Friday, August 15, 2008

Century of Struggle

The Women’s Rights Movement in the United States
By Eleanor Flexner and Ellen Fitzpatrick
432 pages Enlarged edition, Belknap Press 1996

Reviewed by Jane Woodward Elioseff [original at The Internet Review of Books ]

In London in 1840, over strong American objections, the World Anti-Slavery Convention ruled that only male delegates would be seated. Women delegates were relegated to the balcony and asked to observe the proceedings in silence.

The gods must have been laughing. Among the banished women, Eleanor Flexner tells us, were Lucretia Coffin Mott, an ordained Quaker minister whose home in Philadelphia “was a busy station on the Underground Railroad,” and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a young wife “destined to be the leading intellectual force in the emancipation of American women.” Mott became Stanton’s preceptor.

Flexner’s wonderful Century of Struggle, first published in 1959, is the foundational book in what was to become the field of women’s studies. A friend gave me a copy in 1973, just as the second wave of the women’s movement was cresting, and the book deeply affected my thinking. I had a history minor in college and absorbed a number of narratives, but history itself had reached me as if it were a form of literature. I could not have articulated this at age twenty, and am not now suggesting that as a student I had any historiographical insight. But I do mean to convey that reading Century of Struggle in my early thirties made the historical past gloriously three-dimensional and personally relevant for the first time.

Over the years, I’ve gratefully drawn on Century of Struggle to develop scripts for two anniversary celebrations of the Nineteenth Amendment (ratified August 26, 1920). I’ve reviewed this enlarged edition for, used it while team-teaching an adult learning class called “Leaning Left,” and last year co-authored a Wikipedia article about Flexner’s life and work. Rereading long sections of Century of Struggle for this review, I’m astonished how rich the book continues to be.

During the first half of the nineteenth century many of the great names in the abolitionist movement, and in the increasingly separate and distinct women’s rights movement, belonged to Quakers. Best known today are Lucretia Mott, the Grimké sisters, who won the right for women to speak in public, the indefatigable Susan B. Anthony, and astronomer Maria Mitchell, who so opposed slavery she gave up wearing cotton. Flexner writes, “Alone among the larger religious denominations, the Quakers permitted [women] a voice in church affairs, allowed them to speak in ’meeting,’ and ordained them as ministers.”

Until New York passed the Married Women’s Property Act in 1848, women had no political rights and few legal protections in those states whose civil laws were modeled on English common law (exceptions were the legal codes of Louisiana, Florida, and Texas, which derived from Roman law). In some circumstances, a woman might own property and sign contracts as a feme sole, but she lost her separate legal identity when she married. All of her possessions and any wages she might earn became the property of her husband. Even when inherited land or money had been placed in trust for her, she could still be impoverished by her husband. In divorce, she could lose her children.

There is no better account than Flexner’s of American women’s courage and political genius in a time when they had no right of assembly and no right to petition freely. In 1834, former president John Quincy Adams, then serving in the US House of Representatives, proved himself Abigail Adams’s true son by defending women’s right to collect signatures and present petitions, against the arguments of conservatives alarmed by the political progress of the abolitionists.

It was a crushing disappointment to abolitionists that the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) expanded the franchise to include any adult male inhabitant of the United States but not women, who had worked passionately to end slavery. It required another fifty years to secure the vote town by town, state by state, and to achieve ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. In her preface to the 1975 expanded edition of Century of Struggle, Flexner quotes Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie Rogers Schuler:

Hundreds of women gave the accumulated possibilities of an entire lifetime, thousands gave years of their lives, hundreds of thousands gave constant interest and such aid as they could. It was a continuous, seemingly endless chain of activity. Young suffragists who helped forge the last links in that chain were not born when it began. Old suffragists who forged the first links were dead when it ended . . . It is doubtful if any man, even among suffrage men, ever realized what the suffrage struggle came to mean to women before the end was allowed in America.

In the preface, Flexner says that her goal in writing Century of Struggle was to trace the development of the women’s rights movement “from its scattered beginnings early in the nineteenth century on a number of different fronts—education, employment, trade union organization, the professions, the law, the franchise—down to the enactment of the suffrage amendment in 1920; to keep that struggle in perspective against the growth of this nation and of such related reform movements as the abolition of slavery, temperance, and the organization of trade unions—bearing in mind that never at any time were these women without the support of far-seeing and loyal men.”

Historian Ellen Fitzpatrick’s valuable foreword to the 1996 edition of Century of Struggle includes a political biography of Flexner, who was active in the Communist Party and various other causes in the 1930s and 1940s. Flexner dedicated the book to her mother, Anne Crawford Flexner (1874-1955), who marched in suffrage parades and whose success as a playwright and children’s author made it possible, after her death, for Eleanor to live and work as an independent scholar.

Jane Woodward Elioseff is a writer and editor living in Houston.

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