instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads

Recent Opinion Pieces

Feminism Unfinished

Published as "What 'Lean In' Leaves Out"
By Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon, and Astrid Henry
The Chronicle of Higher Education

Feminism may be the social cause least understood by scholars. Many writers both scholarly and popular repeat a whole series of false claims about it: that feminism has been a middle-class white movement; that it concerned itself exclusively with sex, violence, and reproduction; that it considered men the enemy; that it has become an abstruse postmodern scholarly discourse; and that it is obsessed with marginal insider controversies such as that provoked by Michele Goldberg’s recent New Yorker piece on transgender people. Other misconceptions have coalesced around books by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook CEO, and Debora Spar, President of Barnard College. Although their arguments might at first look appear to contrast--Sandberg urges women to “lean in,” Spar advises them not to try to do everything—they ultimately rest on the same assumptions: that feminist triumph comes with the achievements of individual women, mainly the privileged few.

A desire to intervene against these misconceptions motivated the three of us to produce our short book with its long timespan. Short in pages so as to create something useful for teaching but also a quick read for everyone. Long enough in chronology so as to show that feminism, like all historical movements, has been an ever-changing, frequently reinvented movement for women’s rights. We mean our title, Feminism Unfinished, to emphasize that feminism is still in process and will be redefined yet again by generations to come.

American feminism over the last hundred years was actually diverse and capacious, both in its constituents and its issues. It encompassed labor unionists, government policy wonks, professionals and working-class women, of every race and ethnicity, of every religion, agitating in a multitude of spheres. To name a few: law, religion, economics, employment, peace, health, birth control, education, athletics, art, media. It should not be surprising, then, that feminists had varied priorities and strategies. Some worked in in all-woman groups, some in organizations with men. (And many feminists were men.) Some focused on public life, others on personal life. Some organized demonstrations, others fought battles in court, wrote articles, went on strike, or circulated petitions. For some feminists, being a woman was a primary identity; for others it never was. There have been many feminisms and they haven’t all agreed. At times, this lack of unity has held back social change, but at other moments the multiplicity of feminisms has been a strength: diverse movements of women have influenced each other toward a fuller concept of what women’s equality and freedom might mean.

Early writers of 20th-century women’s history first labeled the period after the adoption of the woman suffrage amendment in 1920 as “the doldrums.” But in fact, the 1920-1960 period featured networks of activists—who we call “social justice” feminists—focused particularly on working women, mothers, low-income women and children. (Feminists have always been the leaders in advocating for children’s
health and welfare.) Although some suffrage-era women-only organizations continued, the major energy came from women working alongside men, and often struggling to persuade men to listen to women and respond to their needs. African American and white working-class women were prominent in these campaigns and became the founders of the National Organization for Women. That organization, established in 1966, continued the social justice emphasis on equal employment opportunity, equal pay, and non-discrimination policies. These feminists not only brought us the 1963 Equal Pay Act but formed a powerful lobby for the 1964 and 1965 civil rights laws.

The younger of these social-justice feminists streamed into the progressive movements of the New Left period, starting with the civil rights struggles of the 1950s. One of the earliest and most dramatic civil rights victory—the Montgomery bus boycott—was sparked by a group of African American women who had been for years protesting sexual harassment and violence against women. The founders of the women's liberation movement, when it emerged in the late 1960s, were mainly activists in civil rights, the student and anti-Vietnam war movements. Moreover, contrary to yet another widespread mistake in discussing this period of history, these young feminists did not “break with” the male-dominated New Left. On the contrary the great majority continued to work against racism and US imperialism, and became early gay rights and environmental protection advocates.

The women's liberation movement has been difficult to write about because it was so large and so decentralized. These New Left feminists shunned large-scale organizations, fearing their tendencies toward becoming bureaucratic and undemocratic. The result was a head-spinning variety of projects: women’s schools, women’s centers, women’s health and legal clinics, day care centers; groups advocating welfare rights, labor unions, equal pay, equal job opportunities, working conditions that allowed for parenting, LBGTQ rights, reproductive health, women’s athletics, women’s studies programs; and groups fighting rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment, sex discrimination, racism and sexism in the media and in advertising. Because it was difficult to encompass such diversity, and because New York City is the media capital of the US—and also because it produced a host of feminist journalists and the influential Ms. Magazine--too many accounts of the women's liberation movement have used New York as if it represented the whole country. Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Durham, Gainesville, Kansas City, San Diego—every town and city had its feminist groups and each had its own priorities. Similarly American Indian, Latina, Asian, Chicana and African American feminists foregrounded issues that expressed their own priorities.

It is easy to take for granted the changes wrought by earlier feminisms. Since the 1980s, several generations of women have grown up in a world in which a base level of gender equality had been achieved, raised to believe they could do anything boys could do, educated by women’s studies programs, and offered opportunities never before available. Women in this period absorbed feminism all around them—in
their homes, in their classrooms, in the media, and in the political landscape they entered into as adults. For this group of women, feminism was a way of life, a mindset and a set of expectations as much as a political project. When they became political actors, some initially stressed their differences with the earlier movement rather than their continuity with it, a characteristic of many young activists: they argued that feminism had become too dogmatic and needed to expand its vision and encompass new goals and new forms of activism. They built on the legacy of earlier activists in the feminist and civil rights movements in their attention to race as well as gender. Women of color numbered among the most influential feminist spokeswomen, and worked to dismantle the class and race privilege that continues to shape dominant narratives about feminism. Beginning in the 21st century, they focused less on generational conflict and more on the political and social inequalities that remained. Meanwhile, especially in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, American feminists became more globally aware, connecting with feminists around the world through internet platforms such as like blogs and social networks.

When they first emerged, many in this new feminist generation conceived of feminism in individualistic terms, because the feminist gains achieved by earlier activists seemed to younger women just normal, self-evident. For many, feminism at first represented greater personal choice—in their career opportunities, decisions about motherhood, and form of expressing their sexuality. They cherished the freedom to create personal lives that differed from those of their mothers or grandmothers. But they soon recognized that individual “empowerment” and personal success, while important, are not enough. In its current manifestations—whether we look at the “One Billion Rising” global movement to end rape, the feminist blogosphere, or groups fighting for the rights of mothers and other caregivers—feminism demonstrates the continued importance of collective action.

Meanwhile, the pushback against women’s gains has been powerful. Anti-feminism is a fundamental, formative part of the ultra-Right wing conservatism that has grown since the late 1970s. Many Americans are anxious about feminism, often because they are so misinformed. Accustomed to a culture in which motherhood and domesticity define women’s role in society, those who have benefited from that role may feel threatened by feminism; similarly, those who chose to make motherhood and domesticity central have often felt disrespected by feminism. Yet few would happily return to the gender structures that prevailed in the 1960s. Many anti-feminists are motivated by fear, that most powerful of emotions: fears that women will reject motherhood, fears that as women become more ambitious, the whole society will become a masculinist, competitive free-for-all, with no one left to defend the values of nurturance and family solidarity.

In contrast to that caricature, feminism has, in the main, advocated care-giving and cooperation and argued against competitive individualism. It has asserted the dignity and value of all labor, supported policies designed to reduce inequalities and to guarantee health, education and welfare, and envisioned a society in which all
have more leisure time for the pleasures of family, friends, and community. U.S feminism always sought to honor women of great achievement, especially achievement in fields that promote a better world, but never only celebrated individualism or of individual achievement. Feminism was always a wide and deep river with many currents. And the largest of those currents understood that the fortunes of each are intertwined with the fortunes of all. As with all progressive social movements, solidarity and a sense of responsibility toward others have been fundamental to feminism.

Perhaps even more pernicious than bizarre Tea-Party pronouncements (e.g., you can’t get pregnant from rape) and Fox obscenities (women who use birth control are sluts) are the messages that women can gain equality by taking individual control of their lives, becoming more ambitious or setting better priorities. The Sandberg and Spar books remind us of a common feature of women’s magazines: prescriptions for how to organize your closet or your schedule. For most women, the best organization possible still leaves them with overwork, under-pay and under-respect. Spar’s notion that women might want to reduce their commitments is simply inapplicable to the vast majority of American women who have no choice but to work long hours for wages and then return home to the other job, housework and child-raising. Moreover, 38.4 million women work minimum-wage jobs and have to do several jobs to survive; they are already leaning in as far as possible. Sandberg’s notion that women should become more assertive and bargain for advancement is inapplicable to most of us. How will assertive bargaining with an employer help a Walmart clerk, a social worker burdened with an over-large caseload, a schoolteacher with 40 kids in her class, a housecleaner who cleans three houses a day? Sandberg recognizes that assertive women are often branded as shrews or bitches, but the only remedy offered is to ignore the slurs. Perhaps worst of all, these books and websites (check out www.LeanIn.org) reinforce the belief that feminism is a cause by and for privileged women; and that successful women got there by “leaning in” while the rest of us have only ourselves to blame.

These misconceptions harm us all. A fuller understanding of American women’s movements could not only help women but lead to more critical thinking about our nation’s overall lack of social, political and economic fairness.

Dorothy Sue Cobble is a professor of history and labor studies at Rutgers University at New Brunswick. Linda Gordon is a professor of history and the humanities at New York University. Astrid Henry is a professor of women’s studies at Grinnell College. Their recent book is Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movements (Liveright).