Nancy Cott, The Grounding of Modern Feminism
List: 20th Century.
Subjects: Feminism, Suffrage, Consumerism, Advertising, Professionalization, Progressivism, New Era.

Nancy Cott's The Grounding of Modern Feminism aims to understand how the women's movement transformed in the decades before and after achieving suffrage. "What historians have seen as the demise of feminism in the 1920s," she remarks, "was, more accurately, the end of the suffrage movement and the early struggle of modern feminism." (10) In Cott's argument, the birth of feminism (a term first used this time) reflected and "revealed paradoxes which had hovered around efforts to obtain women's rights earlier but which had become defining elements of feminism in the twentieth century. It posits that women recognize their unity while it stands for diversity among women. It requires gender consciousness for its basis yet calls for the elimination of prescribed gender roles...These paradoxes vivified feminism when it was first named, and continue to." (6) How to address these paradoxes -- to sustain women's unity while recognizing women's diversity -- is the dilemma central to Cott's book. "So long as 'woman's sphere' bound women," she writes, "they had a circumstantial unity; once women were formally (though ambiguously) unbound, joining together on behalf of their sex required a new deliberateness and ideology, which the appearance of the word Feminism symbolized." (7) While the fight for suffrage during the Progressive Era helped to bridge some of these paradoxes at first, the tensions between equality and difference and between individualism and solidarity broke out in force soon after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, and helped shape the contours of feminism for decades to come.

Cott begins by delineating the legacy of the nineteenth century women's movement. Spurred by Enlightenment liberalism, Evangelical Protestantism (which often suggested that women were morally superior to men), and socialist critiques of industrial capitalism (which brought into question the sexual division of labor), the woman movement eventually came to coalesce around the issue of suffrage (and, as others have noted, temperance, although Cott says little about the WCTU here.) According to Cott, feminism originated in this moment as both an outgrowth of and reaction to the woman movement: Feminism "severed the ties the woman movement had to Christianity and conventional respectability" and railed against its "stress on nurturant service and moral uplift...When the women movement of the 1910s stressed woman's duties, Feminists reinvigorated demands for women's rights." (36-37) In this new emphasis, feminism found common cause with many other cultural and artistic trends of the late Progressive Era. In sum, notes Cott, while the "tradition of political action and argumentation laid down by the woman movement was crucial to Feminism's coherence in the 1910s; the contemporary suffrage and labor movements and experiments in radical art and politics supplied the soil in which it grew like an organism." (49-50)

Cott then describes the political means, methods, and consequences of the battle to achieve suffrage. She notes that the National Woman's Party of Alice Paul and Lucy Burns "would take up the term Feminism and become the prime mover in giving it a political and organizational dimension once the ballot was gained." (53) Cott finds the NWP to have been a "autocratically run, single-minded, and single-issue pressure group" (80) -- famed NWP leader Alice Paul would "allow no leadership inconsistent with her own to flourish." (79) Nor would she allow the NWP to stand for anything other than equal rights for women (and passage of the ERA) -- Potentially overlapping concerns as birth control, minimum wage laws, and racial discrimination were considered explicitly outside the purview of the Party. While "the equal rights amendment gave succinct legal form to the emphasis Feminists in the 1910s had placed on justice, rights, and equal opportunity," the NWP "broke Feminism's connections with sex rights and social revolution, and replaced Feminism's attack on gender categories with insistence on legal equality. Since equal rights had not only legal and political but also economic bearing, therein lay a dilemma." (80-81)

Cott goes on to examine the confluence of Feminism with a number of other social, cultural, and political trends of the Progressive and New Eras. For one, like the Progressive movement as a whole (and like women of the previous century), Cott's feminists more often than not favored "the pursuit of politics through voluntary associations over the electoral arena." (85) (For example, Carrie Chapman Catt's National League of Women Voters, Margaret Sanger's American Birth Control League, or Mary McLeod Bethune's National Council of Negro Women.) Ultimately, the question of how best for women to enter and engage in politics -- through voluntary associations or partisan politics -- ran up against the paradoxes of feminism: "As much as the fiction that women were unified in the political area laid a foundation for feminist action, it entailed the risk of denying women's diversity and individuality, devolving into a prescription of a woman's sphere in politics." (113) Yet, Cott sees little choice for feminists other than the associational route taken, since "in partisan politics women formed a classic double bind: they were damned outright if they attempted to constitute a woman bloc, and damned by scorn or indifference if they did not form one. For such reasons, voluntarist politics continued as women's principal political mode." (114)

Cott also explores the relationship between feminism and the burgeoning trends of consumerism and the "new science," and she finds that the latter succeeded in co-opting much of the former. "The culture of modernity and urbanity absorbed the messages of Feminism and re-presented them. Feminist intents and rhetoric were not ignored but appropriated. Advertising collapsed the emphasis on women's range and choice to individual consumerism, the social-psychological professions domesticated Feminists' assertion of sexual entitlement to the arena of marriage," and "women's household status and heterosexual service were now defended -- even aggressively marketed -- in terms of women's choice, freedom, and rationality." (174) To take just one example, advertisements on vacuum cleaners suggested the new inventions were "liberating" women from housework, while failing to note that revised standards of cleanliness meant that women spent the same amount of time engaged in domestic labor, and that "Feminists' defiance of the sexual division of labor was swept under the rug." (174)

Similarly, while women managed to successfully articulate a new ideal of "companionate marriage," in which husbands and wives were now seen as friends, equals, and sexual partners (as opposed to Victorian notions of marriage that emphasized property and purity,) Freudian psychology and social science conspired to make female sex outside of marriage (be it promiscuity or lesbianism) socially dangerous and sexually perverse. As Cott puts it, "just when individual wage-earning made it more possible than ever before for women to escape the economic necessity to marry, the model of companionate marriage with its emphasis on female heterosexual desires made marriage a sexual necessity, for 'normal' satisfaction. [And o]nce female sexual drives were acknowledged, the woman who did not marry was looked at in a new light, and relationships between women were inevitably reassessed." (158) Thus, once innocent same-sex intimacy and "Boston marriages" among women now became associated with Freudian "maladjustment." In sum, be it concerns about domestic labor or sexual freedom, these adaptations by consumerism and the new science "disarmed Feminism's challenges in the guide of enacting them." (174)

Ultimately, Cott finds that the feminism of this period was in many ways undone by its success. With regards to professionalization, individual women enjoyed many new opportunities for advancement, becoming doctors, lawyers, academics, and such. Yet many of these pioneers often turned their back on the movement at large, choosing instead to face the rampant sexual discrimination of their new profession alone and often silently, for fear of retribution. As Cott notes, the "trend toward individual accomplishments unrelated to womanhood as such or to gender identity might be read to measure the success of feminism's aims -- or the exhaustion of its spirit." (239) Similarly, while women's fight for the ERA (and for other "women's causes" like antimilitarism) were considerably derailed by the socialist-baiting hyperpatriots of the post-WWI "Red Scare," they were also opposed by women's groups of the right, including a revitalized Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR.) "The super-patriotic attacks," writes Cott, "not only beat the drum to the right and revealed that women spanned the spectrum from the reactionary to the progressive. They inculpated the very notion of women as a political group or class as un-American, a 'Bolshevik' notion...The idea that women might perceive and mobilize for common political interests was denounced as sex antagonism and class warfare." (260)

In sum, Cott concludes that "the modern feminist agenda -- to enable female individuals with several loyalties to say we and to achieve sexual equality while making room for sexual difference between women and men -- was shaped" in the Progressive and New Eras. During this time, "feminism was condemned on the one hand for harping on definition by sex, and on the other for dangerously (although futilely ) trying to obliterate sex distinctions. Feminists constantly had to shadowbox with two opposing yet coexistent caricatures: the one, that feminism tried to make women over into men, the other, that feminism set women against men in deadly sex antagonism." (271) Trying to navigate the straits between these two reductionist positions "was the feminist legacy and the feminist paradox; how to be human beings and women to achieve respect and recognition for an entire group of people without restricting their identity to a member of that group. (278)" As such, "the problems and promises made visible between 1910 and 1930 -- persistent structures and ideologies of male dominance, women's assertions of their heterogeneous and conflicting interests -- reverberated through the twentieth century." (282) While the rise of feminism helped to fracture the nineteenth century concept of a singular woman tied inexorably to the domestic sphere, it would befall later generations of activists to square this circle of equality and difference and to recreate the feminism of the New Era as both a unifying force and a plural movement of feminisms.

Back to the 20th Century List.

Main Page/Family/Links/Gallery/Biography/Soapbox/Writings/Weblog