Clio Reads: A Review of Feminism Unfinished

In Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movements, historians Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon, and Astrid Henry survey the women’s movement from 1920 to the present. That periodization might be, as their title suggests, surprising to some readers, since “the” women’s movement is primarily associated with the 1960s and 1970s. But Cobble, Gordon, and Henry argue for a long women’s movement, stretching from labor activists in the mid-twentieth century, through the liberationists of the postwar years, to the feminist bloggers of the new millennium. They assert, “there was no period in the last century when women were not campaigning for greater equality and freedom. Feminism has been not a series of disconnected upsurges but a continuous flow.”1 In making the case that the women’s movement was never, in fact, “in the doldrums,” the scholars pull varied activists and causes into the tent, expanding the definition of American feminism itself, as well as our historical understanding of it.

The book is divided into three parts. The first chapter, written by Cobble, explores feminism from 1920 to the rise of women’s liberation in the late 1960s. Anyone familiar with the historical literature might assume that there is little feminism to point to in those years. But Cobble convincingly argues that there were many activist women, particularly in the labor and civil rights movements, who were quite aware of the ways in which they were disadvantaged, discriminated against, and limited on account of their sex, and they worked to improve their lots as workers and citizens. She calls them “social justice feminists,” because they advocated on behalf of women from within other movements, always recognizing their own intersectionality. Many of those women did not identify as feminists, but Cobble credits them with enacting feminism, if not personally claiming it.

Particularly interesting is a discussion of competing women’s rights legislative maneuvers in the 1940s: Alice Paul’s Equal Rights Amendment and the lesser-known Women’s Status Bill. Regardless of these elite tactics, Cobble shows that activism in support of racial or economic justice often gave women a consciousness, language, and skill set to rethink the gender status quo, as was the case in other moments in the long women’s movement. She demonstrates that when we move beyond a narrow view of feminism, embodied at the time by Paul and her middle-class cohort, we find a vibrant movement of working class and minority women who had, “by the 1960s … changed public opinion, workplace institutions, law, and public policy in profound and lasting ways.”2

Maida Springer (Kemp), center, an influential activist in the labor and civil rights movements. (Kheel Center, Cornell University/Flickr | CC BY)
Maida Springer (Kemp), center, an influential activist in the labor and civil rights movements. (Kheel Center, Cornell University/Flickr | CC BY)

In chapter two, Linda Gordon traces the evolution of women’s liberation from the late 1960s through the mid-1980s. Again, the chronology of the movement shifts. Histories of the movement often concentrate on the late sixties and early seventies, with nods to the defeat of the ERA and the porn wars of the early eighties. Gordon asserts that feminism did not die out in this period, but rather transitioned into a pervasive lived experience. Like chapter one, this portion of Feminism Unfinished prioritizes the activism of working class and ethnic minority women. Gordon shows how civil rights, economic justice, environmentalism, workers’ rights, and a renewed maternalist drive were among the motivations of women outside the urban centers and leading feminist organizations.

But that’s not to say that these were necessarily competing feminisms, as issues of reproduction, sexuality, violence, and access to work and opportunity crossed racial and class boundaries. As such, Gordon challenges the common notion that second wave feminism was available only to the white middle class. She writes, “There was never exclusion; feminist groups badly wanted nonwhite and poorer members. But their experiences and priorities were at times so different and their conversations so insular, that their groups felt exclusionary to women of color.”3

Diversity, according to Astrid Henry, would come to define Third Wave feminism in the 1990s and 2000s. In chapter three, Henry marks the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings of 1991, and the consciousness raising it engendered, as the start of a new phase of American feminism, “a wake-up call for why feminism was still urgently needed.”4 She demonstrates that at the turn-of-the-millennium, the women’s movement shifted in important ways. More diverse than ever, global in perspective, critically engaged with popular culture, and maybe most significantly, technologically empowered by the internet, this generation of feminists, such as Rebecca Walker, defined itself against the previous generation of activists. Henry shows that this renewed movement benefited greatly from its unprecedented digital reach, but often lacked relative cohesiveness and clear policy goals of the second wave.

Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women's Movements, by Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon, and Astrid Henry (New York: Liveright Publishing Corp., 2014).
Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movements, by Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon, and Astrid Henry (New York: Liveright Publishing Corp., 2014).

For these women, Henry argues, “feminism is both ‘everywhere and nowhere.'”5 They grew up in a culture steeped in the change wrought, in some cases literally, by their mothers. But they faced (and continue to face) an intensely sexist and misogynist world. In this section of Feminism Unfinished, the story is brought to the present day, with timely consideration of the Occupy movement, Sandra Fluke, and the call to “lean in,” among other things. For seasoned historians, this will likely be a welcome expansion of the traditional narrative.

Overall, Cobble’s, Gordon’s, and Henry’s work is clear, convincing, and accessible. Much of this history will be familiar to specialists, but it would be an excellent choice for an undergraduate course or anyone unfamiliar with this history. Each chapter could stand on its own as an assigned class reading. Given that recommendation, my only quibble with the book is that its scope suggests the need for at least a brief discussion of what came before. Reviewers can fall into the trap of asking why a book is not about something else, but I couldn’t help but think that a summary of where the movement stood in 1920, and even a cursory explanation of how it got there, would have been appropriate. Since this work seems intended for newcomers to the history, such an inclusion would round out the story. In any case, Feminism Unfinished is a nice addition to the literature.


  1. Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon, Astrid Henry, Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movements (New York: Liveright Publishing Corp., 2014), xiv. Return to text.
  2. Cobble, Feminism Unfinished, 4. Return to text.
  3. Cobble, Feminism Unfinished, 93. Return to text.
  4. Cobble, Feminism Unfinished, 149. Return to text.
  5. Cobble, Feminism Unfinished, 167. Return to text.

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