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lesson 1


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Cambridge women of Newnham College protesting for equal rights in 1908




To understand the concept of patriarchy within civilisation

To learn why it is important to understand feminism


To think about why history is so often written by men, about men


To understand what feminism means and why we need feminists


To understand what we mean by 'waves of feminism'


To understand the key features of each wave


To start to think about the University of Cambridge in this context




activity 1

Before we begin, you need to complete this short questionnaire:








This should take 2 minutes.


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what is Patriarchy?


To understand feminism, we need to understand the system that it is rebelling against.

The system of men ruling in the interests of men has become known as patriarchy.

The word literally means ‘the rule of the father’ and comes from the Greek ‘father or chief of race’.

Patriarchy is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as: ‘A society controlled by men in which they use their power to their own advantage’.

Has society always been patriarchal?

Patriarchy was not originally a cultural factor in the oldest civilisation, Mesopotamia, where men and women were treated as having equal capabilities.


For example, women were just as able to hunt and have businesses as the men were; just as the men had equal responsibility for looking after children and ‘running the house’.


This value placed on joint sharing of tasks between men and women has been seen as the major reason for why the civilisation remained so successful and efficient for 2561 years (3100 BCE - 539 BCE).

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So,what went wrong?


The idea of equality in Mesopotamia eventually began to shift towards a state of patriarchy which led to women’s roles and rights to be defined by men in order to benefit men only.

The first set of laws we have access to that actually legalised the unequal treatment of women appear in the Hammurabi’s Code, (around 1750 BCE) which were 282 laws carved onto a large black stone pillar.


This shocking way of treating 50% of the human race continued in all the major civilisations with only a tiny number of exceptional women breaking through these constraints.

The rights of women remained very limited up until the first ‘proto-feminists’, such as Mary Wollstonecraft in 1792, who began the long and unfinished journey towards equal rights and treatment...

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This was patriarchy being literally set in stone. It established patriarchal ideals such as:

  • A woman is the property of a man

  • A woman does not deserve to have as much as a man

  • Men own women

  • In order for men to thrive, women must be kept in line and controlled

does patriarchy still exist?

Yes! But to very different degrees in different parts of the world.


Many countries have still not progressed much in women’s rights since the Mesopotamian era.


For millions of women in these countries, education is denied to them, forced marriages at young ages are pushed onto them, and violence that goes unpunished is commonplace.


These places are a long way off from writing laws that protect women and value them as equals.

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patriarchy in the uk now


Nowadays, the patriarchy in the west still exists, however not in the form of such explicit laws.


In some ways the patriarchal system has become so subtle that sometimes we can’t even see or recognise it working – even though data can still reveal results, for example through the gender pay gap.


Caroline Criado-Perez has shown women as continuing victims of patriarchy through studying all sorts of data – such as the number of women that die in traffic accidents due to car seat safety being designed for men.


Her book ‘Invisible Women’ is an amazing read if you want to look further. As well as the subtle ways that patriarchy still works, the general day-to-day treatment of women and girls by some men is still demeaning and stuck in the past.


One of our Cambridge sheroes, Laura Bates, does excellent work in charting how offensive sexism works today in her internet project ‘Everyday Sexism’ and book 'Girl Up'.

Measure of patriarchy

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do boys and men lose out if patriarchy disappears?

Firstly, patriarchy has yet to disappear from a culture that we know of.


However, the evidence shows us that the more equal a society is, the more prosperous, productive and peaceful it is too.


The only conclusion that can be drawn from this is that equal rights works for the benefit of everybody – not just girls and women!

lesson one


activity 2

Now that we understand patriarchy, you are going to produce a mind map that shows your thinking about all the effects on women living in a highly patriarchal society before feminism.


In the middle of a page in your book write ‘women’s lives’ and draw a circle around it. From this, extend outwards to 8 other circled words.


As in the example opposite, fill in these words and then branch off from them to write your thoughts about how these areas of women's lives, before feminism, could be affected by patriarchy.


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 'Men can't be feminists'

'Feminists just want to take away men's rights'

'Women have equal rights in law which means there is no need for feminism anymore'

Some people still think that some, or all, of these statements are true: 


That is why we still need feminism and feminists.

activity 3

Use the three tiles below like revision cards to learn the answers to these questions:

1. What is feminism?

2. What is a feminist?

3. What % of recorded history is written about women?


(If on a computer, hover over tiles to reveal answers.)




The idea that women should have the same rights as men


a feminist?

A person who supports feminism


of recorded HIStory is written about women?
Source: Bettany Hughes, 2016

What are Waves of Feminism?

Imagine a sandy beach with the tide coming in. Most waves come in a little further than the last. That progression is how we can think about the waves of feminism. Each wave brings the movement a little closer to its overall goal - equality of the sexes. 

activity 4

Now you know how this works, use the four tiles below like revision cards to learn the dates and key features of each wave: First, Second, Third and Fourth.(If on a computer, hover over tiles to reveal answers.) 


1st Wave


Primary Aims:

  • Right to vote

  • Rights to education


2nd Wave


Primary Aim:

  • Equal Rights 

 (At home and in work)


3rd Wave


Primary Aims:

  • Dangers of the beauty industry

  • International/  Intersectionality


4th Wave

2010s - right now!

Primary Aim:

  • Expose injustices through technology & social media

Next Lesson...

We will be learning about how feminism began with Mary Wollstonecraft and the protofeminists. This will lead to learning about first wave feminism in more detail and the Cambridge women that made important contributions.

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