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

By William H. Chafe | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
Women's Rights and Ideology:
The ERA

IF THE SUFFRAGE MOVEMENT lacked a clear sense of how to proceed after ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, it was in large part because no ideological consensus existed on the meaning of equality between the sexes.Suffragists themselves were torn between a natural-rights faith in individualism that would have abolished all distinctions based on sex and a belief that women should pursue a separate agenda, based on their sexual difference from men, that would create a more humane and nurturant social system.But that conflict simply reflected a larger ambivalence within the women's movement over what it meant to be a woman and what it meant to be equal. The suffrage, as an overarching symbol, had united women with disparate concerns and multiple objectives. Evangelical Protestants, free‐ thinkers, Prohibitionists, intellectuals, immigrants, and union organizers could all find some common ground on the issue of securing the right to vote. Now, any prospect for moving forward on issues of sex equality required an ideological vision—shared by women leaders—on the goal eventually to be achieved.

Significantly, in the years around 1910, a new word entered the popular culture to describe at least one variant of such an ideological vision. The word was "feminism." Although historians have retroactively employed the term to describe nineteenth-century women thinkers, it came into popular usage only after the turn of the century, at least partly to denote a bolder and more free-wheeling kind of attitude about women's rights.The historian Nancy Cott has observed that feminism was both broader and narrower than suffrage: "broader in intent, proclaiming revolution in all the relations of the sexes, and narrower in the range of its willing adherents." It was a new

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