Thursday, October 21, 2010

What We're Reading: The Feminist Promise

The Feminist Promise: 1792 to the Present
by Christine Stansell

For most of us, “feminism” is that moderate to radicalized movement for women’s rights that had its heyday in the 1970s and early 1980s. It was a movement that achieved some important legislative, political and economic changes for women but was probably best defined by the broad social critique it developed of the patriarchal culture of American society. It reflected an understanding that political power and institutions that subjugated women were predicated upon attitudes and assumptions that were in fact personal in relationships between the sexes. It was a time of consciousness raising and self awareness among women, and it seems that its most lasting, and perhaps most necessary achievement was the now generally accepted notion in western democracies that women had the right to control their own bodies. That is what we think of when someone talks about feminist history.

The question of whether or not there is a “feminist” history that antedates the modern movement is worthy of consideration, and Stansell is quite aware that she is arguing for a continuity that may not, at first glance, be apparent. In reading The Feminist Promise, one is more likely to see a history of varied and discrete women’s movements than a chronicle of continuity and historical development in the battle that women have fought for equal rights in American society. In fact, it is one of the author’s points that most often there was not an awareness on the part of later generations of feminists about the history of successes and failures in what had been done by their predecessors. It is one of the great virtues of Stansell’s account here that there is not an attempt to minimize the different ideas, aims, approaches, and constituencies of women’s movements like abolitionism (which had an important women’s rights component) the suffrage movements of the 19th century, or the rather different suffrage movement that won women the right to vote in the early part of the last century. But she also finds enough common threads in various movements and times to convince us that there is, in fact, if not a history of “feminism” handed down from one generation to another, a history of feminist actions in various guises in which the historian can identify familiar obstacles and patterns of experience, the materials out of which a plausible history might be written, as it has been here, that is instructive and relevant to the goals of feminism today.

The major achievement of this book, then, is discovering and elucidating a history of feminism that is broader and deeper than our present understanding, of successfully making the argument that feminism in fact has a history that is co-terminous with the development of democracy itself. It is in that vein that we get here as well a look at the race issues and divides in each historical period of “feminist” activity. The description of the relationship of black women to these various movements is one of the most interesting discussions in this book. Black women were reluctant for the most part to put “sisterhood” before race solidarity. In modern times we are pretty confident that if we know a person’s position on one or two others we might be able to predict their stand on a range of issues in the political spectrum. But in an early America much more divided by gender, class, and race, there were some surprising antipathies and alliances. The national suffrage movement late in the 19th century was willing to argue for the vote for women in order to keep new immigrants and blacks from gaining political power.

At an opera performance these days, Figaro singing about the perfidy and duplicity of women may cause a nervous ripple of laughter from the audience, but in other important ways, ideas about gender roles have not changed much, and gender equality remains elusive in American society. The sitcoms or television dramas that depict the anecdotal reversal of domestic roles or equal partnerships in parenting do not reflect the reality of the lives most women lead. Women remain the primary caregivers of children, the working heads of more and more single households, and they are part of two-income families that find it necessary for both parents to work. Women with “careers” are too often women who have had to make the choice of having a family or pursuing a profession. Women are more highly educated than ever before, and yet very often that education does not translate into a career or higher earning potential, since they are forced by convention and tradition to assume jobs where their skills and education are less rewarded, this so that they can assume, as expected of them, the lion’s share of the responsibility of raising a family. It seems that equality of opportunity for all women is something that isn’t going to come about without a major social commitment to childcare in this country, and perhaps some fundamental change in the concept of the family itself.

The domestic stalemate, the author claims, is one of the reasons that so much focus and attention of the movement has in recent years gone into “international” feminism. The book ends with a fine overview of global feminism, the efforts to protect women against egregious exploitation and violence in so many places in the world. And it is circumspect to point out that sometimes those efforts to bring about change may be flawed by a certain naiveté, a sense that concerns about the plight of women, and remediation for it, can cross political borders as a gender issue, circumventing the unique political and tangled economic issues that exist in individual countries around the globe.

The promise of feminism, the demand for the equality of women, is ineluctably tied with the promise of democracy itself, and it is hard to believe in a better plight for women except in countries where democracy has triumphed. But unlike the “democratic” revolutions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries that completely overlooked the rights of women, it is hard to imagine that in a world that has become so much more aware of how women are treated around the globe that modern democratic movements can do the same. Whatever the current frustrations of global feminism for improvement in the lives of women, the change that is being made, and that will continue to occur internationally, is an important achievement of the movement. The feminist promise is a work unfolding. Feminism may not have a history that is developmentally continuous or easily delineated, but what this fine overview makes clear is that its major ideas have a more traceable line than we might have supposed. And it is a history that suggests, whatever the current frustrations, that the changes that feminism is bringing about, while they may come slowly, are going to be changes that, like democracy itself, may come sooner in some places and later in others, but we sense will come at last, irrevocably, to all women.

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