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 into historian Elisabeth Griffith’s book, I felt the weariness of a lifelong feminist. Who needs to read this encyclopedic account of the last 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 tangible facts and anecdotes about what women in America endure? Far too many of us, I’m afraid. Including me.

This book deserves its title, “Wow: American Women and the Struggle for Equality: 1920-2020.” It is voluminous with almost 400 pages of text because it has to be, for historical accounts of women’s history seldom lift our eyes above the activists, who were mostly white and united on the cause and had plenty of free time to pursue it. This is an intersectional account of what it has meant to be a woman in America over the past century.

Griffith forces us to look at the complexities of women and to acknowledge that we were “oppressors, progressives, enslaved, activists, adversaries and allies.” She guides us through a “multi-ethnic, inclusive chronology” that challenges us to think about who we mean when we talk about women’s history.

“Because I’m writing American history about black and white women, racism is part of that history. It cannot be sugarcoated or erased… We must be mature enough to both confront and celebrate our history,” she writes. “Historians have a responsibility to be witnesses to the truth and accurate recorders.”

Griffith expects critics to yell: “This book evokes decades of tension between black and white women and the distrust caused by white racism. Given the intensity of the current debate about how our nation deals with its past and present, there are critics who will accuse me of appropriation or misappropriation. My answer is that we study history to learn, to be inspired, and perhaps to be chastised. 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 PhD in history and I’m still learning. I’m an optimist too. I believe that political and personal change is possible, as the past century has shown.”

There have always been divisions among women. To be overturned in the wake of the Supreme Court decision Roe v. calf, 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 fundamental right? Why have so many younger people taken it for granted? This can be discouraging, but it is perhaps enlightening to remember that this is also our legacy.

In 1895, after a grand celebration of her 80th birthday, suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton published The Woman’s Bible. the earlier version (Genesis 1:26-27: “So God created man in his own image…male and female”). She insisted it established gender equality and an androgynous god. Angry and embarrassed by Stanton’s heresy, younger suffragists rebuked Stanton and canonized [Susan B.] Anthony causing a rupture in their forty-five year friendship. Stanton has been deleted.”

Younger women wanted a bigger role in determining their destiny, Griffith writes. “The second generation was impatient with Stanton, who refused to ‘sing the right to vote forever,’ preferring ‘the rub-a-dub of agitation.'”

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

In 1866, black author Frances Ellen Watkins Harper asked the white suffragists of the American Equal Rights Association to include black women in their struggle. “You white women are talking about rights here. I speak of injustice,” she said, then recited a list of the enduring humiliations inflicted on black women. Stanton erased her comments from the official minutes of the meeting.

Nearly seven decades later, black singer Billie Holiday’s signature song “Strange Fruit” about the lynching has sold 1 million copies 1939 when she was just 24 years old. She became a symbol of resistance to lynching, Griffith recounts, and an icon of civil rights — and the target of government surveillance and harassment for the rest of her life.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s support for black Americans was often used as a campaign issue against her husband. “We didn’t like them at all,” a Georgian was quoted as saying at the time. “She ruined every maid we’ve ever had.”

Unfortunately, even some of our most prominent leaders of earlier decades, including Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, who was a passionate advocate for job safety, did not support all working women. “The ‘Pin Money’ worker who competes with the emergency worker is a menace to society, a selfish … creature to be ashamed of,” Perkins said in 1930. “Until we have every woman … who can make a living wage.” deserving … I am not willing to encourage those who are under no economic necessity to compete, with their charm and education, with their superior advantages, with the working-class girl who has but two hands.”

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

Griffith found the right words for us and exemplifies how women have always found ways to be powerful regardless of 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 most recently the author of the novel “The Daughters of Erietown.”

American Women and the Struggle for Equality: 1920 – 2020

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