Skip to main content

30% Off New Releases: Explore the List

Harvard University Press - home

From Abigail Adams to Beyoncé—the Story of Feminism in America

Interview

Fearless Women
Fearless Women Elizabeth Cobbs

Elizabeth Cobbs’ new book Fearless Women shows how the movement for women’s rights has been deeply entwined with the history of the United States. Cobbs traces the lives of pathbreaking women who, inspired by American ideals, fought for the cause in their own ways and dared to take destiny into their own hands.

Author - Editorial Staff

Date - 6 March 2023

Time to read - 5 min

Historian Elizabeth Cobbs speaks with us about her book Fearless Women.

You argue that feminism has been as important in shaping who we are as Americans as the Industrial Revolution, the Civil War, and the Great Depression. Why?

Up to now, this fact has not been largely recognized, but my book shows that many of the major achievements that have defined US history are connected with strides in women’s rights and the civic activism of feminists. The Industrial Revolution depended on the creation of a literate labor force—one that female teachers produced after women won the right to attend school. Susan B. Anthony organized the petition campaign that sped passage of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, and Frances Perkins (the first female member of any presidential cabinet) spearheaded the creation of Social Security and fair labor laws. This list of transformative developments could—and does—go on.

How did you pick the women that you profiled in the book? For instance, you profile Susan B. Anthony but not Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Why?

This was the fun part: deciding whose work was most transformative, or whose own life experience reflected the biggest challenges that American women faced in any given era. In this case, while Elizabeth Cady Stanton was the more famous writer and orator, it was Anthony who literally got the word out. She did the painstaking, relentless, uncompensated, unglamorous work of organizing, year in and year out, sweeping from Maine to California. By the end, she took my breath away. Every chapter presented the same set of choices. Sometimes I picked the more famous individual, but equally often the less famous: someone who made a difference in a new way, like Martha Cotera of Texas, who made women’s rights into a Mexican-American cause during the 1970s.

“The fundamental premise of feminism is that women should have equal opportunity and equal rights with every other citizen.”

—Eleanor Roosevelt, 1935

When you look back at the struggle for women’s rights, can you describe what life was like for the average American woman in 1776? What were the personal consequences of not having specific rights at different points in US history?

Marriage was the key determinant of a woman’s rights in the former English colonies and new nation. An unmarried woman—so long as she was not enslaved or indentured—could own property and sign contracts on her own behalf. But once a woman married, she in effect vanished from the law. Her legal identity was “covered” by her husband. Everything she owned became his, including any children she “gave” him. He had the right to “chastise” her as he saw fit, and even forbid her from leaving the house.

Patriotism and feminism are not usually mentioned in the same breath. Why do you put them together?

The movement for women’s rights began in 1776, as a consequence of the Revolution. People like Abigail Adams saw women’s fight for liberty as directly connected with the larger fight for freedom. In my research, I found that every generation in some way or another linked their goals with the stated promise of America. This fed their convictions—and improved their success. Most considered themselves patriots.

The women’s movement is sometimes criticized as being white-dominated and even racist. What do you make of that as a historian?

Historically, feminists could be racist (and some were) just as Civil Rights activists could be sexist (and some were). This is an easy charge to prove. Much more commonly, however, people in these causes worked together and shared similar values. If I had chosen a man to represent feminism, I would have picked Frederick Douglass. Similarly, a book on abolition could easily feature Susan B. Anthony. To me, the charge that feminism has been a “white” movement betrays a lack of knowledge about the valuable—and valued—contributions of women of color. That knowledge gap, if you will, helped motivate this book.

In writing this book, did you notice unsuccessful as well as successful strategies for expanding women’s rights that might inform the struggle today?

Absolutely! Something that became particularly clear was the turn towards non-partisanship after the US Civil War. Republican and Democratic stalwarts kept trying to suck women into endorsing their candidates, but Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton renounced their ties to Lincoln’s party and turned the movement away from partisanship—a technique that persisted until the vote was won in 1920. That heritage continues in groups like the League of Women Voters, started by Anthony’s protégé, Carrie Chapman Catt. Nonpartisanship or bipartisanship served feminism until the 1980s, when Phyllis Schlafly made opposition to women’s rights a badge of party identity, and Democrats cooperated.

When you consider the struggle for women’s rights in America today, with the reversal of Roe, do you think that this is the beginning of a significant reversal or a temporary stumbling block?

There are no light switches in history. Long-term trends don’t just turn off. The movement towards greater freedom for all individuals, including women, is nearly 300 years old, so it is hard to see it ending abruptly. If I had to guess, I would call this a setback that could (and should) have been anticipated. Indeed, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and others worried that the constitutional reasoning behind Roe was susceptible to challenge. Advocates for reproductive choice will now have to undertake the hard campaigning that anti-abortion forces did for decades if they want states to protect rights that the federal government no longer does.

Fearless Women And Elizabeth Cobbs
Elizabeth Cobbs, a prizewinning historian, novelist, and documentary filmmaker, holds the Melbern Glasscock Chair in American History at Texas A&M University.