Elevate Difference

The Feminist Promise: 1792 to the Present

The appropriate feminist response to The Feminist Promise is to send truckloads of gratitude to Christine Stansell, professor of history at the University of Chicago, who collected and digested a vast array of material, much of it ephemeral, and put it in a history book. Some of us hang on to the materials of history—like Laura Murra and my late friend Arlene Meyers, who preserved so much of the material base of second wave feminism as it was happening. Others, like Alice Echols, tracked down those of us who lived the history and captured these accounts lost in mainstream versions. The Feminist Promise takes a wider view of this idea, starting with the 1792 publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and ending with the problematic high profile attained by global feminism in foreign policy.

Neither from the “great woman school” nor the annales philosophy, The Feminist Promise is a narrative history of feminists in both their public and personal lives, and the great opportunities, victories, and defeats of a social movement. Stansell profiles the Grimke sisters, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Hillary Clinton, Mavis Leno, and other major figures; includes (and misses) some less well-known feminists in this “herstory”; and airs some dirty linen. The material masterfully presented makes The Feminist Promise worthwhile. It’s a long, scholarly, but remarkably rollicking read. My criticisms lie in the tone, the Freudian shaping, and the “promise” of feminism she posits.

A couple of decades makes a huge difference in the tone of even a friendly, and openly participating scholar. There’s a distance not just from lived experience but from living, wild, raw, social movement feminism and the introduction to the shorter anthology focused on sexual politics that Stansell helped edit, Powers of Desire. The Feminist Promise takes a necessarily more comprehensive view. Its changed tone may well result from the trough between feminist waves, the ascendancy of theory over the practice of a lived movement, and historicity itself. She takes note of the periods of lassitude that interrupt the movement forward, while ending on a note of problematic triumphalism with feminism as geopolitics.

Stansell’s organizing trope is the familiar one of mothers and daughters and brothers and sisters, which distorts the complexity of feminism by jamming it into a family drama. (To be fair, she acknowledges in her conclusion that feminism has now moved beyond the family romance.) Feminism’s almost bipolar, cyclic nature, and the back-and-forth between those confronting and those pragmatically working within the system, are two alternative explanatory devices that come to mind. Still, she who collects the records plays the tune. In trying to arrange a marriage between feminism and democracy, the promise of the title, she doesn’t really ask “whose democracy?” though she differentiates between feminisms.

Speaking of lived history, I have long misremembered this quote as from Susan B. Anthony: "Our history has been stolen from us. Our heroes died in childbirth, From peritonitis, Of overwork, Of oppression, Of bottled-up anger. Our geniuses were never taught to read and write, We must invent a past adequate to our ambitions. We must create a future adequate to our needs."

Because I first saw this quote on a poster illustrated with a woodcut of Anthony that hung in the women’s liberation office on Mintwood Place in the District of Columbia, my mind leapt to the conclusion this anonymous quote was Anthony’s, and stuck there. I stand corrected. More important, thanks Professor Stansell for clawing some history back.

Written by: Frances Chapman, June 14th 2010