Thinking About Feminism in European History
The words "feminism" and "feminist" are used today throughout the Western world and beyond to connote the ideas that advocate the emancipation of women, the movements that have attempted to realize it, and the individuals who support this goal. Few people in the English-speaking world realize, however, that the origin of these terms can be traced to late nineteenth-century French political discourse. Féminisme was then commonly used as a synonym for women's emancipation. French dictionaries (and many earlier historians) have erroneously attributed the invention of the word féminisme to Charles Fourier in the 1830s, but in fact its origins remain uncertain. No traces of the word have yet been identified prior to the 1870s. 1
The first self-proclaimed féministe was the French women's suffrage advocate Hubertine Auclert, who beginning in 1882 used the term in her periodical, La Citoyenne (The Woman Citizen), to describe herself and her associates. The words gained currency following discussion in the French press of the first "feminist" congress in Paris, sponsored in May 1892 by Eugénie Potonié-Pierre and her colleagues from the women's group Solidarité, who shortly thereafter juxtaposed féminisme with masculinisme, by which they meant something analogous to what we now call male chauvinism.
By 1894-95 the terms "feminism" and "feminist" had crossed the Channel to Great Britain, and before 1900 they were appearing in Belgian, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Greek, and Russian publications. By the late 1890s the words had jumped the Atlantic to Argentina, Cuba, and the United States, though they were not commonly used in the United States much before 1910. During the twentieth century, the words also entered non-Western languages, including Arabic and Japanese.