Formidable: American Women and the Fight for Equality: 1920 to 2020 by Elizabeth Griffith is a history of the U.S. feminist movement from the years leading up to the achievement of women’s right to vote in 1920 to 2020. A movement’s history spanning over a hundred years cannot be detailed or inclusive of every event, issue, or controversy. However, Formidable is an important overview of women’s struggle for equality and liberation, especially since it includes Black women’s additional battle against racism. Griffith describes cooperation and disagreements between Black and white feminists, disputes within the feminist movement, and even motivations of right-wing women opposing feminism.
WOMEN FOUGHT TO CHANGE OPPRESSIVE REALITY
Griffith also shows that when women are liberated to act in the public sphere, their activism and leadership improves living conditions and culture in numerous ways. She states, “After they won, suffragists retuned to the causes they had sought the ballot to advance.” These included education for immigrants and workers, kindergartens, girls’ physical education, and public-school improvement. Organizations helped create a juvenile justice system, also providing legal counsel. They paved roads, improved sanitation, and established health clinics. Women investigated factory conditions and fought for minimum wage and the elimination of sweatshops and child labor. Since the beginning, feminists wanted to participate in solving international problems to achieve world peace. Black feminists, sometimes aided by white feminists, campaigned against lynching and racist violence such as the 1921 massacres of Black communities.
Feminists proved women are equal to men in humanity, intelligence, and in the ability to build careers. They also maintained that women bring additional knowledge and concerns gained as mothers and caregivers to public policy. Griffith describes how, in 1921, feminists established the Promotion of the Welfare and Hygiene of Maternity and Infancy Act, “the first government welfare bill, providing federal matching funds to train visiting nurses, license midwives, and establish clinics, primarily in rural areas.” This improved maternal and infant mortality rates, the latter dropping from 111 to 67 out of 1,000 live births. It was repealed in 1929 due to antifeminist men and women claiming feminists were interfering with mothers. This right-wing demonization of feminists’ successful projects for the common good would continue as a pattern, labeling these projects as “anti-family” and “communist.”
Feminists, always active in the labor movement, disagreed on special protections for women workers. Griffith says, “Protection may have rescued women from harsh conditions in factories and mines, but it drove them into lower paying, sex-segregated occupations.” Some solutions were found in protections for all workers and equal pay laws. In the 1940s, women replaced male laborers going to war. Unions and government agencies often found solutions by asking women about their needs on the job and in social services.
STILL A LONG WAY TO GO
The later chapters focus more on women elected to office and working in government. Griffith does touch on some major demonstrations by radical feminists of the 1960s and 1970s and recent ones like the 2017 Women’s March. She tends to focus on individual leaders and their influence on society but does include some of the histories of organizations and mass movements that reflect the thought of many women. The book concludes with the status of women today and how far we still need to go in reproductive rights, health, safety, education, professions, labor, the military, sports, racial equality, and equality within the family.
Feminists today are discussing the necessity of learning the history of women, sexism, and feminist activism and theory. We need to know that feminists created much of the progress we enjoy today in spite of similar reactionary opposition, internal conflicts, and difficult problems to solve. Formidable is an important reference book to read and to inspire further investigation into the numerous events, organizations, activists and movements that shaped our world.