Women traditionally had been regarded as inferior to men physically and intellectually. Both law and theology had ordered their subjection. Women could not possess property in their own names, engage in business, or control the disposal of their children or even of their own persons. Although Mary Astell and others had pleaded earlier for larger opportunities for women, the first feminist document was Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). In the French Revolution, women's republican clubs demanded that liberty, equality, and fraternity be applied regardless of sex, but this movement was extinguished for the time by the Code Napoléon.
In North America, although Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren pressed for the inclusion of women's emancipation in the Constitution, the feminist movement really dates from 1848, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Coffin Mott, and others, in a women's convention at Seneca Falls, N.Y., issued a declaration of independence for women, demanding full legal equality, full educational and commercial opportunity, equal compensation, the right to collect wages, and the right to vote. Led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan Brownell Anthony, the movement spread rapidly and soon extended to Europe.
Little by little, women's demands for higher education, entrance into trades and professions, married women's rights to property, and the right to vote were conceded. In the United States after woman suffrage was won in 1920, women were divided on the question of equal standing with men (advocated by the National Woman's party) versus some protective legislation; various forms of protective legislation had been enacted in the 19th cent., e.g., limiting the number of hours women could work per week and excluding women from certain high-risk occupations.
In 1946 the UN Commission on the Status of Women was established to secure equal political rights, economic rights, and educational opportunities for women throughout the world. In the 1960s feminism experienced a rebirth, especially in the United States. The National Organization for Women (NOW), formed in 1966, had over 400 local chapters by the early 1970s. NOW, the National Women's Political Caucus, and other groups pressed for such changes as abortion rights, federally supported child care centers, equal pay for women, the occupational upgrading of women, the removal of all legal and social barriers to education, political influence, and economic power for women.
With the leadership of women such as Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem, the Equal Rights Amendment was pushed through Congress in 1972, but by 1982 it fell short of ratification. While Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibited discrimination based on sex, the Roe v. Wade court decision, legalizing abortion, energized an antiabortion, antifeminist backlash. Nevertheless, the movement begun in the 1960s resulted in a large number of women moving into the workplace (59.8% of civilian women over age 16 were working in 1997, compared to 37.7% in 1960) and in broad changes in society.