Book Review

Book Review: Knight on Stansell’s *The Feminist Promise: 1792 to the Present*

Review of Christine Stansell’s The Feminist Promise: 1792 to the Present (New York: The Modern Library, 2010). ISBN: 978-0-679-64314-2. 503 pages. Extensive notes; no bibliography.

Reviewed by Louise Knight, Visiting Scholar
Gender Studies Program, Northwestern University

This is a bold book. Just the idea of writing a history of American feminism is bold. Yes, Mary Beard wrote Woman as Force in History in 1946, which was the first book on the history of women’s activism in the United States. Yes, Eleanor Flexner wrote Century of Struggle in 1959, which was the first book on the history of women’s suffrage (revised and expanded by Ellen Fitzpatrick in 1996). There has also been Nancy Cott’s The Grounding of Modern Feminism (1987), which is a history of women’s movements in the United States between 1910 and 1930, and innumerable histories of the 1960s resurgence of the women’s movement, popularly known as the “Second Wave,” and some about the third wave too. The most comprehensive, thoroughly footnoted book I know of is Estelle B. Freedman’s excellent No Turning Back: The History of Feminism (Random House, 2002), but it is thematically organized and dense with facts. Christine Stansell, a professor of history at the University of Chicago, has had the vision, stamina, and sheer chutzpah to tackle the big subject chronologically, with an emphasis on its contentious intellectual complexity. The Feminist Promise is an important first.

What exactly is it about? At its core the book is a history of a set of ideas that revolutionized American society by restructuring not just gender relations and women’s place in the world but, first and foremost, women’s expectations for themselves. It is about the conceivers of those ideas but also about the people and organizations who pushed for and resisted them, as well as the on-the-ground social change that resulted, or did not. And it is about the arguments within feminism, of which there have been many. As Stansell writes in the Introduction, “Feminism is an argument, not received truth” (xix). The observation is one of the first clues that this is a book that keeps ideas in focus, and does not consider them as a sidelight to social action.

To write such a groundbreaking book, Stansell had to sort through a set of key decisions. The first was about its temporal scope. Stansell and her publisher, The Modern Library, wanted a definitive work, and so they embraced the whole enchilada: from “1792 to the present,” as the subtitle of the book states. However, this grand ambition could not be fully executed in the 400 pages of text that the publisher was willing to provide. Therefore, the book gives short shrift to the traditional “hole” in the history of feminism (though scholars have been filling it for years), 1920 to 1945. And by short I mean very short, like a few pages.

Another decision was to emphasize recent history. Thus the period 1968 to the present takes up half of the book. There are good arguments to support that decision, given the wider interest among scholars and students in the late twentieth century than in the nineteenth but it does make the book lopsided. At the same time, feminists under 50 will want to challenge the book’s claim to cover feminism up to the present, since the only story it tells about the years after 1980 is the rise of global feminism. (One suspects the publisher deserves credit for the subtitle’s claim.)

The inclusion of a whole chapter on global feminism, however, does not change the fact that Stansell’s story is really about the United States. Elsewhere in the book she blurs the parameters a bit by reaching across the ocean to Europe to connect with developments there. This international awareness enriches the book, but does not change the fact that it is a history of American feminism.

Another decision was to focus on the women’s intellectual traditions and deal only in passing with the intellectual traditions launched by men. Liberalism, utilitarianism, Marxism, socialism, and the ideas of the New Left. These all make appearances, reflecting the work of many scholars, but Stansell does not frame her story around them. This seems reasonable, given the complexity of her topic and the originality of her effort, not to mention her larger feminist point – that feminism, in seeking to break with the patriarchal mindframe, often reacted against aspects of these traditions even as it was also shaped by them.

Another interesting choice was to avoid framing this history of feminism as a series of “waves.” Stansell joins Jo Freeman and Linda Nicholson, among others, in finding the wave metaphor un-useful.[1] She does not engage the arguments directly but she makes it clear that the history of feminism is continuous from the 1790s, that feminists have embraced different arguments and reform tasks at different points in their history, and that at no period have all feminists agreed on everything.

Finally there is the sticky question of whether the word “feminist” should be applied, as Nancy Cott has argued, only to those who embrace a specific set of ideas. Her definition has three components: a belief in sex equality, a belief that women’s condition is socially constructed, and a belief that women should work together to achieve equality on the basis of sex solidarity. Cott argues that this feminism emerged around 1900 and is distinctly different than the ideas of the nineteenth-century woman’s movement.[2] Obviously Stansell rejects that argument and adopts the term “feminism” as a transhistorical concept. This makes sense to me.[3] Would we argue that African Americans were not fighting racism until the term was invented and a certain set of specific ideas coalesced around it? Do we identify democracy as rising only when a group of historical actors began using the term in a modern way? Just as democracy has been, and is much, a contested set of ideas, the same is true of feminism. Cott’s definition is about one side of a lively, more than two-hundred-year debate. Taking this broader view, Stansell frames feminism as the whole argument across time.

Stansell works hard to keep women in all their diversity – of race, ethnicity, gender orientation and class – in focus, and does fairly well at this challenging task. Inevitably others would have made different choices. She is especially strong on the ideas and experiences of black women engaged in social justice efforts and the place of gay rights movement in feminist history and vice versa. In my opinion, the labor movement’s contributions to feminism merited more attention. Others might say the same of her treatment of socialist feminism and Latina American and Asian American feminism.

Another key decision for Stansell was about the authorial voice. Would she stand outside feminism and look at it as if she was not herself a feminist? Or would she inhabit the ideas she was writing about? She chose to write it as a feminist. This was not only a more honest choice but also an inspired one. Her pen teaches the reader about feminism by the way it frames the insights of the book. And her honesty is important too because societal truth marches on. No one today would think it right for a scholar, black or otherwise, to write a history of the struggle for racial equality in which he or she treated racism as a respectable idea, or for an historian of gay rights to treat homophobia as just one more viewpoint. Stansell apparently also believes it is time for scholars to stop being afraid of owning feminism. And she succeeds brilliantly in showing how it is done. I have never read a history that inhabits feminism so well. For example, she writes of the 1950s, “To look squarely at the landscape was to confront frank expressions of male dominance, outcroppings of patriarchy supposedly abolished by post-Nineteenth Amendment modernity” (191).

Perhaps one of the most difficult, complicated ideas in the history of feminist thought is that of motherhood. It is at once a biological reality that has enriched women’s lives, and a powerful ideology that has been deployed by men since the dawn of consciousness to elevate and restrict women. At the same time, women have used the idea for their own purposes, including self-aggrandizement within the home, but also to liberate themselves from it. For these reasons, feminist historians have found the idea endlessly perplexing and have sometimes resolved the problem by treating it too simplistically, either as something inherently good or inherently dangerous. Stansell, who is often finely nuanced in her interpretations, treats motherhood with insight and sensitivity in her discussion of the 1960s. “It was not that women’s liberation was anti-mother, or that there were no actual mothers involved, but rather that motherhood seemed a state that was irrelevant, perhaps inimical, to sisterhood” (262).

Stansell is also brilliant in her incisive discussions of the leading intellectuals of feminism. She credits Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) with laying “the intellectual basis for modern feminism” by announcing that “power, not nature, determined the relations of women and men,” and that expectations about how women should think and act “were in truth born of a system of male privilege and tyranny as corrupt as any monarchy” (25-26). Stansell goes on to point out that the intellectual tradition of liberalism was born of that same system. “Feminist theorists,” she notes, “have stressed that liberalism was always premised on women’s subjection, that the female sex was the exception to equality that made equality imaginable….Liberal rights-bearing citizens remained paradigmatically male for more than a century.” As for today, Stansell asserts: “Liberal democracy’s abstract promises … remain… resistant to extending their benefits across the sex line” (26).

Stansell gives generous space and analysis to the major American feminist intellectuals of the nineteenth century: Sarah and Angelina Grimké and Margaret Fuller. She credits the abolitionist-feminist Grimké sisters as being the first to argue for women’s equality based the religious idea of “the absolute moral equality of all human beings”(42). As Sarah Grimké crisply wrote, “Whatsoever it is morally right for a man to do, it is morally right for a woman to do” (46). Stansell credits Margaret Fuller with being “one of the first feminists to grasp the importance of expressiveness, reflection, and subjective exploration of women’s emancipation.” Stansell’s next observation sparkles: “This Romantic current would, in future years, nourish American feminism’s ventures into personal transformation that outstripped the liberal paradigm of women’s rights”( 64-65).

Strangely, Stansell does not write much about the two leading feminist intellectuals of the early twentieth century: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Jane Addams. To be sure, Addams did not write a book about her feminist views, although she did write a chapter about the women’s movement in Second Twenty Years at Hull-House (1930), but Gilman wrote two feminist books: The Home, which Stansell discusses briefly, and Women and Economics (1898), which she does not. Stansell grasps the spirit of the feminists of that time. “Theirs was a feminism that was part of a broad democratic push,” she writes (151). But like many before her, she keeps the focus on the suffrage movement and only touches lightly on these feminists’ impressive efforts on issues affecting working women and working children and on the ideas that infused their cross-class feminism.

As noted earlier, the book’s two halves are lopsided in their treatment of historical time. The second half, which begins in 1968, also lacks the intellectual continuity that fuels the first half. With only 42 years left to cover and with 200 pages available, Stansell no longer sweeps grandly along but instead dives deeper into the details of events, organizations, and personalities. For this reason, or perhaps some other, the book is more fragmented in this half, especially in the three chapters that cover that very fragmented period of 1920-1975. But there are plenty of lively, pointed insights. Writing about the radical feminists of the 1960s, Stansell notes:

Women’s liberation retained the male left’s habits of sweeping indictment, the heavy-handed Marxist-Leninist theorizing, the scorn for compromise, the insistence that life was lived in blacks and whites and not in grays, the penchant for histrionic displays of outrage and suffering, the faith that sheer will power could bring about a perfect- or near-perfect society purged of wrongs (230).

Though Stansell is tough at times on the radical feminists, as she is here, she is not one-sided in her views. She rightly credits the women’s liberation wing of the movement for its important stress on the psychological dimensions of sexism and therefore the need for “consciousness-raising” as the key feminist reform (244).

One of the strongest later chapters is that on abortion, birth control, and rape. Titled, “The Politics of the Body,” it covers the huge amount of thought and activism these issues generated from 1965 to 1980, and brings coherence to a period that many of us remember as chaotic. Stansell is at her best unpacking the ideas behind these issues, and narrating some of the most successful grassroots organizing and legal activism in the history of the feminism — and some of the most effective opposition too. Stansell’s observations about the core idea that fueled the abortion movement is worth quoting at length:

The maxim of a woman’s right to choose lit a fire under a great pile of misogynist and patriarchal assumptions and laws. As it spread, it became one of the most attractive ideas that second-wave feminism bequeathed – not only to the country but to the world. It brought to light an age-old assumption buried in women’s cultures: that it was up to the pregnant woman to decide whether to continue her pregnancy. For another, it moved body politics formally into the regime of rights and pressed the question of self-ownership, raised in the nineteenth century by [Elizabeth Cady] Stanton and [John Stuart] Mill as one of legal and economic standing, into the realm of corporeal dignity. Body politics turned into a political principle with wings, poised to fly across borders and oceans in widening feminist discussions in the 1970s and 1980s (326).

What is interesting, of course, is that we do not know the name of the woman who first argued in a public forum that women had a right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. It appears this intellectual revolution was entirely democratic, that it arose among the people as a conviction rooted in the liberal tradition of American individualism and made manifest in social action, including, eventually, court cases. (This is one example of how liberalism has served feminism, even as it also remains true that, our liberal democracy has yet to extend its benefits to all women. Liberalism is a constellation of possibilities useful to diverse political positions.)

To be sure, there were thinkers who shaped the recent history of feminism and Stansell attends to them. Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1953) and Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970), are discussed, the former at length. She credits Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will (1975), a book about the place of rape in American culture, with having “presented a comprehensive view of male power in its most violent manifestations” (344). As for Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Stansell acknowledges that it transformed white suburban housewives’ self-awareness and emboldened them to challenge sexist assumptions about the rules of domesticity. “Not since Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Home had anyone spoken so baldly of the claustrophobia of domestic life, the tedium of full-time child care, and the housewife’s ennui.” But she also gives the book a fabulously insightful and deserved push off the top shelf of intellectual history, and concludes by dismissing it as a “period piece” full of “heavy-handed rhetoric.” (205).

The last chapter tells the story of how the feminism – American or otherwise – has transformed the lives of women around the world since 1980. The focus is on the work of women’s nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and international agreements and conferences, like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the four United Nations World Conferences on Women. The chapter makes fascinating reading. Once again, Stansell has shaped events from newspaper headlines and magazine articles into a strong narrative about what is truly an historic development: the way that, in her words, “feminist questions [have] moved to the center of international deliberations” (393).

My main complaint about the chapter is that it is written as if the story began in the last part of the twentieth century. Stansell has traced the origins of the term, “global feminism” to a 1983 Rotterdam conference on international “sexual slavery” (357), but the actual history begins much earlier, as Bonnie Anderson has thoroughly documented in her book Joyous Greetings: the First International Women’s Movement, 1830-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000). And global feminism continued to thrive, reaching an impressive organizational peak between 1900 and 1914, when there were many international conferences, not only on suffrage but also on other issues, like sex trafficking, and again in the 1920s and 1930s, most notably through the work of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, whose reform agenda included women’s rights and whose sections stretched around the world. Stansell might have at least nodded in the direction of this history as a way to frame her chapter.

My main complaint about this important book is that, as noted earlier, The Feminist Promise tells the story of American feminism — aside from its role in global feminism – only through 1980. This leaves unanswered the question, “What is the domestic American feminist history of the last 30 years?” It is not an easy question for an historian like Stansell to answer, an historian who, as she notes, became a feminist in 1969 (395). Those who came along later had some criticisms to make of older feminists, as Stansell acknowledges (357), and often disagreed with their ideas as they understood them. Perhaps it is understandable that, the subtitle notwithstanding, she chose not to tackle that complicated story. Happily, others have. The best book I know, written in a spirit of true cross-generational sisterhood, is Deborah Siegel’s insightful Sisterhood Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).[4]

American women have made enormous progress since 1792, as Stansell notes in her conclusion, but it is also true, as she points out, that “women are still handicapped and excluded in innumerable ways” (396). She lists some of these: women are still underpaid at work; women still do more housework and take care of children more than their male partners do even when they are working just as much outside the home; divorce is still an economic and social calamity for women and children; and men still talk a lot and therefore disproportionately dominate public conversations. Younger feminists would add more issues to the list: girls and women are still denied reproductive rights, including sex education, still forced into sexual slavery, and still suffer disproportionately from domestic violence and sexual abuse.

It is striking that the solutions to all these problems (at least apparently) lie less in the realm of ideas and more in the realm of grassroots organizing, institutional reforms, and legal action. As Gloria Steinem recently noted, “Consciousness goes like the wind, but reforming the power structures takes a long time.”[5] Stansell seems to acknowledge that at the end when she explains her hope for the book: “that it may transport the riches and assurances of the past, along with its sobering lessons, to the women and men who now take up the task of making good on feminism’s democratic promise.”

Alternatively, or in addition, it may be in the twenty-first century, as was the case for abortion rights and global feminism in the twentieth, that the important intellectual achievements — the breakthrough ideas that transform the impossible into the achievable — will come from the ground up, from the conversations people have every day. Such a trend suits our intensely democratic times. On the other hand, one cannot help but wonder if somewhere a brilliant feminist mind is cogitating and if we will all benefit from its insights soon. Meanwhile, intellectual historians and historians generally are in Christine Stansell’s debt for reminding us how far, and by what means, we have come.

Postscript—A word about the index of Feminist Promise: Unfortunately the index is typical of what publishers these days consider adequate: nearly all the entries are proper names. For any book, this is a huge loss, but for a book of intellectual history, this is a travesty. Authors seem to have no choice but to hire someone to do a better index or to do the index themselves. I found it challenging to write this review until I remembered that I could search for key words in the Google Books snippets edition of The Feminist Promise. But even that useful technology cannot replace a good index.


[1] Freeman and Nicholson agree about the uselessness of the wave metaphor, but for somewhat different reasons. See “Waves of Feminism,” at Jo and Linda Nicholson, “Feminism in ‘Waves’: Useful Metaphor or Not?,” New Politics vol. XII, no. 4 (winter 2010), Whole no. 48.

[2] Cott, The Grounding of Modern Feminism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 6-7. Cott does not use the label “individualist” here, but she speaks of feminists’ embrace of “individuality” as one of their principles. In a later short piece, she sharpens this part of her argument. See Nancy Cott, “Comment on Karen Offen’s ‘Defining Feminism: A Comparative Historical Approach,’” Signs 15, No. 1 (Autumn 1989): 203-205.

[3] Furthermore, by Cott’s own definition, feminism existed in the nineteenth century, as the feminist writings of Lucy Stone or Angelina and Sarah Grimké make clear.

[4] See also Siegel’s excellent essay on third wave feminist theory, “The Legacy of the Personal: Generating Theory in Feminism’s Third Wave,” Hypatia 12, no. 3: Third Wave Feminisms (Summer 1997): 46-75.

[5] Gloria Steinem interview, “Need to Know” Show, PBS video, July 15, 2011.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. While Stansell attempts to tell the story of feminism as a set of ideas, it remains too closely tied to the political movement and therefore hides the many ways feminist ideas have spread broadly across the culture. It would be interesting to see how this set of ideas, and what it includes, have changed and been adopted by even those who are considered anti-feminist in the political sense. A true history of feminist thought would allow many thinkers who are not considered part of the “feminist canon” to emerge as contributors. I suspect that this approach would yield great contributions in the so called dead zone of political feminism, 1920-1960.

  2. I just got my copy of _American Intellectual Tradition_ in the mail this week and I’ve been using it to prepare a syllabus for an Intellectual History survey in the spring. After picking and choosing essays to read and topics to discuss, I realized I had segregated women and minorities to their own special weeks. Your review makes me wonder if I shouldn’t assign this book in conjunction with AIT and students could read some of each each week.

    So many wonderful subjects to cover, so little time in 16 weeks.

  3. Lauren (with apologies for not replying sooner) —
    I definitely agree that women and minorities are best not segregated into their own special weeks, convenient although that common practice is. Their arguments have been part of the American intellectual tradition from beginning to the present. It is artificial to isolate them.

  4. To Anonymous,

    You make a good point about the importance of including the anti-feminist arguments and players. Actually, although I failed to make that clear in my review, Stansell does that quite well.

    And it is true that Stansell’s frame is essentially political, not cultural, because of her understanding of what feminism is. That said, she has written a good deal of excellent cultural history.

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