Rep. Bella Abzug, center, and Gloria Steinem, right, at a demonstration staged by the Reproductive Rights Committee of the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women in 1976. (Bernard Gotfryd/Getty Images)

Elaine Showalter is professor emerita of English and humanities at Princeton University. She is writing a biography of Julia Ward Howe.

‘I am not a postfeminism feminist. I am the Third Wave,” Yale senior Rebecca Walker proclaimed in January 1992, calling on her generation via Ms. magazine to claim its place in feminist history and to reanimate a women’s movement that seemed dated, if not defunct.

The daughter of novelist Alice Walker and the goddaughter of Gloria Steinem, Rebecca Walker had grown up with a feminism as normal and invisible as fluoride in the water; but even those contemporaries who lacked her exceptional opportunities had lived their entire lives in a culture shaped by the women’s movement, and had come of age with contraception and legal abortion. They took feminism for granted or dismissed it as irrelevant.

But that attitude changed, Walker wrote, when young women became outraged by the spectacle of Anita Hill testifying on sexual harassment before 14 skeptical white male members of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. Now, she declared, they needed to wake up, “turn that outrage into political power” and continue the fight.

By naming her feminist generation the Third Wave, Walker followed the standard historical description of periods of American feminism as “waves,” intense surges of political activism followed by tranquil decades of consolidation, backlash or retreat. The first wave was the suffrage movement, culminating in the ratification of the 19th Amendment on Aug. 18, 1920. Fifty years later, in the second wave, American women came together to fight for equal rights to education, employment, housing and protection under the law.

“Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movements” by Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon and Astrid Henry. (Liveright)

“Feminism Unfinished,” however, argues that the “wave” metaphor obscures the history of a continuous American women’s movement sustained by labor activists, civil rights advocates and ­social-reform campaigners, who may have looked placid on the surface but were paddling like hell underneath. Each of the three authors contributes a chapter to their history of American feminism, and they declare together in their prologue that “there was no period in the last century in which women were not campaigning for greater equality and freedom.” They hope that uncovering the “multiple and unfinished feminisms of the twentieth century can inspire” the women’s movements of the 21st. That’s the surprise signaled in the teasing subtitle.

Yet the book’s position on the potential for another American women’s movement is more cautious and qualified than the title suggests. The real surprise is that the authors believe that the United States “no longer serves as a world leader when it comes to gender equality” and that the future of feminism may be global rather than American.

In her chapter on “Feminism After Suffrage,” Dorothy Sue Cobble, a professor of history and labor studies at Rutgers, explores the history of American women in the labor movement and civil rights organizations in the decades after the 19th Amendment. She calls the working-class, minority and leftist women in these campaigns “social justice feminists,” who saw economic fairness as the most important key to an egalitarian society. Ironically, the greatest achievement for women during this period was the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, after Rep. Howard Smith, a Virginia conservative, laughingly proposed adding “sex” to the regulations forbidding discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion or national origin. Social-justice feminists opposed Smith’s “Sex Amendment,” which they saw as a strategy to delay, dilute or destroy the bill. And in 1966, when NOW (the National Organization for Women) was founded by Pauli Murray and Betty Friedan as an “NAACP for women,” many social-justice feminists resisted an alliance overtly based on women’s rights. A “feminism” that dared not speak its name was hardly a women’s movement.

In her chapter on “The Women’s Liberation Moment,” Linda Gordon, a professor of history and humanities at New York University, gives long-overdue credit to NOW for its stability, discipline and longevity. She also explains the importance of consciousness-raising in the 1970s. Many women were unaware of their limited opportunities or secondary roles as political problems. Small, leaderless groups, in which women came together to talk about their lives, led them to realize that “the personal was political,” that their intimate and private experiences in the family, school, workplace, sexuality, marriage and divorce were shared by millions of other women. These epiphanies were then channeled into political organization, coalitions and effective action. The women’s liberation movement also educated further generations through women’s studies programs, books, manifestos and magazines.

In 1973, two major Supreme Court decisions — one that banned sex-segregated employment ads, and the famous Roe v. Wade, making abortion legal — had an immediate and lasting impact on women’s lives. Gordon is the only contributor who relates feminism to her own career: “All three of us college professors writing this book, like all professional women and college students, benefited directly from feminism and the affirmative action programs pushed by the movement.”

In the most instructive and challenging chapter, “From a Mindset to a Movement,” Astrid Henry, a professor of women’s studies at Grinnell, traces the development of American feminism since the 1990s. Twenty-first-century feminism is multiracial and multicultural; it links to LGBT groups and protests the global issues of sexual oppression and violence against women. At the same time, it enjoys and endorses new images of women in pop culture, and plays with fashion, make-up and personal style as self-expression. “Unlike my first- and second-wave predecessors,” one fashionista explains, “no one force-fed me femininity. . . . I had to fight for it tooth and nail.” These women rely on e-mail, blogs and Twitter to attract followers and build community awareness. “We began our activism online,” another notes. “Blogs are our consciousness-raising groups.” Some contemporary feminists are concerned with the major American failure to implement family-friendly policies such as state-subsidized child care and paid parental leaves. As the Washington writer Ann Crittenden has pointed out, “This is the big unfinished business of the women’s movement.”

But Henry also admits that “the most defining feature of this generation of feminists is its inability to be defined by any single political goal, ideological perspective, or way of being feminist.” Hashtag feminism “runs the risk of being merely an identity to claim without any political content.” Perhaps, Henry suggests, the diversity and flexibility of “a million little grass-roots movements” are stronger than “one singular vision for social change.” She points to demonstrations, foundations and fundraising as examples of 21st-century feminist activism. Still, she acknowledges concerns that “feminism as a concept is now so watered-down as to be meaningless.”

I share that concern. In my view, a mass movement requires a clear goal, compelling enough to unite people across the dividing lines of race, class, age, religion, sexual orientation and ethnicity, and to persuade them to work collectively to achieve it. The goal must be concrete and attainable, even if its ideological underpinnings are complex or contradictory. A movement also requires charismatic leaders to galvanize its adherents into effective action.

But what goal unites American women now? Which leaders inspire us? As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently said, women’s autonomy and dignity in the United States are being undermined and eroded just when gay rights are getting overdue attention and respect. Feminism unfinished, American women’s movement finished, would be a sad epitaph to a glorious history.

Elaine Showalter is professor emerita of English and humanities at Princeton University. She is writing a biography of Julia Ward Howe.


A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movements

By Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon
and Astrid Henry

Liveright. 265 pp. $25.95