Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movements, by Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon and Astrid Henry

Mary Evans on a study of the US feminist movement from the 19th century

October 2, 2014

Histories of feminism and/or the women’s movement have often been couched in terms of progress narratives and dramatic changes that have occurred in the lives of women over the past 100 years. This book is no exception; from the second sentence of its prologue it argues that: “The women’s movement we trace in this book has transformed the world we all live in, transformed it utterly.” But it then goes on to point out the various battles that feminists are still fighting, concluding that “what it means to be a feminist is constantly under construction”. However, if the women’s movement has changed the world so radically, we might be allowed to ask why feminism is still not only necessary but (at least in the past few years) an increasingly vocal and vital part of global politics. It is to the credit of the book – and one of its authors, Astrid Henry – that the idea of feminist “waves” is challenged; equally valuable is the material (also by Henry) that documents the disagreements between different generations of US feminists.

At least as rewarding is the material that documents those cheering examples of events and circumstances where women confronted and challenged various forms of misogynistic exploitation and, with a keen eye for the importance of the dramatic and theatrical in political events, achieved their goals over a range of issues from better pay to greater welfare benefits. What might for many be a “hidden” history of campaigns for gender equality from the 1920s onwards is given a place, even though some of the accounts of those campaigns (for example, the possible implications of the photograph on page 29 of the 1946 US Women’s Bureau Labor Advisory Committee where the only black woman is assigned to the back row) might be more critically considered.

Throughout the book there runs a powerful optimism: Henry writes of “how to finish the unfinished business of the women’s movement”, as if it were some kind of project that simply needed a bit of tidying up to perfect. There are quotations from various US feminists who speak of, for example, the need for a feminism “that is dedicated to a radical, transformative political vision”. But to make this vision possible there also has to be a recognition and an understanding of the form of society in which this new vision might occur and even, it has to be said, the suggestion that changing the discourse is not enough. A book that traces feminism and the women’s movement from the 19th century might also note that some important social changes, for example increasing rates of material inequality and changes in the organisation of employment across parts of the global North, have a significant impact on gender, as well as class and racial, inequality.

The examination of the idea of the social meaning of the word “change” is one that this book raises, albeit implicitly, as a matter of real importance. It is not enough, as this highly accessible book illustrates, for either women or men to invoke empty visions of “change”.

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