I came to Christine Stansell’s The Feminist Promise: 1792 to the Present a cynic—after all, I had lived through the period she writes about, shared the experiences of many of her subjects, and have taught U.S. women’s history for almost forty years—what could Stansell tell me that I didn’t already know? Plenty it turns out. I finished reading this superb history of feminism since its birth in the crucible of the French Revolution humbled by Stansell’s achievement.
Stansell writes from an unabashedly liberal perspective. She defines feminism as “democracy’s younger sister” and believes legislative change represents progress not compromise for women as some radical feminists hold. She credits feminists who build coalitions to effect social change—for example, the twentieth century abortion reform movement culminating in Roe v. Wade victory represents concerted efforts of “physicians, psychiatrists, and family planning professionals along with activists.” And, while she identifies foundational feminist texts—Wollstonecraft, Mill, Beauvoir, Friedan, and others—she provides fresh and insightful readings of these authors and carefully traces their effects on feminist ideas and strategies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The Feminist Promise sees Western as well as global feminism as an ideology and a social movement. Writing of the varieties of feminism over time, Stansell resists the familiar “wave” metaphor and instead sets the “politics of the mothers” in tension with the “politics of the daughters.” That formulation allows us to see how reform waves that stress “responsibility, propriety, and pragmatic expectations of what can be done” uneasily coexist with those that are “utopian, flamboyant, defiant, insisting on claiming men’s prerogatives.”
Like any good historian Stansell understands the need to observe continuity as well as change in history. For example, contemporary abortion debates seem a radical departure from the concerns of our suffragist foremothers, yet Wollstonecraft, Stanton, Sanger, Goldman and others in their “insistence on physical integrity as a [End Page 164] prerequisite for women’s liberty” provide the “historical antecedents” for the radical demand that all women be freed from the threat of “involuntary motherhood.”
Situating feminism globally, Stansell uses the four United Nations World Conferences on Women as benchmarks—Mexico City (1975), Copenhagen (1980), Nairobi (1985) and Beijing (1995). She shows how feminists deployed the language of human rights to achieve goals of female health and reproductive rights in the developing world. She points out the reprehensible support of the U.S. government for the anti-Iranian Taliban with its virulent misogynist policies until the American Feminist Majority Foundation pressured the Clinton administration to take a stand on the grotesque oppression of Afgani women.
I would have liked Stansell to more fully engage Black feminism as a significant current of feminist thought—not surprisingly Pauli Murray emerges as a prominent African-American feminist while bell hooks doesn’t merit a mention—as well as assess ideas of academic feminism that have become institutionalized in Women’s Studies programs during the past forty years as a vital site of feminist intellectual activism.
Not surprisingly Stansell concludes on an optimistic note—progress has been made yet much remains to be done. Retreating from the global stage to the United States, she points to a hypersexualized American popular culture that presents women with “self-actualizing sexuality that still hinges on male approval” and persistent labor discrimination and maintains that the feminism that helped change marriage and possibilities for girls can fulfill its “promise” for social change.