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Men Who Were Feminists Long Before Feminism Was Cool

Posted on November 10, 2014 in Society, Taboos, Women Empowerment

By Anesa Kratovac:

Woman…is her own best representative,” exclaimed Frederick Douglass over 120 years ago. Douglass, an abolitionist and a women’s suffrage proponent, understood that men cannot know what it is like to be a woman, and therefore, could not represent women in the manner that is most conducive to their well-being. Around the same time, John Stuart Mill, inspired by his wife, became a supporter of women’s rights and a proponent of women’s suffrage. In 1861, he wrote and published the insightful book, The Subjegation of Women, which focused on the needs of freeing women from their social confines. In fact, when I read Mill in college, I was taken by his progressive insights, some of which are still uncommon even in today’s modern societies.


The European continent has had a share of its feminists too. For instance, Marquis de Condorcet, a French mathematician and philosopher born in 1743, was well known for his controversial views of gender as a construct. As a leader in the French Revolution, he recognized that the objectives of the revolution would not be realized fully if women’s civic and political participation was not achieved. Unlike many of the other famous thinkers of his time, Condorcet believed that the reason for women’s apparent gap in abilities was not because they were less talented or intellectually inclined, but rather because they didn’t have access to the same educational and cultural opportunities as men.

Other prominent eighteen century thinkers include Charles Louis de Montesquieu, who featured empowered heroines in his fiction, and the social reformer, Jeremy Bentham, who argued for the emancipation of women and their inclusion in all walks of life, including politics. The 19th century also saw the likes of the American minister and abolitionist, Parker Pillsbury, who was responsible for setting up a radical women’s rights newsletter, The Revolution, which focused on the economic, political, legal, sexual and social equality of the sexes. William Lloyd Garrison, another American contemporary, was a journalist, activist and a social reformer who founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Through his acquaintance with women’s activists, he published women’s rights papers in his abolitionist paper, “the Liberator”. The publication became one of the leading newspapers to advocate for women’s empowerment in the United States.

The men were undoubtedly products of western culture and philosophy, but keeping in mind that most people were not this progressive and the western cultures at this time were patriarchal and oppressive, these men were feminists before feminism was a term and definitely before it became an acceptable, self-affirming noun. Indeed, many more men in history have been supporters of women’s achievements, but history had not been so kind to recognize them for their achievements. Men also played a very important role in the first phase of Indian feminism. Although the origins of men’s propagation of women’s rights originated within the colonial imposition of western morality on the 19th century Hindi traditions, it is without a doubt that it led to legal amendments calling for abolition of many practices that undermined women’s agency and livelihood. Specifically, movement led to the abolition of Sati (widow immolation upon her husband’s death), child marriage, the disfiguration of widows as well as promoting women’s education, legal rights to own property and basic rights when it came to adoption. The second and third waves of feminism in India saw women establish women’s associations and women were important actors in nationalism and anti-colonialism movements prior to independence. In the 1970s, feminists challenged the systematic inequalities of caste, education, unequal wages and the prohibitions that enable women to decide the course of their own lives.

Today, the world is buzzing over the HeforShe campaign, which calls on men to pledge their support for women’s empowerment both by changing the way they relate to women and by advocating for their legal and cultural equality. Although it is commendable that such a campaign is making headlines, it is quite disheartening that it took a decade’s headway into the 21st century to discuss the importance of men’s role in gender equality. Throughout history, men were the gate-keepers of legal and cultural institutions, and only through the direct internal shift in the systems of these institutions can we find parallel external change benefiting women.

Therefore, men were always part of the movement for the equality equation, and it is a shame that only until now we are recognizing and promoting the importance of their role. And from the examples of those men who stood up for women ahead of their time, when it was “unfashionable” to do so, it is apparent that advocating for human equality has and always will be part of social progress, without HeforShe and other feminist marketing movements, but in my opinion, better yet with. As long as we are having a productive exchange and are forming consensus around gender equality, we are making a difference for our future and those of future generations. So, here’s my thank you to Mr. Mill and all the feminist men throughout history who promoted women’s rights as human rights- you have made a difference.