Feminism Unfinished and Women’s Movement
“In Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movements, historians Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon, and Astrid Henry navigate and survey the women’s movement from the early 1920s to present day. While this movement is widely associated with the 1960s and 1970s, these writers argue the periodization they provide serves as a more accurate depiction of the efforts that generations of women endured. This century-long view provides readers a sketch of a new and different picture of American feminism. By decentering the movement from merely two decades, Cobble, Gordon, and Henry are able to illustrate a longer women’s movement; one stretching from labor activists in the mid-twentieth century to the feminist bloggers of the new millennium. They explain, “Feminism has been not a series of disconnected upsurges but a continuous flow.” It is precisely this perspective that sets the tone for the chronological collection of narratives that are written, as in every period women came together to collectively press for more respect and freedom. Therefore, the ideology that there are multiple and diverse feminisms stems from the concept that feminism is always responding to changing historical circumstances, and will be reinvented by future generations.
Only a few years after the ratification of the 19th amendment, women across the country were looking towards the future, and contemplating their next steps after their recent victory of women’s suffrage. In this first chapter, Cobble explores feminism starting with 1920 to the beginning of women’s liberation in the 1960s. While those who are familiar with history will argue that there is little significance for feminism in these years, Cobble rejects these misguided assumptions by citing the work of “social justice feminists”. These women were well educated on the ways in which they were disadvantaged, limited based on their sex, and discriminated against, and used their knowledge to inform those who weren’t. Even though the animosity between this group of feminists and the National Woman’s Party caused interest in organized feminism to dwindle and fragment, these organizations still laid the groundwork for the next wave of feminist groups in the upcoming decades.
An example of this progression was the difference in what women judged fair between sexes during and after World War II. Society’s treatment of wage-earning women was in much need of reconceptualization, as the attitudes of the 1930s labor movement towards women’s rights were relatively conservative. This reform led to several gender pioneers such as Rosie the Riveter, who was celebrated for doing a man’s job with gusto and finesse. While the initial image of Rosie symbolized a culture of equality and civil rights for women, she slowly morphed into Rosie the Stay-at-Home Mom, surrounded by her children in a suburban dream home. It is a common misconception that women began working at the start of World War II, and stopped working as the war ended, but this was a trend that seemed to mark the early-1940s.2 While, this stereotype served as a step in the wrong direction for feminists, Cobble finishes on a more positive note by writing, “…activism in support of racial or economic justice often gave women a consciousness, language, and skill set to rethink the gender status quo.”3 She demonstrates that when we look beyond a narrow view of feminism, we can see how influential the movement can be for public opinion and workplace institutions in lasting ways.
The next era of feminism is traced by Linda Gordon through an evolution that emphasized sexual and reproductive freedom as well as economic opportunity. Gordon stresses that feminism didn’t die out in this period, but instead transitioned into a more pervasive lived experience. To explain this she writes, “Understanding sexism as learned, taught like racism, to children from their earliest years, meant that it could be unlearned. It followed that what had been constructed by humans could be deconstructed and replaced with greater freedom and equality.”4(85). Women began to realize that many problems originating from gender that were previously considered individual, were actually created by social structures. Therefore, feminist organizations began to recognize that challenging what was perceived to be natural, such as women being responsible for housework and childcare, was a major step towards unlearning gender stereotypes. It should also be noted that few women believed they could truly achieve the standards of beauty and self-sacrificing motherhood, as these were political issues created by sexual inequality. As media and politics change over time, feminism should change with it. However, women frequently felt inadequate due to being poorly represented in politics, which made it difficult to spread their platform through both the media and legislation.
Gordon compounds this gender inequality in the mid-1980s by explaining how priorities of this decade were concentrated on working class and ethnic minority women. She shows how economic justice, civil rights and a renewed drive were the main motivations of leading feminist organizations. While these factors together made up the fundamental core of feminist ideology at the time, how they were implemented by women of different classes and races differed. Gordon challenges the notion that second wave feminism was solely available to the white middle class, as issues of sexuality and access to work crossed racial and class boundaries. While this conception didn’t necessarily result in competing feminisms, it did conflict with the idea that there was one unified movement of feminism. People are diverse, so their ideologies and approaches to gender equality are as well. While the central idea behind feminism is that this movement is for everyone, not everyone feels represented and included in the beliefs of mainstream feminism. The following passage describes the turmoil felt by minority women of this decade: “There was never exclusion; feminist groups badly wanted nonwhite and poorer members. But their experiences and priorities were at times so different and their conversations so insular, that their groups felt exclusionary to women of color.”5 Miscommunication and a divided class system served as a roadblock in reforming feminism to a version that could be collectively backed by all who wished to see it flourish. Luckily, Third Wave feminism would be defined by diversity in the 1990s and 2000s.”