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Journal of Women's History 14.2 (2002) 88-89

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Agents of Social Change
Celebrating Women's Progressive Activism Across the Twentieth Century

Kate Weigand

During the weekend of 22-23 September 2000, more than two hundred academics, activists, and archivists from around the United States converged on the Smith College campus to participate in a conference sponsored by the Sophia Smith Collection (SSC) entitled "Agents of Social Change: Celebrating Women's Progressive Activism Across the Twentieth Century." The conference marked the completion of the SSC's three-year-long, NEH-funded project to open for research eight collections that document women's contributions to the multiple struggles for social change that span the twentieth century—labor, socialism, civil liberties, peace, racial justice, urban reform, welfare rights, and feminism. As its title suggests, the SSC planned the conference to celebrate the opening of the newly processed papers of activist lawyers Mary Metlay Kaufman, Dorothy Kenyon, and Constance Baker Motley; social movement organizers Jessie Lloyd O'Connor, Frances Fox Piven, and Gloria Steinem; and the grassroots feminist organizations the National Congress of Neighborhood Women and the Women's Action Alliance. But we also structured the weekend's events to raise larger questions about the impact these newly accessible archival documents, which encompass over 500 linear feet, might have on the fields of women's history and U.S. history. Furthermore, we aimed to publicize the new collections among activists as well as academics because, as the primary conference organizer Joyce Clark Follet emphasized in her opening remarks, documents change the way we think about the past, thus changing the way we think about the future.

Included here are the three major addresses given at the conference by women's historians Linda Kerber, Linda Gordon, and Barbara Epstein, and historians' and archivists' remarks from five conference workshops that highlighted the contents of the collections, their research potential, and their political significance. Their personal reflections analyze the trajectory of feminism and other progressive movements within the larger social and political contexts of the twentieth century. Linda Kerber's address, "'I Was Appalled': The Invisible Antecedents of Second-Wave Feminism," refutes the "two wave" view of feminist activism in the United States by placing Mary Metlay Kaufman, Dorothy Kenyon, Jessie Lloyd O'Connor, and Constance Baker Motley into a framework that emphasizes [End Page 88] women's unremitting resistance to subjugation throughout the first sixty years of the twentieth century. In particular, she argues that these women's work aimed to overturn the legal and economic legacies of coverture that remained in the twentieth century and, that by articulating the need for activists to fight against "customs and habits of thought," they helped point the way toward a new movement for women's liberation in the late 1960s and beyond. In "Social Movements, Leadership, and Democracy: Toward More Utopian Mistakes," Linda Gordon explores the relationship between mobilizing and organizing in social movements; the brilliant success of consciousness raising as a democratic organizing strategy in the women's movement; and conflicts that emerged among feminists because of their emphasis on the need to struggle against conventional customs, assumptions, and attitudes. Finally, Barbara Epstein's talk, "The Successes and Failures of Feminism," examines the state of the American women's movement since the 1980s and what remains to be done. The institutionalization of the women's movement in professional environments, especially in academia, she argues, has essentially forced feminists to adopt individualist values and practices, despite their intellectual objections to them.

The remarks from the workshops offer broad descriptions of the highlighted individuals and organizations and the collections associated with each, investigate their potential for new research, and explore the ways they might suggest new questions and answers for the study of U.S. women's history. Common themes among the pieces include the question of whether women make unique contributions to social movements; the importance of connections among social movements; and the complex dynamics of race, ethnicity, gender, and class within them. They also explore such issues as the...


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