The Waves of Feminism – Constance Singam

Constance Singam takes us on a trip through history, as she explains First Wave Feminism (late 1800s to early 1900s) and Second Wave Feminism (1960s to 1980s), not just in the West but also its manifestations in Asia. 

[The First Wave]

In the course of the nineteenth century, as countries industrialised, women workers organised themselves. For instance, in 1836 young women workers at a textile mill in Massachusetts organised a strike and a march to protest against low wages and poor working and living conditions. A hundred women workers in Kofu, Japan, walked out in protest over reduced wages in 1886.

In the United States, inspired by the movement for the abolition of black slavery, women activists held the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. What is now known as first-wave feminism focused on suffrage or women’s getting the vote. In 1893 New Zealand became the first country to introduce unrestricted women’s suffrage. In 1903, in England, Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union. She was a founder member of the Women’s Franchise Leagues and set in motion the suffrage movement in England. Her daughter, Christabel, and sister, Sylvia, were also active in the movement.

During the first quarter of the twentieth century women in Asia were become better organised and politicised. In 1905 Concepcion Felix de Calderon formed the first women’s political movement, the Asociacion Feminista Filipina, in the Philippines. The association took up the question of suffrage and education. This spurred more women to enter politics. The Hunan Women’s Association was established in China in 1921 to lobby for suffrage, inheritance rights, education, equal rights at work and free choice in marriage for women. In 1926 the All India Women’s Conference was founded.

– The Second Wave –

In the twentieth century, when women began to mobilise themselves into groups, a global movement emerged that came to be known as “second-wave feminism”. The earlier phase, centred on suffrage, beginning in the late eighteenth century began to be described as the “first wave”. Second-wave feminism emerged in the United States in the 1960s and includes issues like economic equality and gay rights.

The second wave would have a profound influence on the live of women in most parts of the world. Theory, activism and politics converged to influence much of the developed and developing world while being culturally specific in addressing issues relevant to a particular society.

There are many theories and explanations for the disadvantages that women face, but this wave of feminism is motivated primarily by the experiences of women. Its political campaigns and activism centred on issues such as reproductive rights, domestic violence, maternity leave and now paternity leave, equal pay for equal work, sexual harassment, discrimination and sexual violence.

During this period in the history of the women’s movement feminists have forged an immense organisational network that has influenced governments and national institutions. In doing this they have achieved major attitudinal changes, especially among the young generation of men and women in developed countries, including Singapore. Many of their influences are already so deeply entrenched in our culture that we scarcely notice them today.

Constance Singam was President of AWARE in 1987-88, 1994-5, and 2007-8. In the last 30 years, she has worked on behalf of women’s rights and migrant workers’ rights. She has been described as the “mother of civil society”,  an inspirational leader who spearheaded many of the projects and initiatives that shaped Singapore’s civil society, and which continue to do so.

Arora, Mandakini, ed. Small Steps, Giant Leaps: A History of AWARE and the Women’s Movement in Singapore. Association of Women for Action and Research, 2007.

Featured Image: Emmeline Pankhurst from Oh What A Lovely War


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