For much of its existence, the feminist movement in the United States has looked like a loosely knit coalition of upstarts and insurgents making common cause around an evolving list of issues: suffrage, access to divorce, property rights, contraception, antidiscrimination law, sexual harassment, domestic violence, rape law and abortion rights, to name a few. In turn, feminism has apparently struck many historians as being both too topical and too diffuse to have a history. At least such a view offers the most likely explanation for an enduring deficiency. Although American historians have written incisive histories of marriage with attention to women's concerns (Nancy Cott's Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation, Hendrik Hartog's Man and Wife in America: A History) and landmark biographies of feminist pioneers (Ellen Chesler on Margaret Sanger, Elizabeth Griffith on Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Nell Irvin Painter on Sojourner Truth), they have not given us any comparably authoritative history of the feminist movement in the United States. But now we have one.
Christine Stansell's magisterial The Feminist Promise traces the movement from its eighteenth-century inception to the present day, sorting out its crosscurrents and offering a useful narrative framework within which to situate its varied struggles. Stansell is an acclaimed scholar who has worked on a variety of topics in US history, from antebellum and bohemian New York City to the histories of love and human rights. She is also a good writer, having honed her style by contributing numerous essays and reviews to a variety of general-interest publications. Though dense and impeccably documented, The Feminist Promise is lucid, accessible and well organized. It will be a benchmark for some time to come—although, as we shall see, it has a significant shortcoming.
Here one should pause to raise a relatively minor question of exposition and framing. Although the book's sweeping title could lead one to believe that Stansell will discuss feminist movements in a variety of countries, and although the narrative occasionally turns to developments in Europe (particularly Britain) and even, more rarely, to Japan and India, Stansell takes as her project the story of feminism in the United States. Yet she should not be understood as claiming that the United States was the sole or even the primary cradle of feminism. In her final and excellent chapter on global feminism, Stansell rightly resists the idea that feminism is an American export to developing nations. We learn, for example, that India had its own indigenous feminist movement, inspired more by local struggles than by ideas from abroad. (Although Stansell does not trace the earlier history of that movement, its roots are in the eighteenth century, like those of its US counterpart.) So the book does not mislead, ultimately. Yet I wish Stansell had explained the scope of her project more emphatically at the outset—granting in the process that feminism has multiple roots and branches, few of them being the outgrowth of democratic revolutions, and that her book is going to ignore most of them in order to focus on the story of the United States.
The material Stansell has organized is diffuse, since feminism has indeed been a diverse set of movements, reflecting pronounced differences of race, class and region. Nonetheless, she wisely coordinates the welter of facts around a single, clear narrative thesis about two basic types of feminists, whom she calls "mothers" and "daughters." "Mothers" are rather conservative feminists. They love the traditional family and are fond of exalting the virtues of caring and compassion that women allegedly cultivate more than men. When mothers advocate for certain social changes, they do so in the name of these female virtues. Often their feminism has a religious dimension. Their demands are strong but not profoundly radical: they want women to be granted political equality so that they can put their virtues to work ameliorating the public sphere, but they leave unchallenged the status quo as to the nature of marriage, sexuality and the family. "Daughters," by contrast, are radical and boisterous. They want to shake up everything. They demand a wholesale reconsideration of women's role in the world, of the entire distinction between male and female gender and of the nature of marriage and sexuality.
The essence of Stansell's argument is that American feminism has proceeded in a lurching and uneven series of stages, alternating between periods of ascendancy for mothers and daughters. Nonetheless, even during times like the 1950s, when it seemed that mothers were securely entrenched, feminism continued to forge ahead, often in quieter ways but with a clear record of achievement nonetheless. Mothers and daughters agree about one facet of the "feminist promise": it is the struggle to achieve justice and equality in the public sphere. Daughters, however, insist rebelliously that this "promise" cannot be fulfilled without sweeping changes in the domestic realm that are not just strategic but fundamental matters of justice as well. Mothers and daughters differ about strategies but also, more profoundly, about goals.
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Stansell begins with the American Revolution, which always presupposed, and only rarely questioned, the subordination of women. Nonetheless, Stansell argues that over time the abstract promises of the new American democracy "offered sanctuary to the aspirations of women," laying a foundation on which later feminists would build. A more radical strain of feminism emerged during the antislavery movement, as female abolitionists made bold claims about ending women's servitude. The abolitionist movement was heterogeneous, and some of its Christian feminists were conservative; but ultimately abolitionism prompted, Stansell claims, a thoroughgoing rethinking of women's position in society. The radical side of abolitionist feminism was strengthened by alliances with a variety of utopian movements, including Fourierist and Owenite socialism and New England Transcendentalism; and the epoch-making Seneca Falls convention of 1848 drew more on radical notions of natural rights than on Christian doctrine.
After the Civil War, radicals such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton became increasingly isolated, as a group of mothers, including the Women's Christian Temperance Union and its leader, Frances Willard, gained influence by insisting that women should progress by disciplining and shaming men within traditional marriage rather than by altering the terms and nature of marriage itself. Willard sentimentalized marriage and idealized femininity; Stanton protested that "the real woman is not up in the clouds nor among the stars, but down here upon earth...striving and working to support herself." But Stanton's remonstrations proved ineffectual, and in due time the mothers were leading the battle for women's suffrage, emphasizing that the alleged special virtues of women equipped them for the vote.
Yet by 1900 a younger generation of women had transformed the suffrage movement, "turning a polite, ladylike movement into a confrontational, contentious one." These daughters differed most obviously from the mothers in tactics and style, favoring street protests and a defiant anti-Victorian style of dress; they differed ideologically too, making common cause with the labor movement and demanding far more equality than simply the vote. (Exemplary in this regard was Margaret Sanger, who launched the birth control movement.) For the suffragette daughters, "Feminism meant headlong flight from your mother's life," Stansell writes.
The struggle for the vote united feminists across many regional and class divisions. After that great battle was won in 1920, unity dissipated, and it has never been fully restored. Nonetheless, the story of alternating mother and daughter stages has continued, with the period after World War II signaling a return to domesticity and ushering in the infamous quietism of the '50s. Even here, though, Stansell shows that progress could still be made on some issues: the Equal Rights Amendment, framed in the 1920s, was championed during the '50s, and the National Organization for Women, established in 1966, made major contributions to women's progress on a wide range of issues, even while remaining a somewhat conservative organization of mothers. Daughters returned to the forefront in the '60s and '70s, and Stansell discusses the feminist ferment of these years effectively. The struggle over contraception and abortion rights, the struggle to redefine marriage and the battle for adequate legal treatment of sex discrimination are her focus. (She devotes scant attention to the question of sexual orientation or the connection between feminism and the struggle for justice for gays and lesbians.) "The gains were remarkable, and they were also shaky," Stansell writes. The defeat of the ERA sapped the movement of energy, and many of its achievements remain profoundly contested, as antifeminism has gained political power. Nonetheless, Stansell is optimistic about feminism's prospects: many paths have been blazed, and all that's required is the courage to follow them in the teeth of adversity and to continue drawing on the legacy of the past, taking up "the task of making good on feminism's democratic promise."