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No Turning Back: A History of Feminism and the Future of Feminism, by Estelle Freedman.

November 5, 2013

No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women, by Estelle Freedman. Ballantine Books (2003). Paperback, 464 pages

The most important book on feminism I have read in recent years, surveying and validating feminism’s global diversity.

 Estelle Freedman is a highly regarded historian who teaches at Stanford.  She has been involved with feminism and women’s history since she was in college in the 1970s.  In this book she brings together a wide variety of information about women and the various ideas and actions of those who have fought against men’s privileged positions around the globe.  As an historian, she structures her account chronologically, starting with women before the emergence of feminism.  Then she focuses on the various issues with which feminists have become involved in the USA and globally.

What I found so impressive about Freedman’s book was the way in which she combined so much information and so many different types of feminism into a coherent narrative.  She presents feminism as always re-defining itself, and she explains the strengths and weaknesses of various approaches without rejecting any of them.  For her, feminism is big enough that conflicts among feminists can be understood and accepted, not demonized as they have often been in the past.

 Freedman offers her own working definition of feminism.

Feminism is a belief that women and men are inherently of equal worth.  Because most societies privilege men as a group, social movements are necessary to achieve equality between women and men, with the understanding that gender always intersects with other social hierarchies.

With this definition, Freedman stands strongly with those who see gender as one among many unjust social hierarchies. For her, feminism is a “social movement” for change which requires feminists to ally with activists fighting race and class oppression in order to face the inequalities among women.  Feminism is a movement which other movements for social justice cannot leave out.

Even with her inclusive definition of feminism, Freedman does not limit herself to those who have claimed that title.  She gives a brief summary of women’s history and the rise of patriarchy in its various forms.  Like other scholars, she sees women as having significant symbolic and material power in prehistoric societies.  Goddesses were worshiped, and women were honored because they gave birth and were responsible for food.  As agriculture and urbanization developed, the power shifted to men, but women around the world kept up small scale protests.  Freedman views the rise of capitalism and political democracy in the European/American world as allowing  expansion of the power of men over women. The same changes also provided some women with the conceptual and practical  tools to demand their own rights.  Modeling themselves on the American and French revolutionaries, women began to seek education and the rights of political participation.

 In the 1800s, the European and American women’s rights movements often demanded rights for women because of their roles as mothers.  The term feminism only became popular in the 20th century as women challenged men’s power in both the private and political worlds.  Out of the turmoil of the 1960s a movement developed that simultaneously proclaimed women’s similarities to men and their differences, both those based on physical difference and differences defined by gender.  Economic and political equality was sought along with equality within homes and in personal relationships.  Freeman includes the stories of women around the globe who found their power diminished as capitalism and colonialism invaded their live.  Europeans blamed the men in the countries they colonized for the oppression that women endured.  At the same time they imposed European-style oppression on women, for example, protesting the veil while closing women’s schools.  But women around the globe resisted.

For me, Freedman’s most exciting section was her discussion of the different approaches which feminists have taken in the past century.  While these approaches overlap and should not be over-emphasized, the distinctions are important for anyone seeking to understand the variety within feminism today.  As feminism emerged in the 1960s and 1970s in American and Europe, it drew together different groups of women, making it likely that disagreements would appear within the movement.  Professional women and suburban housewives continued to espouse liberal feminism, emphasizing equality to men within existing economic and political structures.  Women involved in the civil rights and anti-war movements sought larger changes and raised economic issues long advocated by socialist feminism.  By the 1970s, women of color and lesbians joined the radical feminists and demanded that issues of race and sexuality be addressed.  Earning the label, radical feminists, they forced straight, white women to think beyond their own experiences.  By the 1990s, western feminists were all challenged by a transnational or global feminism, as women from various cultures and countries sought to define feminism for themselves.  Freedman shows how, despite their disagreements, all these types of feminism have contributed to defining the movement.

 Having laid the background about the variety of feminisms, Freedman goes on to address the various issues that they have raised in recent years.  One section focuses on “The Politics of Work and Family.”  Here Freedman discusses unpaid domestic labor, the persistent gap in men and women’s earning, and the structural problems that exist for women as both employed workers and mothers.  She maintains that the solution to the consistent wage gap between men and women lies not simply in restructuring the workplace, but in involving men in the responsibility for childrearing. “The Politics of Health and Sexuality” covers the topics of medical definition of women, reproductive choices, sexualities, and gendered violence.  She discusses the increased attention to rape and sexual violence and outlines how feminists remain divided over the best means of preventing the commercialization of women’s bodies.  “Feminist Visions and Strategies” identifies some of the writers and artists who have shaped new alternatives and the halting entrance of women into political structures. In all these sections, Freedman tells global stories, valuable to all of us who know only our national patterns.   Her bibliography can keep us all reading for years.

 No Turning Back should be read by everyone: male and female, feminist and anti-feminist, those who are seasoned feminists and those who are meeting it for the first time.  This is the best synthesis I have seen of endless variations of women’s struggles to be treated with dignity and fairness.  As Freedman makes clear, there is “no turning back” for women, and she gives us important tools for moving ahead. 

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