Three women scholars recently joined forces to tell the story of the feminism movement in the USA from the 1920s until the present era. Their collaborative efforts produced Feminism Unfinished (2014) and their message may be even more important now then it was two years ago. The 2016 election clearly evidenced that sexism is still alive and well in American culture. I picked this book up at Trident cafe/bookstore on Newbury Street in Boston and didn’t know what to expect. The book was immediately interesting because it seeks to dismantle the “wave theory” of feminism (where, for instance, someone like Beyoncé is referred to as a “third wave feminist”) in favor of a “movements” perspective. The story they tell, at least for this reader, is deeply moving. Also, the book is not just about women; they argue that the women’s movement was integral to larger cultural changes, an integration that historians often overlook. The book aims to treat feminism, then, with an eye to its intersectionality.
Dr. Dorothy Sue Cobble begins in the 1920s with protests for equal pay and livable income. The dominating frustration for women (and working minorities) at this time was insufficient wages despite hard work. American women began to realize the blatant disadvantages they faced within society because of their gender. Therefore, protest developed and feminism increased. Social justice groups like National Woman’s Party (NWP), Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE), United Auto Workers (UAW), National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and a plethora of other organizations were started and gained national recognition for their soapbox speeches, strikes and sit-ins. These associations were ethnically and socio-economically diverse. Sue highlights one story in particular about the work done between two powerful women,
In the UAW, for example, African American Lillian Hatcher and white southerner Caroline Davis, whose friendship deepened after their arrest for eating together in a Jim Crow Detroit restaurant, sought similar kinds of reforms. As leaders of an influential multi-racial group of men and women linked to the union’s Women’s Department and its Civil Rights Division, they pressed the UAW to fight for the rights of all women to job security, promotional opportunities, and just wages (46-47).
The book includes many other triumphant stories of women who joined together to improve the benefits and environment of the workplace for all people.
Dr. Linda Gordon tackles The Women’s Liberation Movement that dominated the 1970s and 1980s. She ephasizes how the movement expanded into a variety of women’s groups as the next generation took what their foremothers accomplished and made it their own. Also, these groups looked back on and critiqued the feminism in hopes of including less priviledged women. In consequence, the term “womanist” was coined in the 1980’s by the black social activist Alice Walker. For many of color, feminism wasn’t an empowering word because the past movement only fought for the rights of white women. Therefore, “Womanism” provided a movement for women of color with the vision of love for all people. Womanists were bold, courageous and unapologetic. Other minority groups were started as well, like the Chicanas for latinas with women such as Elizabeth Martinez who paved the way in the fight against anti-Mexican racism. Feminist literature grew in popularity with books like The Second Sex and Letters from Mississippi, which provided feminist perspectives for the average reader. The fight for women to have the same educational advantages as men increased and women proved to be just as intelligent as their male peers. Probably the most influential outcome of this era was the practice of “consciousness raising,” which provided women a safe place to be open and honest about their grievances and, then, to analyze their experiences as a woman. These groups gave women the courage and boldness to become activists for social change. But, as these women grew in confidence, they recognized how most men still did not view them as equals. “For many women, becoming a feminist grew out of a process of recognizing how men–often unconsciously–could render women invisible as subjects, only visible as bodies”.
Dr. Astrid Henry explains that since the 1990’s feminism, in certain groups, has taken on pegeroative connotations. Now that most women in the US enjoy the privileges of education, higher wages, and more opportunities in the workplace, the need to continue the fight for equality amongst women doesn’t seem as important. Instead, feminism is thought to be a thing of the past. However, for most women in the 90’s discrimination, sexism and physical abuse prevailed. The advancement of women studies in universities sparked a growing desire for inclusivity in a wide scoop of social issues instead of soley focusing on women’s rights. Rebecca Walker, daughter of Alice Walker, became the leading voice of feminism during this age through her writing To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism. Walker fought for the recognition of the complexity of the individual feminist instead of expecting all women to have the same needs or experiences. Henry summerizes the defining focal points of this generation’s stance on feminism in three helpful principles: feminism must be polyvocal and acknowledge multiple perspectives; feminism must be intersectional and acknowledge that gender justice is inextricably tied to other social justice movements; and feminism must be nondogmatic and acknowledge the complexities and contradictions of lived experience.
But what about today? Did the women’s movements of the last century reach its goals and achieve its visions of a better future for all people? Sue, Gordon and Henry agree that plenty of change still needs to happen. They conclude their work stating,
We chose to name our book Feminism Unfinished because the movement has not ended. Women’s subordination is an ancient human practice, integrated into nearly every major religion and nearly every economic system. Women’s subordination has been deeply embedded–socially, economically, culturally, politically–that it will take many more generations to overcome it. (227)
Women’s rights have advanced at the workplace, in the home and within education. Many women also have a new perspective on how they should be viewed and treated. And yet, inequality still persists in our culture; e.g., there is still not equal representation of women within our government. Unequal pay still exists and violence against women takes place every single day.
One of the reasons that I started this blog is because the fight for women’s rights, even in America, remains unfinished. I am in debt to so many women (and men) who advocated for women to have equal educational opportunities and have personally benefited from their sacrifice. I believe every American woman should read Feminism Unfinished to become aware of our overlooked history and to be reminded that the fight for social justice is not over.