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International Socialist Review, Winter 1960


Frances James

Century of Women’s Struggle


Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.21 No.1, Winter 1960, pp.27-28.
Transcription: Daniel Gaido.
Mark up: Andrew Pollack for ETOL.


Century of Struggle
by Eleanor Flexner
Belknap Press, Harvard, Cambridge, Mass. 1959. 384 pp. $6.

In motivating her book Eleanor Flexner notes, “There is controversy at this time as to whether women have achieved loss, rather than gain, as to whether the ’girl in the gray flannel suit’ has not brought in her wake fresh problems worse than the old ones .... The most objective historian must have a point of view. This book has been written in the belief that opportunity for complete human development could not, and should not, have been withheld from one-half of the nation because such opportunity inevitably brought with it new problems . . .”

In a bibliographical summary the author remarks, “Today’s new literature [on the woman question in the US – FJ] is largely psychological in nature.” It is in opposition to this trend that she has prepared her concise yet broad, objective and well-documented historical survey of the women’s rights movement in the United States.

The survey covers not only the suffrage movement – including its internal programmatic and organizational fights – but the general struggle of the female half of the population for full citizenship in a supposedly democratic society. The American woman has had to fight to own property, even for the right to her own hard-earned paycheck, which was, at one time in the US, legally the property of the husband! In the intellectual fields she had first to fight for the right to read and write and even to speak in public. Even today, “Whatever the cause – fact and myth or prejudice – men still comprise between ninety-five and ninety-seven per cent of our lawyers, architects, natural scientists, and engineers, and ninety-five per cent of the doctors in the United States.”

Of special value is the author’s relating of the women’s rights movement to the role played by women in the economic and social life of the country in different periods. For example, Wyoming was the first state in which female suffrage was won and Miss Flexner accounts for this largely by the fact that women had equal property rights and played a social role comparable to men as settlers in the territory even before Wyoming was admitted to the union as a state.

Specific problems of women workers – job discrimination, wage differentials, exclusion from trade unions, etc. – are outlined in the following chapters: Beginnings of Organization Among Women; Women in the Trade Unions, 1860-75; Women in the Knights of Labor and the Early AFL; and, Into the Mainstream of Organized Labor. The hard-fought strikes of women textile, laundry, shoe and garment workers are described. There is basic information presented on women’s increasingly important role in the economic life of the country: nearly one-third of the present labor force is female and approximately one-third of all American women are wage laborers.

The account given of the contributions of Negro women to the fight for female equality, both black and white, is an outstanding feature of the book.

The physical battles protecting life and property, for the right to educate Negro girls are among the most militant and heroic of our history. The powerful and inspiring contributions of Negro women anti-slavery leaders is exemplified in the account given of Sojourner Truth’s role at the Akron, Ohio, Women’s Rights Convention of 1851. Male hecklers threatened to disrupt the convention, ridiculing the weakness and helplessness of women. Sojourner Truth took the platform and saved the day with these words:

“The man over there says women need to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages or over puddles or gives me the best place – and ain’t I a woman? ... Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted and gathered into barns and no man could head me – and ain’t I a woman? ... I have born thirteen children, and seen most of ’em sold into slavery and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me – and ain’t I a woman?”

While the book is written in popular, readable style it is thoroughly documented (forty pages of bibliographical notes and references). Miss Flexner does not attempt to deal in any way with the basic cause of women’s inferior position in private property societies nor does she propose any basic program other than continued work for reform. The book is, however, an authoritative American historical work and is of value to anyone interested in current civil liberties and minority rights movements.

The author says in conclusion,

“It might help if we remembered more often, not only the lonely vigils of Washington at Valley Forge and Lincoln in the White House, but the doubts and fears that racked an Angelina Grimké or the seemingly intrepid Elizabeth Cady Stanton when she stood up to make her first public speech in the tiny Wesleyan chapel at Seneca Falls [First Women’s Rights Convention 1848 – FJ]. Perhaps in learning more of the long journey these and hundreds more, made into our present time, we can face our own future with more courage and wisdom, and greater hope.”

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