Wednesday, October 21, 2020
Recalling the First Comprehensive History of Women's Rights, Eleanor Flexner's 1959, Century of Struggle
In the 1950s, Eleanor Flexner, a left-wing activist and writer, decided to compile a comprehensive history of the women’s rights movement in the United States, exploring a span of more than 300 years. Her timing could not have been less auspicious. Feminism was virtually a dirty word, described in Ferdinand Lundberg and Marynia F. Farnham’s celebrated book “Modern Woman: The Lost Sex” (1947) as “at its core, a deep illness.”
Moreover, the House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC, was engaged in a ruthless investigation of Communist influence in the United States, attacking left-wing artists and intellectuals. Flexner had been a member of the Communist Party from 1936 through 1956, and although she was not hauled before HUAC, the careers of some of her closest friends and associates had been ruined.
Nonetheless, Flexner, with no formal training as a professional historian, began what became a pathbreaking, wide-ranging account of activism for women’s rights in America.
“Century of Struggle: The Women’s Rights Movement in the United States” (1959) was the first authoritative narrative of one of the great dimensions of American democratic history. The book, based largely on her original research in the Library of Congress, the Sophia Smith Collection of Women’s History at Smith College and elsewhere, covered an immense amount of material, from Anne Hutchinson, the 17th-century rebel against Puritan clerical authority in Massachusetts, to the dramatic final years of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, by which women won the right to vote. It remained the pre-eminent text on the topic for more than half a century, and is still taught in schools and consulted widely by historians today.