Philosophical Interventions: Book Reviews, 1986-2011

By Martha C. Nussbaum | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR
Representative Women

CHRISTINE STANSELL (2010), The Feminist Promise: 1792 to the Present

For much of its existence, the feminist movement in the United States has looked like a loosely knit coalition of upstarts and insurgents making common cause around an evolving list of issues: suffrage, access to divorce, property rights, contraception, antidiscrimination law, sexual harassment, domestic violence, rape law and abortion rights, to name a few. In turn, feminism has apparently struck many historians as being both too topical and too diffuse to have a history. At least such a view offers the most likely explanation for an enduring deficiency. Although American historians have written incisive histories of marriage with attention to women’s concerns (Nancy Cott’s Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation, Hendrik Hartog’s Man and Wife in America: A History) and landmark biographies of feminist pioneers (Ellen Chesler on Margaret Sanger, Elizabeth Griffith on Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Nell Irvin Painter on Sojourner Truth), they have not given us any comparably authoritative history of the feminist movement in the United States. But now we have one.

Christine Stansell’s magisterial The Feminist Promise traces the movement from its eighteenth-century inception to the present day, sorting out its crosscurrents and offering a useful narrative framework within which to situate its varied struggles. Stansell is an acclaimed scholar who has worked on a variety of topics in U.S. history, from antebellum and bohemian New York City to the histories of love and human rights. She is also a good writer, having honed her style by contributing numerous essays and reviews to a variety of general-interest publications. Though dense and impeccably documented, The Feminist Promise is lucid, accessible, and well organized. It will be a benchmark for some time to come—although, as we shall see, it has a significant shortcoming.

Here one should pause to raise a relatively minor question of exposition and framing. Although the book’s sweeping title could lead one to believe

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