SIGNIFICANT SISTERS: The Grassroots of Active Feminism, 1839-1939 by Margaret Forster
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SIGNIFICANT SISTERS: The Grassroots of Active Feminism, 1839-1939

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What do Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Emma Goldman have in common? For biographer and novelist Forster (best known as author of Georgy Girl), it was their active feminism. Each of the eight women she profiles made available new rights or choices for women--options which, Forster believes, many women have not fully seized. This ""continuous if not easily identified development"" starts here with Caroline Norton, English gentlewoman (and granddaughter of Sheridan), who translated her outrage at lack of marital rights into a campaign that yielded the Reform of Marriage and Divorce Laws Act (1857). Legal rights would mean little without economic independence. Elizabeth Blackwell opened up the medical profession to women, while Florence Nightingale created opportunities for masses of the middle class. Neither, however, would be accepted as feminist today. Despite the discrimination she encountered, Blackwell refused to be anti-male: ""I have had too much kindness, aid and just recognition from men. . . I think the true end of freedom may be gained in another way."" Nightingale's starchy, seemingly anti-feminist statements (e.g., ""I am brutally in-different to the wrongs or rights of my sex"") are shown to stem from her low priority to suffrage, her disappointment in women for choosing the ""soft"" road of matrimony over nursing. Virtually all these women believed in their special powers and purpose--even when, as in the case of Emily Davies (founder of Girton College, Cambridge), these powers were not ""of the dramatic or showy variety."" (""What she did was go on and on, meeting every objection with a counter objection and never for one instant appearing to flag."") Each contribution built upon the others. Elizabeth Cady Stanton helped open up political rights and full citizenship; Josephine Butler challenged the sexual and class borders of Victorian society; Margaret Sanger not only championed birth control but (in Mabel Dodge Luhan's words) openly propagandized ""for the joys of the flesh."" But while Sanger spoke of the ""feminine spirit,"" she spoke vaguely. Emma Goldman, in Forster's view, was one of the few to actually redefine womanhood and femininity, thus providing an important ideological link to contemporary feminism. ""Women, she warned, were simply going to be alienated if feminism became equated with joylessness. What feminism was about was self-fulfillment as a woman. . . ."" By comparison with the obstacles these women faced, says Forster, women today have only ""themselves"" to complain of. Sure to be seen as revisionist feminist history by some, sure to inspire and challenge others. Highly engaging, on several levels.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1984
Publisher: Knopf