The Paradox of Change: American Women in the 20th Century

The Paradox of Change: American Women in the 20th Century

The Paradox of Change: American Women in the 20th Century

The Paradox of Change: American Women in the 20th Century

Synopsis

When William Chafe's The American Woman was published in 1972, it was hailed as a breakthrough in the study of women in this century. Bella Abzug praised it as "a remarkable job of historical research," and Alice Kessler-Harris called it "an extraordinarily useful synthesis of material about 20th-century women." But much has happened in the last two decades--both in terms of scholarship, and in the lives of American women. With The Paradox of Change, Chafe builds on his classic work, taking full account of the events and scholarship of the last fifteen years, as he extends his analysis into the 1990s with the rise of feminism and the New Right. Chafe conveys all the subtleties of women's paradoxical position in the United States today, showing how women have gradually entered more fully into economic and political life, but without attaining complete social equality or economic justice. Despite the gains achieved by feminist activists during the 1970s and 1980s, the tensions continued to abound between public and private roles, and the gap separating ideals of equal opportunity from the reality of economic discrimination widened. Women may have gained some new rights in the last two decades, but the feminization of poverty has also soared, with women constituting 70% of the adult poor. Moreover, a resurgence of conservatism, symbolized by the triumph of Phyllis Schlafly's anti-ERA coalition, has cast in doubt even some of the new rights of women, such as reproductive freedom. Chafe captures these complexities and contradictions with a lively combination of representative anecdotes and archival research, all backed up by statistical studies. As in The American Woman, Chafe once again examines "woman's place" throughout the 20th century, but now with a more nuanced and inclusive approach. There are insightful portraits of the continuities of women's political activism from the Progressive era through the New Deal; of the contradictory gains and losses of the World War II years; and of the various kinds of feminism that emerged out of the tumult of the 1960s. Not least, there are narratives of all the significant struggles in which women have engaged during these last ninety years--for child care, for abortion rights, and for a chance to have both a family and a career. The Paradox of Change is a wide-ranging history of 20th-century women, thoroughly researched and incisively argued. Anyone who wants to learn more about how women have shaped, and been shaped by, modern America will have to read this book.

Excerpt

When The American Woman was first published nearly two decades ago, the field of women's history had just begun to achieve legitimacy and popularity. Although such scholars as Julia Cherry Spruill and Mary Beard had pioneered work in the discipline during the 1930s, their efforts were soon dwarfed by the emergence of the "consensus" school of the 1940s and 1950s, with its focus on prominent American men.By the 1960s, however, writers such as Eleanor Flexner, Anne Firor Scott, Gerda Lerner, and Aileen Kraditor had begun to blaze a new trail.During the early 1970s, they were joined by scores of graduate students and younger colleagues inspired by the challenge and excitement of writing a different kind of history, one that would literally revision the past. For the first time, those who comprise the majority of humankind would occupy center stage in the story of our collective experience.

The results of these past twenty years of scholarship have been nothing short of astonishing. Together with labor history and Afro-American history, women's history has helped to transform our sense of what the discipline of history is all about.In 1965, most books began with male politicians and focused on events where men—usually white and upper class—played the primary roles. Today, the majority of history books begin with the experiences of people who are not famous, who may not have wielded power, yet whose day-to-day lives illuminate, as much as any president's life, the struggles and triumphs of given moments in time. New questions have been asked—about control of the workplace, relations in the home, the political uses of education, the sometimes insidious impact of socialization, and the ability of people to resist oppression; the evidence developed in response to . . .

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