Reviewed by Maureen A. Flanagan (Michigan State University)
Published on H-SHGAPE (November, 1998)
This book is a collection of fourteen essays, all but two of which have been previously published. As a general rule, there is an intrinsic value to gathering together already published material. Such a collection can make a body of an author's work more accessible to historians interested in the subject matter; it can also provide professional insight into how historians work, by seeing in one place a historian's intellectual journey. Yet, it has always seemed to me that to make such a collection a truly professional contribution to the historiography, the author ought to provide readers with fresh insight, with some additional reason why these essays should be gathered together and presented anew. In the two original essays in this collection, the first and the last, Ellen Carol DuBois gives us precisely those insights and reasons.
In her first essay, titled "The Last Suffragist: An Intellectual and Political Autobiography," DuBois reflects on one of the contemporary conundrums of our profession: Should there be a specific connection between our personal and professional selves? Here she reflects on how all of her work, all of the essays in this volume, developed within a particular historical context that celebrated the validity, indeed the necessity, of an inextricable bond between the professional and personal. Entering graduate school at the end of the 1960s, DuBois caught the first wave of a women's history that linked itself to a resurgent feminist movement, of which she considered herself a member. The dominant mode of inquiry of this women's history was into women's "private" sphere, and this orientation along with feminist disillusionment with the world of formal politics in the 1970s, kindled DuBois interest in the earlier political movement that had both a specifically public context and an optimism about the possibilities of politics. DuBois wanted to understand why "political equality [was] at the core of radical feminism" more than a century earlier, as opposed to the core of contemporary radical feminism. In pursuing her work she became convinced that in demanding this change in women's public citizenship, the suffragists had taken an extremely radical position (p. 3). She thus was one of the first of the new generation of women's historians to advocate a new political interpretation of the nineteenth century woman suffrage movement.
Her early essays, "The Radicalism of the Woman Suffrage Movement: Notes toward the Reconstruction of Nineteenth Century Feminism" (1975), "Women's Rights and Abolition: The Nature of the Connection," (1979) and "Politics and Culture in Women's History" (1980) (Chapters Two through Four in this collection), presented one of the first sustained arguments against viewing women's history as only, or even predominantly, the history of the private sphere. In these essays, DuBois depicted nineteenth century suffragists not just demanding a political right of democratic citizenship, but actively challenging and seeking to undermine the carefully crafted separation of male and female roles in a democratic society that had made women dominated and subordinate in that society in both their private and public lives. Whatever agency nineteenth century women wielded inside the family, inside the structures of the private realm of life, they were undeniably restricted to this position by the larger society controlled and determined by men. DuBois argued that not facing up to this situation meant not seeing the whole picture of women's history. She restored the public world of political rights and institutions to women's history, and in doing so gave women's historians to follow a theoretical underpinning for investigating women's political history.
Her 1978 essay, "The Nineteenth Century Woman Suffrage Movement and the Analysis of Women's Oppression" (Chapter Five), took the prevailing feminist slogan the "personal is the political" and turned it around to show how the political was also the personal [my words, not hers] by arguing that the suffrage movement in the decade immediately following the Civil War began to "analyze and imagine radical changes in the two major systems that structured women's oppression: capitalism and male supremacy" (p. 689). In the writings of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan Anthony, she found evidence of an often neglected dimension of the suffrage movement: the argument that neither women's private nor public conditions could be changed without attacking the economic, legal and political institutions of the State that kept women suppressed. It was in this decade, also, that DuBois located the roots of cooperative suffrage activities between middle class and working class women, upon which she expanded in her 1987 essay "Working Women, Class Relations, and Suffrage Militance: Harriot Stanton Blatch and the New York Woman Suffrage Movement, 1894 1909" (Chapter Ten). Seeing these two essays together is a timely reminder that women's historians need to do a lot more work in tracing this cross-class cooperation for suffrage.
In "The Last Suffragist" essay, DuBois raises another issue of contemporary historical scholarship that she believes has characterized and driven her work as a historian: the dominance of social history. That she entered graduate school on the crest of this paradigm shift meant not only that she would study women's history, it meant that she we would do this with certain ends in mind: "My generation wanted to contribute to a historical practice that would be useful, that would not only document social change but help realize it (p. 1)." Whether all historians at the end of the century believe that this was, or still is, the appropriate road to take, none can ignore that this was so central a belief to several generations of historians that it did profoundly reshape the discipline. By reflecting on this as an intellectual choice made by her generation, DuBois provides an extremely thoughtful analysis of how this ideal shaped the questions she has asked of the U.S. woman suffrage movement in all of her essays.
Part of this analysis, moreover, is a reflection on how this approach to women's history may explain the failure of feminist social historians to foresee how it could be used against women's quest for social change. As these historians focused decisively on celebrating women's "difference," they implicitly or at times explicitly rejected the validity of the arguments to political equality that earlier suffragists had made on the basis of liberal democratic ideas. Indeed, feminist historians had more and more denigrated these ideas as the product of a sexist male political structure, having no relationship to women's different history. Women's historians were then dismayed by how this "difference versus equality" debate was utilized against women seeking social change in the now famous "Sears" case of 1982. Then the Reagan years produced further warning about how other groups in American society could use the rhetoric of difference and of private agency to thwart the very social change that feminist historians sought to promote.
These events pushed DuBois to bring to her later essays a new intellectual perspective that connects woman suffrage and a women's rights movement in order to understand the mutuality of the private and the public. Her final essay "A Vindication of Women's Rights," cautions women's historians to understand that the efforts of the State to withdraw its "pitiful support" from impoverished mothers (i.e. welfare reform) is an attempt of the public world of politics to reassert the economic dominance of men (p. 295) which the older tradition of woman suffrage and women's rights activism had fought so hard to overturn by demanding political equality.
This is a caution and an interpretation that is rooted in DuBois' continued belief in the social historians' ideal that documenting and realizing social change should both be roles for the historian. But, it also reveals the path that DuBois carved out for herself as a historian, insisting that the public and the political history of women must be investigated in order to realize how the lack of a broader political equality has structured women's unequal social and economic status in American society.
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Maureen A. Flanagan. Review of DuBois, Ellen Carol, Woman Suffrage and Women's Rights.
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