walkitout (walkitout) wrote,
walkitout
walkitout

_White Women's Rights_, Louise Michele Newman

Subtitled The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States
OUP 1999

I bought it in October 2002 in Williamsburg while on a road trip.

I rarely comment on the physical characteristics of a book, beyond noting whether I read it on the kindle or not. However, the print in this book presented enough problems for me to feel compelled to mention those problems. First, the print is small and I, increasingly, am old. Second, the ink or toner is weak or faded, or inadequate, particularly on the left hand pages, and more towards the spine. I did not consciously notice this at first, but it contributed greatly to my difficulties reading the book (along with the prose style, which monographs sort of universally suffer from, and the trigger-y nature of the topic). After a while, I asked R. to take a look at it, and he was able to identify the toner or ink problems (he thinks this may have been a POD edition) which, combined with the font (there’s no colophon — maybe no one wanted to take any responsibility for this) result in o’s which are not complete, etc. (He said it was like reading a whole page of captcha. Which it is.)

I’m not sure what I will do with this copy. In general, I prefer to destroy physically flawed books (provided they are not rare), to save future readers the agony.

The author “is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Florida” at the time of publication, and the CV I found online for her looks like Associate Professor now. The text is informed by her use of the material in teaching.

Chapters 4-7 are character studies of particular women: (4) May French-Sheldon (who went on safari in Africa), (5) Alice Fletcher (who administered allotments of land on reservations), (6) Charlotte Perkins Gilman (and Mary Roberts Smith Coolidge) and (7) Margaret Mead. These chapters aren’t just character studies; they argue that these women modified cultural discourses involving the place of (white) (middle class) women, vis a vis (white) (ruling class) men and POC, both in their writings and in how they lived their lives.

Chapter 2 is more or less the same thing, for Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Catharine Beecher, Mary Dodge/“Gail Hamilton", as (white) (middle class) women abolitionists (mostly) were prevented from participating in abolitionist organizations dominated by men, started their own, and (sort of) started the woman’s movement as well. This _could_ have been a really great analysis of differing perspectives on whether and how much to work towards Someone Else’s (Primary) Goal vs. focusing on One’s Own (Primary) Goal — a real classic dilemma of identity politics when the identity groups are each a minority but collectively the majority. I don’t know if Newman didn’t want to frame it that way, because that’s a modern frame, or she didn’t think to frame it that way, because she did all that work in the 1990s, and those ideas were not yet dominating academia yet? In practice, all the information is there, but without any frame that I perceived.

Chapter 3 is a mess, and it’s probably not the author’s fault. She’s attempting to describe the convergence of the Serious Thinkers Becoming Aware of the Demographic Transition, the industrial revolution in full swing and total control of the judicial system (thus rolling back all labor protection that had previously been put in place), and increasing female participation in the labor force. What women’s organizations decided to do (agitate for access to college/careers, agitate for protective labor laws for women, since they couldn’t keep them on the books for everyone, and back anyone who had an intellectual/academic fig leaf to justify these two goals) was entirely reasonable, but if you’re parsing the rhetoric, it seems a little odd. Hence, the mess.

And that brings me back to chapter 1, which sets up the book as a whole. Newman’s overall frame is the use of social evolution, Spencerian and Lamarckian conceptions of racial progress/devolution, by (white) women to carve out a better place in society for themselves and future generations of men and women (and I didn’t put white in parentheses there on purpose). Newman talks throughout the book about how evolution and ethnography and ideas of race and sex difference were modified by women (and men) for various purposes. What she _doesn’t_ do is talk about how this discourse interacted with the historically more dominant and still very powerful religious frame — which was even worse for women and for POC, but much harder to rework directly, much less attack directly.

That, in combination with her extremely limited treatment of the temperance movement, make this book a lot less powerful than it could have been. It’s sort of an interesting oddity, rather than a Must Read. Because this is basically a horribly detailed analysis of a strain of rhetoric that wound through a whole lot of very exciting political times — while mostly ignoring all of the excitement. This book supports the thesis that the history of ideas separate from, well, everything else is hugely problematic.

Next up: either Ruth Bordin's _Woman and Temperance_ or Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham's _Righteous Discontent_. It's like I planned this to coincide with Women's History Month or something. (I didn't.)

Additional complaint:

p 166: "In this climate of racial tension, Anglo-Protestant women often saw themselves as potential rape victims, even when no sexual interest was shown them," Erm. What's that clause doing there?

Further observation: It's clear that this book was written at least partly in response to arguments that the women's movement (in its various incarnations over the decades) got more racist after the Civil War. Newman exhaustively demonstrates that race (and racism) was part of the discourse and the way (white) women thought about themselves and their place in the world from well before the Civil War, and that to the extent there was a trend, it wasn't to become more openly contemptuous of POC (altho it wasn't necessarily to become _less_ racist, either -- just different forms, alas).
Tags: book review, history, politics, women
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