Kirkus Reviews QR Code


The Women’s Movement in America, 1875-1930

by Jean Matthews

Pub Date: May 2nd, 2003
ISBN: 1-56663-500-4
Publisher: Ivan Dee/Rowman & Littlefield

Picking up where Women’s Struggle for Equality (1990) left off, Matthews (History Emeritus/Univ. of Western Ontario) succinctly chronicles the accelerating half-century of changes in women’s lives and society that helped feminists win them the right to vote in 1920.

More intent on delivering the facts than speculating on the consequences of actions and personalities, the author begins in the post–Civil War years, when women were able to move around more freely as cities grew, streets were lit, and public transportation was introduced. As more women graduated from high school, they took advantage of jobs offered by the new industrial economy that took them out of the house and off the farm. More ambitious, usually upper-class women also began attending college in great numbers, with many intending to become scientists or doctors. The term “New Woman” seems to have been first coined around 1894, but the phenomenon was already familiar; Matthews suggests that its avatars were the popular magazine illustrations of “the Gibson Girl,” whose plain dark skirt and business-like white shirt became the uniform of these young women. The feminist movement, however, was divided: some thought they should not press for suffrage when the franchise was finally being extended to black men, others felt votes for women were more important; some wanted to include black women, others did not want to alienate the white South; the goals of working-class women differed from those of the upper-class leaders; some advocated sexual freedom, while others upheld conventional morality. Matthews meticulously details these tensions, which continued right up to the gaining of the vote. In separate chapters, she also describes the evolution of intellectual attitudes toward women as the old Biblical interpretations were questioned, the debates about female sexuality that led to changes in social behavior, and the effects of WWI, which disrupted the momentum that had been building as more states gave women the vote and public demonstrations in favor of female suffrage became larger and more frequent.

Lively and informative.