Book review of Formidable: American Women and the Fight for Equality: 1920-2020 by Elisabeth Griffith

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A confession: A few pages from historian Elisabeth Griffith’s book, I felt the weariness of a lifelong feminist. Who needs to read this encyclopedic account of the past 100 years of women’s struggle for equality?

By the time I finished the introduction, my mood had changed. Who needs this steamroller of a timeline full of curated facts and anecdotes about what women have endured in America? There are far too many of us, I’m afraid. Including me.

This book deserves its title:Formidable: American Women and the Struggle for Equality: 1920-2020.” It is large at almost 400 pages of text because it must be, because historical accounts of women’s history rarely lift our gaze past female activists, who were mostly white and united for the cause, and with plenty of free time to pursue it. It is an intersectional account of what it means to be a woman in America over the past century.

Griffith compels us to consider the complexity of women and recognize that we have been “oppressors, progressives, slaves, activists, adversaries and allies”. She guides us through a “multiracial and inclusive timeline” that commands us to consider exactly who we are talking about when we talk about women’s history.

“Because I write American history about black and white women, racism is part of that history. It cannot be whitewashed or removed…We must be mature enough to confront and celebrate our history,” she wrote. “Historians have a responsibility to be witnesses of truth and accurate recorders.”

Griffith expects critics to chime in: “This book is a reminder of decades of tension between black and white women, and the mistrust caused by white racism. Given the ferocity of the current debate over how our nation approaches its past and present, some critics will accuse me of appropriation or misappropriation. My answer is that we study history to learn, to be inspired and perhaps chastened. Learning is our responsibility. Too many of us know too little about America’s past. I’m a white, cisgender, feminist historian, writing about women who may or may not look like me. I have a doctorate in history and I’m still learning. I am also an optimist. I believe that political and personal change is possible, as the last century has shown.

There have always been divisions between women. Following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade, generational tensions are likely to increase among women as we try to move from blame to action. Why haven’t older generations done more to protect this essential right? Why did so many young people take it for granted? This may be daunting, but it may be instructive to remember that this too is our heritage.

After a big celebration of her 80th birthday, suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton posted “The Woman’s Biblein 1895. As Griffith writes, Stanton’s book “rejected Adam’s rib version of creation (Genesis, 2:18, 21-23) in favor of the earlier version (Genesis, 1: 26-27: ‘So God created man in his own image… male and female’). She insisted that it established gender equality and an androgynous God. Furious and embarrassed by Stanton’s heresy, young suffragettes censured Stanton and canonized [Susan B.] Anthony, creating a breach in their forty-five-year friendship. Stanton was erased.

Young women wanted to play a bigger role in determining their fate, writes Griffith. “The second generation was impatient with Stanton, who refused ‘to sing suffrage forever’, preferring ‘the friction of restlessness’.”

As I read Griffith’s book, I found the most uncomfortable passages to be the most needed, especially when it comes to racism. Many white suffragists, she reminds us, once approved of lynching. And Stanton, for all her activism, was a “myopic visionary” who “ignored black women.”

In 1866, black author Frances Ellen Watkins Harper pleaded with the white suffragettes of the American Equal Rights Association to include black women in their fight. “You white women are talking about rights here. I’m talking about wrongs,” she said, then recited a list of ongoing humiliations inflicted on black women. Stanton erased his remarks from the official record of the meeting.

Nearly seven decades later, black singer Billie Holiday’s signature song “strange fruit“, on the lynching, sold to 1 million specimens in 1939, when she was only 24 years old. She became a symbol of resistance to lynching, Griffith recounts, and an icon of civil rights — as well as a target for government surveillance and harassment for the rest of her life.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s support for black Americans was often used against her husband as a campaign stake. “We didn’t like him at all,” a Georgian reportedly said at the time. “She’s ruined every housekeeper we’ve ever had.”

Also, alas, some of our best-known leaders of previous decades, including Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, who was a strong advocate for worker safety, did not support all working women. “The ‘pin money’ worker who competes with the necessity worker is a menace to society, a creature…selfish, who should be ashamed of herself,” Perkins said in 1930. “Until what we all have women…earning a living wage. … I do not want to encourage those who have no economic necessity to compete with their charm and their education, with their superior advantages, against the worker who has only two hands.

One of the most common ways to trivialize women is to characterize us as split fighters. The effective response, if we are to offer one, is not to prove how similar we are, but rather to celebrate how our differences keep us honest and fuel our momentum. Every leader, past and present, has their flaws, but they can still achieve great things.

Griffith found the words for us and did an exemplary job of showing how women have always found ways to be powerful, regardless of the obstacles. The lesson is always the same: the sooner we recognize this power in each other, the sooner the next wave of progress will reach our shores.

Connie Schultz is a columnist for USA Today and author, most recently, of the novel “The Erietown Girls.”

American Women and the Struggle for Equality: 1920 – 2020

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