The Feminist Promise: 1792 to the Present (review)
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The Feminist Promise: 1792 to the Present. By Christine Stansell. (New York: Modern Library, 2010. Pp. xix, 503. $35.00 cloth)

Long respected as a scholar in the field of women's history—she wrote the classic study City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860 (1987)—Stansell is one of the few scholars who could take on over two hundred years of the women's movement in "a work of scholarship, political observation and personal reflection." In it, she takes on the daunting task of historicizing the women's movement while staying true to the feminist dictum that "the personal is political" (p. 232). She brings together the early history of the movement from the Enlightenment and the drive for suffrage to the late-twentieth- twenty-first-century fight for women's social and political equality: "This sketch goes against most histories and memoirs, which tell a story of steep declension from the golden years of militance" (p. 175). Although her argument does not drastically change views of the history of the movement, she gives a refreshing shift in perspective and emphasis on what has become a somewhat tired and disjointed story. [End Page 85]

In her early chapters, she makes it clear that her history emphasizes rights-based feminism. Wollstonecraft retains her place as one of the founders of feminism's fight for equality; however, she, along with Simone de Beauvoir, also undergo criticism for the misogyny of some of their writing. Both women uphold the intellectual tradition of distancing themselves from their subject of study rather than investing in a strong identity politics. The transcendentalists, utopian socialists, and abolitionists fare somewhat better. However, the key to this very U.S.-based feminism lies in the shifts brought by the Civil War years. In chapters four and five, the ugly, racialized history of feminism in the United States is laid bare. The picture of the women's movement in the southern states is a grim one. Feminism redeems itself in the "Renaissance" of the 1960s and focuses again on the cause of equal rights only to splinter once again under the competing loyalties of identity politics. One of the strongest chapters is not the visceral "Revolt of the Daughters" outlining the politics of housework and sexual objectification, but chapter nine which traces the less well-known behind-the-scenes fight for legal and political rights. Victories like Title IX and a growing belief in equal pay are balanced against the failure of the ERA. After its mid-decade stall in the 1970s, the women's movement loses momentum due to a growing anti-feminism that begins with the abortion debate and ends by limiting the gains of the previous ten years (thanks to antifeminist groups like the Moral Majority). Stansell's analysis of the growth of antifeminism in the Reagan years and beyond is one of the most valuable contributions of the book.

In her last chapter, Stansell makes the jump from a Western-centered feminism to the effects of the new morality politics on global feminism. Although she admits some of the gains of such shock politics and the "protective" ideal, Stansell concludes that despite a proliferation of NGOs, the shift away from rights-based feminism has hampered the progress of women around the globe and allowed governments, some supposedly democratic, to sidestep basic issues of women's human rights.

Unless you are a fan of Betty Friedan (who is described at one [End Page 86] point as "rambling and banal" (p. 214) or the post-Vatican II policies of the leadership of the Catholic Church, you will find Stansell's book a must-have text for its updated history of the movement. It should be on the shelf of every American historian and gender studies scholar.

Tammy C. Whitlock

Tammy C. Whitlock, author of Crime, Gender, and Consumer Culture in Nineteenth-Century England (2005), teaches British legal and gender history at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Kentucky. She is working on the cultural history of the British Library and trying to understand the intricacies of BlackBoard.

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