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Journal of Women's History 17.2 (2005) 166-168

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Women's Progress, World Progress

Estelle B. Freedman. No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women. New York: Ballantine Books, 2002. xiii + 445 pp.; bib.; index. ISBN 0-345-45054-x (cl); 0-345-4505-31 (pb).

In a world turning fascist and fundamentalist, in a country reversing decades of progress in women's, racial, and human rights, is it true there is "No Turning Back" from feminism? The answer presented by Estelle Freedman is indispensable for any argument, classroom, precinct, and for any generation.

In spite of disheartening antifeminism and crude prejudice, despite disinformation about feminists blaming white men and disdaining traditional women, despite U.S. opposition to U.N. charters protecting women, or past and present rollbacks of women's rights around the world—feminism keeps spreading globally. As Estelle Freedman argues in No Turning Back, "a belief that women and men are inherently of equal worth" persists in expanding (7). "At a time when it would be easy to dwell on resistance to feminism, we need a longer historical perspective. . . . I find that the prospects for women have never been brighter" (xiii).

The longer historical perspective, crucial to Freedman's argument, shows how capitalism, individual rights, and representative government "create both the need for feminism and the means to sustain it" (2). The revelation in this book is that feminism has not spread from the United States outward, but from place to place, becoming more flexible and inclusive as it goes. As Freedman brilliantly shows, each time feminism is reframed to meet a group's needs, it nourishes another group. A century ago, Russian Socialists moving to New York brought their communitarian feminism; today Latin American feminists bring lessons in family and community, while people of color expose the complex intersections between gender and race.

With this expansive vision, Freedman wisely chooses to speak of "feminisms" in the plural, highlighting distinct timelines that often run at odds. Decades ago, "some suffragists even tried to bolster their unpopular cause by exploiting racial stereotypes directed at both African Americans and the masses of Catholic and Jewish immigrants" (79), while some European feminists viewed non-Western women as "exotic, sexually oppressed others" [End Page 166] (105). Then the 1920 suffrage victory was erased for African American women by segregation. Later in the twentieth century, some women of color "rejected radical feminism because of its inclusion of lesbians" (89). The mystery is how all these crosscurrents came to form a torrent.

To find an answer, No Turning Back assembles massive research. No other book pulls together so much worldwide data and interpretation, voices and statistics, scholarship and common sense (with sections on history, race, wage labor and family, health, reproduction, sexuality, violence, creativity, and politics) to show women changing the deep-set arrangements of their societies. Like Ruth Rosen's groundbreaking study, The World Split Open,Freedman's No Turning Back exposes the ways women rename gendered practices as prejudices and crimes.1 In some places, the renaming runs private and quiet, in others, visible and clamorous. Freedman's unforgettable point is that "political" means more than state-oriented or obvious.

The book never backs away from "political" issues that divide women and feminists, such as race and nationality, or reproduction. In many examples these divisions strengthen feminism: for instance, Native Americans placed sterilization abuse on the map of reproductive rights (chap. 10). Other divisions run geologically deep—divisions over racial privileges, pornography, colonial legacies, and reproductive technology—but Freedman works hard for balance. For instance, she says, "Recent medical technologies offer greater reproductive choices, but they also have the potential to exploit women's reproductive labor" (230). Although she casts a doubtful eye on reproductive technology, implying that infertility should concern feminists less than other reproductive problems, here as elsewhere the book resists one-sidedness, achieving astounding clarity and tolerance.

Every point demonstrates its origin in the back-and-forth of classroom discussion. Most readers will find their experiences recognized, though most will also look...


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