The secret history of five first wavers

A new book profiles five women who helped change all of our lives.

By Rebecca Traister

Published December 5, 2005 6:21PM (EST)

I really enjoyed LaNitra Walker's American Prospect review of "Sisters: The Lives of America's Suffragists," a new book in which Goucher historian Jean H. Baker writes about five of America's early feminists: Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frances Willard and Alice Paul.

"Lately, there's been a lot of talk about what it means to be a feminist," begins Walker, in perhaps the understatement of the week. "As the debate rages in venues ranging from television talk shows to the halls of academia, the question remains: Are women any closer to gender equality now than they were a hundred years ago?"

Of course that's a question that Walker can't answer any more than Baker can and, probably, any more than any of the women whose lives and work "Sisters" chronicles could have. But the book sounds like a must-read for anyone interested in feminist history or, frankly, in American history.

According to Walker, Baker presents readers with "a side of the suffragists that other biographies downplay: the nitty-gritty of their personal lives. These stories and anecdotes humanize the women by showing us that behind those tightly pulled coiffures and corsets stood women who believed that gender equality would allow women to become better mothers, daughters, sisters, lovers, and wives."

Anyone who thinks the battles between women over the competing priorities of motherhood and career are a recent concern will be enchanted to learn that Stanton, mother to seven, wrote of her desire "to be free from housekeeping and children so as to have time to read, think, and write." Walker writes that eventually, "child rearing replaced suffrage as Stanton's top priority, a choice that her close friend Anthony never forgave."

Apparently, the book's exploration of the links and rifts between the suffrage and abolition movements should put more modern fraught political relationships, like the ones among the antiwar, civil rights and feminist movements of the 1960s, in historical context.

Walker's review ends with this thought: "Feminism has achieved many of its goals since Stone, Anthony, Stanton, Willard, and Paul last picketed the White House, but women must continue to lift as they climb. Gender equality will not be achieved until women are no longer forced to choose between homemaking and policymaking, until race and class biases no longer conspire to allow some women to gain career and social mobility while others hover on the margins of American society perhaps, cleaning houses or working as nannies just to scrape by. Baker's unique approach to documenting the suffragists' personal lives opens the door for other scholars to fill in the gaps in feminism's social history by exploring the ordinary aspects of other extraordinary American women."

Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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