No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women
By Estelle B. Freedman
Ballentine Books, $26, 400 pp
Reviewed by BETH GLENN
"Feminism is dead!"
"Long Live Feminism!"
So goes the debate among scholars and students of culture, ambivalent about the current state of the struggle for women's equality and empowerment. Estelle B. Freedman's No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women argues persuasively that reports of the movement's demise are indeed exaggerated and posits instead that feminism has grown, spread and been fortified by traditions from around the world.
Freedman set out to write a book that took a comprehensive look at women's history and social movements for women's rights from a lay person's perspective. In response to a question about a women's studies equivalent of math for non-math majors, Freedman drew a blank and realized that she had to assemble and assimilate the information herself. No Turning Back is her largely successful attempt, a parallel to the project Natalie Angier undertook to make the science of women's bodies accessible to the casual reader. Although the text gives a necessarily light treatment of many issues, Freedman's work is well-sourced through the bibliographic notes section. It provides an overview for a general audience that makes fresh connections among women's movements across time and geography.
Freedman, chair of Stanford's Program in Feminist Studies, offers a definition of feminism with four components: 1) equal worth, 2) combatting male privilege, 3) orchestrating social movements and 4) understanding that gender intersects with other social hierarchies. Beneath this umbrella notion of "justice for women as a primary concern," Freedman shows how political and ethnic particularities in various parts of the world have given rise to localized feminisms pertinent to the lives of activists on the ground. In parts of Europe, for instance, where unions and welfare states are strong, feminists advocate for equal wages and child care for working mothers. In South Asia and parts of Africa, the focus is on micro-lending programs, while in the Islamic world, reform of family law seeks to win marital choice, property rights and the right to divorce.
But the reader comes away with a vision of feminism that is always more expansive and encompassing than fractured and fractious.
"While growing international feminist movements share the conviction that women deserve human rights," Freedman notes, "only some concentrate solely on women, while others recognize complex links to the politics of race, class religion, and nationality.
"Despite these differences, most Western feminists have learned that global economic and political justices are prerequisites to securing women's rights."
Such passages are characteristic of Freedman's sunny optimism. And on a subject that could easily be given over to righteous indignation, Freedman avoids being a demagogue. Although her support of feminist ideals is evident, she maintains her evenhanded tone when discussing feminism's critics. She acknowledges that, ". . . feminism feels deeply threatening to many people, both women and men.
"By providing a powerful critique of the idea of a timeless social hierarchy, in which God or nature preordained women's dependence on men, feminism exposes the historical construction, and potential deconstruction, of categories such as gender, race and sexuality. Fears that feminism will unleash changes in familiar family, social and racial relationships can produce antifeminist politics among those who wish to conserve older forms of social hierarchy."
That is certainly as gentle and generous an explanation of the opposing viewpoint as you are likely to hear either within or outside academic discourse.
Indeed, a willingness to eschew either/or in favor of both/and sensibilities is evident in Freedman's work. No Turning Back introduces readers to competing strains in Western feminist theory _ difference versus equity, liberalists and assimilationists versus radicals and separatists _ but largely smoothes over those differences (which is perhaps a traditionally Western female response in itself). Of the demands placed on feminism by race, class and nationality Freedman concludes, "In the long run, these challenges would redefine feminism and make it more flexible, more heterogeneous and more durable."
In Freedman's world, then, feminism _ like fine wine _ only stands to get better with time.
Beth Glenn is a Times editorial writer.