Elevate Difference

Success and Solitude: Feminist Organizations Fifty Years After The Feminine Mystique

Much ado has been made over the fact that an increasing number of women do not identify themselves with the feminist movement, but there has been little consensus over why this is so. Why, in an era where girls grow up being told “you can be anything you want to be,” do many women reject affiliation with feminism? Author Sarah Maxwell attempts to answer this question in Success and Solitude: Feminist Organizations Fifty Years After The Feminine Mystique. In a meticulously researched book, Maxwell discusses the changing identity of the feminist movement by tracing the identity and numbers of women who have joined feminist organizations since Betty Friedman published The Feminine Mystique in 1963. Specifically, she explores the ways in which conflicting demands upon women have shifted their political allegiances and social identifications, which in turn has shifted the face of feminism itself.

Maxwell points to changes in access to education, professional opportunities, and politics as reasons for why the feminist movement’s numbers have dwindled. With the playing field leveled by increased opportunities for women, Maxwell reasons, the amount of inequality women perceive has drastically declined, even though actual inequalities may be just as present. With lower levels of inequality perceived, Success and Solitude asserts that fewer women feel a need to join feminist organizations or support their mission. Maxwell leaves it up to the reader to decide if this is good or detrimental. Success and Solitude, an academic text, was made more enjoyable by Maxwell’s careful efforts to make her research more than just facts and figures to the reader. However, Maxwell spends too much time defining the terms she uses in her research, and not enough time actually discussing how these terms play out in real women’s lives. This means that, all too frequently, Maxwell belabors the point she is trying to make, without ever making it at all. The real gems in Maxwell’s writing come in the latter part of the book, when she begins to piece together her arguments in an articulate and authoritative manner. It is a shame that just as she seems to be gathering steam in Success and Solitude, the book reaches its end.

Like any good researcher, Maxwell steers clear of giving her personal opinion and does not try to lead the reader to a particular conclusion. Therefore, the reader is left to answer Maxwell’s most pressing question: does the success of American women necessarily lead to an abandonment of women’s rights organizations? Maxwell’s research suggests that the answer to this question may be more complicated than a simple “yes” or “no.”

Written by: Gwen Emmons, August 7th 2009