Her story

By Brooke E. O’Neill, AM’04

Photography by Dan Dry

As late as 1963, American women earned only 59 cents for every dollar their male counterparts got. Then came the feminist revolution of 1968, bringing the rise of the National Organization for Women, protests against the Miss America pageant, and legal bans on institutionalized discrimination such as gender-specific job ads. By the 1970s the figure rose to 69 cents. Today wages between the genders are almost equal—when comparing men as a whole to childless, 20-something women in entry-level jobs. The gap widens when the female group includes part-time workers and older women who are higher up on the ladder. Then women make only 77 cents for every male dollar, an increase of less than half a cent a year over nearly five decades.

Photo: Christine Stansell
In a sprawling new book, historian Christine Stansell traces contemporary feminism to its 18th-century roots as a “marginal, almost crackpot body of thought.”

That statistic is “an enormous hidden fact in a society that in so many ways is committed to egalitarian sexual relations,” says feminist historian Christine Stansell, who joined Chicago in 2007 as the Stein-Freiler distinguished service professor in U.S. history. Wage disparity, she says, is just one example of labor markets failing to keep pace with changing gender roles. While the number of women in the workforce with children has been rising since the 1950s, corporate policies on maternity leave and child care remain inadequate.

That’s not to say women haven’t come a long way. In her book Feminism (Random House), due out spring 2010, Stansell traces the migration of women’s rights from a “marginal, almost crackpot body of thought to a place of consideration in the modern nation-state.” She dates the evolution from the 1792 publication of British writer and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, leading up to a global feminist movement that now reaches even war-torn regions like Kabul, Afghanistan.

In her treatise, Wollstonecraft argued that male tyranny subjugated women, encouraging emotion rather than reason and depriving females of their full abilities. Vindication fell out of print after the author’s 1797 death, in part because her husband, political philosopher William Godwin, published a scandalous memoir the following year revealing his wife’s illegitimate child and suicide attempts. Yet Vindication continued to circulate underground among democratic radicals and enlightened men and women in England and the United States.

Wollstonecraft’s ideas became “a touchstone” for 19th-century feminists, says Stansell, fueling the first wave of feminism, which sought to secure legal and political rights for women. In the United States the movement crossed class and racial lines, uniting society ladies and trade-union workers. Although feminism is often misconstrued as a privilege of the elite, says Stansell, the decades leading up to 1920, when women won the right to vote, witnessed “arguably the greatest democratic mobilization in the country’s history.” Between 1900 and 1915 the main suffrage organization’s membership rose from 9,000 to 170,000, with thousands more women participating in demonstrations and door-to-door campaigning.

Yet by 1946, when General Douglas MacArthur assigned 22-year-old Beate Sirota Gordon to write a women’s-rights clause for Japan’s new democratic constitution, the U.S. feminist movement had largely disappeared from public view. Although educated at an American women’s college, says Stansell, Gordon “had no idea there was a long tradition of thinking about these very questions.”

Then came the 1960s. With Kennedy’s Presidential Commission on the Status of Women report, which highlighted gender inequalities, and the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963, a second wave of feminism erupted. Amid civil-rights fervor and antiwar protests, a cadre of young women burst forth demanding equality. “Brilliant, melodramatic, and rambunctious,” wrote Stansell in the Spring 2008 issue of Dissent, “radical feminist proposals to ‘liberate’ women quickly captured a national audience alternately appalled and enthralled, scandalized and persuaded.”

In 1969, as “feminism was ripping up and down the East Coast,” Stansell says, she transferred from Rice University to Princeton, becoming part of the school’s inaugural class of women. Her thesis—a study of author Kate Chopin’s female characters—was the school’s first thesis in women’s studies, written under the guidance of the English department’s first female professor, Ann Douglas. It was a “history of firsts,” says Stansell, who earned a 1979 PhD in American studies from Yale. Three years later she joined Princeton’s history faculty, where she taught for more than two decades.

“I was a radical, a leftist,” Stansell says of her student days. Like many women of the second feminist wave, she paid little heed to formal politics. With few females in high elected office at the time, her generation tended to regard government with suspicion, seeing it, as she wrote in Dissent, as “a shill for the (male)(white) ruling class.” Since the 1990s she’s come to recognize the need for a closer tie between feminist action and electoral politics. Feminism, she says, “is no longer just an interest group or identity group.”

As proof, she cites a recent event: the 2002 start of war in Afghanistan. Although several reasons were given to justify military action, it was the first war, she says, “whose aims involved not just the protection of women—a quite common reason to go to war—but a defense of the rights of women inside Af­ghanistan,” who were largely banished from schools and the workforce when the Taliban took control in 1996. The consideration of women’s equality, says Stansell, “really breaks into the very heart of world politics.”

Back in the United States Stansell hopes Feminism, organized around historical events such as the Civil War, will introduce the feminist tradition to “a generation of young women often left adrift.” In a typical American-history survey course, she says, students get at most a few mentions of women’s suffrage and maybe of second-wave feminism. Outside of women’s studies, feminist movements tend to be “a marginalized topic in ordinary people’s understanding of history.”

Meanwhile, contemporary American feminism continues to evolve into an inclusive force. “The second wave is dead, and we’re trying to figure out what the third wave is,” says Stansell. After the “devastating impact of the Age of Reagan”—in 1982 the Equal Rights Amendment died after the Republican Party withdrew its support—the second wave was supplanted by the rise of a new generation. Gone are the days when militant feminists called women into question merely for wearing heels. As health care, maternity, and other family-work challenges confronting American men and women take the spotlight, says Stansell, feminist issues “enter into politics in a way they never have before.”

Return to top