Stanford University

News Service


NEWS RELEASE

12/3/02

CONTACT: Lisa Trei, News Service: (650) 725-0224, lisatrei@stanford.edu

COMMENT: Estelle Freedman, Department of History: (650) 723-4951, ebf@stanford.edu

 

Freedman says there will be 'No Turning Back'

Estelle Freedman says her sweeping new history of feminism, No Turning Back, probably would not have been written without the support she found on campus.

Starting with Women's Basketball Coach Tara VanDerveer, who is credited with asking the initial question that led to the book's conception, Freedman is grateful to her colleagues and students across the university for making the book a possibility.

"It's a Stanford book," she says. "The faculty, the program [in Feminist Studies] really gave me a lot of encouragement. I realize that my colleagues here had been stretching me in an interdisciplinary way my whole career. Otherwise, I wouldn't have had the chutzpah to take on a book like this."

VanDerveer had asked Freedman for a recommendation of one book covering feminist scholarship. Unable to come up with a comprehensive title, Freedman jokingly replied she'd have to write that book herself.

Almost a decade later, she has. No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women is an ambitious, 446-page volume that traces the origins of feminism and how it has manifested itself in different parts of the world. It explores the world before feminism and traces the movement's historical emergence. The book discusses the politics of work and family, and of health and sexuality. It concludes with a section on feminist visions and strategies. First published last spring, a paperback version will be released next month.

"What was challenging was moving away from my U.S. historic base and incorporating contemporary political science, art history and social science and trying to come up with a framework for understanding diverse feminist movements," Freedman says. "I try to start every section with the historical context. Then I try to bring in interdisciplinary analyses, such as economic and cultural explanations for the gender gap in wages."

The book is replete with insights into feminist history that will appeal to academic and lay readers alike. For example, Freedman writes about alternative economic systems in the past. In pre-colonial Africa, in a region that is now part of Nigeria, a wealthy female member of the Igbo could buy a wife to work for her, becoming what was called a "female husband" although she herself might be the wife of a man.

Freedman also chronicles the struggles women have confronted as they entered professions dominated by men. For example, in the 1950s, no law firm would hire a distinguished Stanford Law School graduate named Sandra Day O'Connor, who ultimately became the first female associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Freedman, the Edgar E. Robinson Professor in United States History, is no stranger to fighting bias herself. In 1983, she became a nationally known figure when, after 18 months of protests, charges of discrimination and appeals, the Stanford Board of Trustees granted her promotion and tenure. Since then, she has published books on the history of sexuality and women's prison reform: Maternal Justice: Miriam Van Waters and the Female Reform Tradition in 1996 and Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America in 1988.

 

New website complements book

In addition to a wealth of appendices and notes at the end of Freedman's book, interested readers can turn to a new website at http://noturningback.stanford.edu that includes reviews and a detailed "Feminist Resource Site" linking both historical documents and contemporary feminist organizations.

No Turning Back is written in a simple, readable style and organized so that readers need not approach it in chronological order. "The challenge was making it accessible without diluting the complexity of ideas," Freedman says. "I certainly had a few lay readers tell me to clean up my language and avoid jargon."

The book is based on Freedman's definition of feminism "a belief that women and men are inherently of equal worth. Because most societies privilege men as a group, social movements are necessary to achieve equality between women and men, with the understanding that gender always intersects with other social hierarchies."

Freedman acknowledges that at every point where women have mobilized to extend their authority, they have been met by a "huge counter-mobilization, which questions [and] demonizes those women, often in physical or sexual terms, and sees them as a threat to the social order."

While acknowledging the persistence of a chronic anti-feminist backlash, Freedman's book is ultimately optimistic, as reflected in its title, No Turning Back. "The momentum I emphasize is forward," she says. "It's an expanding call for full economic and political citizenship for women."

Freedman co-founded Stanford's program in Feminist Studies in 1981 and has taught its introductory course every other year since 1988. About half of the book came out of her teaching and testing ideas in the classroom; the other half came from research.

Throughout No Turning Back, Freedman considers four questions:

• What difference does gender make?

• Why did feminist politics emerge historically, and how have they changed over time and place?

•What do feminists want?

• Where is feminism going?

Society's definitions of work and gender change when it considers these questions, says Freedman. "Women's [traditional] labor is overlooked. They raise children; take care of families; volunteer in communities." A redefinition of work has to take place to include unpaid labor. "Let's call it work and let's value it," she argues.

Freedman acknowledges that there is more space for women's movements to succeed in "more complete" democracies, because democratic politics enable feminists to mobilize and influence public policy. "It's also harder to find feminist critiques in places where women are not fully integrated into the public economic system, partly because it is that movement into public labor that creates the dilemmas of 'work and family' that fuel feminism all over the world," she says.

 

Changing social attitudes

Although feminists worldwide have different priorities, they share two basic demands: for women to be fully valued and for an end to demeaning stereotypes. "Women want to be fully valued for all of their labors, in the home or for wages, but they also have to have real choice and not be limited to one realm," Freedman says. "Until you have that, it's very hard for the project of fully valuing women to be achieved."

For that to happen, the history professor says that what has traditionally been regarded as "caring" work, such as full-time parenting, must be socially acceptable for men as well as women. "I think one of the ways feminism has changed in the United States is from emphasizing women's ability to choose work that men have historically performed to valuing as well the choice of women's historical caring work," she says. "But caring work and breadwinning work need to be open to both men and women. You're not really going to achieve a gender balanced system until [that happens]."

Freedman realizes that such a shift in social attitudes could take a long time, but she puts it into historical perspective. "Think of how long it took to empower women in the United States as full citizens," she says. "From 1848 to 1920 from the first call for suffrage to ratifying the vote for women. If in the 1990s we're beginning to call for men's access to caring work, it's going to take several generations to make that acceptable."

Such changes will demand advances in social and educational policies, says Freedman. From her own battle for tenure to fighting for equity for other women faculty, Freedman knows that it is possible to change the status quo. In No Turning Back, she writes that white males in 1997 held 70 percent of the full-time tenured faculty positions in the United States, and that at elite universities including Stanford and Harvard, the figure rose to 85 percent. By 2001, full-time tenured female faculty at Stanford had slightly increased to 16 percent.

"I think the women faculty [at Stanford] seven years ago were really pushing the then administration to acknowledge that we were having a problem a real gender gap," she says. "I think, in the last couple of years, Stanford's administration and other schools like MIT have started saying that we do have a problem, as opposed to 'It's just fate.'" She notes that sociology Professor Cecilia Ridgeway describes the problem as "small scale, unintended but incremental biases that creep into hiring and promotion." By paying attention to such concerns, Freedman says, "we will wipe out those biases and begin to balance gender. The current administration, I believe, is paying attention, and women and minority faculty will continue to watch carefully to ensure that we move forward to greater equality."

-30-

By Lisa Trei

© Stanford University. All Rights Reserved. Stanford, CA 94305. (650) 723-2300. Terms of Use  |  Copyright Complaints