Grounding of Modern Feminism and the Study of Women in History

Nancy Cott’s Grounding of Modern Feminism is part of a short but dynamic dialogue about the role of women in American history. While admitting herself that the book leaves behind certain pieces of evidence that would be secondary to her cause, Cott endeavors to fulfill Virginia Woolf’s call for a “mass of information” about women that would help “add a supplement to history.” Grounding of Modern Feminism provides a discussion of the language of feminism in the first decades of the 20th century and how this language became a political commodity and liability.

Cott’s analysis of feminism meets several requirements of traditions in social history that are mentioned by Joan Wallach Scott. The first guideline discussed by Scott in her book, Gender and the Politics of History, is that social history and its feminist offspring used quantification of everyday details to understand the common person in history. While Cott talks quite a bit about the leaders of the feminist movement, her discussion of young unskilled women and the labor movement shows that the author was concerned largely with how the message of suffrage and feminism reached the masses. This subject is not dropped in the middle of the book without reference; rather, it is placed in a larger context of the labor movement and the livelihood of the majority, requiring great care in understanding the politics of the majority.

The second criterion that Scott discusses in her article is the conceptualization of family, sexuality, and fertility as historical phenomena. This is no doubt a prerequisite to any adequate review of feminist history, as a majority of the female political and social groups in American history have struck those chords. Cott discusses these issues at length within the context of suffragist politics at the turn of the twentieth century. Specifically, the author refers to the attempts by writers like Olive Schreiner, Margaret Sanger, and Miriam Allen de Ford to free woman for new roles in sexuality, typically one of greater control over reproduction. These writers, along with the many readers of these works, were engaging in a dialogue of reform first without and later with political legitimacy based on the very issues that separated them from men. This dialogue and these issues were the heart of the feminist movement and its history.

Another standard of social history is that the traditional narrative of history, largely favorable to men’s roles, has been challenged by a more diverse observation of larger social structures. In Grounding, Cott does not just observe social and political structures from the viewpoint of the elites and the masses. She also looked at the divides between black and white. In describing the National Women’s Party convention of February 1921, the event is described in terms of not only the overall tenor of the meeting but also the varying factions and the general discontent of these different sides. Black women, pacifists, and proponents of addressing sexuality among other interests are explained in Chapter 2 of Grounding, as vital parts of the convention and the party as a whole. This one event was the culmination of a constitutional amendment, the turning point for the newly issue-less suffragists, and the beginnings of modern feminism.

The final standard of analysis put forth by social historians is the legitimization of groups typically left out of history books and decisions in discourse. This is a culmination essentially of the three previous standards and is indeed the most important part of social history and its feminist progeny. History to the early 20th century had largely relied on accounts of the elite and typically let alone economic and social effects upon the lower and even middle classes. With social history and authors like Cott, the quantification of history using archives of the common people cast a new light on historiography. The prioritization by social historians of family and individual matters opened the doors to a wide range of analysis seeking an explanation of a complex series of actions. These actions have been placed in a large social structure that includes not only the groups who have largely written history but those who are excluded from history for various reasons. In this sense, social history has opened the door to new possibilities in research, writing, and comparative studies.

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