- Feminism, Sexuality, and Politics
Continual declarations of feminism's demise, most notably by Time magazine in 1998, portray the movement as a monolithic and straightforward piece of history with an easily identifiable beginning and end. These premature—and mistaken—eulogies attempt to squeeze the vast history of United States feminism into a tidy, disposable package, tossed aside as soon as another female television character dons a power suit and glides up the corporate ladder. But as Estelle B. Freedman illustrates in her recently published collection of essays, Feminism, Sexuality, and Politics, the U.S. feminist movement has historically taken many routes and directions to continually "alter social relations by exposing the undeserved privileges that perpetuate long-standing social inequities" (1). Whereas mainstream media works hard to hammer the final nail into the coffin, the breadth and range of Freedman's essays clearly point to the undying pertinence of feminism today.
Tracing the history of feminist activism and academic feminism in the United States, Freedman's most recent text points to current and future feminist work; as her introduction states, "Feminist history calls on us to imagine the world in new ways" (1). This books records both the extensive trajectory of one of the field's most notable contributors as well as the scope and complexity of feminism's past.
The eleven essays in this collection, eight previously published and three new, chart Freedman's thirty-year career as a feminist historian, activist, and scholar. As the Edgar E. Robinson Professor in U.S. History at Stanford, she specializes in feminist studies and women's history with a focus on the United States. Additionally, her work is informed by activism and politics to deconstruct the dualism often forged between theory and practice. By using historical figures such as Miriam Van Waters, a controversial mid-twentieth-century prison reformer who advocated on behalf of female prisoners, as bridges, Freedman provides concrete examples to support her theoretical investigations.
Despite the inevitable methodological and discursive revisions to Freedman's ideas over the course of her career, three consistent themes tie these wide-ranging essays together: "questioning hierarchy, valuing women, and retaining an outsider's perspective" (1). She engages these themes in her introduction, along with the pivotal and influential turning points in her career—including her tenure case, her position as a new Feminist Studies 101 professor, and her continuing collaboration with Sexualities professor, John D'Emilio—to reflect upon both the history of American feminism and her own personal history as a feminist. The themes found throughout Freedman's work, along with a solid and insightful introduction, connect these eleven essays into a cohesive text.
However, the well-crafted and researched arguments that Freedman makes in other essays get lost in "The Historical Resilience of Feminism," taken from her landmark book, No Turning Back. Her discussion of transnational feminisms falls flat against the more carefully detailed and richer historical analysis on western feminism. Acknowledging the limited beginnings of her scholarship, Freedman notes that she moved away from an initial emphasis on white middle-class women to include a diverse and complex range of women and subject matter; this particular [End Page 156] essay, however, continues to position United States and European feminism as the model for "other" feminists to follow. Her survey of the historical processes of transnational feminisms implicitly favors Western feminism through a disproportionate use of more detailed and carved-out examples in comparison to the one-dimensional overview of feminist history in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Although Freedman correctly includes the legacy of colonialism as a key contributor to the asymmetrical power relations across regions and races, she still positions Western feminism as the idealized "big sister." In the end, this essay does shore up the idea that feminism continues to develop as a salient process, but the concentration on Western feminism hurts Freedman's argument that "[w]hile no single narrative can do justice to the complexities of unique regional histories, a framework that emphasizes the recurrent effects of democratization and wage labor...