Eric Foner on the Evolution of Liberalism

E-f A Five Books interview by Eve Gerber:

Finally Christine Stansell’s The Feminist Promise examines the sweep of American women’s history. What can we learn by reading it?

Stansell shows why women’s rights became a central element of modern American liberalism. And she helps us understand how liberalism evolved to embrace individual rights and privacy in the most intimate areas of personal life. That came through the women’s movement. Stansell gives a very good account of how these feminist issues, on the one hand, go very deep back in American history, and, on the other hand, reached a critical mass of popular engagement during the 1960s.

Why did women’s rights become so aligned with the left?

In the 1970s social issues became more important to the Republican Party, and the notion that the women’s movement was a threat to the family and the stability of society became a mantra among conservatives. I think it’s important to remember that it wasn’t always that way. A century ago the movement for women’s suffrage was just as likely to get support from Republicans. Even in the 1960s plenty of conservatives supported legal equality. But today women’s rights are a dividing line between liberalism and conservatism.