Representative Women

Representative Women

Christine Stansell’s The Feminist Promise is a landmark book, yet is indifferent to the role of ideas in feminism’s history.


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.

* * *

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."

 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.

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.

My second example concerns equality. Until the postwar era it was common in American law to think that equal treatment meant similar treatment, and that the "equal protection of the laws" could not possibly be violated by any symmetrical arrangement bearing on either race or sex. The principle of equal treatment was used by lower court judges, and some legal theorists, to defend laws against miscegenation: blacks can’t marry whites, and whites can’t marry blacks. How could such laws possibly involve a constitutional violation? The fact that African-Americans obviously bore the brunt of these laws, and that the laws were inspired by racial disgust, was left out of account. Similarly, laws that were symmetrical for women and men were also taken to be unproblematic, even when they imposed special burdens on women. If insurers denied coverage for pregnancy leave, they were not guilty of sex discrimination, so the argument went, because all "non-pregnant persons" were covered, and all pregnant ones were not covered—without regard to their sex! Sexual harassment, too, was taken to be an equal-opportunity matter, involving no illicit discrimination: after all, women could approach men for sexual favors, just as men could approach women. The hierarchy of power in the workplace was utterly ignored.

With Sexual Harassment of Working Women, MacKinnon offered a new and more adequate theory. She powerfully argued that sexual harassment (and other denials of equal opportunity) should be viewed through the lens of what she called a "dominance theory" of equality rather than through the old "difference theory." That is, the right question to ask of a problematic policy is whether it creates or perpetuates a hierarchy of power that defines classes of people as higher or lower, dominant or subservient. The "equal protection of the laws" requires resisting such hierarchies. In effect, MacKinnon’s is an antifeudal account of political equality. The Supreme Court had already drawn on the principle at the heart of MacKinnon’s dominance theory in the area of race when, in the 1967 case Loving v. Virginia, it invalidated antimiscegenation laws on the grounds that they were "designed to maintain White Supremacy." The fact that the laws were symmetrical on their face was immaterial. (The earlier invalidation of "separate but equal" schools, in Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954, rested on a similar analysis.) MacKinnon, however, articulated the contrasting theories with unprecedented clarity and applied them to the area of gender, where it had not previously been acknowledged in the law that an illicit hierarchy of power existed. (In Sexual Harassment of Working Women, MacKinnon cannily demonstrates that you can arrive at her conclusion that sexual harassment is discrimination even if you don’t accept her controversial dominance theory of equality; nevertheless, it was her theory that eventually entered the judicial mind and reshaped legal doctrine.)

* * *

My final example concerns the family. For a long time in economics, the reigning concept of the family was that it was a unit held together by love and altruism, without cooperative conflicts that needed to be taken into account. Mill had long ago subjected that idea to withering criticism, arguing that the family as constituted in his time was a bastion of feudal privilege in the midst of the allegedly liberal state. But nobody took Mill’s ideas seriously. In A Treatise on the Family, for which (among other contributions) he won the Nobel Prize in 1992, economist Gary Becker held that for analytical purposes we can assume that the "head of the household" is a beneficent altruist who always takes adequate account of the interests of all family members—an assumption that Becker, with his keen interest in reality, later criticized by acknowledging that motives such as envy and malice often shape the distribution of resources within the family.

Becker’s determination, in his Treatise, to bring economic theory to the domain of family life was important and salutary. Nonetheless, the theory did some harm. Because development economists were highly swayed by Becker’s theory, they assumed that the household can be treated as a single unit and so ignored internal distributional issues; consequently, it has been almost impossible until recently to get data about the resources and opportunities available to individual family members. Yet over the past thirty years, the dominant view of the family in economics has shifted to one in which ideas of competition and of a socially shaped bargaining position dominate. This change is due to the work of such feminist economists as Sen, Bina Agarwal and Robert Pollak; feminist political theorist Okin; and the important journal Feminist Economics, which provides a venue for the exploration of such ideas. The new ideas have reshaped data-gathering, as have, simultaneously, the ideas of Nancy Folbre and others about how to ascribe a monetary value to women’s unpaid household labor (a very practical matter, as anyone will know who has sought compensation for the injury or death of a partner mainly occupied in domestic labor).

Such insights are gradually making their way into national policy, as demonstrated in the recent report on the measurement of a nation’s quality of life commissioned by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and chaired by Sen and Joseph Stiglitz, with both Agarwal and Folbre as commission members. The key finding was that a nation’s quality of life should not be measured by gross national product per capita but instead by assessing people’s "capabilities," or substantial opportunities for choice. One sphere it emphasized was the family, where opportunities are often unequally distributed along lines of sex. The newer economic theories of the family have long been accepted working paradigms in India, a nation somewhat more progressive, in terms of economic theory, than the United States and even Europe, and that has a sophisticated economist, Manmohan Singh, as prime minister and, in Kaushik Basu, a chief economic adviser who is a strong feminist and the current president of the Human Development and Capability Association (founded by Sen and me). Maybe someday the ideas of the new feminist economics will even surface in the corridors of power in the United States, though I’m not making any bets on when.

These cases show that political history written with an aversion to theoretical ideas is incomplete even as history. Ideas matter for people, and they make things happen in the world. Feminism should not be wedded to a type of historical materialism that denies this insight. Many feminists have been historical materialists; Stansell is not. But she lacks interest in philosophy and economics, and she apparently believes that telling the story of feminist ideas is a job for another book. I believe, however, that the story she eloquently tells is woefully incomplete without them. If feminists today are to make good on the promises of their predecessors, mothers and daughters alike, they need to study the arguments, testing their cogency and tracing the ways they were linked to practical struggles to achieve justice and equality for women. Feminism has succeeded, to the extent that it has, partly by dint of its bold ideas; to overlook these ideas is to diminish feminism.

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