A major and largely successful attempt to integrate the history of the family with that of women's push for equal rights....


AT ODDS: Women and the Family in America from the Revolution to the Present

A major and largely successful attempt to integrate the history of the family with that of women's push for equal rights. For Carl Degler (History, Stanford) the two are inseparably intertwined, characterized as they are by an enduring tension. By relying heavily on primary documents such as the diaries and letters of 19th-century women--as well as drawing on major secondary analyses (Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom; Bane, Here to Stay)--Degler demonstrates how the 19th-century doctrine of separate spheres could take women half the distance (but only half the distance) toward equality. It gave them acknowledged superiority within the home while allowing them to participate outside in certain logical extensions of womanly concern: campaigns for social purity, temperance, and female education. When, however, they asserted their right to take part in terms of their own autonomy--as they did in the case of suffrage--the response was overwhelmingly negative. Thus, while Degler agrees with William O'Neill (Everyone Was Brave) that feminist goals could not be achieved without a frontal attack on the family, he believes that any such attack would have failed. Indeed, he argues that it was only when suffragettes switched their justification from women's autonomy and individuality back to their sex's special contribution--a position clearly in support of the separate spheres doctrine--that the vote was finally won. He similarly maintains that married women's entrance into paid labor actually represented a strengthening of the family, in that it was dependent on family strategies and priorities. With this general contention come some intriguing revisions, including a reevaluation of the 19th-century understanding of women's sexuality (many, it is clear, believed in it). Yet, despite the emphasis placed throughout on women as actors in their own right, Degler views the tension between women and the family as persisting today--and resisting resolution. ""After two hundred years of development,"" he concludes, ""both the future of the family and the fulfillment of women as persons are at odds as never before."" One hopes that someone will seize upon this solid inquiry and spin out its implications for the future.

Pub Date: April 1, 1980


Page Count: -

Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1980