Expanding the Scope of Feminist History
My personal history fueled my historical curiosity about feminism. As the “second wave” of feminism washed over American culture in the 1970s, I could not imagine where all that energy had been stored for so long or why it had revived just then. Why had feminism seemingly waned in the 1920s, with so much unfinished business, a generation before I encountered it? What little I had read of U. S. women’s history portrayed the slow but steady march of women’s rights from Seneca Falls in 1848 to suffrage, always ending with national enfranchisement in 1920. Yet as an entering graduate student in 1970, keenly aware of the lack of women faculty at Columbia in contrast to Barnard, I sorely wanted feminism back. Perhaps, I thought, I could learn what had happened to that earlier movement, why it had effectively disappeared.
The question of “what happened to the women’s movement” has been at the heart of at least half of my scholarship since that time. Beginning in a graduate seminar on the 1920s and 1930s, I asked how scholars had explained the postsuffrage era, surveying their interpretations of women’s status and politics after 1920. What struck me most was that historians themselves had contributed to the silencing of feminism by declaring its irrelevance after suffrage. American society, most of these writers pronounced, had achieved gender equality with the stroke of a constitutional amendment (aided and abetted, perhaps, by a revolution in manners and morals). Ever since writing about the “New Woman,” I have been suspicious about the way historians define periods and more aware of the implications of the benchmarks we create.5
Frustrated by the limits of a suffrage-centered history, I wanted to learn about the periods before and in between the “waves” of American feminism, so I turned to women’s social movements other than suffrage. In my first book, Their Sisters’ Keepers, I asked why and how religiously motivated, white middle-class women in the late nineteenth century had successfully created state prisons run largely by and for women.6 By the 1920s, they had succeeded in establishing separate women’s reformatory institutions for predominantly white inmates in most states and in creating the first federal women’s prison. But, I concluded, the original reformers’ vision of maternal rather than punitive institutions had not survived. In most states, the reform impulse — an amalgam of social justice and moralistic class uplift — had been supplanted by punitive and bureaucratic prisons not unlike the men’s institutions from which women inmates had been initially transferred. Even well-intentioned social critics, I learned, had to conform in order to retain state funding. Like other scholars trying to restore historical agency to women by uncovering their activism (via temperance, antiprostitution, or Americanization efforts, for example), I learned that both the motives and the results of reform were complex and full of pitfalls.
As I wrote about women’s prisons, I benefited greatly from the new wom-
en’s history of the 1970s produced by scholars such as Gerda Lerner (whose summer school course I had taken at Columbia), Nancy Cott, Ellen DuBois, Elizabeth Hafkin Pleck, Mary Ryan, Kathryn Kish Sklar, and Carroll Smith- Rosenberg. From multiple directions, their work complicated inherited wisdom about what were termed the “separate sexual spheres” in which white middle-class men and women were supposed to operate in the nineteenth century. I was also influenced by interdisciplinary scholarship, particularly by feminist anthropologists such as Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo, who would later become a treasured colleague at Stanford. Reading pre – and postsuffrage sources through these reconsiderations of “separate spheres” and “gender systems” helped produce the synthetic essay that opens this collection, “Separatism as Strategy.” (The article originated in the lecture I gave during my job interview at Stanford University in 1976; I chose the subject in part because I wanted those doing the hiring to know exactly what they were getting.)
As I acknowledged in the article, my conceptualization of female separatism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries rested in part on my observation of flourishing women’s groups around me in the 1970s, and it was clearly influenced by the politics of lesbian separatism then being articulated by writers such as Charlotte Bunch. Surveying the historical literature in the United States, I argued that a major strength of the women’s movement between 1870 and 1920 was its separatist strategy of female institution building, evidenced by women-run schools, clubs, clinics, and even prisons. After suffrage, however, premature pronouncements of equality had encouraged a dismantling of this separatist infrastructure, which depleted the strength of the white women’s movement. The most often reprinted of my essays, this article has long provoked students to reconsider their integrationist tendencies and to value female social worlds. The historical literature has grown enormously since I wrote it, now incorporating diverse racial, ethnic, and working-class women’s institutions before and after suffrage and exploring both the costs of sexual integration and the limits of sisterhood. I feel that illuminating the separatist strategy remains salient today, particularly in light of recurrent claims about postfeminism that ignore the continuing importance of women’s organizations throughout American culture and internationally.
My early exposure to Jewish and then African American separatism, which I later applied to women, surely influenced my scholarly interpretations of both women’s prison reform and feminist strategies. Later, my academic experiences reinforced the power of maintaining separate worlds while participating in larger institutions. My continuing education as a feminist scholar flourished in separate women’s spaces, such as the Center for Research on Women at Stanford, where I helped edit the journal Signs and worked on two other cooperative feminist projects: the documentary collection Victorian Women (1981), my first foray into comparative women’s history, and The Lesbian Issue (1985), a special edition of Signs that I coedited in order to call attention to the emergence of interdisciplinary lesbian scholarship. I found an intellectual and pedagogical home in the undergraduate Program in Feminist Studies, which we launched at Stanford in 1981. Our choice of “feminist” in the title consciously signaled our commitment to interrogating gender hierarchy along with documenting women’s experiences. In addition, local feminist study groups, women’s professional caucuses, and an annual conference on teaching U. S. women’s history all nurtured my career. Whenever possible, I chose to publish my scholarship in feminist journals and to support the nascent women’s studies movement. Training women graduate students, many of whom pioneered a multicultural women’s history, provided additional rewards and a growing circle of feminist colleagues.
It turned out, too, that women’s networks would be critical to sustaining me when, from 1981 to 1983, my “tenure case” escalated into a battle between a largely supportive history department and a hostile dean, an episode I recount in chapter 3, “Women’s Networks and Women’s Loyalties.” Feminist scholars around the country weighed in on the merits of the sex discrimination grievance I filed, supplying much-needed affirmation. Along with my steadfast partner, Susan Krieger, close colleagues helped restore my spirits and shared my burdens during this difficult period. Several of them — Barbara Babcock, Diane Middlebrook, Nancy Stoller, and Barrie Thorne — deserve particular credit, as does my extraordinary lawyer, Marsha Berzon (who now sits on the Ninth Circuit U. S. Court of Appeals). Stanford graduate students mobilized to raise funds for legal fees by designing a T-shirt that paraphrased feminist abolitionist Abby Kelley Foster: “Sisters, bloody feet have worn smooth the path upon which you trod.” Ever since my internal appeal succeeded in 1983, I have been called upon to advise all too many faculty members, female and male, who have struggled through similar ordeals. Along with feminist colleagues at Stanford, I have repeatedly tried to hold the university administration responsible for addressing gender and race inequities on our campus.
My tenure case ultimately brought me back to the study of prison reform and the question of how historians periodize women’s movements. During the year in which I prepared my sex discrimination grievance, I found myself drawn to the papers of Miriam Van Waters, a prison reformer who in the 1940s waged a long and public battle to keep her job as the innovative superintendent of the Massachusetts State Reformatory for Women. Reading her letters and diaries at the Schlesinger Library while I awaited the outcome of my tenure appeal at Stanford, I found solace in the way she retained her perspective and ultimately triumphed. Several years later, I returned to Van Waters’s papers, realized the rich evidence they contained, and made a commitment to write her biography. Doing so allowed me to revisit both prison reform and separatism. From the 1930s through the 1950s, Van Waters championed a redemptive and educational rather than punitive approach as superintendent of the Massachusetts State Reformatory for Women. Her career, which flourished after 1920, revolved around women’s networks and fostered separate institutions, suggesting greater continuities with nineteenth-century reformers than I had previously acknowledged. During the 1980s, other scholars were also shifting attention to twentieth – century women’s history and toward political life. Drawing on their work, my essay “Separatism Revisited” (chapter 2) synthesized this new literature as the context for a case study of Van Waters, whose career demonstrated the survival of women’s institutions after suffrage.
My teaching also forced me to rethink the scope of women’s history. In particular, I began offering fs 101, the introductory course in the Program in Feminist Studies, in 1988. Women’s studies, like American feminism itself, had recently begun to expand beyond its Western cultural base. While a multiracial U. S. women’s history had taken root in the 1980s, for an American historian, fs 101 required much greater attention to cross-cultural, international, and interdisciplinary scholarship. Along with making feminism compelling rather than forbidding for students, I tried to embed feminist politics within broader critiques of racial, class, sexual, and national hierarchies. Two essays in this book derive from that course, one on pedagogy (chapter 4) and one on the historical dynamics of feminism (chapter 5). I hope the former — about adapting the historical strategy of consciousness raising as a pedagogical tool — conveys the intensity of feminist classrooms, their rewards for teachers and students alike, and the relationship of gender to other sources of identity. The latter essay, “No Turning Back,” is an overview of my book of the same title. Dedicated to my students, the book grew out of the lectures for this course, revised to incorporate students’ probing questions and the growing literatures of interdisciplinary feminist scholarship. By writing it, I sought a broader audience, ranging from the parents of my students, to staff members, to colleagues who taught introductory women’s studies courses.
No Turning Back (2002), though grounded in the United States, placed feminism within an international context. It represents a synthesis of interdisciplinary and historical literatures, including the contributions of political scientists who have theorized about comparative feminisms; postcolonial scholars who have questioned the Western monopoly on feminist politics; and historians who have explored past international feminist organizing.7 The essay included in this volume presents my central arguments about feminist momentum over time and across cultures, namely that wherever democratic politics and wage labor systems have converged to transform societies, some form of feminism has attempted to extend the rejection of hierarchical rule by questioning the gender privileges retained by men. By 2000, those conditions were spreading throughout much of the world, along with communications networks among feminists, to produce a panoply of women’s creativity and politics that is unlikely to disappear, despite intense backlash. Thus, from my initial interest in U. S. women’s movements beyond suffrage, I had come to redefine the scope of feminism, both geographically and substantively.