Century of Struggle, Eleanor Flexner
When I was an undergraduate, majoring in history, I had a part-time job working for my faculty adviser, Dr. G. Thomas Edwards. One of my projects was helping him research what became his 1990 book, Sowing Good Seeds, The Northwest Suffrage Campaigns of Susan B. Anthony. Reading microfilm copies of 19th century newspapers really brought home to me for the first time the struggles that women in the United States faced in trying to gain access to education and the vote, among many other issues. I still vividly remember the shock of reading for the first time the frequent argument that women should not be allowed to attend colleges or universities, because long hours of study and the competitive atmosphere would damage their reproductive systems and make them unfit mothers - or worse, infertile. I sat at that machine, reading those words, and thinking, "No one could take this seriously, right?" Oh, those innocent days.
I came across similar arguments in this book, subtitled "The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States." The author, Eleanor Flexner, was a pioneer in the area of "women's studies." First published in 1959, her book has been reprinted with additional information many times since, and it is now considered a classic history. I don't know why I didn't read it in graduate school, when U.S. women's history was one of my areas of concentration.
Despite its subtitle, this book focused on the period from 1800 to 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, giving women the right to vote, was ratified. Eleanor Flexner began with an overview, a chapter on "The Position of American Women up to 1800." Here she laid out the themes that would run through her history, including education available to women (and the lack thereof); their legal place in American society (varying from state to state); and the work open to and undertaken by women. She then moved on to the first stirrings of the women's rights movement, which was sparked by women's involvement in the anti-slavery campaigns of the mid-1800s. The push for women's suffrage has sometimes gotten most of the attention, but Flexner repeatedly highlighted other concerns, including access to education and labor issues, such as fair pay and safe working conditions. I really admire how Flexner gave equal weight to the experiences and concerns of African American women, facing racism from white women's groups; and working women, often overlooked both by male-dominated labor unions and middle-class women's rights groups. It is the most inclusive account I have read, which is particularly impressive in a general history like this. I was not surprised to read via Wikipedia that it began as a history of women's labor issues, nor that Flexner herself had worked for the Communist Party in the 1930s.
Throughout the book, Flexner also highlighted specific women, pioneers in the different arenas of the movement. While I knew the big names, from Anne Hutchinson to Harriet Tubman to Susan B. Anthony, many were completely new to me, and now I want to read more about them. Mary Ann Shadd Cary, a free black woman in Delaware, taught in a school there until hostility to the abolition movement convinced her it was safer to move to Canada. Living in Windsor, Ontario, "There for three years she published her own newspaper, The Provincial Freeman, and made periodic trips into the states to give anti-slavery lectures," facing down pro-abolition mobs. Myrtilla Miner, a white woman from a tiny New York village, went south to teach in a school for planters' children in Mississippi. She also tried to teach the slaves on the plantation but was prohibited from doing so. Coming back north, she decided to open a school for black girls, in Washington, DC, where it was technically legal but very risky to teach blacks. She and her students faced constant harassment, including evictions, mobs throwing stones, and destruction of one building by arson. Josephine Shaw Lowell, also of New York, was one of the founders of the Consumers League, which "made itself the militant and highly articulate conscience of the buying public." It began with reports on conditions for workers in stores, and then expanded to "the conditions under which apparel was manufactured," and then turned to legislative action to correct abuses.
As well as outstanding characters, Flexner's account included some incidents that made my jaw drop. I knew that women first gained the right to vote in Wyoming in 1869, in its territorial days. I did not know that the U.S. Congress tried to force Wyoming to drop women's suffrage, as a condition of its admittance as a state. The Wyoming legislature telegraphed back, "We will remain out of the Union a hundred years rather than come in without the women." I actually choked up a little, reading that. (Flexner consistently gave due credit to male allies who helped women gain their victories over the century.) I was stunned to learn that while the Utah Territory also gave women the vote, the very next year, Congress stripped them of that right seven years later, with some specious argument about plural marriages. The disconnect between the two was never explained, and women didn't get the vote back until 1896 - though that still put them ahead of 80% of American women. And my final "what the hell" moment: as late as 1919, some members of Congress openly opposed women's suffrage because it would allow African American women to vote.
Flexner ended her account as she began it, with a summary chapter, which looked at the position of women in the late 1950s. Advances have clearly been made, in employment and education for example, from 1800 to 1959 to today. But some of the points she made, like the continuing disparity in pay, the lack of equal representation in government, and the double discrimination faced by African American women, sound eerily familiar.
I am so glad that I finally read this classic history, and I have made notes for some additional reading. I am particularly interested in Elizabeth Cady Stanton's daughter Harriet Stanton Blatch, who brought the tactics of the British suffrage movement to the United States, and I already have a collection of the writings of Ida B. Wells on the TBR shelves.
I think books like this are important because they zap away any feeling of complacency one might have that everything's been sorted for women now. I remember the shock when I went to the UK to study and the university hadn't let women take degrees until 1948. 1-9-4-8.... Still plenty of work to do.ReplyDelete
Oh absolutely, vicki! The complacency drives me crazy. I am surprised it was as late as 1948 - even for the women's colleges?Delete
This is one of my favorite time periods to read about...I think there should be more books about women's suffrage. Especially good ones. :) Thanks for reviewing this one!ReplyDelete
a few years ago, I read several books on the early suffragist leaders, like Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. And I wrote down a whole list of other books to look for. I need to find that list again!Delete
If you do make sure you share it! I'd be interested in some of those books, too. :)Delete
It's a deal, Lark :)Delete
Very interesting post. I have enjoyed reading "older" history books like this the few times I have done so. I was always told to go with the most recent book when it comes to history or biography as they typically refer to and "correct" past books. But reading one written long ago provides such an interesting window on the subject and on how people once thought about the subject.ReplyDelete
I can see that, James, because interpretations change, and also because new resources might be discovered that affect the scholarship. But I think there's still also value in these classics, and part of that like you say is the context that they were written in.Delete
I've never even heard of this book, but you make it sound excellent. I'll definitely look out for it - thanks for a great review.ReplyDelete
Besides the excellent scholarship, it's also well-written & very readable. I hope you can find a copy!Delete