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 fight for equality?
This book has earned its title: “Formidable: American Women and the Fight for Equality: 1920-2020.” It is large at nearly 400 pages of text because it must be, as historical accounts of women’s history seldom lift our gaze beyond the activists, who were mostly White and united for the cause, and with plenty of free time to pursue it. This is an intersectional account of what it has meant to be a woman in America for the past century.
Griffith forces us to consider the complexity of women and acknowledge that we have been “oppressors, progressives, enslaved, activists, adversaries and allies.” She guides us through a “multi-racial, inclusive chronology” that commands us to consider just 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 this story. It cannot be whitewashed or deleted … We need to be mature enough to both confront and celebrate our history,” she writes. “Historians have a responsibility to be truth witnesses and accurate recorders.”
Griffith expects critics to sound off: “This book recalls decades of tension between Black and white women, and the distrust caused by white racism. Given the ferocity of the current debate over how our nation addresses its past and present, there are critics who will charge me with appropriation, or misappropriation. My response is that we study history to learn, to be inspired, and perhaps 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 doctorate in history, and I’m still learning. I’m also an optimist. I believe political and personal change is possible, as the past century demonstrates.”
There have always been divisions among women. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, generational tensions are likely to rise among women as we try to move from blame to action. Why didn’t older generations do more to protect this essential right? Why did so many younger people take it for granted? This can be disheartening, but it is perhaps instructive to remember that this, too, is our legacy.
After a big celebration of her 80th birthday, suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton published “The Woman’s Bible” in 1895. As Griffith writes, Stanton’s book “dismissed the Adam’s rib version of creation (Genesis, 2:18, 21-23) in favor of the earlier version (Genesis, 1:26-27: ‘So God created man in his own image … male and female’). She insisted it established the equality of the sexes and an androgynous God. Infuriated and embarrassed by Stanton’s heresy, younger suffragists censured Stanton and canonized [Susan B.] Anthony, creating a breach in their forty-five-year friendship. Stanton was erased.”
Younger women wanted a greater role in determining their fate, Griffith writes. “The second generation was impatient with Stanton, who refused ‘to sing suffrage evermore,’ preferring ‘the rub-a-dub of agitation.’”
As I read Griffith’s book, I found the most uncomfortable passages to be the most necessary, particularly regarding racism. Many White suffragists, she reminds us, once endorsed lynching. And Stanton, for all her activism, was a “myopic visionary” who “ignored Black women.”
In 1866, Black author Frances Ellen Watkins Harper pleaded with White suffragists at the American Equal Rights Association to include Black women in their fight. “You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs,” she said, and then recited a list of ongoing humiliations inflicted on Black women. Stanton expunged her remarks from the meeting’s official record.
Nearly seven decades later, Black singer Billie Holiday’s signature song “Strange Fruit,” about lynching, sold 1 million copies in 1939, when she was just 24. She became a symbol of the resistance to lynching, Griffith recounts, and a civil rights icon — as well as a target for government surveillance and harassment for the rest of her life.
First lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s support for Black Americans was often used against her husband as a campaign issue. “We didn’t like her a bit,” one Georgian was quoted as saying at the time. “She ruined every maid we ever had.”
Also, alas, some of our best-known leaders of earlier decades, including Franklin Roosevelt’s labor secretary, Frances Perkins, who was a fierce advocate for worker safety, did not support all working women. “The woman ‘pin money’ worker who competes with the necessity worker is a menace to society, a selfish … creature, who ought to be ashamed of herself,” Perkins said in 1930. “Until we have every woman … earning a living wage … I am not willing to encourage those who are under no economic necessities to compete with their charm and education, with their superior advantages, against the working girl who has only two hands.”
One of the most common ways to trivialize women is to characterize us as fractionalized infighters. The effective response, if we must offer one, is not to prove how similar we are, but rather to celebrate how our differences keep us honest and fuel momentum. Every leader, past and present, has her flaws, but she can still accomplish great things.
Griffith has found the words for us and does an exemplary job of showing how women have always discovered ways to be powerful, regardless of obstacles. The lesson is always the same: The sooner we recognize this power in one another, the sooner the next wave of progress will reach our shores.
Connie Schultz is a columnist for USA Today and the author, most recently, of the novel “The Daughters of Erietown.”
American Women and the Fight for Equality: 1920 - 2020
By Elisabeth Griffith
Pegasus. 507 pp. $35