Politics & Society » Feminism

The best books on Feminism

recommended by Kirsten Swinth

Interview by Eve Gerber

The fight for women's liberation and equality under patriarchy spans centuries of history, and is still being waged today—but what lessons can feminist movements like #MeToo learn from suffragettes and black feminist activists? Fordham historian Kirsten Swinth explores the best books on feminism, and makes a powerful case for modern feminists listening to early foremothers.

Kirsten Swinth

Kirsten Swinth is an associate professor of history and American studies at Fordham University. Swinth is the author of Feminism’s Forgotten Fight: The Unfinished Struggle for Work and Family and Professionals: Women Artists and the Development of Modern American Art, 1870–1930. Her research and teaching focus on women, work, and family, with a concentration most recently on working mothers. Swinth’s commentaries have been featured on cnn.com, WNYC, and NPR’s To the Point, and have appeared in The Huffington Post and The Christian Science Monitor.

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In your most recent book about the women’s movement, you take account of the many impediments faced by feminist historians. What makes the history of the women’s movement more difficult to reconstruct than other facets of history?

I’m not sure it’s more difficult. There are many, many difficult aspects of history to reconstruct, particularly when there are no written records. Then there’s the difficulty of doing recent history, including the history of the women’s movement. The material in my book covers from the 1960s and 1970s to the present day. The leaders of the movement are still alive. The issues are still salient today, and people are still fighting about them. That makes it difficult to unravel the secrets of the past.

What is the difference between feminist history and the history of feminism?

Feminist history takes the perspective that one of the fundamental forces shaping historical change is gender, and that sex and gender are at stake in every arena of historical experience. Feminist historians are interested in asking how gender perpetuates or alleviates women’s oppression and gender inequality. A history of feminism is a history of a particular set of ideas and the social movements that have fought both to achieve women’s equality and to eradicate gender-based-inequality.

Your list begins at the dawn of the suffrage movement. How do historians date the beginning of the struggle for women’s rights? Why start the history then?

Estelle Freedman’s No Turning Back makes the point that women have resisted patriarchy and male domination in almost all societies across multiple periods. But there’s something about the combined emergence of capitalism and democracy in the late 18th century and then in the 19th century that fosters the sense that there is such a thing as individual rights and democratic participation.

“Feminist history takes the perspective that one of the fundamental forces shaping historical change is gender, and that sex and gender are at stake in every arena of historical experience”

A new awareness of inequality emerges as the household economy ends and men become wage earners and political citizens. You get a new consciousness of women’s status, and a new consciousness of women as a group that stimulates active, organized, modern-day women’s movements, and what eventually comes to be feminism.

Let’s begin the discussion of your book choices with the global historical survey you just referenced, No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women. Tell us about it.

This wonderful sweeping history takes the broadest definition of feminism: organized resistance to male oppression. Its author Estelle Freedman has a magical ability to summarize a hundred years of history in three sentences.

While she concentrates on telling the story of the emergence of a conscious women’s movement—particularly in the West, Europe and North America in the 19th and 20th centuries—she also talks about the ways resistance unfolded across other parts of the world and in other contexts.

She gives us the big picture of the ways that women have called into question male dominance, and she explores the range of arenas where women resist gender-based oppression. She talks about home, family, and the workplace, as well as sexuality and reproduction. She tells a big picture story about the sweeping efforts of feminists in many different arenas.

Is it fair to say that patriarchy was a commonality across cultures throughout history?

That’s fair to say. Although there’s evidence of matriarchal societies (and evidence that in some societies, women had greater degrees of status), I think there is general agreement that patriarchy has been prevalent across the globe throughout history.

Historians link 18th-century revolutions to European Enlightenment intellectuals. Is Enlightenment Europe the wellspring of the women’s movement as well, according to you and the author of this survey?

The Enlightenment helped formulate or give birth to ideas about individual rights and individual autonomy that were critical to the development of a new understanding of women’s status and women’s rights.

The Solitude of Self: Thinking About Elizabeth Cady Stanton is your second selection. Why did you pick this book?

It’s a lovely short book, beautifully written, more of a meditation on history than an original history.

It concerns Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the organizers of the original Women’s Rights Convention in 1848 at Seneca Falls, New York. Stanton was a towering, pioneering leader of the 19th-century women’s rights movement. She remained active in the women’s rights movement from the 1840s all the way to the end of the 19th century.

“Stanton is among the most radical of the 19th century feminists in her vision of women’s individual autonomy”

This book starts at a moment of crisis and isolation late in the life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She’s aged and become alienated from a movement to which she has given her life. The author, Vivian Gornick, is a contemporary feminist and journalist—not to mention an exquisite writer. Gornick works backward from a speech that Stanton gave in 1892 to the newly unified woman’s suffrage movement, where Stanton talked about the loneliness of the self in finding a course in life.

The book is very much a biography and, at the same time, a broader essay about Stanton’s engagement with the problem of discrimination against women, her involvement in the anti-slavery movement, her loving and conflictual friendships with other movement leaders like Susan B Anthony and Lucretia Mott.

Gornick walks us through these stories through letters and other primary documents about all of the leading lights of the 19th-century women’s movement—from their growing understanding of the need for women’s equality, through their leap to the radical step of demanding the right to vote, to their fight for marital property. Stanton is among the most radical of the 19th century feminists in her vision of women’s individual autonomy and Gornick teases out where that radicalism comes from and its implications for Stanton’s life.

Stanton is just one among the founding feminist theorists who was activated by involvement in the abolition movement. Could you sketch the intertwined histories of the struggles for African-American liberation and women’s liberation?

The 19th-century women’s movement was inspired in part by white and black women’s engagement with the anti-slavery movement, which put forward a host of ideas about the equality of every human soul before God. A vision of Christian equality was important to activists in this period.

The struggle for African-American freedom in the 1830s was fundamental to women’s political activism, awareness and organizational skills. Ideas about human emancipation from these anti-slavery battles were carried forward into the women’s movement. Those same processes unfolded in the 1960s, when a burgeoning feminist movement came of age in the context of the black freedom struggle. Many white women were animated by that vision of equality to envision their own equality.

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There is a longstanding tradition of African-American women advocating for women’s rights. African-American women were drawn into the women’s movement of the 19th century, but for many African-American women, the advocacy of women’s rights could never be separated from racial uplift. African-American women were very conscious that black men were systematically degraded, and that they needed to lift up black men at the same time as themselves.

A very complicated and sometimes vexed dynamic unfolded. The conflict over post-Civil War amendments became a particularly bitter historical moment. Suffrage for black men was advanced at the same time that the word ‘male’ was introduced into the Constitution for the first time. Black women (and their white supporters) saw granting suffrage to formerly enslaved men as a fundamental need, whereas many white women’s rights activists were horrified when the insertion of the word male into the amendment made clear that women were not afforded constitutional rights.

Moreover, in the campaign for women’s suffrage in the early 20th century, Elizabeth Cady Stanton herself voiced the sentiment: ‘Why am I, an educated, native-born citizen, being denied the right to vote when so many others with less education, not native born, are being granted those same rights?’ The rage many white women felt at their lack of such basic rights became intertwined with the endemic racism of the period, leading many white suffragettes to exclude black women. It’s a very bitter betrayal of the highest ideals of the movement, but very much in keeping with racial thought of the period, as well.

I’ve seen a banner at a progressive rally that said: “Elizabeth Cady Stanton is a racist.” Is that fair?

Yes, I think that’s fair. Stanton expressed elitist and racial sentiments frequently.

But to have Stanton alone—and that moment of betrayal—emblematize the entire story of the history of women’s activism is to do two things. One is to miss the many times where white and black women forged working relationships as allies to achieve goals, and the many times when white women committed themselves to racial justice and equality. For instance, Elizabeth Cady Stanton herself had a lifelong friendship with Frederick Douglass, and a lifelong commitment to the advancement of black people. That doesn’t excuse her—it just contextualizes her amid the intersection of race and politics in that period.

“In the interest of speaking truth to power about racism and speaking honestly about the genuine failures of feminism, we might miss the history of shared work between white women and women of color”

Second, to have Stanton’s betrayal emblematize the early women’s movement also erases the many black women (and other women of color) who were participants, leaders and founders of organizations often dismissed in contemporary discourse as ‘white feminist’ organizations. For example, to talk about the National Organization for Women (NOW) as a ‘white feminist’ organization erases Aileen Hernandez, the African-American President of NOW who played a pivotal role in shaping the women’s movement in the years after Betty Friedan. It also erases the brilliant black women who led black women’s suffrage organizations in the fight for the 19th Amendment.

I become concerned that in the interest of speaking truth to power about racism and speaking honestly about the genuine failures of feminism, we might miss the history of shared work between white women and women of color and their underlying commitment to justice and equality.

Moving on to a book focused on the women’s movement of the early 20th century, please tell us about The Grounding of Modern Feminism, published by Nancy Cott in 1987.

Nancy Cott is one of the founding generation of women’s historians. The Grounding of Modern Feminism traces the arrival of the term feminism in the United States. Feminism as a concept, as an identity, emerged in the United States around 1910 among a group of women who called themselves feminists. These women were younger than the Elizabeth Cady Stanton generation. They had already benefited from the opening of doors to educational opportunities and social reform movements. They were often modernists. Georgia O’Keeffe, for example, was a feminist. Many of the most radical suffragettes were also self-declared feminists.

Cott traces the development of this group of feminists and then follows feminist ideology into the 1920s and -30s. She examines the profound paradox of the feminist legacy, which is on the one hand, that feminists celebrated women’s individuality—their membership in what they called the human sex, as fully embodied individuals. But she shows that this concept of individualism is in profound tension with feminists’ sex consciousness. A feminist movement had to be based in women’s status as women and women’s need to fight for their rights as a group. She teases out the long legacy of that paradox.

What will readers learn about the evolution of the women’s movement after the achievement of universal suffrage by reading The Grounding of Modern Feminism?

This book’s most important lesson is the fact that feminist leaders were a self-assertive group of women, many of them college-educated, many of whom were fighting to succeed in professional environments. Many were professors and doctors and lawyers. Their embrace of individual achievements and their drive to overcome sex consciousness did not sit easily with activists in the labor movement after passage of the 19th Amendment. This is because if you erase sex consciousness, you risk eliminating safeguards for the many working-class women who benefited from protective labor laws, such as hours limits on work days for women.

A huge fight blew up around the Equal Rights Amendment. Many leading women social reformers opposed the it because they feared that the sex-specific situation of women as mothers and caretakers would be made harder because the Amendment didn’t take into consideration those conditions. Nancy Cott’s exploration of the friction between the interests of feminist leaders and working class women is one of her book’s most important legacies.

Please tell me about Premilla Nadasen’s Welfare Warriors and its relationship to feminist literature.

Welfare Warriors was one of the first books to center women in the story of the late 1960s and early 1970s welfare rights movement. One of the mobilizations of the 1960s was a campaign to improve the rights of welfare recipients, for example by eradicating intrusive questioning by caseworkers and invasive treatment of recipients’ personal lives, and by efforts to improve benefits and services.

“People had told the history of that movement without revealing that women were central to it.”

People had told the history of that movement without revealing that women were central to it. Welfare Warriors puts women at the center of the story. It shows how women, largely black poor mothers, mobilized a mass movement for welfare rights that culminated in a campaign for a major piece of legislation that would have led to a baseline guaranteed annual income in place of welfare. That legislation failed, unfortunately.

Nadasen shows that the achievements of the welfare rights movement were successes of women and of black feminist activism. She moves welfare rights activists into the history of feminism. That’s a very important piece of the story of feminism.

Nadasen introduces the concept of multiple consciousness—of feminist consciousness and race consciousness as essential to the history of feminism. Can you explain the concept of ‘intersectionality’ and its role in the women’s movement?

Nadasen applies ideas about intersectionality to the history of the women’s movement. Intersectionality is a concept which explains how gender and race and class identities are deeply intertwined with each other and inseparable from people’s historical experiences.

“Intersectionality is a concept which explains how gender and race and class identities are deeply intertwined with each other and inseparable from people’s historical experiences”

Nadasen is able to look at these female welfare rights activists and show how their status—as poor women, as black women, as single mothers—endows them with a specific consciousness, rooted in their intertwined class, racial, and gender vulnerability. Their consciousness as black women shapes their roles in welfare rights organizations that are initially led by men, many of whom are black, and their roles in other feminist organizations where white women are the most visible leaders. She’s able show how they navigate among those different pulls to advance their cause.

Finally, your last choice is Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women’s Liberation Movement. Tell us about this historical work.

Dear Sisters is a collection of documents from the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s put together by Rosalyn Baxandall and the renowned women’s historian Linda Gordon. Each document has a beautifully-written headnote giving us contextual historical background. But the documents themselves are a glorious wide-ranging array of cartoons, poems, songs, manifestos and declarations. My favorite is a beautiful poster that said “American Foot Binding—Stamp Out High Heels.” These documents capture the spirit of the moment and of the movement.

Reflective of that moment in the history of the women’s movement, the collection is inclusive of a broad range of activists. It includes documents from the Third World Women’s Alliance, Catholics for Free Choice, and a socialist-feminist organization called Bread and Roses, among others. I use it in my classes all the time, and students always enjoy it.

The editors use the phrase ‘women’s liberation movement.’ Why has that phrase fallen out of use?

Women’s liberationists in the late 1960s were younger and more radical than activists like Betty Friedan, who founded the National Organization for Women. Many came out of the civil rights and student protest movements of the 1960s. Inspired by those movements, they called for women’s liberation.

“Self-emancipation has always been part of the women’s rights movement”

Self-emancipation has always been part of the women’s rights movement. It’s a link back to the Declaration of Sentiments from the first women’s rights convention in 1848, where they talked about property rights and legal rights and voting rights. But they also talk about the emancipatory ideal of being free from societal norms. The concept of liberation in the 1960s carries forward the idea of self-emancipation, which is why consciousness-raising was so central to their activism. We’ve stopped talking about liberation as an ideal, and shifted to talking about equality.

In Feminism’s Forgotten Fight you reconstruct the history of feminism’s ‘second wave.’ Why is revision of that history so important?

I use the term ‘second wave’ to capture the resurgence of mass mobilization and engagement with feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, in contrast to the late-19th and early-20th-century mass mobilizations that resulted in the right to vote, which was the first wave.

While working on a cultural history of working mothers, I realized that the record on second wave feminism’s activism on behalf of work and family was incomplete. Feminists had been blamed for throwing women into the workplace and ignoring the family, but when I researched the record of women’s activism in the 1960s and 1970s, I saw a lot of activism around family and work-related issues.

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I discovered that feminists of this era had an incredibly comprehensive vision of the changes we needed to make—both as a society and in intimate relationships—in order for full equality to be achieved. For example, they not only demanded that men share in childcare and housework, they also demanded a thoroughgoing reconstruction of domestic work to achieve equality between marriage partners. They envisioned men living full lives as fathers as well as breadwinners. They envisioned a world with readily available childcare and adequate support for mothers, particularly poor mothers. What is more, they envisioned changing workplaces—say, with rights for pregnant workers and flexible schedules—so that women could be full citizens and full workers without having to give up bearing and caring for children.

In a whole range of veins and venues, I found feminists sketching out and filling in the lines of this big picture of change—change at the most personal level. Change in restructuring the big institutions. The full picture is one that historians hadn’t put together. Individual pieces of it had been told, but the panorama of second wave feminists’ work in these areas had never been shown. That’s what I set out to do.

In Feminism’s Forgotten Fight, you explain the political impediments to the women’s movement. What lessons can we draw for today’s #MeToo movement, and its effort beat back modern misogyny?

This book reveals how feminists’ efforts were blocked. It’s not that feminists lacked a compelling vision for substantive change: it’s that a conservative movement rallied to oppose them. The cultural changes feminists envisioned entailed an alteration of deep-seated outlooks. That provoked resistance from those who felt threatened by the profound changes that were proposed.

The lesson for today is that on the one hand, our foremothers had a workable vision worth recovering. On the other hand, that vision was so powerful that it triggered political challenge and cultural backlash. Being mindful of the organized opposition to feminist change in the last century is important for today’s activists so that they can prepare to identify and counter forces that seek to hold them back as much as possible.

Interview by Eve Gerber

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Kirsten Swinth

Kirsten Swinth is an associate professor of history and American studies at Fordham University. Swinth is the author of Feminism’s Forgotten Fight: The Unfinished Struggle for Work and Family and Professionals: Women Artists and the Development of Modern American Art, 1870–1930. Her research and teaching focus on women, work, and family, with a concentration most recently on working mothers. Swinth’s commentaries have been featured on cnn.com, WNYC, and NPR’s To the Point, and have appeared in The Huffington Post and The Christian Science Monitor.