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Anti-capitalist Thought and Utopian Alternatives in America  

Howard Brick

Utopia—the term derived from Thomas More’s 1516 volume by that name—always suggested a place that was both non-existent, a product of the imagination usually depicted fictionally as far distant in time or space, and better than the real and familiar world. In modern times, it has served as a mode of anti-capitalist critique and also, despite its supposed “unreality,” as a disposition joined to actual social movements for dramatic reform. Utopian alternatives to American capitalism, both in the sense of literary works projecting visions of ideal social relations and in real efforts to establish viable communitarian settlements, have long been a significant part of the nation’s cultural and political history. In the 1840s, American followers of the French “utopian socialist” Charles Fourier established dozens of communities based at least in part on Fourier’s principles, and those principles filtered down to the world’s most influential modern utopian novel, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward of 1888. Utopian community-building and the writing of anti-capitalist utopian texts surged and declined in successive waves from the 19th to the 21st century, and while the recent surges have never equaled the impact borne by Fourierism or Bellamy, the appeal of the utopian imagination has again surfaced, since the Great Recession of 2008 provoked new doubts about the viability or justice of capitalist economic and social relations.

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African American Women and Feminism in the 19th Century  

Teresa Zackodnik

What in contemporary parlance we would call African American feminisms has been a politics and activism communal in its orientation, addressing the rights and material conditions of women, men, and children since the first Dutch slaver brought captive Africans to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. Although Black women would not have used the terms “feminist” or “feminism,” which did not enter into use until what is recognized now as the first wave of feminism, scholars have been using those terms for the past two decades to refer to Black women’s activism in the United States stretching at least as far back as the 1830s with the oratory and publications of Maria Stewart and the work of African American women in abolition and church reform. Alongside and in many ways enabled by crucial forms of resistance to slavery, Black women developed forms of feminist activism and a political culture that advanced claims for freedom and rights in a number of arenas. Yet our historical knowledge of 19th-century Black feminist activism has been limited by historiographical tendencies. Histories of American feminism have tended to marginalize Black feminisms by positioning these activists as contributing to a white-dominant narrative, focused on woman’s rights and suffrage. The literature on African American feminism has tended to hail the Black women’s club movement of the late 19th century as the emergence of that politics. Though many people may recognize only a handful of 19th-century African American feminists by name and reputation, early Black feminism was multiply located and extensive in its work. African American women continued the voluntary work that benevolent and mutual aid societies had begun in the late 18th century and established literary societies during the early 19th century; they entered Black nationalist debates over emigration and advocated for the self-sufficiency and education of their communities, including women; and they fought to end slavery and the repressive racialized violence that accompanied it in free states and continued through the nadir. Throughout the century, African American feminists negotiated competing and often conflicting demands within interracial reform movements like abolition, woman’s rights, and temperance, and worked to open the pulpit, platform, press, and politics to Black women’s voices.

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New Women in Early 20th-Century America  

Einav Rabinovitch-Fox

In late 19th- and early 20th-century America, a new image of womanhood emerged that began to shape public views and understandings of women’s role in society. Identified by contemporaries as a Gibson Girl, a suffragist, a Progressive reformer, a bohemian feminist, a college girl, a bicyclist, a flapper, a working-class militant, or a Hollywood vamp, all of these images came to epitomize the New Woman, an umbrella term for modern understandings of femininity. Referring both to real, flesh-and-blood women, and also to an abstract idea or a visual archetype, the New Woman represented a generation of women who came of age between 1890 and 1920 and challenged gender norms and structures by asserting a new public presence through work, education, entertainment, and politics, while also denoting a distinctly modern appearance that contrasted with Victorian ideals. The New Woman became associated with the rise of feminism and the campaign for women’s suffrage, as well as with the rise of consumerism, mass culture, and freer expressions of sexuality that defined the first decades of the 20th century. Emphasizing youth, mobility, freedom, and modernity, the image of the New Woman varied by age, class, race, ethnicity, and geographical region, offering a spectrum of behaviors and appearances with which different women could identify. At times controversial, the New Woman image provided women with opportunities to negotiate new social roles and to promote ideas of equality and freedom that would later become mainstream.

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Women, Gender, and Red Scares in the Modern United States  

Erica J. Ryan

The first Red Scare, after World War I, and the Red Scare that followed World War II, both impacted American women in remarkably similar ways. Many women found their lives hemmed in by antifeminism and the conservative gender ideology that underwrote anticommunist national identity in 1919, and then again in the late 1940s. This cultural nationalism tied traditional gender norms to the defense of American values and ideals, positioning the family as a bulwark against communism while making women’s performance of gender roles symbolic of national health or sickness. Within this gendered nationalism, the first Red Scare offered opportunities for conservative women to join the antiradical cause as protectors of the home. These same antiradicals maligned radical and progressive women for their feminism and their social activism. The second Red Scare played out in similar fashion. Anticommunism provided a safe platform for conservative women to engage in political activism in defense of the family, and in turn, they participated in broader efforts that attacked and weakened civil rights claims and the social justice efforts of women on the left. In each Red Scare the symbols and rhetoric of anticommunism prioritized women’s relationship to the family, positioning them either as bastions of American virtue or as fundamental threats to the social and political order. Gender proved critical to the construction of patriotism and national identity.

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The Woman Suffrage Movement in the United States  

Rebecca J. Mead

Woman suffragists in the United States engaged in a sustained, difficult, and multigenerational struggle: seventy-two years elapsed between the Seneca Falls convention (1848) and the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment (1920). During these years, activists gained confidence, developed skills, mobilized resources, learned to maneuver through the political process, and built a social movement. This essay describes key turning points and addresses internal tensions as well as external obstacles in the U.S. woman suffrage movement. It identifies important strategic, tactical, and rhetorical approaches that supported women’s claims for the vote and influenced public opinion, and shows how the movement was deeply connected to contemporaneous social, economic, and political contexts.

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LGBTQ Politics in America since 1945  

Emily K. Hobson

Since World War II, the United States has witnessed major changes in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) politics. Indeed, because the history of LGBTQ activism is almost entirely concentrated in the postwar years, the LGBTQ movement is typically said to have achieved rapid change in a short period of time. But if popular accounts characterize LGBTQ history as a straightforward narrative of progress, the reality is more complex. Postwar LGBTQ politics has been both diverse and divided, marked by differences of identity and ideology. At the same time, LGBTQ politics has been embedded in the contexts of state-building and the Cold War, the New Left and the New Right, the growth of neoliberalism, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. As the field of LGBTQ history has grown, scholars have increasingly been able to place analyses of state regulation into conversation with community-based histories. Moving between such outside and inside perspectives helps to reveal how multiple modes of LGBTQ politics have shaped one another and how they have been interwoven with broader social change. Looking from the outside, it is apparent that LGBTQ politics has been catalyzed by exclusions from citizenship; from the inside, we can see that activists have responded to such exclusions in different ways, including both by seeking social inclusion and by rejecting assimilationist terms. Court rulings and the administration of law have run alongside the debates inside activist communities. Competing visions for LGBTQ politics have centered around both leftist and liberal agendas, as well as viewpoints shaped by race, gender, gender expression, and class.

Article

The Peace Movement since 1945  

Leilah Danielson

Peace activism in the United States between 1945 and the 2010s focused mostly on opposition to U.S. foreign policy, efforts to strengthen and foster international cooperation, and support for nuclear nonproliferation and arms control. The onset of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union marginalized a reviving postwar American peace movement emerging from concerns about atomic and nuclear power and worldwide nationalist politics that everywhere seemed to foster conflict, not peace. Still, peace activism continued to evolve in dynamic ways and to influence domestic politics and international relations. Most significantly, peace activists pioneered the use of Gandhian nonviolence in the United States and provided critical assistance to the African American civil rights movement, led the postwar antinuclear campaign, played a major role in the movement against the war in Vietnam, helped to move the liberal establishment (briefly) toward a more dovish foreign policy in the early 1970s, and helped to shape the political culture of American radicalism. Despite these achievements, the peace movement never regained the political legitimacy and prestige it held in the years before World War II, and it struggled with internal divisions about ideology, priorities, and tactics. Peace activist histories in the 20th century tended to emphasize organizational or biographical approaches that sometimes carried hagiographic overtones. More recently, historians have applied the methods of cultural history, examining the role of religion, gender, and race in structuring peace activism. The transnational and global turn in the historical discipline has also begun to make inroads in peace scholarship. These are promising new directions because they situate peace activism within larger historical and cultural developments and relate peace history to broader historiographical debates and trends.

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Transcendentalism  

David M. Robinson

New England transcendentalism is the first significant literary movement in American history, notable principally for the influential works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau. The movement emerged in the 1830s as a religious challenge to New England Unitarianism. Building on the writings of the Unitarian leader William Ellery Channing, Emerson and others such as Frederic Henry Hedge, George Ripley, James Freeman Clarke, and Theodore Parker developed a theology based on interior, intuitive experience rather than the historical truth of the Bible. By 1836 transcendentalist books from several important religious thinkers began to appear, including Emerson’s Nature, which employed idealist philosophy and Romantic symbolism to examine human interaction with the natural world. Emerson’s Harvard addresses, “The American Scholar” (1837) and the controversial “Divinity School Address” (1838), gave transcendental ideas a wider prominence, and also generated strong resistance that added an element of experiment and danger to the movement’s reputation. In 1840 the transcendentalists founded a journal for their work, and Fuller became the Dial’s first editor, a position that gave her an important role in the movement and a crucial outlet for her own work in literary criticism and women’s rights. Though it had begun as a religious movement, by the middle 1840s transcendentalism could be better described as a literary movement with growing political engagements on several fronts. Emerson proclaimed it as an era of reform and aligned the transcendentalists with those who resisted the social and political status quo. In her feminist manifesto Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), Fuller called for the removal of both legal and social barriers to women’s full potential. In 1845 Henry David Thoreau went to live in the woods by Walden Pond; his memoir of his experience, Walden (1854), became a founding text of modern environmental thinking. Antislavery also became a key concern for many of the transcendentalists, who condemned the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and actively resisted the execution of the law after its passage. The transcendentalists, a nineteenth-century cultural avant-garde, continue to exert cultural influence through the durability of their writings, works that shaped many aspects of American national development.

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Gender Roles, Women’s Rights, and the Polarization of American Politics in the Late 20th Century  

Marjorie J. Spruill

The late 20th century saw gender roles transformed as the so-called Second Wave of American feminism that began in the 1960s gained support. By the early 1970s public opinion increasingly favored the movement and politicians in both major political parties supported it. In 1972 Congress overwhelmingly approved the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and sent it to the states. Many quickly ratified, prompting women committed to traditional gender roles to organize. However, by 1975 ERA opponents led by veteran Republican activist Phyllis Schlafly, founder of Stop ERA, had slowed the ratification process, although federal support for feminism continued. Congresswoman Bella Abzug (D-NY), inspired by the United Nations’ International Women’s Year (IWY) program, introduced a bill approved by Congress that mandated state and national IWY conferences at which women would produce recommendations to guide the federal government on policy regarding women. Federal funding of these conferences (held in 1977), and the fact that feminists were appointed to organize them, led to an escalation in tensions between feminist and conservative women, and the conferences proved to be profoundly polarizing events. Feminists elected most of the delegates to the culminating IWY event, the National Women’s Conference held in Houston, Texas, and the “National Plan of Action” adopted there endorsed a wide range of feminist goals including the ERA, abortion rights, and gay rights. But the IWY conferences presented conservatives with a golden opportunity to mobilize, and anti-ERA, pro-life, and anti-gay groups banded together as never before. By the end of 1977, these groups, supported by conservative Catholics, Mormons, and evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants, had come together to form a “Pro-Family Movement” that became a powerful force in American politics. By 1980 they had persuaded the Republican Party to drop its support for women’s rights. Afterward, as Democrats continued to support feminist goals and the GOP presented itself as the defender of “family values,” national politics became more deeply polarized and bitterly partisan.

Article

The Equal Rights Amendment  

Robyn Muncy

The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), designed to enshrine in the Constitution of the United States a guarantee of equal rights to women and men, has had a long and volatile history. When first introduced in Congress in 1923, three years after ratification of the woman suffrage amendment to the US Constitution, the ERA faced fierce opposition from the majority of former suffragists. These progressive women activists opposed the ERA because it threatened hard-won protective labor legislation for wage-earning women. A half century later, however, the amendment enjoyed such broad support that it was passed by the requisite two-thirds of Congress and, in 1972, sent to the states for ratification. Unexpectedly, virulent opposition emerged during the ratification process, not among progressive women this time but among conservatives, whose savvy organizing prevented ratification by a 1982 deadline. Many scholars contend that despite the failure of ratification, equal rights thinking so triumphed in the courts and legislatures by the 1990s that a “de facto ERA” was in place. Some feminists, distrustful of reversible court decisions and repealable legislation, continued to agitate for the ERA; others voiced doubt that ERA would achieve substantive equality for women. Because support for an ERA noticeably revived in the 2010s, this history remains very much in progress.

Article

The 1960s  

Robert O. Self

Few decades in American history reverberate with as much historical reach or glow as brightly in living mythology as the 1960s. During those years Americans reanimated and reinvented the core political principles of equality and liberty but, in a primal clash that resonates more than half a century later, fiercely contested what those principles meant, and for whom. For years afterward, the decade’s appreciators considered the era to have its own “spirit,” defined by greater freedoms and a deeper, more authentic personhood, and given breath by a youthful generation’s agitation for change in nearly every dimension of national life. To its detractors in subsequent decades, the era was marked by immature radical fantasies and dangerous destabilizations of the social order, behind which lay misguided youthful enthusiasms and an overweening, indulgent federal government. We need not share either conviction to appreciate the long historical shadow cast by the decade’s clashing of left, right, and center and its profound influence over the political debates, cultural logics, and social practices of the many years that followed. The decade’s political and ideological clashes registered with such force because post–World War II American life was characterized by a society-wide embrace of antiradicalism and a prescribed normalcy. Having emerged from the war as the lone undamaged capitalist industrial power, the United States exerted enormous influence throughout the globe after 1945—so much that some historians have called the postwar years a “pax Americana.” In its own interest and in the interest of its Western allies, the United States engaged in a Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union over the fate of Europe and no less over the fate of developing countries on every continent. Fiercely anticommunist abroad and at home, U.S. elites stoked fears of the damage communism could do, whether in Eastern Europe or in a public school textbook. Americans of all sorts in the postwar years embraced potent ideologies justifying the prevailing order, whether that order was capitalist, patriarchal, racial, or heterosexual. They pursued a postwar “normalcy” defined by nuclear family domesticity and consumer capitalism in the shadow cast by the threat of communism and, after 1949, global thermonuclear war with the Soviet Union. This prevailing order was stultifying and its rupture in the 1960s is the origin point of the decade’s great dramas. The social movements of that decade drew Americans from the margins of citizenship—African Americans, Latina/o, Native Americans, women, and gay men and lesbians, among others—into epochal struggles over the withheld promise of equality. For the first time since 1861, an American war deeply split the nation, nearly destroying a major political party and intensifying a generational revolt already under way. Violence, including political assassinations at the highest level, bombings and assassinations of African Americans, bombings by left-wing groups like the Weathermen, and major urban uprisings by African Americans against police and property bathed the country in more blood. The New Deal liberalism of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman reached its postwar peak in 1965 under President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and then retreated amid acrimony and backlash, as a new conservative politics gained traction. All this took place in the context of a “global 1960s,” in which societies in Western and Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere experienced similar generational rebellions, quests for meaningful democracy, and disillusionment with American global hegemony. From the first year of the decade to the last, the 1960s were a watershed era that marked the definitive end of a “postwar America” defined by easy Cold War dualities, presumptions of national innocence, and political calcification. To explain the foregoing, this essay is organized in five sections. First comes a broad overview of the decade, highlighting some of its indelible moments and seminal political events. The next four sections correspond to the four signature historical developments of the 1960s. Discussed first is the collapse of the political consensus that predominated in national life following World War II. We can call this consensus “Vital Center liberalism,” after the title of a 1949 book by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., or “Cold War liberalism.” Its assault from both the New Left and the New Right is one of the defining stories of the 1960s. Second is the resurgence, after a decades-long interregnum dating to Reconstruction, of African American political agency. The black freedom struggle of the 1960s was far more than a social movement for civil rights. To shape the conditions of national life and the content of public debate in ways impossible under Jim Crow, black American called for nothing less than a spiritual and political renewal of the country. Third, and following from the latter, is the emergence within the American liberal tradition of a new emphasis on expanding individual rights and ending invidious discrimination. Forged in conjunction with the black freedom movement by women, Latino/as, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and homophiles (as early gay rights activists were called) and gay liberationists, this new emphasis profoundly changed American law and set the terms of political debate for the next half century. Fourth and lastly, the 1960s witnessed the flourishing of a broad and diverse culture of anti-authoritarianism. In art, politics, and social behavior, this anti-authoritarianism took many forms, but at its heart lay two distinct historical phenomena: an ecstatic celebration of youth, manifest in the tension between the World War II generation and the baby boom generation, and an intensification of the long-standing conflict in American life between individualism and hierarchical order. Despite the disruptions, rebellions, and challenges to authority in the decade, the political and economic elite proved remarkably resilient and preserved much of the prevailing order. This is not to discount the foregoing account of challenges to that order or to suggest that social change in the 1960s made little difference in American life. However, in grappling with this fascinating decade we are confronted with the paradox of outsized events and enormous transformations in law, ideology, and politics alongside a continuation, even an entrenchment, of traditional economic and political structures and practices.

Article

The History of Jewish Women in the United States  

Joyce Antler

The story of Jewish women in the United States is one of impressive achievement. Despite their numerically small representation in the American population, they made major contributions to politics and culture, and their organizations were among the nation’s most influential women’s groups. Yet both as women and as Jews, they often confronted troubling inequities in religious and secular life and struggled to balance their multiple identities. Jewish women played vital roles in colonial and revolutionary America, managing their household economies and family life. Highly literate and with extensive social networks, they often engaged in commerce in the interconnected Atlantic world. Jewish women were the mainstays of religious observance, promoting religious worship and the construction of synagogues and schools. Intermarriage was infrequent, with Jewish men marrying out more frequently than women. In the early 19th century, some Jewish women attended the new female academies, becoming teachers, social reformers, and writers. They also founded and managed educational and philanthropic institutions, including the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society, the coeducational Hebrew Sunday School, orphan associations, and mutual aid groups, including the Independent Order of True Sisters, the first national Jewish women’s organization. Jewish women constituted roughly half of the Jewish immigrants who came to the United States from German-speaking European nations in the first half of the 19th century. They also constituted about half of the two and a half million Eastern European immigrants who arrived between 1880 and 1920. Upper- and middle-class Jewish women established sisterhoods, settlement houses, clubs, and schools to aid the new arrivals, inaugurating the first Jewish women’s movement. In 1909, laboring under exploitative conditions, Jewish women garment workers launched an eleven-week strike that transformed the labor movement. Highly represented in movements like socialism, anarchism, and communism, Jewish women also participated in campaigns for birth control and international peace. By the mid-20th century, a new generation assumed leadership at the National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah, and other Jewish women’s groups. Involved in campaigns against immigration restriction, rescuing refugees from Nazism, and efforts to create a Jewish national homeland, they strengthened Jewish communities throughout the world. In the postwar decades, Jews migrated in significant numbers to the suburbs, where they were the mainstay of synagogue life and helped popularize new rituals like the bat mitzvah. Major leaders in the campaigns for civil rights, nuclear disarmament, and peace, in the 1960s and 1970s they helped launch second-wave feminism. Jewish women were prominent in both liberal and radical branches of the women’s liberation movement. As Jewish feminists, they challenged sexism within Jewish religious and community life and pressed for more egalitarian practices across the denominations. By the early 1970s, Jewish women began to serve as rabbis in the Reform and Reconstruction movements; the first Conservative woman rabbi was ordained in 1985. In the 21st century, Jewish women reflect a more culturally, religiously, and racially diverse population than before. Jewish women and men are increasingly likely to marry or partner with non-Jews, but to raise their children Jewishly. They are more than twice as likely as prior generations to identify with a race or ethnicity other than white. Asian American, Syrian American, and African American women rabbis have been among the most influential voices in their communities. The gay and lesbian synagogue movement, which began in the early 1970s, provided a locus for lesbians to explore their own religious identities. Jewish Women of Color, an expanding group, places itself at the intersection of racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism as it pursues an intersectional vision of social justice.

Article

Women’s Movement and Women Workers, Post-1945  

Dennis Deslippe

Working women and their issues played a central role in the women’s movement in the decades following World War II. Feminists lobbied, litigated, and engaged in direct action for workplace fairness. Working women, especially those in unions, joined feminist organizations and established their own organizations as well. There were fault lines within the women’s movement over the issues, strategies, and level of commitment to the causes of working women. In the first two decades after 1945, the unionists and liberal reformers who constituted the so-called Women’s Bureau Coalition (named after the U.S. Women’s Bureau) opposed the mostly affluent and conservative members of the National Woman’s Party for their support of the Equal Rights Amendment, supporting instead protective laws and policies that treated women differently from men in the workplace. With the arrival of second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, “labor feminists” clashed with the middle-class professional women at the helm of newly formed feminist organizations. As support for gender equality transformed employment practices, some labor feminists sought to retain (or extend to men) selected protective measures introduced in the early 20th century to shield women workers from the worst aspects of wage labor. In the face of harsh economic conditions in the 1970s, labor feminists again opposed other feminists for their efforts to modify the union practice of “last hired, first fired” as a way of retaining affirmative-action hiring gains. In recent decades feminists have focused on equity measures such as comparable worth and pregnancy leave as means of addressing the unique challenges women face. In addition they have expanded their concern to lesbian and transgender workers, and, increasingly, to the needs of immigrant workers who make up an increasingly percentage of the working population.

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Gender Rights and American Employment  

Katherine Turk

Throughout American history, gender, meaning notions of essential differences between women and men, has shaped how Americans have defined and engaged in productive activity. Work has been a key site where gendered inequalities have been produced, but work has also been a crucible for rights claims that have challenged those inequalities. Federal and state governments long played a central role in generating and upholding gendered policy. Workers and advocates have debated whether to advance laboring women’s cause by demanding equality with men or different treatment that accounted for women’s distinct responsibilities and disadvantages. Beginning in the colonial period, constructions of dependence and independence derived from the heterosexual nuclear family underscored a gendered division of labor that assigned distinct tasks to the sexes, albeit varied by race and class. In the 19th century, gendered expectations shaped all workers’ experiences of the Industrial Revolution, slavery and its abolition, and the ideology of free labor. Early 20th-century reform movements sought to beat back the excesses of industrial capitalism by defining the sexes against each other, demanding protective labor laws for white women while framing work done by women of color and men as properly unregulated. Policymakers reinforced this framework in the 1930s as they built a welfare state that was rooted in gendered and racialized constructions of citizenship. In the second half of the 20th century, labor rights claims that reasoned from the sexes’ distinctiveness increasingly gave way to assertions of sex equality, even as the meaning of that equality was contested. As the sex equality paradigm triumphed in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, seismic economic shifts and a conservative business climate narrowed the potential of sex equality laws to deliver substantive changes to workers.