Feminism as Life's Work: Four Modern American Women through Two World Wars

Feminism as Life's Work: Four Modern American Women through Two World Wars

Feminism as Life's Work: Four Modern American Women through Two World Wars

Feminism as Life's Work: Four Modern American Women through Two World Wars


With suffrage secured in 1920, feminists faced the challenge of how to keep their momentum going. As the center of the movement shrank, a small, self-appointed vanguard of "modern" women carried the cause forward in life and work. Feminism as Life's Work profiles four of these women: the author Inez Haynes Irwin, the historian Mary Ritter Beard, the activist Doris Stevens, and Lorine Pruette, a psychologist. Their life-stories, told here in full for the first time, embody the changes of the first four decades of the twentieth century--and complicate what we know of the period.

Through these women's intertwined stories, Mary Trigg traces the changing nature of the women's movement across turbulent decades rent by world war, revolution, global depression, and the rise of fascism. Criticizing the standard division of feminist activism as a series of historical waves, Trigg exposes how Irwin, Beard, Stevens, and Pruette helped push the U.S. feminist movement to victory and continued to propel it forward from the 1920s to the 1960s, decades not included in the "wave" model. At a time widely viewed as the "doldrums" of feminism, the women in this book were in fact taking the cause to new sites: the National Women's Party; sexuality and relations with men; marriage; and work and financial independence. In their utopian efforts to reshape work, sexual relations, and marriage, modern feminists ran headlong into the harsh realities of male power, the sexual double standard, the demands of motherhood, and gendered social structures.

In Feminism as Life's Work, Irwin, Beard, Stevens, and Pruette emerge as the heirs of the suffrage movement, guardians of a long feminist tradition, and catalysts of the belief in equality and difference. Theirs is a story of courage, application, and perseverance--a story that revisits the "bleak and lonely years" of the U.S. women's movement and emerges with a fresh perspective of the history of this pivotal era.


Middle-class, highly educated, and white, the quartet of women profiled in this book are an elite group, but they offer insights into the transformations taking place in the lives of middle-class American women in the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s. the post–World War I disillusionment, revolution in manners and morals, and changing understanding of love, sex, and commitment are all evidence of the profoundly altered world in which these four American feminists found themselves. Still, they experienced and interpreted the vicissitudes wrought by modern culture in different ways. a writer, a historian, an activist, and a psychologist, they devoted their careers to women’s causes while struggling to compose their own lives in a rapidly changing society.

This book takes up one central question: how did a small, self-appointed vanguard of “modern” women carry feminism forward in life and work at a point when the organizational center of the movement had shrunk? Through the lives and thought of Inez Haynes Irwin (1873–1970), Mary Ritter Beard (1876–1958), Doris Stevens (1888–1963), and Lorine Pruette (1896–1977), Feminism as Life’s Work explores what we can learn from their struggles. in the years after the 1920 suffrage victory, feminists such as these established new sites of experimentation that I will examine in this book. These sites included the National Woman’s Party, sexuality and relations with men, marriage, and work and financial independence.

Being a modern feminist was not easy. Combining marriage and career was difficult, as was conceiving of oneself as a heterosocial feminist, one who devoted her life to the cause of women, while living in the midst of men. Even resolutely modern women like Stevens worried at times that their “detention by the male” would endanger their feminist commitment and that the emancipated man was more myth than reality. Stevens’s, Pruette’s, and Irwin’s unhappy unions showed how difficult “willed equality” could be to realize. Pruette eventually recognized . . .

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