Traditional historians and sociologists maintain that the women’s rights movement in America manifested itself in two distinct and sharply discontinuous “waves”. The first wave, launched by the 1848 convention at Seneca Falls, New York, developed as an independent social movement with roots in the abolitionist movement of the same century, ending with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. Accordingly, no further significant feminist activity took place until the emergence of the so-called “second wave” in 1960. Engulfing American society in significant social change for the next twenty-two years, this period ended with the failure of ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982.
Historian Leila J. Rupp and sociologist Verta Taylor, in Survival In The Doldrums: The American Women’s Rights Movement, 1945 to the 1960’s (hereafter referred to as Survival), revise this traditional conception. Rupp and Taylor argue that the women’s movement has been a continuous social movement since 1848, characterized by distinct and alternating “stages” of “formation, success, continuance, survival, or decline.” (195) The years from 1945-1960 marked a period of continuance and survival for the “elite-sustained” women’s movement, with feminist goals envisioned and striven for by a small group of wealthy, well-educated women, principally older women who had been active in the suffrage movement. (8) Their actions, defined by their attitudes concerning race, class, and gender, proved to be somewhat significant within the historical context of their times; moreover, these actions directly influenced the revitalization of the women’s movement in the 1960’s. Combining historical and sociological methodology, the authors support their thesis by examining the National Woman’s Party and organizations that participated in the women’s rights movement, the concepts of commitment and community, the connections between the women’s rights movement and other contemporaneous social movements, and the continuities between this movement and the nascent women’s movement.
Rupp and Taylor contend that the women’s rights movement constituted a distinct social movement. Using the definition of Mayer Zald and John McCarthy, the authors characterize such a movements as “the opinions and beliefs in a population that favor change in the social structure or reward system in a society…[they] are comprised of a number of organizations that compete and cooperate in pursuit of specific goals.” (45) The women’s rights movement pursued several distinct goals during the post-war period: the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the United States Constitution, the inclusion of women in government policy-making procedures, and the development and teaching of women’s history.
The National Woman’s Party (NWP), founded in 1913 by Alice Paul, provided the principal means of survival for the women’s rights movement in the oppressive social context of the post-war period. Since 1921, the group focused its entire energies and resources on the passage of the ERA. Its singular goal in the time period studied resulted in conflict within the group, declining membership, and, as the authors so aptly state, the development of “a reputation as a collection of amusingly eccentric and anachronistic old feminists.” (25) Though the group experienced two major schisms in 1947 and 1953, Rupp and Taylor emphasize that the NWP survived the period of “doldrums” after World War II, when American society regarded feminism with hostility, with members who shared common traits forming a community. These women identified themselves as feminists intensely committed to achieving the goal of equal rights under the law for women, at a time when such an identification and goal was extremely unpopular. Furthermore, they shared “close personal ties” formed by their common experiences working for women’s suffrage earlier in the century. (38) Their activities centered upon the Alva Belmont House in Washington, D.C., which served as the party’s headquarters. This sense of community based on common traits and the singular purpose of the NWP, however, stymied the organization’s efforts to recruit new membership. Younger women regarded the organizations as exclusive and resistant to change.
Other organizations advocated the inclusion of women in the determination of government policy by employing three strategies. The Business and Professional Women (BPW) and the American Association of University Women (AAUW), intent on making government officials aware of women qualified to fill government appointments, frequently assembled and distributed rosters of these women for consideration. The aforementioned NWP also utilized this tactic. The Women’s Division of the Democratic National Committee and the Women’s Division of the Republican National Committee each mobilized their membership to form highly visible, articulate constituencies supporting women’s political participation. Breaking with the historical tradition of supporting only issues, the BPW in 1946 initiated the practice of endorsing specific female candidates for public office.
Both organizations and individuals championed the evolution and dissemination of women’s history. The National Woman’s Party observed the anniversary of women’s suffrage, August 26, with an annual commemoration at the Suffrage Monument in the U.S. Capitol Crypt; they further promoted women’s history by successfully proposing commemorative postage stamps of Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. A desire to achieve public recognition of Anthony consumed the life of Rose Arnold Powell, who proposed placing the suffragist’s likeness on Mount Rushmore. Powell further advocated the creation of a national holiday on Anthony’s birthday, as well as schools named in honor of her. Historians Mary Beard and Alma Lutz authored groundbreaking works in early women’s history, most notably Beard’s Women As Force in History (1946). Beard’s efforts to establish an archive for women’s history formed the nucleus of the present Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe.
Rupp and Taylor maintain that commitment to these common goals and a strong sense of community enabled the survival of the women’s movement in a time of continuance and decline. Activists displayed disparate levels of commitment. NWP members dedicated their time and resources to the passage of the ERA, many almost to the point of fanaticism. Susan B. Anthony advocate Rose Arnold Powell and BPW founder Lena Madesin Phillips also focused their life’s work on their singular causes. Physical disabilities, careers, and family demands constrained other women from this level of participation, yet even these women gave enormous amounts of time and money, often in disproportionate ratios to the time and funds available to them. Through their commitment to group goals, women’s rights activists achieved a high level of satisfaction from both their dedication and from their group membership. In turn, their group participation led to lasting, lifelong friendships. These friendships inspired a strong sense of community among the women. Leaders of organizations like Alice Paul and Lena Madesin Phillips inspired strong devotion and loyalty among their followers, providing another common link. Many women’s rights activists formed long-term, committed intimate relationships with
another woman in their group, with the couple sharing the commitment
to improving the status of women.
The relationship of the women’s rights movement with other contemporaneous social movements did not have such fortuitous results. Survival characterizes these relationships with McCarthyism, labor, and the civil rights movement as exploitative and opportunistic. Manipulating the fact that the Communist Party opposed the ERA, supporters, particularly NWP members, equated liberal opponents of the amendment with Communists, thus co-opting one of McCarthyism’s most successful strategies. One NWP member successfully appropriated Richard Nixon’s strategy of comparing a U.S House Representative’s voting record with that of American Labor Party’s Vito Marcantonio on anti-Communist legislation to publicly imply that Emmanuel Celler , who opposed the ERA, supported Communism.
Fearful that the ERA would abolish protective legislation for women, U.S. labor unions also opposed the amendment. Women’s rights activists viewed male union member’s insistence upon the sanctity of protective legislation as their chief obstacle. They also encountered considerable opposition from female union members, who believed the NWP members and other activists failed to understand the issues of working-class women. Consistent with their beliefs in class differences, the NWP encouraged “token” members from labor unions and established “front” organizations that seemingly encompassed working class women, while opposing and attacking the Women’s Bureau and unsuccessfully seeking labor union leader’s political endorsements.
Most crucially, Rupp and Taylor argue that the NWP, the BPW, and the AAUW engaged in opportunism and exploitation of the Civil Rights Movement. All encourage “token” black membership; however, black members belonged to segregated chapters. The NWP regarded the Civil Rights Movement as a competitor. Members feared that black women and men would receive equal rights under the law before white women, often publicly stating their racist belief in white supremacy. Again attempting to co-opt and neutralize competition, women’s right’s activists insisted upon “piggy-backing” their goals to those of the other movement. The NWP successfully convinced black leaders to include gender with race in all statements protesting discrimination. Such opportunistic strategies alienated other groups, isolating them from forming any effective coalitions that might have furthered their goals.
In the closing chapters, Rupp and Taylor demonstrate the influences of the women’s rights movement in the post-war period upon the emergent women’s movement of the 1960’s. They located the strands of continuity within these influences. President John F. Kennedy’s appointment of the President’s Commission of the Status of Women (1961) marked the beginning of new growth in women’s activism by avoiding the exclusivity and elitism manifested by existing groups . Members of the Commission included women and men from government and education, labor union members, and representatives of women’s organizations. By utilizing a broad base of membership, Kennedy used this group to strategically divert attention from the “elitist” ERA to broader issues concerning greater numbers of American women. Results of the Commission’s studies resulted in the Equal Pay Bill of 1963, the first government acknowledgement of gender discrimination. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 drew support from large segments of women’s groups, including, astonishingly, the NWP. The formation of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966 grew directly out of a series of annual meetings, the National Conference on the Status of Women that were the successors of the President’s commission. NOW shared membership with the NWP, attracting older leaders such as Carruthers Berger and Alice Paul. By the end of the 1960’s, NOW assumed the leadership of the efforts to pass the ERA, which finally passed Congress in 1972 (though it was never successfully ratified), thereby marking the continuity between the two movements.
Rupp and Taylor conclude that the women’s rights movement from 1945-1960 fulfilled an important purpose: it provided a “movement halfway house”. Quoting Aldon Morris, the authors summarize their arguments for continuity by contending that the NWP and other organizations were “established organizations that lack a mass base and are relatively isolated from the larger society because of their activity on behalf of social change. Such organizations lack broad support but are able to mobilize a variety of resources that a developing mass movement can use.” (186) Though the women’s rights movement of the post-war period remained small, isolated, and exclusive, they nonetheless built a strong foundation for the resurgence of a mass social movement in the 1960s
Survival presents a well-written, well-organized account of the
continuance of the American women’s movement. Rupp and Taylor’s cohesive,
credible arguments successfully refute the traditional historical conception
of the discontinuity of that movement. The authors’ skillful use
of historical and sociological methodology is one of the greatest strengths
of this book. Rupp conducted extensive archival research in the personal
and organizational papers of the individuals and groups studied; furthermore,
she judiciously selects her secondary sources for interpretation of her
Taylor frames this history of this period in terms of social movement theory, which provides a clearer understanding of the women’s rights movement. Her study examines not just the “birth and death” of social movements, but also considers the stages through which movements evolve. She clearly defines terms such as “social movement” and “social movement theory” without resorting to confusing jargon or obfuscation. The two methodologies complement and reinforce one another.
Rupp and Taylor also unflinchingly present their subjects as displaying gender, class, and race biases. They offer a candid portrayal of the influence of these three factors upon women’s rights issues, consistently maintaining that these biases resulted in the domination of women’s right’s groups by wealthy, white women who recruited membership only among those that fulfilled these criteria. The mistakes of this groups provided a “blueprint” for new groups in the 1960’s to avoid the pitfalls that had prevented growth and diversity in the “doldrum” years.
Survival manifests a few minor weaknesses. The book sometimes focuses on the NWP at the expense of other organizations of the period. The authors’ arguments would be strengthened by the inclusion of further evidence that discussed the AAUW and the BPW in greater detail. Also, Rupp and Taylor’s unflattering portrayal of Alice Paul lacks balance. According to the portrait proffered here, Paul’s strong personality displayed no redeeming characteristics. The authors constantly reiterated her personality flaws, which led this reviewer to wonder how the woman managed to inspire the loyalty and devotion of other party members that Rupp and Taylor present in the chapter on community. Emphasis should have been placed on Paul’s tenacity as well, to provide a more rounded portrayal.
Despite these few weaknesses, Rupp and Taylor offer an excellent,
groundbreaking contribution to the historiography of the women’s movement
in the post-World War II years. Survival presents solid evidence
to support a new historical interpretation of continuity of the women’s
movement in American history in a work that provides a springboard for
further scholarly research.