"The time has come to define feminism; it is no longer
possible to ignore it." The Century Magazine, 1914
In this landmark addition to scholarship, Nancy F. Cott, author of
The Bonds of Womanhood, offers a new interpretation of
American feminism during the early decades of this century-a period
traditionally viewed as on in which women won the right to vote and
then lost interest in feminist issues. Cott argues instead that his
period was a time of crisis and transition from the
nineteenth-century "woman movement' to the beginning of modern
feminism. Many of the issues that are central to women today, says
Cott, were firmly articulated in the early decades of this century.
For example, the problem of defining sexual equality so as to
recognize sexual difference between men and women, the ambiguous
potential of a movement seeking individual freedoms for women by
mobilizing sex solidarity, and the tensions involved in attaining
full expression in work and love are all enduring elements of
feminism seized upon by women of the 1910s and 1920s.
First discussing how feminism was indebted to its predecessors,
Cott shows that increasing heterogeneity and diverse loyalties
among women in the early twentieth century contradicted the premise
of the nineteenth-century "cause of woman" (the singular noun
symbolizing the unity of the female sex). From this crisis emerged
feminism, championing individual variability and refuting the
premise that a singular "woman" existed.
Cott focuses on the suffrage-campaign milieu in which feminism
arose, giving particular attention to the character and role of the
National Woman's Party from its militant suffrage days to its
advocacy of the equal right amendment in the 1920s. Against
prevailing interpretations of the decline of women's political
activities after 1920, Cott counterposes the swelling numbers in
women's voluntary associations and their political efforts. She
also analyzes the pitfalls that awaited women who tried for
effectiveness in the male-dominated political parties. She sets the
controversy over the equal rights amendment in new context,
discussing the full dimensions of the conflict as not merely over
personalities, tactics, or class loyalties, but as a signal example
of the modern problem of capturing sexual equality and sexual
difference in law.
The book explores the irony-strewn path of women who as aspiring
professionals and political actors attempted to put into practice
the feminist intent to replace the abstraction "woman" with,
instead, "the human sex." This history-the story of women who first
claimed the name feminists-builds an essential bridge between the
presuffrage period and today.
Subjects: Sociology, History
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