The F-Word: Why It Matters

Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movements
by Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon and Astrid Henry (Liveright, 2014)

What Women Want: An Agenda for the Women’s Movement by Deborah Rhode Oxford University Press, 2014)

Two terrific books arrive at the same time on a similar topic and serve as complementary entry points to a similar topic. Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movements, is the more accessible—a book in three parts, each by a different author.  The historian Dorothy Sue Cobble tackles the period between what is often called the First Wave of the women’s movement—Susan B. Anthony and her cohorts who struggled for women’s suffrage and more—and the Second Wave—the 1960s and ‘70s movement that led the fight for equality. Cobble’s narrative documents what she calls “the other women’s movement”—those working-class, trade union women and their allies who led the fights within their unions for equal pay and so much more, making links and restoring the lost history that adds so much to our understanding of how change takes place.
The historian Linda Gordon focuses on the women’s movement of the Sixties and Seventies through a brilliant, detailed description that highlights the diversity of the movement—class, race and models of organizational approaches that challenged gender-based practices. The third section by the historian Astrid Henry looks at the “Third Wave”as proclaimed by Rebecca Walker, daughter of author Alice Walker—the young women of the demographic cohort known as Generation X (born 1964-82) and Millennial Generation (born 1982-2000) and their contributions to the struggle for gender equality.

In a random and unscientific sampling of young women—a college student, a clerk, a postal worker, a podiatrist—in preparation for writing this review about the women’s movement and what feminism means to them, the responses were unequivocal and unanimous: nothing. These individuals are the young women raised in the wake of the high tide of the women’s movement, told that they could do anything they desired, raised to believe they were equal. Deborah Rhode, the author of What Women Want: An Agenda for the Women’s Movement calls this the “no problem” problem. Rhode, a highly accomplished scholar and professor at Stanford University Law School, begins her closely argued and exceptionally useful book with her own compelling story of how she discovered feminism and the women’s movement, and how it has shaped her career.

While Astrid Henry’s essay looks at the various ways young feminist activists have pursued their objectives, what she calls “intersectional organizing”—bringing together issues of class, race, economics and gender, Rhode examines the issues facing women, young and old, that constitute the “unfinished” agenda for the women’s movement. Women who were part of Second Wave feminism had the benefit of living in a time when movements were part of the zeitgeist. Collective action was all around us. We had the civil rights movement and the movement against the Vietnam war as beacons. Their lessons and their energy informed the experiences of the women’s movement.

Younger women face a different world. Yet, stories ripped from the headlines demonstrate on a daily basis that individually, women are confronting monumental issues that threaten their notions of equality, and oftentimes, their lives. Economic inequality, rape and sexual harassment, child care and the lack of support for families, even pregnancy and the right of a worker to light duty on the job – an issue argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in December 2014 – the right of a woman to abortion and birth control, are some of the major challenges facing women in a very real way.

Rhode parses each area of women’s lives—employment, work and family, sex and marriage, reproductive justice and economic security, sexual abuse, and appearance—and provides an agenda of reasonable goals for each. As someone who has spent her life teaching and thinking about these subjects, she is well-positioned to do so. In her last chapter, “The Politics of Progress,” she underscores the obstacles that are hampering the advance of gender equality.

“More women need to be convinced that we cannot adequately improve the lot of women without challenging all the sources of subordination with which gender interacts. … A second problem to be confronted is the lack of social consensus that there is a significant problem. … To many Americans, the laws against sex discrimination and the presence of women in prominent positions look like evidence that the “woman problem’ has been solved. This “no-problem” problem and the sense of complacency that it engenders have themselves become obstacles to broader change.”

Demonstrators in the streets marching against police brutality and the deaths of unarmed black men—and a child—are taking up an old chant from the Sixties: “The people / united / will never /be defeated.” Women would do well to remember this as well—and apply it.

Jane LaTour is a New York City labor activist and journalist. She is the author of Sisters in the Brotherhoods: Working Women Organizing for Equality in New York City and is working on an oral history about union dissidents and the limits of reform in organized labor.

Leave a comment