The Long Revolution

  • Christine Stansell. The Feminist Promise: 1792 to the Present. Modern Library Chronicles. May, 2010.

In 1990 the economist Amartya Sen published a piece in the New York Review of Books the title of which had a strange quality of revelation and tabloid-worthy scandal. “More Than One Hundred Million Women are Missing” drew from new research to reveal that women’s mortality rates outside of Europe, the US, and Japan dramatically outstripped men’s. Neither simplistic East/West cultural differences nor economic “underdevelopment” theories held sufficient explanatory power, Sen explained, for the gender inequalities which stemmed from discrimination against women in basic nutrition and health care. “A great many more than a hundred million women are simply not there because they are neglected compared with men,” he said. “In view of the enormity of the problems of women’s survival . . . it is surprising that these disadvantages have received such inadequate attention.”

Sen’s concluding lament was one feminists had been sounding for many years. As historian Christine Stansell explains in her masterful new book The Feminist Promise: 1792 to the Present, the global recognition of women’s worth was the goal of women’s rights activists even before the term “feminism” was coined in the late 19th century. While never a homogenous movement, feminism, embodying many variations based on politics, race, class, and region, has always been broadly defined by its constitutive tenet: the belief in women’s equal worth.

Stansell’s narrative charts the course of the struggle for sexual equality in the US over the longue durée, from the radical fringes of political thought in the 18th century to its center in the 21st. Achieving national gains in the US such as the vote, education, and contraception, feminism finally gained a signal breakthrough into international politics in 1975, when activists from around the world put women’s equality on the agenda of the United Nations at the United Nations First World Conference on Women in Mexico City, the largest and most diverse gathering of women regionally and socioeconomically to date. The subsequent “UN Decade for Women” initiated a host of new internal programs with women’s rights agendas such as the Development Fund for Women and the World Health Organization, as well as NGOs. These organizations collected global facts about women’s life expectancy, years of education, agricultural productivity, literacy, employment, and maternal mortality. This was, as Stansell points out, “the first time the world’s women were carefully counted.” And it was this very data from the UN and World Health Organization that Sen used to write his famous article, which, in turn, helped spur other innovations in the new field of development studies and international relations. Increasingly, issues that had not been the subject of international policy discussions—maternal mortality, female infanticide, rape, and violence against women—became legitimate areas of global research and even topics of discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations. The 1995 UN Beijing World Conference on Women made a surprisingly simple conceptual and political breakthrough with its announcement that “women’s rights are human rights.”

Such a treacherously quick portrayal of feminism’s triumphant march into the world of international politics barely begins to summarize Stansell’s rich and dense history. But it does emphasize one central goal of her work: to explain not only how feminism has trickled from the radical fringes of political debate to ultimately course through its lifeblood, but also how, in that very process, feminism’s work has come to be overlooked. Stansell briefly alludes to this neglect when she compares the fervor for “democracy” with the strange quality of embarrassment that “feminism” elicits. Even though both discussions are tethered to rights, the latter is “ingrained in our sense of prerogatives and rights . . . with a history worth writing about,” while “feminism, democracy’s younger sister, is easily shoved aside, dismissed as a chronicle of complaints that progress long ago made irrelevant.” Although there are several important histories of global feminism, the remarkable fact that Stansell’s book is the only comprehensive history exclusively about American feminism merely underscores her point.


Trying to view feminism’s history as one vast, unfinished plot requires some careful narrative guidance. Stansell’s account keeps itself from growing unwieldy by highlighting central tensions within feminism. One is between two broad political strands of feminism she calls “mothers” and “daughters.” “Mothers,” were those feminists, essentially conservative, who sought to empower women without dramatically upsetting the status quo. “Daughters” have wanted to throw off the shackles of their forebears’ definitions of gender, “insisting on claiming men’s prerogatives” and “imagining a kind of equality that would free women to act in the world exactly as men do.” Feminism, Stansell says, has seen its greatest victories at those moments when “mothers” and “daughters” have united in their overriding goals if not in their actual strategies. Such a moment was seen during the suffrage movement, which required both strategies of the daughterly National Woman’s Party and the motherly National American Woman Suffrage Association, and during the 1960s and 1970s, when radical and liberal feminists argued in two voices for one cause—women’s sexual emancipation.

Stansell also grounds her account in the classic tension between universalism and particularism in feminist thought and debate. All feminist movements have relied on a form of universalism for their language of solidarity. What Stansell calls “the feminist habit of universalizing extravagantly—making wild, improbable leaps across chasms of class and race, poverty and affluence, leisured lives and lives of toil to draw basic similarities,” can be both blessing and curse. While such rhetoric has often implicitly drawn lines, taking the white, middle-to-upper-class woman to be the “universal,” it can at other times be “a useful fiction, and sometimes a splendid one. Extravagant universalizing created an imaginative space into which otherwise powerless women could project themselves onto an unresponsive political culture.”

The paradox of universalism can be found as well in the very structure of Stansell’s book, which attempts to tell a national history of what has always been a transnational movement. Stansell tells the history of “American feminism” in an international context, showing the trans-Atlantic influence on US feminism and the impact US feminism has in turn effected in the global sphere. In so doing, the book complements a few important histories of international feminism that have not focused as explicitly on US feminism, such as Estelle B. Freedman’s No Turning Back: A History of Feminism and the Future of Women (2002), and a recent collection of essays edited by Karen Offen, Globalizing Feminisms, 1789-1945.


Stansell’s history begins with a more or less conventional—if not American—launching point: the democratic political theory developed by Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Woman. While figures before Mary Wollstonecraft argued persuasively for women’s intellectual and spiritual equality with men (Christine de Pizan in 15th-century France, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz in 17th-century Mexico, and 17th-century French priest François Poullain de la Barre), Wollstonecraft’s thoughts emerged from the Enlightenment discourse that transformed “subjects” into “citizens,” bringing along with it democracy, natural rights discourse, capitalism, and the internationalization of the nation-state with representative governments. This language provided fodder for feminist critique (why were the rights of “citizenship” and self-representation only given to white, land-holding men?) and made feminist argument grounded in natural rights possible. Wollstonecraft argued that women had been subordinated as a group and that power differences attempted to mask this subordination as natural. Although Wollstonecraft’s text provoked no large organized movement, it appeared in the US just after the country’s own upheaval in natural rights and helped establish the political argument that would reverberate throughout US feminist activism for centuries to come.

Universalist, feminist rhetoric was also simultaneously and necessarily particularist. In claiming rights, white women—and African American men and women—sought to demonstrate that biological differences did not render them unfit for citizenship. Women cited their common humanity in order to demand inclusion in spheres of power, but at the same time staked out what it was, particularly, about the female sex that gave them political authority.

Particularist arguments on behalf of the female sex fostered another form of universalism, that which imagined the “universal woman” and enabled white women’s rights reformers to view their plight as analogous to that of their enslaved sisters. As is commonly known, the abolitionists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott turned to women’s rights and spearheaded the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, the first convention for women’s rights in the US, because, as women, they had been refused as delegates to the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. The convention established the Declaration of Sentiments, which articulated a feminism of equal rights for women modeled on the US Declaration of Independence, demanding women’s access to property, jobs, education, and suffrage.

Stansell adds to these more well-known stories by writing about lesser-known figures, such as the African American abolitionist Maria Stewart, who was “the first American woman to speak out publicly on the woman question (although the fact is little known.)” A Christian devotee and friend of William Lloyd Garrison, Stewart became a public figure who argued for emancipation of the “daughters of Africa” as well as the sons: “How long shall the fair daughters of Africa be compelled to bury their minds and talents beneath a load of iron pots and kettles?”

Maria Stewart’s aims in exposing the subjection that white women perpetrated on black women and black women slaves did not always mesh with the goals of white women abolitionists and suffragists. Tensions along lines of race have been a continuing source of division within feminist ranks, and white women’s feminism has a history of not representing the needs of women of color. After the Civil War, white women’s organized feminism became increasingly exclusionary in terms of race and class. The defeat of slavery with the Thirteenth Amendment helped spur a general flourishing of radical goals for social change, encompassing demands for racial equality, sexual equality, and labor reform, and further motivated women reformers. However, the Fourteenth Amendment, which singled out male citizens and suffrage by introducing “male” into the constitution for the first time, outraged white women suffragists.

Instead of universal suffrage, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony now began to promote a race-specific feminism, arguing exclusively for white women. In 1869 they founded the National Woman Suffrage Association, which in 1890 became the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). This organization represented the main vessel of the woman suffrage movement until 1916, when the National Woman’s Party was formed. Important African American suffragists and women’s rights activists, including Anna Julia Cooper in the 1890s and, later, Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell, who maintained contacts with some white reformers in bodies like the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, ultimately found little commitment among their white counterparts in their fights for racial justice. These African American feminists continued to fight for social justice for their race—racial uplift and anti-lynching laws—as well as for women’s rights.

In addition to revealing the often obscure thread of racism within American feminism, Stansell explores ethnocentrism in the global visions harbored by white American feminists, seen as early as 1874 with the formation of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. An international organization spearheaded by US and British women reformers and led by the American Frances Willard, the temperance unions married the seemingly unlikely goals of temperance and women’s political rights. Giving lip service to international sisterhood while advancing Western superiority and imperialism, the temperance unions purported to emancipate their sisters in less civilized countries from subordination and men’s alcohol-addled lust.

The temperance unions laid the groundwork for other Euro-American international women’s organizations, including the International Council of Women and the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, which thrived from the late 19th through the early 20th century. These organizations not only promoted women’s citizenship but also pressured new international bodies like the League of Nations to take into account the trafficking of women and children (originally called “white slavery”) and maternal health. They also campaigned for a Commission on the Status of Women in the League of Nations, designed to investigate and record laws affecting women’s political, economic, civil, social, and educational rights. Such a commission became part of the United Nations structure in 1946 and also spawned the idea for the US Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, instituted in 1961. Stansell rightly points out that in these settings Europeans and Americans dominated.

But Europeans and Americans were not the only ones forming international feminist connections. Stansell briefly mentions women’s rights activities in other parts of the globe during the early to mid-20th century, but without a sense of their ideological bents or differences from US feminists. A useful counterpoint might have been Latin American feminist internationals, brewing since the late 19th century. There, women reformers’ long history of exchange at international scientific congresses paved the way for the First International Feminist Congress in Buenos Aires in 1910, which brought together feminists from Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay to argue for women’s judicial, social, and political equality. Some of these feminists engaged with US feminists through international organizations, and many of their goals and conceptions of equal rights looked similar to their US counterparts’ through the 1920s and 1930s. Dynamics of global power, however, sometimes prevented genuine collaboration. Many Latin American feminists decried the “yanquí” imperialism of US feminists, who perceived themselves to be the movement’s “natural” leaders. It was in fact a number of Latin American feminists who urged the inclusion of sexual equality as a human right in the founding charter of the United Nations, a fact that Stansell notes, and which made the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women possible.

After the feminist internationalism of the interwar and immediate postwar years, the next great push for international feminism came in the 1970s and ’80s, which Stansell writes about in her last chapter, on global feminism. Decolonization had seen the influx of postcolonial nations into the UN, and women from all over the third world joined women from the first world at the 1975 Mexico City conference. As a result, the UN established the new requirement that member states “file periodic reports on the status of women.”

In 1979 the UN adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which, as Stansell describes, “summed up most of the classic goals of the women’s movement since Mary Wollstonecraft—the rights to education, equal pay, ownership of property, divorce, child custody, the end of legal disabilities in marriage—as well as new ones that were the product of modernity, such as access to family planning and equal participation in the government.” Stansell draws attention to the irony that, although the US has played a pivotal role in funding, publicizing, and energizing global feminism, it remains one of the few countries, along with Sudan, Iran, and Somalia, that still has not ratified CEDAW.

Stansell also points out the irony that US feminists, who both welcomed exchange with feminists from postcolonial, non-Western countries and paid new attention to “difference” as a watchword, often had little real understanding of these differences. Stansell says that “Western feminism’s enthusiasm . . . blurred distinctions,” and that “global feminism” was often “unmoored from any particular place [and] slid around on a glaze of thin knowledge.” Adrienne Rich described such Western feminist ideology more mordantly in her 1984 essay, “Notes Toward a Politics of Location,” calling the “faceless raceless classless category of all women … a creation of white, western, self-centered women.”


Although Stansell exposes the limitations of US feminist engagement in the world, her readers do not get to see how these issues played out in practice in international meetings. It would be illuminating to understand better how feminists from postcolonial, non-Western countries clashed with Western feminists in international institutions, and to explore the concrete proposals for a “universal” system to measure women’s quality of life. To what extent did North American and European feminists at these meetings propose global solutions rooted in a specifically “Western” notion of the nuclear family, for instance?

New research on the 1975 UN Conference of Women in Mexico City, by the historian of Latin American feminism Jocelyn Olcott, reveals that the conference was rife with contests over who should represent the universal “woman,” as well as with Marxist-feminist and liberal-feminist ideological debates, and disputes over what strategy would best enact social change—armed revolution, consciousness-raising, or development. As Olcott writes, “The dream of ‘global sisterhood’ seemed increasingly impossible as identities and ideologies distorted communication, and parliamentary procedure clashed with expectations of direct democracy.”

Minimizing internecine conflicts, Stansell hones in instead on opposition that global feminism as a whole received from a “hive of antifeminism.” On the international stage this opposition suggested that feminism introduced “Western individualism, anticommunism, and selfishness,” all of which “undermined the will and soul of the postcolonial nation.” Stansell argues persuasively that global feminism did help women in various parts of the developing world utilize and also adapt Western feminist claims and take advantage of the new international NGOs to “change . . . the terms of argument by strengthening feminism’s universalist claims beyond the West.”

Stansell acknowledges the limitations of international feminisms’ effectiveness in other ways. While some NGOs’ focused, local efforts with microcredit have dramatically bettered many women’s lives, NGOs cannot implement larger structural changes, or offer non-economic aid like educational and health institutions, civic engagement, or protection from domestic violence. Stansell does relate how poor South Asian women spearheaded their own successful movements for land rights, having been given the tools to do so from an NGO. As she writes, “while international forces usually provided the funding and urban middle-class women sometimes dominated women’s organizations,” it was the rural, working women who initiated some of the boldest changes, sometimes moving from demands for land rights to those for education and freedom from physical abuse.

Stansell also demonstrates how feminism’s role in the world has not escaped its legacy of Western superiority, seen starkly in the post-9/11 build up to the war in Afghanistan. Although the US had long supported the Taliban, until 1998, public awareness of the Taliban’s severe oppression of women in the 1990s, made possible by feminist efforts, provided the Bush Administration with moral ammunition for a US military invasion of Afghanistan and the elimination of Al Qaeda. As Stansell writes, “President George W. Bush was no feminist, and the main story of the invasion lay elsewhere . . . But the Bush Administration’s hypocrisy should not distract us from an essential insight: Feminism arrived on the world stage in 2001, as a factor to be used and brokered in geopolitical considerations.” It seemed like a perverse inversion of Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 utopian novel that imagined feminism paving the way for “universal peace.”


Ironically, while feminism has been extremely successful from the 1980s through the present day in resetting the public debate globally, the same period of time has seen a decline in feminism’s visibility. This is due to two main factors. One is the perception that American women and men have achieved equality and that a need for feminism no longer exists. Many believe that feminism had its time and place back in the ’60s and ’70s, when it was useful in paving the way for women’s essential equality, seen today in women’s high enrollment numbers in colleges and their entrance in the medical and legal professions. Popular histories that promote this historical memory, like Gail Collins’ recent When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, and TV shows like Mad Men position the ’60s as a turning point, after which the feminist movement radically liberated women.

Such beliefs have also underwritten the popular perception that the US is an international leader in women’s rights, turning the national gaze to the third world in lieu of critically appraising sexual equality within the US. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide paints gender injustices on the US feminist agenda as trivial and provincial—“a matter of unequal pay or underfunded sports teams or unwanted touching from a boss”—compared to the life and death consequences of gender inequalities in the developing world.

Another factor contributing to feminism’s limited vibrancy today stems from postmodern critiques of essentialist identity politics, which have called into question the stability of any notion of identity, including the “woman” at the heart of feminism. “Feminism” is viewed as a relic of “old-school” identity politics of the ’60s and ’70s, or of that era’s female separatism, even among those who identify as politically liberal.

In other words, the way feminism has been remembered—or willfully forgotten—has contributed to its general decline. In this crucial respect, The Feminist Promise is vitally important. Throughout her book, Stansell connects the importance of feminism’s sustenance as a vibrant political movement to its historical memory. Whether discussing Margaret Fuller, whose Woman of the Nineteenth Century boldly “invited American women to take up a role in the magnificent historical narrative,” or Maria Stewart, who relied for her inspiration on a “marvelously-titled” 18th-century tome Woman, Sketches of the History, Genius, Disposition, Accomplishments, Employments, Customs and Importance of the Fair Sex In All Parts of the World Interspersed With Many Singular And Entertaining Anecdotes By A Friend Of The Sex, Stansell is sensitive to the way understanding the history of women and partaking in feminist activism have often gone hand in hand.

During feminism’s most energetic and influential moment of national visibility, from the early 1900s to the 1920 suffrage victory, and in the 1960s and ’70s, there were naturally more visible attempts to search for the national roots of feminism. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. pioneered social and women’s history in the 1920s and Virginia Woolf noted in her 1929 A Room of One’s Own that women were missing from records of historical accomplishments. Women who began to enter the historical profession for the first time in significant numbers in the 1960s and ’70s would write the first genuine histories of the suffrage movement and other fights for sexual equality in the US.

Stansell demonstrates how feminist history and feminist activism fed each other in the ’70s, especially in the wave of legal reforms of that era. A 38-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg drafted briefs that delved into uncharted women’s history to argue on behalf of Sally Reed, who was denied the administration of her deceased son’s estate in favor of her ex-husband, because Idaho state law gave preference to the man. Stansell writes, “Historical amnesia obliterated most of the feminist tradition, but Ginsburg wove together what shreds she could find . . . [and] unveiled the back-story to a Court that had never had to consider the history of women’s subordination.” Ginsburg quoted Blackstone on coverture, traced the link between abolitionist movements and women’s rights movements, and in her oral argument she concluded with 19th century abolitionist and feminist Sarah Grimke’s pronouncement: “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.” The landmark 1971 Reed v. Reed decision marked the first time the Supreme Court ruled that “equal protection” should apply to gender, and was soon followed by Frontiero v. Richardson and then by Roe v. Wade in 1973 (the latter was based on the right to privacy rather than equal protection, but it nonetheless signified for feminists an equal rights victory). The US’s late 20th-century consensus that discrimination on the basis of sex was unconstitutional depended on ammunition provided by America’s own largely forgotten history of its fight for sexual equality.

A key subtext to The Feminist Promise, then, is its unmistakable cry for a revitalization of the language of sexual equality in the public sphere. Anyone who believes men and women are now mostly equal and doubts the need for such a revitalization should be directed to the following facts: The US has the weakest support network for mothers and children of any industrialized country; most families with children in poverty are still headed by single women; about 18 percent of American women have been victims of an attempted or actual rape; and about two million women are assaulted each year by a husband or boyfriend. While white women make 75 cents to a man’s dollar, African American women make 62 cents, and Latina women 53 cents. Although women have made strides in levels of education in 2007 the top three jobs for women were secretaries, registered nurses, and elementary and middle school teachers. African American women do not have equal access to sex education and birth control and have twenty-five times the HIV/AIDS rate of white women. To quote Stanford sociologist Paula England, the gender revolution has been “uneven and stalled,” and it has benefited some women more than others.

The US has not perfected its record on sexual equality, and there is need for feminist engagement, particularly during a time when movements are rising to threaten welfare, gay rights, and abortion and reproductive rights. While we can retire the universal “woman” rooted in biological essentialism, we cannot retire the universal belief in sexual equality. Opposition to sexual hierarchy is something that can be upheld as a universal ideal of vital interest to both women and men. At the same time, Stansell’s history of feminism reveals the dangers inherent in a universalism blind to difference that seeks encompassing strategies that do not respect particularism. It may sound mundane, but understanding the way gender inequalities are inseparably rooted and interdependent with racial and class inequalities is central to fostering a productive feminist politics of solidarity. To the racial and class hierarchies I would add, as well, hierarchies of national power and the looming traces of Western superiority that sometimes go hand-in-hand with feminism. Perhaps better understanding the problems that the movement for sexual equality still has left to work out within the US would bring a greater degree of humility to US feminist actions in the international sphere. Stansell’s book stands as an important and necessary analysis of feminism’s contested legacy in America. How it is received and used holds a portent for the future of American feminism.

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