From the September-October 2015 issue of News & Letters
Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movements, by Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon, and Astrid Henry (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.: New York, 2014).
This book is a brief overview of the history of the feminist movement in the U.S. from the period after women’s right to vote was won in 1920 until the present. Written by three professors of women’s history, it is intended for the general reader and for use in college and high school classrooms. Cobble wrote the chapter about social justice feminists’ involvement in labor unions and the civil rights movement from 1920 until the 1960s. Gordon wrote about the Women’s Liberation feminists of the 1960s and 1970s, and Henry wrote about the Third Wave feminists of the 1980s to the present. The authors wanted to address the dearth of writing on the history of feminism as a movement for social change and to correct the many myths about it.
They consider the “wave” analogy inadequate and show how feminism does not revive only to die out on a regular basis, because it is a continuous movement. It is better understood as numerous movements because different kinds of women tackle a variety of issues. Also, as times change, more issues arise, and people may understand things in new ways. The fact that feminism is not monolithic is also seen when feminists disagree with each other. The authors discuss some of these disagreements as well as misunderstandings that older and younger generations of feminists can have about each other. In this way, the authors hope to foster an understanding among activists of their own history so that they may find it easier to address internal conflicts in the future.
THE NECESSITY OF MASS MOVEMENTS
Probably the biggest myth the authors debunk is that feminism is an elite movement for white, socially and economically privileged women. Some writers today tell individual women to climb to the top of the corporate career ladder and be assertive in demanding higher wages. These benefits do not really “trickle down” to the vast majority of women in lower paying jobs. Although feminism often includes personal growth, mass movements are necessary to improve living conditions for large numbers of people, to change laws, and to transform society.
Each of the authors describes many lesser known campaigns, projects, and leaders, especially focusing on how feminism has been intersectional (intertwined with fighting other oppressions, including race and class) during each historical period. Sometimes historians have ignored feminism because it blended into other progressive movements.
NO, FEMINISM IS NOT DEAD
The authors’ description of feminism throughout recent history challenges the notion that it is “dead” or that it was never necessary. Some people believe that human rights come inevitably with modernization, but the authors show how struggle is necessary. They explain how feminism has “utterly” changed all aspects of society, including government, culture, entertainment, and “the very nature of knowledge,” and that “one cannot understand today’s world without an understanding of how feminism has influenced it.” They question whether there is such a thing as a purely “women’s issue” because feminism has improved life for all people, and has often explicitly included struggles for the rights of children, men, and people of other genders.
The authors explain how feminism is “unfinished,” partly because some rights have not been won and attitudes not completely changed. Also, with the internet, feminism’s global spread has escalated, and the main struggle will no longer be centered in the West.
This book is important in helping activists learn from previous generations and to reinvent feminism for their own circumstances.