Search the Archive:

Back to the Weekly Home Page


Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, March 06, 2002

Working for equality Working for equality (March 06, 2002)

A look back on the progress of women
No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women, by Estelle B. Freedman; Ballantine Books; 448 pp.; $26

by Jennifer Deitz Berry

It isn't always fashionable to admit being a feminist, but those willing to spend a few hours reading Stanford Professor Estelle Freedman's latest book, "No Turning Back," may change their minds about the label.

Freedman defines feminism simply as the "belief that men and women are inherently of equal worth." Her book serves as a reminder both of how far women -- in this country and abroad -- have come in their efforts to gain equality and how much work still needs to be done.

As founder of the feminist studies department at Stanford, Freedman is clearly paying tribute to women's rights leaders through the ages, but also manages to keep a quiet tone that is both convincing and objective. Her efforts to portray feminism from all sides -- the contributions of housewives, of female punk rock bands, and even the economics of prostitution -- make it a history that should offer a little something for everyone, regardless of whether her readers are die-hard activists or soccer moms.

Freedman offers ammunition for women who work full time but feel they somehow end up doing more dishes and writing more thank-you notes than their husbands. For modern-day men inclined to let women fight for "their causes" -- such as pay equity and reproductive rights -- Freedman reminds us that men, too, have historically played crucial roles in furthering the feminist movement.

One example she offers is 19th century British liberal, John Stuart Mill, who wrote in "The Subjugation of Women" that until a woman was given access to education and other opportunities, becoming a wife and mother would not truly be a "choice." In 1865 he fought for women's rights to vote in front of the House of Commons.

Part IV of Freedman's book, the "The Politics of Work and Family," should be required reading for newlyweds and working parents who sense that balancing careers and raising children is harder than it used to be. Many of us associate feminism with women's entry into the workforce when in fact women have always worked, Freedman writes. The rise of capitalism in the U.S. was made possible at least in part because women were willing to stay home cooking, cleaning and raising children.

"Although housewives did not receive pay, their work had enormous value for industrializing economies. Women's unpaid labor in the home made it possible for families to survive on working men's modest wages."

Economic calculations suggest that in 1993 purchasing the services performed by the average housewife would cost $50,000 per year. Yet because the work is unpaid it remains invisible and undervalued, Freedman argues.

She cites California poll results showing that although 90 percent of men and women agree that when both partners work, housework should be shared equally, the reality is different. Forty-four percent of men said they shared housework equally with their wives, while their wives said it was closer to 30 percent. Women in the U.S. still spend twice as much time on domestic tasks and are four times more likely to take time off from work to care for sick children than husbands.

"The legacy of unpaid work in the home perpetuates economic inequality in several ways. It masks women's full economic contributions, it creates the double day for women workers, and it leads to perceptions that women are not dedicated to their jobs," the author concludes.

Freedman decided to write "No Turning Back" after a colleague asked what book she should read to learn about feminist scholarship. Unable to think of a title that would incorporate the contributions of the most prominent feminist writers and thinkers in recent generations, Freedman decided to write that book herself.

It's broken into five parts and focuses primarily on advances women have made both personally and politically over the last 200 years. She manages to cover issues as varied as reproduction rights, sexual identity, violence against women, the wage gap, glass ceilings, the "feminization" of careers like teaching and sales, the link between slavery and women's suffrage movements, female artists, and the challenge of "welfare mothers" and "dead-beat dads."

Her telling of history also brings to light how policies once taken for granted may come to look absurd in hindsight. Conservatives in the 1870s argued that higher education would drain "women's reproductive energies related to fertility." As late as 1961 women were exempted from jury duty under the argument that their obligations to family were more important than participation in civic service. And it was only 1993 that U.S. Congress required that women be included in clinical trials of drugs. (Previous research looked only at male subjects and assumed results for women would be the same.)

Although quite dense, the book is remarkably easy to read. Freedman's writing is simple -- even elegant -- as she weaves in anecdotes of women's struggles in various parts of the globe, draws on statistics and studies that give weight to her claims about inequities, and brings women's voices to life with a smattering of quotations.

Just one example is biologist Ruth Hubbard's wry response the trumped-up accounts of "biological" differences between men and women's physiques:

"If society puts half its children in short skirts and warns them not to move in ways that reveal their panties, while putting the other half in jeans and overalls and encourages them to climb trees...their muscles will be different."

Freedman also calls into question the generally-accepted view that Western cultures have led the way in promoting women's rights against the more repressive regimes of Third World countries.

In fact, Freedman argues, the advent of colonial rule in parts of Africa actually eroded rights women had previously enjoyed. In the 1400s women living in what is now Nigeria could make their own money as farmers and traders. Some of the more successful women actually bought "wives" -- female husbands -- to work for them.

On arrival, the British systematically abolished most of the rights women had enjoyed. British leaders only recognized male rulers and refused to give female farmers access to new technologies like the plow, making it impossible for them to remain competitive in the market.

Freedman also points out that repressive customs in some Third World countries, such as genital cutting and veiling, didn't come into vogue until colonialists forced their views on the indigenous societies. The Indian practice of "sati" (in which wives would throw themselves on their husbands' funeral pyres) was traditionally limited to upper casts. But when British colonialists outlawed the act, the practice became more widespread as a "means of defying British authority."

There are occasional moments in the book, however, when readers not inclined to buy wholesale the liberal feminist platform may feel left out by Freedman's interpretations. An example that comes to mind is her characterization of women who oppose abortion. She sees the divide primarily in political terms. She points to rhetorical arguments focused on the rights of the fetus, but doesn't seem eager to acknowledge that some women may be quite sincere in their belief that a fetus is a human life, and therefore deserving of protections.

Instead, she focuses on statistics showing women who oppose abortion are more likely to have less education and be dependent on their husband's income. Freedman suggests that many of these women's identities are wrapped up in their roles as mothers, and concludes they are against abortion because it "undermines women's authority by denying the importance of motherhood."

Looking ahead, the author sees one particular challenge to the feminist movement in the United States: that the very effort to identify structural inequalities that limit women's freedoms and opportunities "challenges the deeply held myth of equal opportunity." "The myth professes that in America anybody can succeed, as if there were no obstacles based on gender, class, or race. To raise questions about fairness implicitly asks whether those who have succeeded are in fact the most deserving. Little wonder they are left fearful of feminism," she writes.

E-mail Jennifer Berry at Note: Estelle Freedman will make author appearances at 4 p.m. March 14 at the Stanford Bookstore (campus) and at 2 p.m. May 13 at Avenidas, 450 Bryant St., Palo Alto.


Copyright © 2002 Embarcadero Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Reproduction or online links to anything other than the home page
without permission is strictly prohibited.