The Long Revolution

Image Katherine Marino in n+1:

As historian Christine Stansell explains in her masterful new book The Feminist Promise: 1792 to the Present, the global recognition of women’s worth was the goal of women’s rights activists even before the term “feminism” was coined in the late 19th century. While never a homogenous movement, feminism, embodying many variations based on politics, race, class, and region, has always been broadly defined by its constitutive tenet: the belief in women’s equal worth.

Stansell’s narrative charts the course of the struggle for sexual equality in the US over the longue durée, from the radical fringes of political thought in the 18th century to its center in the 21st. Achieving national gains in the US such as the vote, education, and contraception, feminism finally gained a signal breakthrough into international politics in 1975, when activists from around the world put women’s equality on the agenda of the United Nations at the United Nations First World Conference on Women in Mexico City, the largest and most diverse gathering of women regionally and socioeconomically to date. The subsequent “UN Decade for Women” initiated a host of new internal programs with women’s rights agendas such as the Development Fund for Women and the World Health Organization, as well as NGOs. These organizations collected global facts about women’s life expectancy, years of education, agricultural productivity, literacy, employment, and maternal mortality. This was, as Stansell points out, “the first time the world’s women were carefully counted.” And it was this very data from the UN and World Health Organization that Sen used to write his famous article, which, in turn, helped spur other innovations in the new field of development studies and international relations. Increasingly, issues that had not been the subject of international policy discussions—maternal mortality, female infanticide, rape, and violence against women—became legitimate areas of global research and even topics of discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations. The 1995 UN Beijing World Conference on Women made a surprisingly simple conceptual and political breakthrough with its announcement that “women’s rights are human rights.”

Such a treacherously quick portrayal of feminism’s triumphant march into the world of international politics barely begins to summarize Stansell’s rich and dense history. But it does emphasize one central goal of her work: to explain not only how feminism has trickled from the radical fringes of political debate to ultimately course through its lifeblood, but also how, in that very process, feminism’s work has come to be overlooked.