and married women's property rights were the other major works of what history has labeled first wave feminism. However, the feminist guiding principle of equality between the sexes was by no means the sole motivator for temperance or women's property rights. More significantly, these three main efforts of first wave feminism had unintended historical consequences at least as influential as their immediate ones. The service these changes gave to later feminist programs is what has caused them to be co-opted under the twentieth-century movement first called "women's liberation" and then rebranded as "feminism." The specific unintended consequences brought about by the causes of first wave feminism were the loosening of nuclear family bonds and the transference of protection for weaker members of society from extended family to government.


In early American history, suffrage rights were determined by states, most of which originally limited the franchise to property owners. This granted governance to those who were most invested in promoting a healthy community. Property owners literally "had a stake" in the community that more transient people did not have. Their real connection to that community gave them incentive to vote in a way that considered the good of the community (including the members of their families) rather than their own immediate interests. They were more future- and investment-oriented than present- and spending-oriented. Limiting the franchise to property-owning heads of households effectively kept the nuclear family as the fundamental unit of society. Membership in a nuclear family was politically beneficial when political anchorage was located in the family's head. He would cast his family's vote for what would strengthen their community in the long term.

Arguments for opening the franchise took the view that society was built upon individuals rather than families. Eliminating qualifications for the franchise (age, investment by means of property ownership or taxpaying, or sex) had the unintended consequence of atomizing the family from an organic whole to a more voluntary association of individuals. Individuals lost their political incentive to maintain ties with the family, where access to political influence had previously lain. A person, typically a woman, who had been dependent upon her family now placed her dependence upon the government. Every election gave her one chance to tell the government what she wanted, while she hoped that enough other people would want the same thing. Should the government fail to provide for her, that duty fell back upon a family to whom she no longer had any reciprocal civic duty.


Temperance, the second major cause of first wave feminism, was favored by many suffragettes. The relatively moderate significance of women's suffrage in this regard is revealed in the fact that the 18th Amendment, enacting the largely female-preferred policy of Prohibition, preceded the 19th (although many states had women's suffrage prior to ratification of the 19th Amendment). More significant is the difference in mindset exhibited in the temperance movement. Under the status quo, families and neighbors were relied upon to deal with the problems that arose from alcohol abuse in the home. Temperance sought to move the power for enforcement of domestic decency to the government.

The immigration and westward expansion so characteristic of America's development offer some explanations for this. Where many nuclear families were isolated from extended family groups in new communities, the defense of sisters and daughters in abusive situations was not as developed as in long-settled societies. This loss of extended family and clan left a vacuum of care for the community's weaker members. A woman who found herself married to an angry drunk had protection in the form of father, uncles, or brothers if they all lived in the same village in Sweden, or on the same block in New York. But if she and her husband were in a claim shanty in Kansas Territory, that family protection wasn't there. In the absence of any neighbor with a personal interest in or duty toward an individual, the law and its formal enforcers were taken up as the most effective proxy.

Despite temperance's rapid social and political failure, the shift from family and clan protection to government protection for weaker individuals gained dominance in American thought. This is the reason for contemporary feminism's willingness to retroactively embrace temperance as a feminist cause, even though no second or third wave feminist wants to give up her Skinnygirl Moscato. Feminism would have been harder pressed to have its ideals written into law without temperance's work toward strengthening the power of the government to impose legal status upon situations that were once the purview of families and communities.

Property Rights

The most influential of the actions attributed to first wave feminism may also be the one pursued least as an exclusively feminist cause. A variety of married women's property acts were passed by states over the course of the nineteenth century. These acts increased the financial independence of married women by granting them rights to own or control property (sometimes contingent upon the capacity of the husband), acquire trade licenses, or control their own earnings.

Most of these laws did not arise from the contemporary feminist perspective of the need to protect or liberate women. The American economy had many high-risk participants (like homesteaders and entrepreneurs), who wanted increased protection for their family's finances. The lingering idea of coverture, under which a wife wholly shared her husband's legal status (borrowed in the U.S. from English common law), meant that a man's financial ruin was his family's financial ruin. Allowing women to hold real estate and other property protected a family's financial assets from taxes, debts, and catastrophes. Whatever a woman held in her name was not lost to the family even if her husband's ownings were. Opening up property rights gave families a form of financial insurance, or a clever way to shelter assets, depending on one's perspective.

The unintended consequence of changes in property rights for women was the same as that caused by relaxed restrictions upon suffrage: weakened bonds among family members. Dividing a family's financial claims between husbands and wives made it easier for families to dissolve. A wife could leave her husband without losing property she held in her name. A husband could leave his family without condemning them to destitution; his conscience had much less to reckon with. Children lost their absolute claim upon both parents and became a bargaining chip. Under this new arrangement of weakened familial bonds, the relentless crawl toward no-fault divorce and other forms of splintered families had its beginning. The cost of insurance against financial loss was the loss of insurance against familial dissolution.


Speaking of finances, let's go back to Numbers. Zelophehad had no sons, so his inheritance went to his daughters (Numbers 27:6–8). That is the beginning of the story, not the end. Nine chapters later, the extended family of Zelophehad approaches Moses with the concern that the daughters will marry outside the tribe, causing the inheritance to be lost to their own tribe. Moses, the mouthpiece of God, determines that the daughters must marry within the tribe. The inheritance had not become the individual property of the five women in question and made them free agents in Israel. Rather, it remained under the wider ownership of the tribe, and upon marriage, it would belong to the family under the immediate ownership of the husband.

This is not to advocate a return to Old Testament tribalism. It is to prevent the daughters of Zelophehad from becoming an ill-conceived token for women's property rights and everything else the current age purports to see in the conceptual invention it calls first wave feminism. No first wave feminist cause is an intrinsic evil (although temperance's restriction upon a basic human freedom comes close). But suffrage, temperance, and married women's property rights proceed from and prescribe a colossal change in mindset from the past: isolating family members from each other, and replacing family with government as the primary protector of the weak. Without these overhauls of thought and society, today's Church would likely have some other bugbears than boys in lingerie and girls in chasubles.

Progress in culture cannot be tested or proven in the same way as progress in technology, but its outcomes can be evaluated. Feminism is happy to take historical credit for anything that has contributed to its contemporary platform, and that platform is no secret. Divorce, cohabitation, abortion, births out of wedlock, the habitual daily separation of young children from their parents, acceptance of homosexuality, and the denial of a person's biological sex have all grown out of the societal prioritization of the individual, and the appointment of government as a protector of individuals in lieu of family. Second wave feminism took the changes of the first wave and systematically knocked down the stigmas and legal curbs that had kept wives and husbands, mothers and children, fathers and children, and extended families together. The reduction of interdependence among family members has progressed ad absurdum.

All human societies are subject to sin and its consequences. The changes in women's legal status subsumed under first wave feminism intended to correct and prevent real wrongs and harms. Second and third wave feminists are absolutely right to recognize that those changes also laid the foundation for the world we have now, in which an intact family is becoming as anomalous as a broken family was a hundred years ago. • 

Rebekah Curtis is the co-author of LadyLike (Concordia, 2015), and her essays have appeared in Touchstone, Chronicles, Salvo, Modern Reformation, and Lutheran Forum, among other publications. She attends a congregation of the LCMS.

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