How Television Changed Feminism


Over a hundred years ago Susan B. Anthony and Mary Wollstonecraft were part of a woman’s movement centered on getting women equal rights under the law; the rights to vote and not be considered property. They would not have imagined that one day, on a form of media called television women would play the role of president. The idea of women campaigning on television for the president of the United States would amaze them beyond belief. This article will compare and contrast television “girl power” with all three “waves” of feminist theory. This article will primarily focus on the phenomenal success of the Spice Girls and the Power Puff Girls.

The feminist movement has been divided into three waves. The next generations of women usually draw the line of demarcation. They often distinguish themselves from the last movement with new innovative theories on what it means to be a woman; this is how the waves have been established. The First-Wave as such was developed in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. At the time, their movement was more commonly referred to as the Suffrage movement. They were mainly concerned with human rights issues.

Girl Power and the First-Wave

Two leaders that emerged out of this movement were Mary Wollstonecraft, from the United Kingdom, and Susan B. Anthony from the United States. At this time, women were like property or animals – not human beings. They were considered to be closer to the intellect of a child than a man. Mary Wollstonecraft wrote a book on the issue called Vindication of the Rights of Women. In this book she explores her disdain for her situation. She voices her contempt with the spurious “idea that women are created simply to be ministers to the amusement, enjoyment, and gratification of men” (Wollstonecraft 3). These ideas were woven into fabric of her society. The same was true for Susan B. Anthony in the United States. The laws needed changing. The foundation needed changing. They both were calling for re-education within their society.

The movement wished to persuade people from the falsity of female incompetence. They both had a full “appreciation of the sanctity of women’s domestic duties, and never undervalued for a moment the high importance of these duties, either to the individual, the family, or the State” (3). The First-Wave argued that “the more understanding women acquire, the more they will be attached to their duty-comprehending it-for unless they comprehend it… no authority can make them discharge it in a virtuous manner”(Wollstonecraft 4).

Wollstonecraft placed an appellation on the women in her generation. To her they were “barren bloomers.” “One cause of this barren blooming I attribute to a false system of education, gathered from the books written on this subject by men who, considering females rather as women than human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses” (Wollstonecraft 31).

All the women – the mothers, the wives and the girls becoming women had been so “bubbled by this specious homage, that the civilized women of the (past) century, with a few exceptions, (were) only anxious to inspire love, when they ought to cherish a nobler ambition, and by their abilities and virtues exact respect”(Wollstonecraft 32).

The respect that Wollstonecraft is demanding here was achieved in the suffrage movement with women receiving the right to vote, but the Spice Girls exacted this respect with their music and television fame. Their girl band replaced boy bands and in some ways garnered more popularity than The Beatles.

Their first debut song “Wannabe” entered the charts at number 3 in the U.K. before moving up to number 1 the following week. It stayed there for seven weeks. The song proved to be a global hit. It hit number one in 31 countries. It simultaneously became the biggest selling single by an all-female group and also the biggest selling debut of all time.

“Wannabe” also proved to be a catalyst in helping the Spice Girls break into the notoriously difficult U. S. market when it debuted on the Hot 100 Chart at number 11. At the time, this was the highest level – ever debut by a British act in the U.S., beating the previous record held by The Beatles for “I Want to Hold your Hand”. “Wannabe” reached number one in the U.S. four weeks later.

In November 1996, the Spice Girls released their debut album Spice in Europe. The success was unprecedented and drew comparisons to Beatlemania – due to sheer volume of interest in the Group. In just seven weeks Spice had sold 1.8 million copies in Britain alone, making the Spice Girls the fastest selling British act since The Beatles.

During the time of Mary Wollstonecraft, Susan B. Anthony and the First-Wave, many male thinkers made the argument that men were physically superior and men went on to make the erroneous conclusion that men were also intellectually superior. “Women are, in fact, so much degraded by mistaken notions… this artificial weakness produces a propensity to tyrannize” (Wollstonecraft 36). This explains the current success of female super heroes like the Power Puff Girls. These girls not only have superior strength but they often fight and defeat men. Psychologically, these fictional television images counter act the illogical conclusions derived from nineteenth century philosophy.

The Power Puff Girls show revolves around the adventures of Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup; three little girls with super powers. The plot of a typical episode consists of a humorous variation of standard superhero fare, with the girls using their powers to defend their town from various villains, such as bank robbers, mad scientist, aliens or giant monsters, and often dealing with normal mundane issues that young children face, such as dependence on teddy bears and such. The show derives from a great deal of the humor from pop culture parody.

During the First-Wave, Wollstonecraft’s book was a tremendous help in the cause. In Britain the Suffragettes campaigned for the women’s right to vote. In 1918 the Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed. This granted the right to vote to women over the age of 30. This right was only granted to women who owned houses. This right was eventually extended to all women over eighteen in 1928.

In America, the First-Wave of feminism involved a wide range of woman groups from such conservative camps as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union to liberal groups like the National Woman Suffrage Association. In the United States, First-Wave feminism is considered to have ended with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (1919), granting women the right to vote.

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