Feminist Mothers and Daughters

The Feminist Promise: 1792 to the Present

By Christine Stansell

New York: Modern Library, 2010, New York, 528 pp., $36.00, hardcover


Reviewed by Alice Echols


Feminism transformed the world—split it wide open, to paraphrase the title of one terrific history (The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America, by Ruth Rosen [2006 revised]).  Yet for all its shattering changes, in today’s culture, the history of feminism is little known outside the world of academic specialists.  Feminists of the sixties and seventies are now often dismissed in the same terms in which their foremothers were—as prudish and racist.  Indeed, when it comes to the movements of the “long sixties,” feminism trails behind the black freedom movement and the New Left in the number of scholarly monographs, popular books, and serious documentaries it’s generated.  It’s true, of course, that much of the drama in feminism’s story took place behind the scenes—in bedrooms, kitchens, and workplaces—and the combat was largely verbal.  But surely this cannot be the sole reason for the sidelining of feminism.  After all, the movement had its public moments—its marches, rallies, sit-ins, and hunger strikes.  And when it comes to newsreel footage, Gloria Steinem is only the best known of many charismatic and eloquent feminists on the airwaves and the lecture circuit.  My own hunch is that feminism’s marginality stems in some measure from how close to the bone it cut and how very controversial some of its causes remain to this day.

It is precisely this diminishment that Christine Stansell seeks to rectify in her beautifully written, indeed sublime, new book. The Feminist Promise is not the first effort to counter the near negligibility of feminism’s history.  But what sets Stansell’s history apart is its unflinching honesty, intellectual ambition, and unusually broad scope—from 1792 to the present.  Her decision to begin with Mary Wollstonecraft and the French Revolution that inspired her not only makes this something of a transatlantic story but is also critical to Stansell’s argument—which is that feminism’s origins lie in the democratic surges of the French (and the American) Revolution.  In contrast to feminist theorists who focus on the shortcomings of liberal democracy, Stansell argues that however blinkered its vision, and however dedicated to women’s subordination, liberal democracy nonetheless enabled women’s political aspirations. Feminism, she says, really is democracy’s “younger sister.” Beginning with the “wild wishes” of Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication for the Rights of Woman also allows Stansell to reveal that the ironies and tensions usually associated with twentieth-century feminism have a much longer history. Whether it’s the sort of feminism that’s made queasy by actual women or that asserts the meaninglessness of gender only to fall back upon apparently bedrock gender differences, it’s all there in Wollstonecraft.

The Feminist Promise does not contribute to the “re-waving” of American feminism that some scholars have advocated.  (The period between the 1930s and the 1950s remains feminism’s lost years in this account.)  But Stansell’s interventions—her examination of feminism’s unexplored corners and the themes she presses—are significant, original, and potentially field-changing.

For one, she contends that American feminism is marked by tensions between the politics of the mothers—cautious and pragmatic in an effort to improve women’s condition without upending the status quo—and the politics of the daughters—daring and visionary in their determination to move as freely through the world as they imagine men do.  Although Stansell, like other historians of feminism, has been associated with the politics of the daughters, it is often the mothers who capture her empathic imagination.  This generosity does not extend to Gilded Age suffragists, who receive an understandably scornful response, but it does to second-wave liberal feminists, who are in many ways the heroines of this narrative.  When it comes to employment and education discrimination, reproductive rights, athletics, and even consciousness-raising, Stansell contends it was liberal feminism, unapologetic about working “within the system,” that pushed the movement’s agenda forward.  In emphasizing the dynamism of liberal feminism she explicitly challenges the usual periodization of the second wave.  In contrast to most histories that advance a declension narrative in which feminism has, by 1975, lost its steam, The Feminist Promise demonstrates that the seventies were feminism’s decade—the moment when its ideas went mainstream. One expects the story of the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights to be page-turners, but Stansell succeeds in making discussions of feminists’ deployment of Title IX, Title VII, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, and the Women’s Educational Equity Act surprisingly lively.

Moreover, Stansell depicts the eighties as a time of backlash but not of decline.   Her final, magisterial chapter on global feminism reveals US activists, frustrated by Reaganism, aggressively engaging in international work.  Stansell criticizes global feminism’s often single-minded focus on sexual violence—the defining issue for many feminists from “donor” nations—which, she argues, has too often crowded out other concerns, especially the terrible consequences of neoliberalism.  Overall, Stansell is upbeat about global feminism, although not one built on Western fantasies of a global sisterhood.  And while she acknowledges that women’s rights have been used opportunistically on the global stage—a history she details—she maintains that it was feminist pressure that led the US to reject the Taliban in 1999.  In the end, she argues that we cannot lose sight of feminism’s remarkable journey from the time when a “tiny group of democratic radicals on the edges of the French Revolution” first advanced women’s rights to their prominence in today’s global politics.  This is not feminist triumphalism, but it is a much needed reckoning with feminism’s achievements.

In another departure, Stansell writes most enthusiastically of those moments when women and men are struggling side by side as co-conspirators.  By contrast, woman-only feminism, whether practiced by daughters or mothers, comes across as claustrophobic and constraining—a less robust, more diminished path.  Given how diligently feminist historians have worked to establish the legitimacy—the preferability, even—of all things woman-only and woman-identified, it’s likely that her portrait of separatist feminism as impoverished will meet some resistance.  But Stansell’s preference for “brother-sister” collaborations does permit her to write men, usually shadowy figures in feminism’s history, into the narrative.

Likewise, it enables her to discuss much more fully black feminism, which had little truck with feminist separatism and was not typically fractured along the mother-daughter divide.  Throughout the text, Stansell stresses the distinctiveness of black feminism from the more dominant Euro-American variety.  In The Feminist Promise, African American feminists, in their pragmatism, and even more their humanistic politics, emerge as the feminists worth emulating.  Along the way, she features African American women such as Maria Stewart, who in the early 1830s became the first American woman to publicly address the woman question.  Pioneering lawyer and liberal feminist Pauli Murray, another African American woman, receives considerable (and welcome) attention.  It was Murray who first argued that the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantees of equal protection could be used to strike down sex discrimination.  Long before “intersectionality” became an academic feminist buzzword, Murray insisted that race, gender, and class were best understood not as discrete, freestanding categories of identity.  And Murray argued that the National Organization for Women should remain connected to the labor and civil rights movements, and more generally to its brothers.

Although Stansell favors crossgender collaborations, she judges such partnerships harshly when they involve the Left. She is hardly the first to criticize the Left for its swaggering disparagement of feminism.  But she goes further than others, attributing many of the fledgling movement’s flaws to its roots in the New Left.  Its political purity, its reliance on the elitist concept of “false consciousness” in understanding the unconverted, its ritual denunciations of all things “bourgeois,” and its romanticizing of the Third World—all of these, she argues, originate with the Left.  As a scholar whose rehabilitation of radical feminism pivoted largely on its intellectual connectedness to the Left, I found this line of argument disconcerting at first.  But to a great extent Stansell is persuasive.

Women’s liberationists broke away organizationally from the Left, but the movement culture they created—one that talked of sisters but was unable to connect to the hair-sprayed and high-heeled masses—bore the unmistakable stamp of left-wing culture.  Indeed, even as feminism repudiated the Left’s understanding of the “woman problem,” the finger-wagging Left loomed large in its counterformulations.  The Left’s favorite accusation that feminism is ineluctably bourgeois and inevitably regressive—crystallized in the sneering charge, “Sure, Jackie O’s oppressed!”—was one that women’s liberationists strenuously rejected but emotionally absorbed.  Anxiety about feminism’s revolutionary potential fostered not only undue skepticism about strategic alliances with liberals and debilitating guilt about privilege, it also promoted chimerical visions of universal sisterhood.  Radical feminists, in particular, “floated analogies,” writes Stansell, “that equated white middle-class women with their ‘sisters’ in dire circumstances—North Vietnamese fighters, Chinese peasant women, and African-American mothers on welfare were favorite targets of comparison.”

Spot-on as such characterizations are, the Left was not nearly as monolithic as Stansell’s account suggests.  Although the usual good sixties/bad sixties mapping of the period distorts in all sorts of ways, it is depressingly accurate when it comes to the New Left.  Its disastrous turn towards rival versions of Marxist orthodoxy, the growing conviction that revolution could be willed by a disciplined vanguard, and the hard masculinity that followed from these destroyed the New Left, alienated much of its constituency, and ensured that women’s liberation would, organizationally speaking, go it alone, ditching those lefties whom Marge Piercy, in her essay “The Grand Coolie Damn” (in Sisterhood is Powerful, edited by Robin Morgan [1970]) so memorably dubbed “men of steel.”  Stansell acknowledges that the Left’s descent into dustbin irrelevance was shaped by the dire circumstances of the time, particularly the relentlessness and the brutality of the war in Vietnam.  Yet it is easy to lose sight of this because Stansell’s version of the Left is one dominated by sectarian Marxism.

The New Left’s tragic trajectory should not obscure what was honorable, even transformative about it.  The notion that the “personal is political” owes a lot to the radical sociologist C. Wright Mills and the New Leftist Tom Hayden, who popularized Mills’s insight.  If women’s liberation was preoccupied with the psychological dimensions of power, this was to some extent because the early New Left was as well.  Even consciousness-raising, feminism’s most effective organizing tool, was imported into the women’s movement by leftwing veterans of the civil rights movement. And the New Left’s antipathy towards capitalism was built into the DNA of socialist feminism and early radical feminism.  The commitment to economic justice served as a reminder that women’s liberation might well upend one’s personal life, but that it was meant to be about societal and not just personal transformation.  Stansell’s view of the Left and of women’s liberation as fatally utopian rather than oriented toward the “here and now” ensures that the pragmatic politics she favors are the preserve of liberal feminists. Yet it is worth noting that it was the socialist feminists in the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union and in Boston’s Bread and Roses who provided the spark for such pivotal women’s labor organizations as 9 to 5.

As this review suggests, there’s little chance that The Feminist Promise will be criticized for its timorousness.  While other feminist historians have written critically about the women’s movement, none has done it with such apparent relish or to such withering effect.  Stansell’s unsentimental approach—gestured to in the title, wherein feminism remains a promise—is one of this book’s great virtues.  Repeatedly, she catches ironies and contradictions that other scholars either missed or passed on.  One of my favorites is the irony of matrophobic, second-wave white feminists’ canonization of texts such as Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” which venerate capable, hard-working mothers. It’s “as if praise for the mother,” Stansell argues, “could exist only at a safe remove, contained and idealized within black and Hispanic culture.”  When she lets it rip like this, Stansell bad-girl spikiness makes this the most provocative and riveting of all the histories of feminism.  I would like to think those of us who recognize our younger, more foolish selves in these pages can let ourselves grin (or cringe) at the hypocrisy and fatuousness that The Feminist Promise exposes. More than any other, this is the book that illuminates why so many women, even those sympathetic to feminism, opted out of sisterhood and ended up turning their backs on Herland.

Finally, for those looking to understand global feminism, especially in the age of religious fundamentalism and terror, Stansell demonstrates powerfully and incisively why feminism, originally the younger sibling of democracy, is now, more than ever, essential to democracy’s survival. Perhaps more to the point, Stansell’s insistence upon feminism as an “argument,” and her refusal of the “greatest-generation” depiction of the second wave, makes this a book that can nudge younger women into understanding all that is at stake in the feminist promise.


Alice Echols is a professor of English and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California. Her most recent book is Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture (2010).

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