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'To Work Together for Ends Larger than Self": The Feminist Struggles of Mary Beard and Doris Stevens in the 1930s Mary Trigg The postsuffrage years have traditionaUy been characterized as a low point in the history of American feminism. Women who had worked together to win the vote spUt into opposing camps over the Equal Rights Amendment proposed by AUce Paul's National Woman's Party (NWP) in 1923. Opponents argued that the amendment would affect the laws regulating women's wages, hours, and conditions of work, for which reformers and trade-union women had fought long and hard. Divisions of race, class, and ethnicity also hampered women's efforts to unite on the common basis of gender. During the Depression there was a widespread pubUc furor over working wives; new government regulations discriminated against married women workers. The 1940s and 1950s were particularly hostile decades for women's rights advocates; the Cold War and McCarthyism encouraged the prominence of the feminine mystique. Not until the 1960s did a large-scale feminist movement reemerge.1 Yet, as historians begin to map more fuUy the contours of American feminism in the years between 1920 and the Second Wave in the mid-1960s, it becomes increasingly clear that feminism did not die but was struggling for redefinition. A sodal movement whidi for eighty years was able to cohere—despite factional disagreements over tactics—on the one central goal of winning the vote was not able to repUcate that unity of purpose. As Nancy Cott argues in The Grounding of Modern Feminism, what historians had previously interpreted as the demise of feminism in the 1920s, was more accurately the early struggle of modem feminism. That struggle centered on a very large task: finding language, organization, and goals that would speak to and for modern women in aU their diversity.2 Historians of postsuffrage feminism disagree about the extent to which women's struggles over differing concepts of feminism and the meaning of female equaUty in the economic sphere actually damaged the movement. Susan Becker has argued that the controversy over protective legislation became "a schism that symbolized the faüure of American feminists to reach consensus on the meaning of equaUty after suffrage was won." Wüliam Chafe claims that by the 1930s the women's movement was so ensnared over the ERA that, "instead of moving ahead together to © 1995 Journal of Women's History, Vol. 7 No. 2 (Summer) 1995 Mary Trigg 53 attack the practical problems of disaiinination, women's groups polarized over doctrinaire questions of ideology." Simüarly, in her 1935 artide entitled "Is Feminism Dead?", writer Genevieve Parkhurst argued that because of a lack of ideological consensus and inspiring leadership, women were "being deprived of their hard-won rights as human beings, discriminated against in matters of work and pay, and denied access to the same avenues of recovery as men."3 Historian Lois Scharf, however, disagrees that feminist disputes paralyzed women reformers and activism during the 1930s. She argues that during the Depression, female reformers continued to form coaUtions and to work together in opposition to legislation they aU agreed threatened and undermined women's place in the American economy and sodety. She points out the issues on which women on different sides of the equal rights debate cooperated during the 1920s and 1930s, such as jury service for women, women's nationaUty rights, the preservation of women's historical documents, and the fight against employment discrimination against married women during the Depression. Although Scharf agrees that consensus over an equal rights amendment remained elusive in the 1930s, she argues that "the sodal dass and occupational differences so often blamed for the split in feminist ranks were largely overcome." Scharf does beUeve, however, that feminist arguments on behalf of embattled working wives became increasingly expedient and defensive as the Depression deepened after 1935. Even those women who opposed protective legislation, like NWP members, depided women workers within traditional famUial and economic contexts. The end result, she states, was an "astonishing and ironic unity" among at least the pubUc rhetoric of the women's movement during the 1930s, which confused and compromised the feminist basis for concerns about...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 52-85
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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