The Feminist Promise: 1792 to the Present is a bold, brimming history of feminism, from Mary Wollstonecraft through Hillary Clinton, written by Christine Stansell, one of the most esteemed historians of her generation. Though not exactly a beach read, The Feminist Promise happens to be a very good time—largely because Stansell never resorts to the tragic, tortured language of contemporary academia, with all of its hideous “epistemologies” and “nexuses” and “paradigms.” It’s refreshing to read a book by a first-rate scholar on an important subject without having to keep the OED at hand in order to look up ridiculous, ugly words that nobody particularly cares to know the meaning of in the first place. Remember when philosophers and scholars like Reinhold Niebuhr, Bertrand Russell and Hannah Arendt wrote tomes they intended for people to read outside the chalky, anemic circles of their academic fields? It seems like a distant past.
It’s a past into which The Feminist Promise folds quite nicely. Aside from the literary quality of Stansell’s scholarship, the mission of her book seems marvelously old-fashioned. It attempts to tell the story, in just under 500 pages, not only of a global political movement (from suffrage to abortion rights and beyond), but also of history’s finest philosophical advancement—the concept that women are equal to men. Epic histories like Stansell’s are, sadly, rare events these days, due in large part to the near-inevitable pitfalls of their lofty ambitions. There’s a hard-won awareness today that no history is definitive, and that racial minorities and the poor often get short shrift in grand historical works that claim to chronicle countries or movements. Because the telescopic lenses of histories written by “serious” scholars now tend to zoom in so narrowly—onto minute, particularized pockets of the past—any broad, historical overview can feel difficult to grasp. Particularly for a fella like me, an amateur enthusiast who could really benefit from a historical overview or two, however flawed, if only to point my curiosity toward gaping holes in my knowledge.
Fortunately, Stansell (who has written a couple of excellent, highly particularized histories) seems to have approached The Feminist Promise with these concerns in mind. Her book is reminiscent of The Second Sex in its elegant gallop through centuries and cultures, but it’s also reminiscent of A People’s History of the United States in its efforts to document the widest possible variety of underrepresented experiences. I’m sure Stansell commits sins of omission left and right. Latina and lesbian feminists might not be thrilled about the brevity of their parts in The Feminist Promise. Ironically, though, a big advantage to Stansell’s sweeping approach is that she demonstrates how wide the spectrums of feminism have become in the two centuries it took for “the concerns of a tiny group of democratic radicals at the edges of the French Revolution [to] migrate to the center of [world events].” That’s the riveting aspect of The Feminist Promise. The reader can watch, as it were, the notion of women’s equality take root, gain stature and acceptance, and transform the world as it’s seized and developed by women of every race, class and political persuasion. This was as true by the late 19th century as it is today, when feminism is embodied, bizarrely, by women as diverse as Gloria Steinem and Sarah Palin.
That is the reason people grouse so much about feminism and why no one is ever entirely satisfied by it. It’s an ideal that catches fire with so many remarkably different women who, let’s face it, rarely find common cause. (Women’s suffrage being the classic example of such a common cause.) As Stansell defines it, feminism is “democracy’s … sister.” Like feminism, democracy never quite lives up to its potential. Neither does it ever quite fail—because it’s a living, breathing concept, always waiting to be redefined and perfected. That leads me to the charming double meaning of Stansell’s title—it refers to the promises that feminism has made to women and the world, fulfilled and unfulfilled. It also refers to feminism’s potential, which drifts gloriously over the horizon. This double meaning is what’s so thrilling about The Feminist Promise—a dense, thorough history that conveys a sense of possibility about an imagined future in which democracy and feminism achieve that ultimate ideal, liberation.
Robert Leleux’s column, Tex in the City, appears monthly in the Observer.