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Journal of Women's History 13.4 (2002) 191-199
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Bridges and Barriers:
Sex, Class, and Race in Twentieth-Century U.S. Women's Movements
Ruth Rosen. The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America. New York: Viking, 2000. xxxii + 446 pp.; ill. ISBN 0-670-81462-8 (cl).
Dennis A. Deslippe. "Rights, Not Roses": Unions and the Rise of Working-Class Feminism, 1945-1980. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000. x + 259 pp.; ill. ISBN 0-252-02519-9 (cl); 0-252-06834-3 (pb).
Deborah Gray White. Too Heavy a Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves, 1894-1994. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999. 320 pp.; ill. ISBN 0-393-04667-2 (cl); 0-393-31992-x (pb).
Historians of women find themselves now teaching about feminism in a post-feminist era and describing second wave feminism to third wave feminists or to young men and women to whom "Equality Now!" sounds as relevant a battle cry as "Free Silver." Those of us privileged by race or class encounter a student body dramatically more diverse than the ones in which we were taught. How do we contextualize the dynamics of race and class that drove twentieth-century activism on behalf of women? These volumes will help us, although their narratives intersect rather than intertwine. Taken together, the three books under review sustain the proposition that legal protection against bias can serve as a unifying premise for women's movements, but they also powerfully evoke the differences in lived privilege that made many women skeptical that the women's liberation movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s could be their movement.
Ruth Rosen, in The World Split Open, writes as a participant/observer in a movement to which she belongs. Her warm, expansive, and authoritative chronicle of feminism's second wave in the twentieth century sets out to praise and defend the movement and the women who, by abjuring the notion of fixed gender roles, disrupted society's key organizing principle. They relandscaped the terrain in the space of little more than a decade. In 1964, the idea of legally mandated equality for women in the workplace was, quite literally, laughable; by 1971, the Supreme Court had begun to extend the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to women. By 1996, discrimination based on sex had become almost as suspect legally as discrimination based on race. By the early 1980s, when [End Page 191] Rosen had the epiphany that led her to write this book, she realized that the women's movement had wrought transformations of stunning depth and range--and her students knew little about them. She thus tells the tale from her own perspective--one of the middle-class daughters in the 1950s who picked up on their mothers' disappointments and the disdain that surrounded housewifery, and who therefore developed a "cultural matriphobia" that made them seek role models in "white women marching for peace . . . [and] black women fighting segregation." (58)
Rosen describes a women's movement consisting primarily of white, middle-class women, at least in the early years, but women who believed in the universality of their claims to women's equality and their goals of equal access based upon the premise that sex roles were socially constructed, not biologically essential, and that men and women could share in all the tasks of human existence. Because they reframed the tasks heretofore assigned to individual women in individual homes as social responsibilities, they considered themselves advocates for poor women at least as much as for privileged women, and black women as much as white women. Rosen argues here and throughout that feminists did not ignore the issue of child care or diminish its importance, and that accusations against them on this score are unjust. The National Organization for Women's (NOW) agenda from the beginning reflected cognizance of race and of the women at the bottom of the job ladder. The movement's ideological perspective...