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Feminism as Life's Work

Four Modern American Women through Two World Wars

by Mary Trigg

Publication Year: 2014

With suffrage secured in 1920, feminists faced the challenge of how to keep their momentum going. As the center of the movement shrank, a small, self-appointed vanguard of “modern” women carried the cause forward in life and work. Feminism as Life’s Work profiles four of these women: the author Inez Haynes Irwin, the historian Mary Ritter Beard, the activist Doris Stevens, and Lorine Pruette, a psychologist. Their life-stories, told here in full for the first time, embody the changes of the first four decades of the twentieth century—and complicate what we know of the period.Through these women’s intertwined stories, Mary Trigg traces the changing nature of the women’s movement across turbulent decades rent by world war, revolution, global depression, and the rise of fascism. Criticizing the standard division of feminist activism as a series of historical waves, Trigg exposes how Irwin, Beard, Stevens, and Pruette helped push the U.S. feminist movement to victory and continued to propel it forward from the 1920s to the 1960s, decades not included in the “wave” model. At a time widely viewed as the “doldrums” of feminism, the women in this book were in fact taking the cause to new sites: the National Women’s Party; sexuality and relations with men; marriage; and work and financial independence. In their utopian efforts to reshape work, sexual relations, and marriage, modern feminists ran headlong into the harsh realities of male power, the sexual double standard, the demands of motherhood, and gendered social structures.In Feminism as Life’s Work, Irwin, Beard, Stevens, and Pruette emerge as the heirs of the suffrage movement, guardians of a long feminist tradition, and catalysts of the belief in equality and difference. Theirs is a story of courage, application, and perseverance—a story that revisits the “bleak and lonely years” of the U.S. women’s movement and emerges with a fresh perspective of the history of this pivotal era.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

This book and the four women in it have traveled with me for many years, and I have had the unique opportunity to consider the topics raised here—love, sex, marriage, motherhood, work, feminism—from my own evolving vantage points over time. ...


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pp. xi-xii

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pp. 1-15

Middle-class, highly educated, and white, the quartet of women profiled in this book are an elite group, but they offer insights into the transformations taking place in the lives of middle-class American women in the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s. The post–World War I disillusionment, revolution in manners and morals, and changing understanding of love, sex, and commitment ...

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Chapter 1. Planting the Seeds

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pp. 16-40

The years 1880 to 1920 saw dramatic changes in America. The nation was transformed from a rural economy and landscape to an urban, industrialized one. By 1900 almost two-thirds of working Americans no longer labored on farms but in offices, factories, stores, or banks; on railroads or in the trades; and the nation’s population was increasingly concentrated in the cities.1 ...

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Chapter 2. Setting the Stage

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pp. 41-66

Mary Beard, Inez Irwin, and Doris Stevens joined the American woman suffrage movement during its final two decades, and the experience was one of the richest of their lives. The movement exposed them to strong, inspiring women and gave them the opportunity to become activists and to develop their voices as public speakers, organizers, and authors. ...

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Chapter 3. Detention by the Male

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pp. 67-94

Early twentieth-century American feminists were not only interested in gaining their citizenship, they were also concerned about remaking their private relations with men. Sexuality was a central component in that remaking. The vibrant 1910s, which witnessed the triumphant climax of the woman suffrage movement, also fostered a sexual revolution that led to a more open society during the 1920s. ...

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Chapter 4. Old Ideas versus New: Maternalism and Equal Rights

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pp. 95-118

Where most sex radicals sought to separate women’s sexuality from marriage and reproduction, maternalists elevated motherhood. In social policy, they focused on maternal and child welfare and drew on maternalist language and strategies to transform motherhood from women’s main private responsibility into public policy. ...

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Chapter 5. This Vast Laboratory

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pp. 119-144

Modern feminism offered American middle-class women a double hope: meaningful work in the world and a resonant union with men. Stevens’s friend Crystal Eastman, an attorney and member of her bohemian cohort, summed up the way of thinking neatly. The modern woman “wants money of her own. ...

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Chapter 6. To Work Together for Ends Larger Than Self

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pp. 145-174

The international women’s movement was another site of feminist experimentation in the 1920s and 1930s, and both Doris Stevens and Mary Beard led organizations in these years that were global in scope and grand in vision. An investigation of the Inter American Commission of Women (IACW), which strove for equal rights in international laws, ...

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Chapter 7. Feminism as Life’s Work

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pp. 175-208

Inez Irwin, Mary Beard, Doris Stevens, and Lorine Pruette carried feminism forward in new sites of experimentation in the years after the 1920 suffrage victory. These sites included sexuality and relations with men; marriage; work and financial independence; and the National Woman’s Party. ...


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pp. 209-240


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pp. 241-266

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About the Author

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Mary K. Trigg is associate professor of women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University. She is also the director of leadership programs and research at the Institute for Women’s Leadership. A graduate of the University of Michigan, Carnegie-Mellon University, and Brown University, ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780813565385
E-ISBN-10: 0813565383
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813565231
Print-ISBN-10: 0813565235

Page Count: 292
Illustrations: 10 photographs
Publication Year: 2014