No Turning Back
Text of Reviews
It seems like an impossible task to sum up the origins, gestation, factions, setbacks, triumphs, and global reach of the feminist movement in 400 pages, but Estelle Freedman does so with great style and finesse. No Turning Back is women's studies scholarship at its finest: truly interdisciplinary, politically charged yet not dogmatic, intellectually rigorous, and passionately engaged with its subject matter. Freedman, a professor of history at Stanford, has impeccable credentials. A longtime teacher of Feminist Studies 101, she helped found women's studies programs at Princeton and Stanford. In No Turning Back, Freedman draws from an entire "generation of interdisciplinary scholarship" to paint a compelling portrait of women's advancement.
Starting from the assumption that feminism is not a popular phenomenon but a serious, monumental political philosophy that has irrevocably changed the course of human history. Freedman sets out to tell us where we are, how we got here, and where we need to go. Drawing from feminist scholarship in history, sociology, anthropology, law, literature, and science, as well as a smattering of literary and cultural resources, Freedman's narrative brings feminism out of the academy and shows the myriad everyday issues it has touched.
At heart, No Turning Back is a comprehensive analysis of the economic, political, and cultural forces shaping women's lives and gender relations. Though primarily a history of American feminism, it is well situated within a global context, offering a wealth of examples of feminist movements in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Freedman is particularly skillful at incorporating conflicting viewpoints without making the movement seem completely fractured, and without passing judgment. Her description of the great early-'80s porn debate, for example, is nuanced and fair, presenting the opinions of both the pro- and antiporn factions without belittling either side or coming down firmly in one camp-and most important, gently pointing the way toward a middle ground.
There is such a vast wealth of material contained within these pages that it's hard to know where to begin to describe its riches. Freedman's writing is easily accessible to the nonacademic reader, but it's an even better treat for the more serious scholar, who is rewarded with an outstanding bibliography and collection of references. No Turning Back will undoubtedly become a staple text of women's studies classes, but it really ought to be required reading for all humanities students.
The title of Estelle Freedman's new book calls up the image of a company of people on the road. If the history of feminism is imagined as indeed a trek towards freedom, then we know that two attitudes constantly offer the temptation to halt, rest, and give up. One, exemplified in the phrase of the past few decades, "You've come a long way, baby,' has a very long history indeed. It implies, after each sign of success, that total victory has been achieved, and there is no need for further effort. The journey is over. The other looks grimly at the cost of success: the fatigue experienced by those who have struggled for greater justice and the angry backlash of those in opposition. The Sisyphean task is overwhelming; abandon it.
No Turning Back offers a clarifying, invigorating answer to both those points of view and is therefore a book that all on that road need in their backpacks. I do not mean to suggest, however, that the book achieves this end through a hortatory rhetoric. On the contrary, Freedman, with an historian's discipline, uses the narration of factual material to build her argument and draw her conclusions.
The first two of the book's five sections, 'Before Feminism' and 'The Historical Emergence of Feminisms' take an historical approach as the reader might expect. The surprise and admiration come as one realizes the ambitious sweep of Freedman's narrative. These chapters create a mosaic made up of names and their attendant stories: Fannia Cohn and Clara Lemlich who brought tens of thousands of garment workers into trade unions; Mary Church Terrell, who struggled as an African American woman against the racism of white feminists; Domitila Barrios de Chungara, who brought the wives of Bolivian miners to a sense of their own empowerment.
The history of feminism necessarily includes not only a celebration of such successes but also a recognition of the strains, conflict, and anger within the movement itself. Freedman takes note of the presence of racism and homophobia in both the first and the second wave of feminism, but she does not allow her argument to become entangled in divisive judgments. Instead, she lets us hear more clearly the voices of those who found ways to transcend division. A section, for instance, on differing female identity groups ends by quoting the African American feminist Barbara smith: 'In Smith's view, the struggle to free all women had to include 'women of color, working-class women, poor women, disabled women, Jewish women, lesbians, old women-as well as white, economically privileged, heterosexual women''(91-92).
The last three sections of No Turning Back address major areas of feminist activism: 'The Politics of Work and Family,' 'The Politics of Health and Sexuality,' and 'Feminist Visions and Strategies.' With a strong emphasis again on the gains made worldwide through the struggles of individuals and organizations, Freedman nonetheless keeps us mindful that we are still on the road, not at the goal. While she points out a significant drop in disapproval of women's working outside the home (153), she takes account of the fact that 'In 1990, out of 260 occupational categories in the United States, only 12 per cent were sexually integrated. The majority of jobs were either male- or female-dominated' (161). And (closer to home): 'In 1997 white males held 70 percent of the full-time tenured faculty positions in the United States, and at elite universities such as Stanford and Harvard, only 15 percent of the tenured professors are women' (160).
Findings like these show the impossibility of accepting the view that the struggle is a thing of the past. On the other hand, Freedman's analysis never suggests that we should lose hope in 'the future of women.' In her acknowledgements, Freedman writes, 'Based on the vibrant scholarship surveyed here, I find the prospects for women have never been brighter' (xii). Her own book is a further example of 'vibrant scholarship.' It is a candid, engaging, awesomely inclusive history of feminism's past and a roadmap for the future.
If you thought the women's movement was dead, think again.
Several years ago, I recall hearing how women had seen the error of their ways, especially when they learned that their chances of marrying declined precipitously as they got older. (The results of that report, we learned later, had been misinterpreted.)
Women were no longer interested in competing with men; they wanted to return to the days of chivalry, when men stood when women entered a room, opened doors for them, and brought them flowers and candy. And we'd all live happily ever after.
Feminism, Stanford University professor Estelle B. Freedman declares, is here to stay. The movement is similar to other social changes that rise and fall in waves, eventually advancing too far to retract. She credits two forces with propelling feminism: the growth of capitalism that disrupted traditional family relations, and political changes that emphasized individual rights and representative government.
To support her claim that feminism is alive and well, Freedman cites the trend toward more natural childbirth practices, more enlightened policies on rape and sexual harassment, the growth of women's athletics and the adoption of more family-friendly policies by corporations and government.
The future, however, is not without challenges. In the United States and elsewhere, maternal and infant deaths are still high, domestic abuse and violence is all too prevalent, and equal political representation is far from realized.
Female genital mutilation and forced sterilization are still common in many parts of the world. Freedman does not shy away from describing other examples of the persecution, rape, torture and murder of women, sometimes in more detail than I would have liked.
Women's allure has been characterized as so threatening to men that the very sight of a woman's body is too tempting to be allowed. (Think of the Taliban in Afghanistan.) Women's dependence on men for support and protection, their role in childbearing and child care and their "double day" of work and home responsibilities continue to put them at a disadvantage even as progress has been made.
That women accepted, even internalized, their lower status as domestic workers and mothers challenged feminists in all parts of the world to address the differences between protective legislation and equality. Freedman notes that even women's art is absent in many public arenas or dismissed as inconsequential.
Freedman's book is compelling and surprisingly easy to read for a tome that covers so much territory, tracing the progress of feminism from suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony of the 1800s to today's leaders. Freedman's emphasis on global experiences and progress, and her use of examples and stories of individual women from villages in Africa to urban areas in the United States, bring concepts to life.
The complicated interplay of race and gender as well as differences between women of privilege and lower-status women illustrate how forces separate from gender affect women's progress.
In spite of the book's strong points, the occasional omission of primary sources, especially for easily verifiable information, is bothersome. For example, no source is cited for her statement that "estimates of the percentage of rapes reported to police are very low: 5 percent in South Africa, under 10 percent in the United States, and 12 percent in England."
Freedman does include references for much of the rest of the content (contained in notes at the back), she keeps the reader's interest by placing relevant statistics in tabular form in the appendices, and she includes additional bibliographic notes for each chapter that presumably one could use to verify her statements.
Minor criticism notwithstanding, Freedman's book makes an important contribution to understanding the feminist movement from historical, nationalistic and cultural perspectives. Freedman's skill in making complex material readable is evident, as is her passion for her subject.
'At a time when it would be easy to dwell on resistance to feminism, we need a longer historical perspective," says Estelle B. Freedman, a professor of history and founder of the Stanford University program in feminist studies. No Turning Back is her attempt, as a teacher, to provide a text that would act as a compendium of feminist scholarship. She has succeeded -- no mean feat, especially when she has managed to keep it clear, non-polemical yet stirring, focused and, most important, global rather than only Western in scope.
As a sophomore at Barnard College, Freedman decided she preferred to study "real" history rather than enrol in a fledgling course on US women's history. Later, after writing books on women's prisons and the history of sexuality, her attention became fixed on the pesky persistence of sex, race and class hierarchies. As a historian with an interest in class and elites, she dwells on the rise of capitalism and of the political theories of rights and representation that gave rise to modern feminist politics. Her opening section, Before Feminism, backtracks for a sweeping account of world history, considering the rise of patriarchy in pre-industrial societies and the way it displaced hypothetical prehistoric matriarchal arrangements, a cross-cultural review that emphasises women's labour as a source of influence. As the gap between men's paid and women's unpaid work deepened, the story goes, women became more homebound and more economically dependent on men, "enjoying less leverage within marriage and fewer opportunities outside it".
This pattern can be seen emerging across the globe as agricultural societies embrace industrial capitalism. When -- surprise, surprise -- the Enlightenment push for the rights of man turned out to exclude women, utopians such as the Saint-Simonians in the early 1800s championed equal rights for women, more radical in their egalitarianism than the later Marxists, looking to the home as well as the workplace. They wanted socialised housework and childcare, such that all adults took responsibility for all children, and indeed believed the private family was an anachronism.
Sadly, perhaps, it was Marxist socialism that inspired a mass political movement in Europe. It is well known that the 20th-century women's movement grew out of abolitionism and also well known, largely through the efforts of feminist scholarship (exemplary in its fair-minded critique of its own historical shortcomings), that class and racial elitism dogged the forward march of Western feminism.
Freedman's account of US women's history is rich in personal testimonies of women downtrodden by their alleged champions (the League of Women Voters and the YWCA were honourable exceptions.) Cracks in sisterhood widened after the rebirth of radical feminism at the time of the civil rights movement.
Freedman then widens her view to the challenges Western feminism faced when it extended its scope to global sex inequality, and she looks at self-determination struggles, for nations and women, in India, Egypt, South Africa, Turkey, Iran and Algeria. Transnational feminism, says Freedman, drawing on the work of non-Western feminist scholars, has to accommodate not only the Western models that play catch-up with men's rights but also strategies from other parts of the world that draw on "women's heritage of raising their families, maintaining their cultures and empowering themselves".
This is where the book is most engrossing. She offers many accounts of women's struggles where the protagonists do not see themselves as part of a feminist fight. Domitila Barrios de Chungara, a Bolivian activist for peasant rights, urged her companeras to stand up to their husbands and the state, but not to mimic men "in all their vices". In many countries, a maternalist belief in women's moral superiority persists and feminists remain committed to women's place in the home.
Read Freedman also on the "global assembly line", which leaves so many hierarchies unchallenged, and the way in which sex has come back from behind to predominate over race as the more salient factor in the US wage gap. She is extremely good on women and work, public welfare models in countries such as France and Sweden, and the way the welfare debate chimes with dominant rhetoric about women workers. Those few governments that value women's work in the home but don't make it hard for them to work outside, and manage as well to imagine men as potential homemakers, with both men and women eligible for parental benefits, seem to deliver the best social results.
Freedman maintains an admirable equilibrium in cross-cultural analysis. She is able to see, for instance, that "cultures at large eroticise children, tolerate sexual abuse and contribute to silence by incriminating the child who reports sexual contact". By the same token, she insists throughout that discrimination does not render the oppressed powerless. Women, children, minority groups will always try to locate where their influence resides and find ways to exercise it.
Today, as always, women continue to resist patriarchal dominance, both within and outside families. Freedman is clear that elected office is not the only measure of political influence and points to gains by women in many unsung global contexts. She foresees recurrent antifeminism and its counterweight in the momentum from "historic changes in labor, reproduction and culture".
No Turning Back is grounded in materialist analysis yet embraces cultural theory and the transformative power of art and literature. If Freedman's research leans somewhat heavily on US scholarship, her reading in transnational feminism is still impressive. Australia rates many interesting mentions.
The points she makes about sex and violence are unassailable but this is one chapter that needs more speculative underpinning. The question eventually asked by anyone who looks at how women are treated is why being female exposes a person to such a spectrum of particular and savage punishments. Freedman notes in passing "fears of the female body and efforts to control female sexuality" as creating volatility in sexual relations, but this central matter needs to be organically theorised into the weave of a book like this. That said, though, this is a stalwart, inspiring volume that feminists, men and women, can confidently brandish against the challenges of a new millennium.
Copyright The Weekend Australian 2002.
As someone who has taught and written about women's history for over thirty years, I was dubious about No Turning Back. Another text, another plea for feminism--spare me. But as I began reading the book, I realized that even a weary feminist had much to learn from Estelle Freedman. The book is broad and sweeping, stretching from the rise of capitalism and colonialism to the current millennium, the global economy in Asia, Africa, Europe, North and South America. Freedman includes the relevant topics--women's rights, wage work, domestic labor, motherhood, the body, reproduction, race, identity, sexualities, violence and creativity, and explores the many feminisms--socialist feminism, international feminism, maternalism, local feminism, global feminism and essentialist feminism....
No Turning Back is historically specific, with concrete examples and active voices, bits of poetry and song. freedman writes clearly in the vernacular, addressing an audience broader than an academic one. Longer excerpts from essays or stories, poems and songs, would have enriched the book; but then there is so much to cover.
Freedman has no totalizing theory of feminism that encompasses the many feminisms, nor are her particular narratives presented as unique; to integrate the general with the historically specific, she glides between the extremes of grand theory and local experience. She acknoowledges both the ubiquity of male privilege in african, Chinese and Western history, and the striking variety of women's resistance and patriarchal practice. The multicultural sweep of No Turning Back demonstrates that women stand in a multitude of places depending on time, place, race, age, sexual preference, class, and other factors. Freedman manages to consider these differences and still accept the need to generalize about women in order ot write a history of feminism that also conveys the possibility of political mobilization and coalition-building....
"Nice Girls", The Economist print edition, May 23, 2002
THE term “feminism” (or rather féminisme) was first used in France in the 1880s, and almost immediately became the subject of competing definitions. The social movement it described had, in fact, already been gathering momentum for a century, and had always been a collage of differing viewpoints rather than a monolithic entity. Back in the 19th century, some radical women preached free love while most emphasised sexual purity, some emphasised women's contribution in the home while others sought to expand their opportunities outside it.
Estelle Freedman, an American academic, admirably acknowledges this complexity in her overview of feminism's history. She shows it to be as multifaceted and historically determined as any other ideology, beginning with her illuminating analysis of its roots in the liberal rights theories initially fostered by the growth of capitalism in the 18th century. Paradoxically, while capitalism created the intellectual conditions for feminist ideas to take root, it actually made women more dependent on men economically, widening the gap between paid and unpaid labour and making middle-class female idleness not only possible but a status symbol. Central to Ms Freedman's approach is her emphasis on the relationship between the value of women's labour and their power in any given society.
Ranging from ancient civilisations to the present day, from China to Peru, the scope of this book is enormous. The result is inevitably selective. British readers may be surprised that the name Pankhurst does not appear in the index, but they will be fascinated to learn about the symbiotic, not always harmonious, relationship between the women's movement in America and the fight against racism, dating from the days of slavery.
While Ms Freedman's outlook is optimistic, the same could not be said of Phyllis Chesler whose book leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. “Woman's Inhumanity to Woman” combines a variety of different approaches—from primate research to sociology, from psychoanalysis to autobiography—to explore the crueller aspects of female relationships both inside and outside the family. The most interesting section, based on interviews, concerns women's treatment of other women in the workplace, particularly when they have to compete for a token position in a male-dominated office. Yet the writing is uneven: attempts at literary criticism are as unconvincing as the biological determinism which elides humans with monkeys. This is a book by a disillusioned idealist, a women's liberation activist astounded by the fact that she has not received unalloyed benevolence from her “sisters” over the years. When she tells us, with horror, that “verbal aggression” between women was found in 82% of societies in an anthropological study, one is tempted to wonder where the utopian 18% are to be found. Ironically, the feminist tendency to idealise women reveals itself as uncomfortably close to men's sexist assumption that women should always be “nice”.
Beth Glenn, "A General Guide to Feminism's Growth," St. Petersburg Times 3/24/02, 4D
"Feminism is dead!"
So goes the debate among scholars and students of culture, ambivalent about the current state of the struggle for women's equality and empowerment. Estelle B. Freedman's No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women argues persuasively that reports of the movement's demise are indeed exaggerated and posits instead that feminism has grown, spread and been fortified by traditions from around the world.
Freedman set out to write a book that took a comprehensive look at women's history and social movements for women's rights from a lay person's perspective. In response to a question about a women's studies equivalent of math for non-math majors, Freedman drew a blank and realized that she had to assemble and assimilate the information herself. No Turning Back is her largely successful attempt, a parallel to the project Natalie Angier undertook to make the science of women's bodies accessible to the casual reader. Although the text gives a necessarily light treatment of many issues, Freedman's work is well-sourced through the bibliographic notes section. It provides an overview for a general audience that makes fresh connections among women's movements across time and geography.
Freedman, chair of Stanford's Program in Feminist Studies, offers a definition of feminism with four components: 1) equal worth, 2) combatting male privilege, 3) orchestrating social movements and 4) understanding that gender intersects with other social hierarchies. Beneath this umbrella notion of "justice for women as a primary concern," Freedman shows how political and ethnic particularities in various parts of the world have given rise to localized feminisms pertinent to the lives of activists on the ground. In parts of Europe, for instance, where unions and welfare states are strong, feminists advocate for equal wages and child care for working mothers. In South Asia and parts of Africa, the focus is on micro- lending programs, while in the Islamic world, reform of family law seeks to win marital choice, property rights and the right to divorce.
But the reader comes away with a vision of feminism that is always more expansive and encompassing than fractured and fractious. "While growing international feminist movements share the conviction that women deserve human rights," Freedman notes, "only some concentrate solely on women, while others recognize complex links to the politics of race, class religion, and nationality.
"Despite these differences, most Western feminists have learned that global economic and political justices are prerequisites to securing women's rights." Such passages are characteristic of Freedman's sunny optimism. And on a subject that could easily be given over to righteous indignation, Freedman avoids being a demagogue. Although her support of feminist ideals is evident, she maintains her evenhanded tone when discussing feminism's critics. She acknowledges that, ". . . feminism feels deeply threatening to many people, both women and men.
"By providing a powerful critique of the idea of a timeless social hierarchy, in which God or nature preordained women's dependence on men, feminism exposes the historical construction, and potential deconstruction, of categories such as gender, race and sexuality. Fears that feminism will unleash changes in familiar family, social and racial relationships can produce antifeminist politics among those who wish to conserve older forms of social hierarchy."
That is certainly as gentle and generous an explanation of the opposing viewpoint as you are likely to hear either within or outside academic discourse.
Indeed, a willingness to eschew either/or in favor of both/and sensibilities is evident in Freedman's work. No Turning Back introduces readers to competing strains in Western feminist theory - difference versus equity, liberalists and assimilationists versus radicals and separatists - but largely smoothes over those differences (which is perhaps a traditionally Western female response in itself). Of the demands placed on feminism by race, class and nationality Freedman concludes, "In the long run, these challenges would redefine feminism and make it more flexible, more heterogeneous and more durable."
In Freedman's world, then, feminism - like fine wine - only stands to get better with time.
Reading the new books by Stanford University historian Estelle Freedman and feminist writer Phyllis Chesler back-to-back is like driving a sturdy sedan over a swaying rope bridge. One starts out feeling quite confident about the historical journey of the American woman, but comes to marvel that any female survives the trip.
Freedman's 400-page book is built on an elegantly simple foundation: Feminism evolves and is multilayered, not a discrete, neatly bordered thing to be picked up and examined outside of its contexts.
To grasp the past and present roles and rights of women, it is necessary to trace feminist culture through changes in labor, race relations, medical attitudes, social policy, literature and sexual mores, as Freedman reveals in this very readable, comprehensive history . The tone of her book is optimistic, despite the oppression and setbacks she describes.
"This varied movement to recognize all women as fully human and fully citizens, to value women's labors as much as men's, and to honor women's physical integrity is now poised to expand," writes Freedman in closing.
Chesler's book casts a different spell entirely. More fierce manifesto than conventional history, it is a provocative take on the nature and behavior of women.
She starts from the belief that girls and women are doomed -- by evolution and socialization -- to treat each other badly. A patriarchal society only aggravates this behavior.
Drawing on a dizzying number of surveys, studies, literary and popular references, as well as field interviews and memories of her own tortured relationships with her mother and other women, Chesler takes on the sisterhood like Sherman took Atlanta.
She writes convincingly that women learn early to punish other females when they act, dress or speak in ways that challenge the status quo. They do so by banding together in exclusive cliques, spreading gossip, discriminating in the workplace and sometimes by abusing their own children, she claims.
"Girls learn that a safe way to attack someone is behind her back, so that she will not know who started the attack," Chesler writes. Few beings can be as cruel as an adolescent female, no argument there.
And Chesler zeroes in on a certain stealth meanness present between women in the workplace.
And even though her 491 pages should be cut in half and her writing is occasionally overwrought, Chesler's work raises some valid and fascinating points.
One example: Chesler argues that female sexism is more than annoying -- it is a potentially lethal thing.
Women who are raped, she says, need other women -- as cops, medical personnel, jurors -- to help them recover and fight back. The sexist attitudes of women in those jobs can add to the oppression of female victims.
She cites specific instances in which female jurors sided with male defendants, including that of accused rapist William Kennedy Smith in Florida in 1991. Chesler quotes a woman on the Smith jury as saying he was "too charming and too good looking to have to resort to violence for a night out."
Reading these books together is anything but restful. But it provides a valuable view of two very different methods of examining social change.
Chesler's micro view essentially takes something quite simple -- the perfectly believable notion that women tend to mistrust each other -- and builds a complex argument about where we are now as a gender and a society.
In the macro view, Freedman takes a multilayered and diverse history -- that of feminism -- and crafts a straightforward, uncluttered narrative. Feminism is not a detour from "real history," it is real history.
The cumulative effect of the books is to realize something quite remarkable. We have arrived at a place where the laying out of women's cultural roles is a serious pastime with implications for the wider society in which we live.
Although Freedman would likely not appreciate this image, it is not far-fetched to imagine that if she added a chapter to her history of feminism, she'd hold up Chesler's work as a sort of landmark.
Freedman might make a case that in 2002 we moved fully into a time when it was safe for women -- scholars and pop writers alike -- to risk very bold self-criticism and analysis, confident that their work has an intelligent audience.
In July, 1848, 300 men and women gathered at Seneca Falls, New York, and launched the fight for women's suffrage. By declaring their in- dependence, American women joined women in England and Germany in claiming the right to vote, to receive an education, and to own property. Through speeches, reform newspapers, and petitions to legislatures, women began to demand equal rights. These early feminists were criticized for their unladylike and unseemly behavior, and were often portrayed as "pants-wearing, cigar-smoking, unfeminine, bossy shrews." The backlash was considerable, and progress was slow - in Virginia, married women could not own property in their own right until 1877, and the 19th Amendment (passed in 1920) was not officially adopted by the General Assembly until 1952.
NO TURNING BACK provides a thoughtful, international history of feminism. This social upheaval - sparked by the premise that women are as capable and as valuable as men - crossed continents, decades, and ideologies. Women worldwide still fight for the right to attend school, to enter the workplace, and to earn fair wages. They are still rejecting sexual harassment, protesting degrading cultural images, and claiming control of their bodies.
Stanford historian Estelle Freedman traces the development of feminism from the 18th Century to the present, providing a wealth of interdisciplinary examples and statistics (handily contained in an appendix). She describes the activism of women in the United States and around the world, including Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.
No Turning Back is a skillful synthesis of feminist ideology and activism. The text is clearly written, and bibliographic notes for each of the book's 14 chapters give helpful suggestions for further reading. Ms. Freedman admits that her book does not "tell a single, unified history of revolutionary triumph." Instead, it serves as a reminder that the struggle for women's equality continues.
VIRGINIA, for example, ranks in the bottom third of states for pay equity - women in the Commonwealth earn just 70 cents for every dollar a man earns. No Turning Back reminds readers just how far women have come, and shows us how far we still have to go.
Jennifer Davis McDaid is an archives research coordinator at the Library of Virginia. This story can be found at: http://www.timesdispatch.com/editorials/books/MGBXTWVK85D.html