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Journal of Women's History 11.1 (1999) 210-218

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Fighting for Their Rights:
A Comparative Perspective on Twentieth-Century Women's Movements in Australia, Great Britain, and the United States

Susan R. Grayzel

Ellen Carol DuBois. Harriot Stanton Blatch and the Winning of Woman Suffrage. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997. x + 353 pp.; ill. ISBN 0-300-06562-0 (cl).
Cheryl R. Jorgensen-Earp. "The Transfiguring Sword": The Just War of the Women's Social and Political Union. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997. x + 201 pp.; ill. ISBN 0-8173-0870-9 (cl).
Gisela Kaplan. The Meagre Harvest: The Australian Women's Movement, 1950s-1990s. St. Leonards, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 1996. xiii + 242 pp. ISBN 1-86448-062-9 (pb).

How did women, excluded so blatantly from full political equality in some of the main democracies of the English-speaking world, acquire their basic political rights? Do the similarities and differences among the women's movements in Great Britain, the United States, and Australia reveal a transnational ethos or strategy? And, are there lessons still to be learned from the struggles of these movements, at both their incarnations and their "second waves"? Collectively, the works under consideration here cover the entire twentieth century and offer three distinct national and disciplinary perspectives on modern women's movements in key outposts. One is a historian's biography of the American suffrage leader Harriot Stanton Blatch; another is a study by a professor of communication studies of the rhetorical strategies the early-twentieth-century British Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) employed; and the third is a sociologist's analysis of the last four decades of Australian feminism. Together, they illustrate divergences in the ways in which scholars evaluate the achievements and limits of a truly international movement for social change, and shed light on the core issues of women's movements across national borders. These books also tell us a great deal about the diversity of feminist tactics.

Overshadowing the work of feminist activists throughout this century has been the question of how to turn the concerns of an often small cadre of activists into a mass movement capable of enacting sweeping political and social change. At various moments, such British, American, [End Page 210] and Australian activists have gained a large audience, but the manner in which they have done so also has led, on occasion, to divisions in these movements. All three books depict how a flair for the dramatic gesture and an ability to draw publicity have been instrumental in eliciting wider attention but with mixed costs and results.

"Militancy"—the set of confrontational tactics that arose in the British women's suffrage context in the early years of the twentieth century—was transformative because it challenged previously lawful and nonviolent strategies for securing the women's vote. Along with lawbreaking, parades, pageants, and public speaking on street corners, methods earlier generations largely bypassed came into their own first in Britain and then in the United States, as Cheryl R. Jorgensen-Earp's and Ellen Carol DuBois's works vividly recapture. And such gestures from this era as women chaining themselves to public buildings to make political statements also recurred in the Women's Liberation Movement in Australia, as Gisela Kaplan's study illustrates. The three books demonstrate that one of the fundamental issues for women activists has been the decision to work within or against "the system"—which includes governmental and legal operations and institutions, and societal expectations of what women ought to be and to do.

Cheryl R. Jorgensen-Earp's "The Transfiguring Sword": The Just War of the Women's Social and Political Union offers an innovative approach to the study of the WSPU, a British women's suffrage organization which Emmeline Pankhurst created in 1903 and that developed suffrage militancy. By destroying property using arson and bombing, the WSPU certainly has been seen as working against the system and stereotypes of femininity. Jorgensen-Earp, utilizing...


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