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.