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Women's Rights.

by Christine A. Lunardini Phoenix, AZ: The Oryx Press, 1996, 219 pages

Reviewed by: Nancy N. Haanstad, Weber State University

Women's Rights by Christine A. Lunardini, constitutes the second in the Social Issues in American History Series published by The Oryx Press. The author undertakes the daunting task of articulating the progressive realization of women's fights against the backdrop of U.S. social history in a mere 200 pages. Describing U.S. social history in and of itself consumes significant portions of the text while providing an invaluable context for understanding. This predicts both the texts strengths and weaknesses.

Lunardini's main purpose is revealing the historical roots of the struggle for women's rights as a counter to the common perception that the contemporary women's movement is "a movement without a past" (p. ix). Indeed, the awareness level of the average U.S. citizen (male or female) encompasses the emergence of activist feminism in the late 1960s, the passage of the (1920) Nineteenth Amendment, and, perhaps, the (1848) Seneca Falls Convention. Thus, to fill in the gaps between these more familiar touchstones, the book proceeds chronologically, beginning with a brief study of conditions in England leading to immigration, and ending (somewhat prematurely) in the 1970s with the Supreme Court's Roe V. Wade decision and the failure to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).

Many of the lesser known moments in the advancement of women's rights and the numerous heroines who dedicated their talents to this cause are highlighted. Chapter Three on "The Revolution in Education," for example, examines the impact of "Female Academies" which arose from the emphasis on Republican ideals during the American Revolution, and then incorporates the story of Emma Willard's early 19th Century quest to obtain state funding for girls' education (as had already been extended to boys). Access to early education ultimately prompted the opening of Oberlin and other colleges to women, and was vital in cultivating a vigorous women's movement.

A corollary theme notes that progress in realizing women's rights has tended to lurch between achievement and retrenchment, so that the women's movement has needed perpetually to reinvent itself. The tensions not only against but also within the women's movement explain much of this stop-start cycle. Chapter 5 presents an excellent study of the mid-19th Century collision and collusion of "Abolition and Feminism." Abolitionism, not feminism, dominated the national agenda from the 1830s through the Civil War, yet women activists in its ranks found themselves slowly but surely moving into the public realm. Its impact on the women's movement is illustrated in a byproduct of the (1840) World Anti-Slavery Conference in England. Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton attended with other prominent progressives of the day, yet neither woman was permitted to speak or even be officially seated. This bitter irony resulted in their personal meeting and subsequent collaboration on behalf of women's rights culminating in the (1848) Seneca Falls Convention.

Following the upheavals of the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, it would seem that women would rally to their own cause of suffrage (for which Susan B. Anthony had written a proposed constitutional amendment). But what followed was a disappointing delay. In explanation, the author juxtaposes "social" feminists, who advocated a broader reform agenda, with "radical" feminists, who were committed to gaining the franchise and redressing other inequalities between the sexes. The predominance of "social" feminists for the rest of the 19th and most of the 20th century divided feminist efforts amongst a plethora of noble causes: abolition, temperance, unionization, peace, public education, as well as suffrage. Many "social" feminists drew the line at social reforms which they chose to pursue on the state rather than the national level. [For example, Illinois was receptive to "protective" legislation for women and children, probably because of the influence of Hull House].

Another lull followed the Nineteenth Amendment's ratification in 1920 which had the effect of enervating rather than galvanizing women. Alice Paul and the National Woman's Party introduced the ERA in 1922. Nonetheless, it took the surge of "second-wave" feminism and the appearance of the National Organization of Women in the late 1960s to raise it atop the national agenda, only to fail before an organized opposition which included conservative women activists such as Phyllis Schlafly, the founder of Eagle Forum.

Lunardini ends her study here. Obviously many chapters are yet to be written before the full realization of women's rights in the United States. One of the primary remaining challenges is that most women, even those tangibly benefitting from the historical struggle Lunardini brings to life, refuse to identify themselves with "feminism."

Adequate attention to the different experiences of ethnic minorities, rural and western women, and lesbians (among others) becomes problematic within the terse format of Women's Rights. The initial chapter examines Native American and African American women separately, and conditions for the latter are intermittently addressed in similar sections. At other times this is skillfully woven into the text, as for example in noting that the New Deal benefits of the Fair Labor Standards Act guaranteeing a minimum wage were not extended to domestics or farm workers, which (in 1930) comprised some 90% of working African American women (p. 142). The Profiles (noted below) often feature individual minority women, such as Harriet Tubman and Wilma Mankiller (although choosing Hollywood actress Hattie McDaniel in a book so condensed that it bypasses Ida B. Wells seems odd).

Lunardini soft-pedals in two sentences the National American Women's Suffrage Association's (NAWSA) strategy of advocating "educated voting" to isolate African Americans and secure the support of southerners in hopes of improving the chances for enfranchisement (p. 98). That this occurred when NAWSA was under Anthony and Stanton's leadership, and was but one of many such manifestations, makes it all the more painful. The inclusion of Paula Giddings' compelling and scholarly When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America [New York: Bantam, 1984] in the bibliography would have enhanced the credibility of the book being reviewed. Inexplicably, the denial of rights based on sexual orientation receives not a single comment in this text on women's rights. Perhaps the author intended to avoid such controversies.

Legendary feminist Betty Friedan calls in the Preface upon the younger generation to take inspiration from the pages of Women's Rights in carrying forth its agenda. One or more Profiles (separately placed fascinating vignettes of remarkable women) enhance each chapter, and balance its emphasis on the history of women's organizations. A six-page Glossary confined mostly to U.S. laws serves as a reference point for the reader, and a useful five-page Bibliography invites further study. A seven-page Chronology listing public events and individual accomplishments begins in 1607 with the arrival of European women and closes with African American poet Maya Angelou's featured participation in the 1993 inauguration of President Clinton.

Women's Rights clearly achieves its purpose of making visible the long struggle for women's rights and providing "a fuller explanation of that past" (p. ix). Within the confines of the restraints noted above, its lucid text contains an informative and interesting summary of the social history of women's rights in the United States. Women's Rights is primarily valuable as a brief introduction to the history of the U.S. women's movement, and as a resource for high school students and the general public.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Haanstad, Nancy N.
Publication:The Social Science Journal
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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