Thursday, December 11, 2014

No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women by Estelle Freedman

Some general thoughts on Feminism and the issue of violence directed at women, please see my commentary here.

No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women by Estelle Freedman is a comprehensive history of the intellectual and social movement called Feminism. The author is a Professor in U.S. History at Stanford University and has written a great number of books relating to feminism and gender issues.

This is an extensive history of feminism as well as the social history of women that stretches from pre - civilization through the present. It is a perfect book both for anyone who knows little about the issues, or for someone like myself, who has a moderate understanding of feminist and women’s social history. I do suspect however, that someone who already has a strong and detailed understanding of both the history, thought systems, issues and controversies relating to these topics, might find this book a little too rudimentary and basic. As I was looking for a fairly comprehensive introduction to the subject, this book was perfect to start off my readings.

Unsurprising, the work displays a pro – feminist bias. However, this bias is not overwhelming or strident.

I do think that this is an important book. When I searched for such a comprehensive history the choices seemed sparse. This is only one of a couple of contemporary works that fits this niche. Freedman addresses this lack of all encompassing books on the subject herself.

Several years ago a woman whom I admire asked me to recommend one book that she could read to learn about feminist scholarship. At first it seemed like an easy enough request. I had been reading widely in the interdisciplinary women’s studies literature since 1970, the year I entered graduate school in U.S. history and first defined myself as a feminist. Now I taught a course called Introduction to Feminist Studies and chaired the Program in Feminist Studies at Stanford University. As I began to name my favorite books, though, I realized that no one selection fit the bill. My choices tended to be studies of women’s history or important theoretical works in other disciplines that would not necessarily appeal to a nonacademic reader. Neither a textbook nor an anthology of short essays, such as those I assign in class, would do the trick either. I eliminated one possibility after another until I realized that no single book brought together the interdisciplinary literature that the past generation of feminist scholars has produced. Unable to fulfill  her request, I jokingly said that I would have to write that book myself.

One thing that I like about this book is how it successfully touches upon so many issues relating to feminism and women’s issues. Estelle covers general history, sociology, anthropology, violence, war reproductive issues, labor, art and aesthetics, to just name a few areas. She covers various theories, concepts and trends relating  feminist thought systems including multiple feminisms, intersectional feminism, radical feminism, the three waves of feminism, etc.

There are so many subtopics of interest that I can discuss here. This makes it difficult to focus on any one area. For instance, one of hundreds of such subtopics surveyed here, but one the that I found to be of particular interest, was Friedman’s exploration of women who have been great writers and why history has not given us more of them. Several aspects of this issue are explored, including lack of opportunity as well as society ignoring talented women. Estelle also mentions and builds upon Tillie Olsen’s proposition that prior to the twentieth century, women who were childless were more likely to produce great art. Though the argument is fascinating and in some ways convincing, I would need to know a lot more in order to weigh in with an intelligent opinion on this issue.

A less esoteric and arguably more important point that Freedman makes is the curios phenomenon of public opinion, which seems to strongly support most of the basic precepts of feminism, yet fails to identify themselves as supporters of Feminism.

Freedman writes,

A generation of Western women came of age influenced by feminism to expect equal opportunities. The majority of this generation often proclaimed, “I’m not a feminist, but . . . ,” even as they insisted on equal pay, sexual and reproductive choice, parental leave, and political representation. The children they raised, both male and female, grew up influenced by these feminist expectations but not necessarily comfortable with the term. 

Freedman spends a lot of pages exploring this very important puzzle. My opinion on this matter is that opponents of feminism have succeeded in unfairly twisting and demonizing the meaning of the word.

There exist several basic definitions of the term feminism. I particularly like Freedman’s,

Feminism is a belief that women and men are inherently of equal worth. Because most societies privilege men as a group, social movements are necessary to achieve equality between women and men, with the understanding that gender always intersects with other social hierarchies.   

One flaw in this work, at least for me, is that Freedman touches on a lot of trends and theories that need more exploration then is provided. Though this is a general history, I think that that the book needed to be longer as particular threads should have been expanded. Regular readers of this blog do know however, that as someone addicted to surveying facts and ideas, I often complain that non fiction books should be longer.

Why should this book appeal to both men and women? Ironically Freedman does not address the global and universal impact of feminism as in as much detail as I would have liked. I believe that the empowerment of women has been one of the most profoundly important trends in human history. Furthermore as the trend continues, it will continue to have an enormous impact upon humanity. Thus anyone who wants to understand history, society, politics, as well as an entire host of other issues, would do well do understand Feminism and its history. This book is a really good place to start.


Suko said...

Write the book you want to read--a very good reason for Estelle Freedman's book! It definitely sounds like an important book about (the 'F' word) Feminism. Surprisingly, I have encountered women younger than me who do not wish to be called Feminists, but I think that Freedman's definition would change their minds. No Turning Back sounds like a must-read book for women and men. Excellent review, Brian Joseph! Thank you for choosing this book (and subject).

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - That is really a great quote relating to a reason to write a book!

I would argue that, as I alluded to above, the word feminism is one of the the most misunderstood terms and concepts around.

In my opinion, if one believes in equality and believes that women and men are not yet equal, then one is feminist. Within the feminist belief systems there are then a wide variety of views.

This book really highlights that variety.

Caroline said...

I see my last comment echoed in one quote "I'm not a feminist but . . . " I think this just really shows a lack of understanding what feminism is. Sounds like a very comprehensive book.
I've got a couple of interesting books about feminism languishing half-read on my piles. You put me in the mood to pick them up again.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - That statement is so very perplexing indeed. There is so much lack of understanding on this subject.

I am an advocate of Emma Watson's He For She campaign. It is not only encouraging men to be feminists but it aimed at dispelling myths about feminism. I have included some links below.

If you read and posted commentary on some of the books that you mentioned I would love to hear what you had to say!

JacquiWine said...

It sounds like a good introduction to your reading, Brian. The section covering the context around great women writers sounds very interesting.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui - The discusion on aesthetics, women and Feminism is really worth reading in and of itself. It is one of so many interesting aspects to this book.

Violet said...

There's such a lot of wilful ignorance surrounding feminism as a political movement. Sometimes I think that young women don't identify as feminist because they're worried about how they'll be perceived by men. *sigh*

Have you read Woolf's A Room of One's Own? It fits nicely into your discussion of women writers.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - I have not read A Room of One's Own but maybe I will. It looks like it will fit in nicely with my feminists readings.

There is no doubt that people do respond to social pressure.If a lot of women are renouncing feminism because of the views of men that is indeed depressing. I also think that many men are sheepish about declaring themselves feminists because of a fear of being perceived as being "unmanly" .

I do think that most rational debates on the validity of feminism revolve around the meaning and the perception of the word. I have spoken to some reasonable folks who argue that despite its fundamental definition that we have been championing, feminism has in actuality become something different. I do not agree with this but I do try to listen to contrary views.

Brona said...

I admire your dedication to this topic Brian.
I haven't heard of this book before, although my more recent feminist readings have been Australian based (& centred around our response as a nation to our first female PM).

A Room of One's Own is a must for you given your interests and Wollstonecrafts Vindication of the Rights of Women would be interesting for you too I think.

Thank you again for all your positive, thoughtful comments on my blog & on twitter :-)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Brona - Thanks for your great comments here. Also thank you for the recamendations.

I will absolutely be reading A Room of One's Own sooner rather then later. I also want to should try Wollstonecraft. I know how fundamentally important that she is. I think one thing getting in the way of me reading her is the impression that I have that what she has to say is so basic and obvious to our twenty first century thinking that she might not be interesting these days.

One way or another. I hope that America soon has its first chief executive like Australia.

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

Looks like I should read A Room of One's Own as well. :)
This sounds like a book with a lot of general ideas. I too, prefer 'the specific' over 'the general'. I loved Charlotte Perkins Gilman "The Yellow Wallpaper and selected writings" when I read it two years ago. Always meant to read more of her work.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Delia - I usually agree with wanting to read books that dig into more specific issues.

However, I really wanted to begin with a general history and primer so that I can fit the specific stuff into the big picture. I also wanted fill in basic gaps concerning the history and the major thought systems and issues involving Feminism.

I will be moving on to the more specific now.

Thanks for the recommendation. The Yellow Wallpaper and selected writings looks very good and I will add it to my list.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Brian. Interesting book. I'm still not sure I would identify myself as a feminist because of the kind of militant "anti-man" feminists I've encountered. I don't really identify myself in the way most feminists I've known identify themselves. I'm happy about my gender but I see myself as a person and love my relationships with men and women. I think people don't want to be seen as feminists because of the reasons I've mentioned and because they (I) don't want to be labeled or cataloged. I'll be interested to see where your journey through these books take you. Take care!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - It does seem that the feminists who are anti men have had a great in influence upon many people's perception of feminism. As I have argued in my comments on my primary post on feminism, I do think that broad based belief systems have a lot of variation within them. I would also argue that if one looks at the basic definition of feminism almost every reasonable person can be called a feminist.

If I understand you correctly, You raise a really good point about our personal feelings about men and women, gender roles and feminism. I too am very comfortable with many, though not all gender roles in my own life. I mean things like dress, being just a little chivalrous, ect. I have encountered a very small percentage of feminists who argue that these things should be eliminated. While I generally disagree with that view, I do believe that we should work towards a society where people are not forced and pressured into these roles if they choose not to accept them. Hopefully I will dig into this more in context of some of the bools that I will be reading.

Brian Joseph said...

I just wanted to add a little to my last comment. This is more about my own bias and how it is shaping my opinions on feminism. This is also alluded to in my original post on feminism.

I see on social media today a handful of feminists who are angry and who are expressing ideas that are unfair, and occasionally hateful of men. These people annoy me, but when I think about it seem to be doing little real harm in the world.

For everyone of these Misandrists on social media, there are dozens of men, insulting, mocking, stalking and a fair amount of time making murder and rape threats, directed at women who speak about gender issues.

Observing these things have shaded my views. I have come to the point where I am putting less emphasis on feminists who hold views that are unfair to men.

Maria Behar said...

Another great post on feminism! Bravo, Brian!!

To be very honest, my own knowledge of feminist history is woefully I should really get myself this book!

My own personal history as a feminist came about very naturally -- as I was growing up, I thought it was unfair that boys had more privileges than girls did. As a child, I was instructed to 'act like a lady', when I wanted to do such things as climb trees. Lol.

Once, my grandfather gave me a copy of a book titled "Five Little Peppers and How They Grew". I thought it was unutterably boring.....I was around 11 at the time. Well, a few days later, I was visiting a friend of mine, and happened to notice a book, lying on a table, titled "Secret Sea", by Robb White, which I started reading on the spot and couldn't put down! The book belonged to my friend's brother. I ended up asking her if we could trade. She asked her brother, and he apparently didn't mind, so I gave her my book, which she really liked, and took her brother's book home with me. I read "Secret Sea" from cover to cover. It concerned an exciting search for sunken treasure, right after WWII. An ex-Nazi is intent on getting this treasure, and Pete Martin, recently of the U.S. Navy, must deal with the creep. Helping him in these endeavors is a young orphan, whose name escapes me at the moment. Pete become a father figure to the boy, and together, they take on this Nazi. I still have this book somewhere.

Of course, I also loved -- and devoured -- "Treasure Island"!!

Grandpa gave me a book he thought 'appropriate' for a young girl. Little did he

Well, anyway....I was really marginally aware of feminism as a social movement. I really need to learn much more about it.

Anyway....I don't consider myself a radical feminist, and certainly don't hate men. What I HATE is the oppressive system men have put in place for centuries. What I HATE is how certain men, specifically from my own Cuban culture, still DARE to categorize women as either "easy" or "decent". What I HATE is being judged as perhaps not being decent simply because, on one occasion, I sat at a bar and ordered a drink, which is something that supposedly only "women who want to be picked up" will do. I have just as much right to sit at a bar as a man does, and resent being judged inaccurately because of it. What I HATE is going to an interview for a part-time night job and being asked if my husband would "mind" my working at night.... What I HATE -- well, hated -- was having to always wait to be asked out, and being told that "nice" girls didn't ask a guy out....(Admittedly, this is no longer true.) What I HATE is that insidious 'something' in the air that lets me know that I am NOT a man's equal, that my opinions don't matter as much, because I'm a woman, and just too "emotional".

So, as you can see, I have come by my feminism through feeling it in my bones as I was growing up. I really need to actually read about and study the roots of this movement. I need to learn about all the different branches of feminism. I don't know if mine is in this book, but it might be. I'm definitely not a radical. I am a pro-life, Christian feminist.

So, thank you for your excellent review of this book! KUDOS TO YOU!! : )

Maria Behar said...

P.S. I have just found a Wikipedia article that discusses what I was referring to in my previous comment -- that women are seen as either "easy" or "decent" in Hispanic cultures. While this article concentrates on Mexican culture -- in which men are EXTREMELY dominant -- I think it's also applicable to other Latin American cultures.

I had never heard of the term mentioned in this article -- "marianismo", which is supposed to be a 'complement' to machismo, but I have certainly felt its effects.

In Hispanic cultures, a woman has a certain reputation to uphold -- that of being a virtuous, decent person who will ALWAYS be above reproach. In contrast, the reputation that a man has to uphold is that of having lots of sexual experience with many women, and not being 'a wimp'. At the same time, he of course has a right to all types of freedom -- such as the ability to come and go as he pleases, without any accountability or fear of danger -- rape, specifically.

Here's the link to the Wikipedia article on "marianismo":

Here is the link for the Wikipedia article on machismo. Of course, inherent in the concept of machismo is the denigration of everything considered female or feminine.

I think that, as a Hispanic female, my experience of the patriarchy may be somewhat different from that of non-Hispanic women.

Brian Joseph said...

. Hi Maria - Thanks for the super comment. Thanks also for the good word!

I wanted to read this book to give myself a basis for history and theory.

I do think that any one person would not likely fit into any one theory or branch. Like many other belief systems I think that most of us pick and choose among ideas.

I learned so much from this book. For instance, if I understand the theory, Radical Feminism is challenging the Patriachal system by questioning traditional gender roles. Thus I THINK some of your above points would be considered Radical Feminism. I also harbor some of these radical thoughts!

There is also a lot about how feminism interacts with different cultures, ethnicities, nations in the book. I believe that relates to your comments about your experience off being a Hispanic woman. I think the term for that study and belief is called Intersection Feminism. I am not showing off, I am just pointing out how much interesting theory and how much I learned From this book. I may actually have some of this wrong, as much of it is new to me.

What you point out is really strong bias in your culture seems to be an issue, though a lesser one, in other cultures too. There is such a double standard when it comes to dating, relationships and so called promiscuity.

The theme of the freedom from fear that I experiance as a man verses what women go through has been a reoccurring point that I have been trying to make on Social Media.

As I alluded to in my initial post, violence and harassment aimed at women is what sparked my greater support and interest in feminism.

James said...

This book sounds like a good place to start exploring the subject of feminism. Thanks for a great review that piqued my interest.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James - This book gave me the basic stuff that I wanted plus all the history and social theory was interesting.

Anonymous said...

You should now read Catherine MacKinnon's 'Feminism Unmodified'. :) Hard-hitting and unsparing.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Gautam - Thanks for the recommendation. I have looked it up and it looks good. I will add it to my list.