Representative Women | The Nation


Representative Women

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 One disturbing thread running through Stansell's narrative is the racism of many white feminists. Repeatedly, the cause of women was defended by claiming that it was absurd to give African-American men the vote but to deny it to women, so much more intelligent and cultivated. Even some of the greatest feminists, such as Stanton, were not free from the taint of racism. Stansell shows that African-American feminists typically held themselves aloof from white feminists for such reasons, determined to defend both racial and gender equality. Stansell indicates that any adequate feminism for the future must be attentive to and respectful of differences of race and class and the struggles of other minorities. She is hardly the first to say this, but she says it well.

The Feminist Promise
1792 to the Present.
By Christine Stansell.
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About the Author

Martha C. Nussbaum
Martha C. Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago Law...

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In the final chapter, on global feminism, Stansell shows that similar difficulties threaten the growing engagements of American women with feminist movements in developing nations. She gives disturbing examples of condescension and bias, of American feminists preaching enlightenment to women elsewhere as if they were mere victims and dupes. On the whole, though, as Stansell persuasively and correctly shows, global feminism has become a two-way street, with advice and knowledge traveling in both directions. Crucial human rights documents such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) have been worked out in full cooperation by women in the West and developing nations from many different backgrounds, and certainly with no help from the United States, which, along with Iran, Sudan, Somalia and a handful of small and island states, has failed to ratify CEDAW. Stansell also shows how decisive progress on issues such as improving women's access to credit and education and eliminating sex-selective abortion has been made by indigenous women's movements acting at the local level in a wide range of countries, with no "access to Western sympathizers." Like the rest of the book, the chapter on global feminism is nuanced, judicious and edifying.

The way Stansell packages feminism's complex history is clarifying, but it also distorts. For example, by suggesting that the early twentieth century was an era when radical daughters took the lead, she downplays the continued leadership of the mothers in the temperance movement, which ultimately led to Prohibition. Her account of the media in the '50s, though largely accurate, is too monolithically grim. "The workingwomen on television who left flickering imprints on the collective subconscious were inevitably single and comically lonely," she writes, singling out Eve Arden's Miss Brooks as an example but omitting Mr. Boynton, her clueless yet extremely nice boyfriend. She doesn't mention my favorite show of the period, Perry Mason (1957–66), which featured a long-term nonmarital sexual relationship between Raymond Burr's Perry and Barbara Hale's Della Street, a secretary, to be sure, but a very high-powered one who participated in the detecting, and who always wore stylish and sexy clothes. The show itself stood, ahead of its time, for '60s values. (Burr, for one, was a not-very-closeted gay man living with a long-term male partner.) In 1960, when William Talman, the actor who played District Attorney Hamilton Burger, was arrested and charged with smoking marijuana at a nude swimming party, Burr came to his defense and made sure he didn't lose his job. (My consternation over the words "morals charge" in the reticent newspapers of the day was swept aside when I learned that Talman had not done anything really immoral.) The show was quietly subversive on account of its dramatic allure: it was the only program that my attorney father, highly conservative, allowed us to watch at the dinner table, and while he pointed out all the legal errors, I couldn't help but notice Barbara Hale's flirtatious yet classy conduct. Still active at 88, she is certainly in my feminist pantheon.

Another distortion that cuts close to my heart is Stansell's depiction of major US law schools. According to Stansell, it took post-'50s daughters to open the gates of the leading schools to women. While Stansell is correct in her depiction of Harvard Law School, which didn't admit women until 1950, and kept their numbers small until at least the 1970s (thirty-two out of 565 in the entering class of 1967), she doesn't mention that the University of Chicago Law School admitted women from its inception in 1902. The well-known social activist Sophonisba Breckinridge, who graduated from Wellesley College in 1888, was in that law school's first graduating class of 1904. Breckinridge had already become a member of the Kentucky bar in 1894, and had received a PhD in political science from the University of Chicago in 1901.

Breckinridge's time at the University of Chicago is a reminder that in many ways, though surely not in all, the Midwest was more egalitarian than the snooty East. The first female lawyer in the United States was Arabella Mansfield, admitted to the Iowa bar in 1869. In its recent opinion legalizing same-sex marriage, the Iowa Supreme Court reminded Iowans that the state has been consistently at the forefront of unpopular movements for social justice. And the court was right, even about Iowa's standing in the field of law in the Midwest. Although Missouri joined Iowa in admitting women to the bar in 1870, and a group of other Midwestern states quickly followed suit, the US Supreme Court upheld the exclusion of women from the Illinois bar in 1873; Myra Bradwell, the original plaintiff in the case, was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1890 and the bar of the Supreme Court in 1892. The District of Columbia and Maine admitted women to the bar in 1872, with the rest of the states on the East Coast doing the same by the early 1890s. Such regional differences barely figure in Stansell's account, but they are fascinating, and someone should investigate them further.

* * *

A book of this sort, capacious as it is, cannot do everything, and the criticism of it that follows is no doubt colored by my own work in philosophy, law and public policy. Nonetheless, it seems clear to me that Stansell is indifferent to the role that ideas, particularly philosophical and economic ideas, have played in feminism's history. Many of her protagonists are writers and theorists, yet she devotes scant attention to their theories. Mary Wollstonecraft is given at least some consideration for her ideas about human rights in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman; but the compelling arguments with which she advanced them are omitted, so it is left entirely unclear why people ought to have listened to her. John Stuart Mill's The Subjection of Women is mentioned as a feminist landmark, but the arguments at its core are left unexamined. Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex is the only theoretical work of the modern era that merits a reading, albeit a cursory one that ignores its roots in existentialist ideas of freedom and self-fashioning. Catharine MacKinnon, the major intellectual architect of modern legal feminism, who reoriented thinking about equality and discrimination, is discussed in a couple of sentences, and strictly as an antipornography activist. The ideas that led MacKinnon to her theory of pornography and to her far more influential theory of sexual harassment are ignored. Indeed, in a very odd oversight, Stansell doesn't address the topic of sexual harassment in the workplace, an ongoing concern of feminists in the late twentieth century. My legal colleagues, whatever their political persuasion, routinely cite MacKinnon's Sexual Harassment of Working Women as one the most influential books in US legal scholarship. Around the time of its publication in 1979, political theorist Susan Moller Okin and economist Nancy Folbre were reorienting much influential thinking and policy-making about justice inside the family; Stansell does not mention either woman.

What do we miss when these ideas are overlooked? The ideas are important in themselves; but they also have immense importance for the practice of feminism and for the success of its efforts at social change. Let's take just three examples. In The Subjection of Women, Mill is at pains to show us that male domination has shaped not only women's opportunities but also their desires and emotional habits (a theme already broached by Wollstonecraft and that would prove central for MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin). Thus the deference and timidity that women display toward men are not indicative of an immutable female nature, as many alleged in Mill's time. Rather, these characteristics are proof that gender hierarchy, like feudal hierarchy, leaves deep marks on the human spirit.

This insight has enormous consequences for theories of social development and measurements of "quality of life." Modern feminist economists such as Amartya Sen (winner of the Nobel Prize in 1998 for his development work) have argued that no theory of development based on the satisfaction of people's preferences could ever be normatively adequate: such a theory would always be an unwitting accomplice of an unjust status quo. The struggle to find a replacement for preference-based theories is no idle matter, since such theories are used throughout the world to measure social welfare. If women report that they are satisfied by the amount of education they have managed to attain, so the thinking goes, then they are doing fine—even though in many cases their preferences have been formed by social norms about proper female occupations. Thus Mill's insight, years later, determines the course of millions of women's lives—or, more often, fails to do so.

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