Melissa Estes Blair dives into deep water in her investigation of women’s organizations from 1960 to 1985. She uses Durham, North Carolina; Indianapolis, Indiana; and Denver, Colorado, to study what she identifies as pre-feminist, feminist, and radical feminist actions. Her work centers on national organizations established prior to the [End Page 124] years of her study, and she specifically compares the League of Women Voters and the YWCA across cities.
Blair breaks new ground by linking late-twentieth-century women’s activism across regional divides. Her efforts to reveal national conversations through localized studies are a welcome perspective in an area that can be fractured and isolating. Revolutionizing Expectations is “a study of local feminist activism . . . embedded within a broader exploration of the role of women’s organizations in politics” (p. 5). Blair’s analysis creates comparisons across time and geography, often contrasting Durham, Indianapolis, and Denver against one another. The most interesting revelation is the impact of Denver’s long-lasting female presence in politics, voting, and state representation. Blair’s analysis posits that Colorado’s 1893 enfranchisement of women resulted in women’s organizations enjoying a less marginalized and “radical” status than sister organizations in Durham and Indianapolis in the late 1960s and 1970s.
The majority of the women in Blair’s study are educated, middle-class women. Despite engaging concepts of segregation, poverty, and equality, Blair’s analysis does not deeply examine class, labor, and population gender disparity, categories that played such a large role in the works of Leslie Brown, Lisa McGirr, and Deborah Gray White. For instance, Blair concludes Durham women organized largely through pre-existing organizations, yet the long trajectory of these organizations and how they evolved over time is not explained. It is noteworthy that Blair does not clearly define feminism, radical feminism, and women’s issues in the geographic and temporal space of her study. For a reader new to feminist theory, women, feminists, activist, and voters are not easily distinguishable from one another. Blair acknowledges that working-class women did not often find a place among the middle-class black and white women who populated these organizations. Unfortunately, this poignant observation is left to the final paragraph of chapter two, allowing no room to question the dynamics of class and labor in Durham.
Using personal papers, organization newsletters and minutes, [End Page 125] and a half-dozen oral history interviews, Blair’s research combines women’s activism with issues of segregation, poverty, sexual violence, labor equality, and social patriarchy. Any one of these issues, studied in terms of race, class, and gender, in any one of these cities Blair investigates, is excellent fodder for a nuanced understanding of the ways in which women’s organizations of varying racial and economic make-up confronted solutions. Yet Blair’s study is far-reaching, and does not fully confront deep and endemic issues of race and class. For instance, Blair’s scope does not address how the intersection of race and class informed the agenda of the League of Women Voters and the YWCA in the cities included in Blair’s study. The reader is left to question how the racial and economic demographic of women’s organizations impacted organizational relationships with local and regional policymakers. Blair’s analysis tells much about women’s organizations but falls short of showing the reader how and why these organizations were revolutionary. She has opened the door for additional study of cross-regional activism among women’s groups in the late twentieth century. A further, in-depth examination of the important questions raised in her book will continue to add to the understanding of late-twentieth-century activism.
DARA R. VANCE is a doctoral student at the University of Kentucky. She is currently researching gender, class, and clothing in the long civil rights movement in the U.S. South.