Title: The Grounding of Modern Feminism
Author: Nancy Cott
Categories: Intellectual History, Feminism, Women's Suffrage, Voluntary Associations, Political History, Reform
Place: United States (mostly urban areas)
Time Period: 1910-1930
Nancy Cott examines the growth of American Feminism as an ideology between the 1910s and 1930s. She argues for a central tension of feminism that crops up throughout the period between Human Feminism and Female Feminism: between wanting to see women as equal to men (thereby negating differences based on sex) and wanting to see women as a group based on their solidarity and common consciousness (thereby acknowledging differences based on sex). In Cott's words, "There was the Feminist legacy and the feminist paradox: how to be human beings and women too."
Cott describes a 19th century legacy for feminists: one that mostly stressed separate spheres as a source of power by emphasizing the solidarity of women through the prism of home, family, and child-rearing. She then describes the 1910s as a vibrant period of radical reform efforts. "Feminism" (a phrase that only came into use in the 1910s) oftentimes called for not just women's suffrage, but dramatic reordering of society whose central tenets constituted equal access to male occupations coupled with acknowledging women's sexuality/eroticism. During this period the women's suffrage movement came to fruition as a diverse coalition that cut across lines of class, race, and political leanings. This style of single-issue political coalition carried forward after passage of the 19th amendment, but Cott describes how the National Women's Party's subsequent pursuit of the Equal Rights Amendment as its new single-issue actually exacerbated divisions due to its unwillingness (under Alice Paul) to incorporate other issues such as the black vote, birth control, or pacifism. Conservatives often attacked feminists on two fronts: of wanting to upset necessary traditional gender roles, and at the other pole of wanting to antagonize the sexes by pitting them against each other (often linking them to class warfare and Bolshevism).
Cott argues that the 1920s were not necessarily a period of decline for feminism, but of a reorientation. Major political groups such as the National Association of Commissions for Women (NACW) declined, but they were in part replaced by the spectacular rise of women's participation in associational politics - civic, religious, and voluntary clubs and groups. This voluntarist model became the dominant mode of political participation, in contrast to the earlier form of female partisan politics. Cott places the period in a larger context through examining the changing American workforce, the rise of social sciences, and consumerism. In the realm of the workforce, women increasingly had access to more and more jobs, but this brought up Cott's fundamental dilemma for feminists: would they support equal rights to labor (placing men and women as equals) or would they lobby for protective legislation for women (acknowledging their solidarity and difference as women)? Debates over the workplace also manifested in a class division in the feminist movement surrounding working wives/mothers, between white-collar workers who emphasized equality with men and liberal individualism vs. labor reformers who saw wives' labor as an economic necessity that required special sex-based protection and equal pay. Crucially, neither challenged the fundamental role of women as wives within a marriage. Meanwhile, both social sciences and mass consumerism co-opted aspects of feminism to de-fang them. Social sciences turned earlier radical calls for women's sexual eroticism as a form of empowerment and expression into one that fit neatly with existing gender hierarchy: a healthy sex life became crucial for women to serve as good wives. Mass consumerism, meanwhile, cast female market consumption (as mothers and wives) to exemplify individual choice and modernity.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Rise of "Feminism" in the 1910s - takes on a particularly radical cast
- Tension in two paths for feminism: individual liberty vs. female solidarity: contrasting ideas of women as different from men or same as men
- Feminism didn't decline in 1920s, but changed character - Voluntarist, Associational politics becomes the norm rather than partisan politics
- Social science co-opts Feminists emphasis on sexual freedom into a safer zone of sexual freedom within traditional marriage
- Mass consumerism co-opts Feminists emphasis on choice and individuality into consumer choice as wives and mothers in the household
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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