White Women's Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States

By Louise Michele Newman | Go to book overview

Conclusion Coming to Terms

Compared to their sisters in the rest of the world, American women have it pretty easy. Just listen to the stories coming out of the Fourth UN Conference on Women. Parents killing their babies for being born female. Genital mutilation of pre-teenage girls. Bride- burning. Forced abortions. Mass rape.

Louise Kiernan, Chicago Tribune ( 1995)

It would be a mistake to ask which comes first in the process of conceptual transformation--the "excess" of daily life, or the introduction of a different discursive repertoire . . . [because] the line of causality mov[es] in both directions.

Ruth Frankenberg, White Women, Race Matters ( 1993)

THIS BOOK HAS OFFERED A HISTORY of the woman's movement that rejects the premise that feminism, in any of its late nineteenth- or early twentieth-century incarnations, was an egalitarian movement. Instead I have argued that the discourse we call woman's rights was shaped by the turbulent debates over race during the 1870s through 1890s and must be understood in relation to the nation's civilizing missions and imperial projects, both at home and abroad. The creation of early feminism was intricately connected to specific terrains of social struggle and transformation: enslavement, emancipation, evangelicalism, expansionism, immigration, and empire. Feminism developed in conjunction with--and constituted a response to--the United States' extension of its authority over so-called "primitive" peoples, and feminism was part and parcel of the nation's attempt to assimilate those peoples whom white elites designated as their racial inferiors.

I have also argued that white women used evolutionist discourses--unintentionally at times, at other times very purposefully--to expand the range of their political and social authority. White women's ability to become more powerful and visible as political agents was facilitated by their success in combining Victorian ideologies of patriarchal domesticity with ideologies of social evolution as they addressed the increasingly momentous questions of citizenship and empire. Excluded from positions of

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