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Journal of Women's History 13.4 (2002) 210-218
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Do Feminist Historians Need a Theory of the State?
Nickie Charles. Feminism, the State, and Social Policy. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. viii + 245 pp.; ISBN 0-312-22675-6 (cl).
Judith Ann Giesberg. Civil War Sisterhood: The U.S. Sanitary Commission and Women's Politics in Transition. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2000. xiv + 239 pp.; ISBN 1-55553-434-1 (cl).
Melanie Nolan. Bread Winning: New Zealand Women and the State. Christchurch, New Zealand: Canterbury University Press, 2000. 386 pp.; ISBN 0-908812-97-3 (pb).
iHistorian Judith Ann Giesberg has written an insightful book on women's activities in the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC) during the Civil War. It is a comment less on her work, then, and more on where historians of women have ended up, that I point out the following uses of the word political in Giesberg's conclusions (170-72). Female reformers in the antebellum era, she writes, had "found power in their ability to condemn the all-male political process." But during the war they sought "access to political power" without giving up "women's political culture." In doing so they created a true women's "political organization" for the first time and claimed new authority as "political actors." But they "made no overtly political demands." In these six usages, the word political carries at least four or five different meanings.
It hardly bears repeating that feminism has made the personal political, and that a decision to leave an abusive husband or refer to God as She can be understood as a political act. The liberating power of this insight has been well explored; what needs to be said is that it has costs. Among them is its tendency to obscure women's relationships to the state and the ways in which private, cultural, or social acts have led, or failed to lead, to changes in government policy. Referring to almost every action as political makes such analysis more difficult. In my view policy change is the result of politics, which I define here, in the context of Western democracies treated in the books under review, as the process of electing and appointing representatives and making laws and regulations. Of course there can be causal links between individual consciousness, social movements, and elections and policies; defining politics more narrowly can help clarify what they are.
Sociologist Nickie Charles sets herself to this very task, pointing out that theorists have not provided feminist historians with much help. In a [End Page 210] brisk, sensible review of the literature, Charles shows that theorists have resisted the material implications of feminist social movements. Proponents of New Social Movement Theory (NSMT) argue that feminism is a "post-material" movement, concerned with codes and symbols rather than the distribution of resources. If this definition seems grossly inadequate--and to Charles it does--the alternative Resource Mobilization Theory (RMT) has its own problems. RMT "assumes that social actors act on the basis of instrumental rationality, weighing up the costs and benefits of any particular course of action before deciding to pursue it" (40). While such an explanation for human behavior may sometimes be correct, asserting its universal truth seems alien not only to feminism but also to the discipline of history.
Charles identifies a useful element of RMT that focuses on "political opportunity structure," that is, the argument that individuals and social movements, when they decide whether or how to act politically, take into account who holds power and what possibilities there are for change (42). She draws upon various theories of the state and rejects universal claims, noting "the difficulties of developing general theories of the links between states and social movements and the importance of analyzing different political configurations and their impact on social movements at a less abstract level" (60). While granting each theory its due, she notes with humor that scholars have been more inclined to reinterpret feminist movements to fit their theory than...