The Grounding of Modern Feminism

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Nancy F. Cott

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"The time has come to define feminism; it is no longer possible to ignore it." The Century Magazine, 1914

In this landmark addition to scholarship, Nancy F. Cott, author of The Bonds of Womanhood, offers a new interpretation of American feminism during the early decades of this century—a period traditionally viewed as on in which women won the right to vote and then lost interest in feminist issues. Cott argues instead that his period was a time of crisis and transition from the nineteenth-century "woman movement’ to the beginning of modern feminism. Many of the issues that are central to women today, says Cott, were firmly articulated in the early decades of this century. For example, the problem of defining sexual equality so as to recognize sexual difference between men and women, the ambiguous potential of a movement seeking individual freedoms for women by mobilizing sex solidarity, and the tensions involved in attaining full expression in work and love are all enduring elements of feminism seized upon by women of the 1910s and 1920s.
First discussing how feminism was indebted to its predecessors, Cott shows that increasing heterogeneity and diverse loyalties among women in the early twentieth century contradicted the premise of the nineteenth-century "cause of woman" (the singular noun symbolizing the unity of the female sex). From this crisis emerged feminism, championing individual variability and refuting the premise that a singular "woman" existed.

Cott focuses on the suffrage-campaign milieu in which feminism arose, giving particular attention to the character and role of the National Woman’s Party from its militant suffrage days to its advocacy of the equal right amendment in the 1920s. Against prevailing interpretations of the decline of women’s political activities after 1920, Cott counterposes the swelling numbers in women’s voluntary associations and their political efforts. She also analyzes the pitfalls that awaited women who tried for effectiveness in the male-dominated political parties. She sets the controversy over the equal rights amendment in new context, discussing the full dimensions of the conflict as not merely over personalities, tactics, or class loyalties, but as a signal example of the modern problem of capturing sexual equality and sexual difference in law.

The book explores the irony-strewn path of women who as aspiring professionals and political actors attempted to put into practice the feminist intent to replace the abstraction "woman" with, instead, "the human sex." This history—the story of women who first claimed the name feminists—builds an essential bridge between the presuffrage period and today.


"This book will be an important and widely noted addition to scholarship on twentieth-century women."—William Chafe, Duke University
























"A fine book, of major importance to historians and anyone interested in American feminism."—Barbara Miller Solomon

"Nancy Cott's study of early twentieth-century feminism braids wide-ranging themes—some contradictory—into a lively, integrated whole. While analyzing the metamorphosis of the 'woman movement' into modern feminism Cott acknowledges diversity among American women, consistently incorporating the activities of working class and black women and honestly reporting evidence of racism and class prejudice. The Grounding of Modern Feminism offers perceptive insights delivered serenely and a well-founded sense of deja vu."—Nell Irvin Painter, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill 

"A supple, closely documented synthesis which offers a challenging reinterpretation of post-1920s feminism. Indispensable for scholars and general readers, this book will define the debate over feminist strategies and ideology for years to come."—Gerda Lerner, Robinson-Edwards Professor, Sr. Distinguished Research Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison

"This fine book is an indispensable guide to the history of modern American feminism. Focusing on the important transition decade of the 1920s, Cott's analysis of the collision between nineteenth and twentieth-century feminist visions deftly reveals issues that continue to shape American feminism today."—Kathryn Kish Sklar, University of California, Los Angeles

"The best new interpretation to date of that puzzling gap between the first and second waves of feminism. This book can be helpful to understanding contemporary feminism as well as its history."—Linda Gordon, University of Wisconsin, Madison

"The Grounding of Modern Feminism is essential reading for American historians, students of gender, and feminists. By tracing the origins of a distinctively 'feminist' consciousness and situating it in the gender history of the United States early in this century, Nancy Cott has revised our understanding of woman's past and illuminated our current predicament."—Mary Ryan, University of California, Berkeley

"Cheer The Grounding of Modern Feminism to the skies! The most responsible of historians, Nancy Cott, has written a revelation about one of the great movements of our century."—Catharine R. Stimpson, Rutgers University, Chair of MS. Board of Scholars, Chair of the Board of National Council for Research on Women
"Cott's landmark study will be the center piece of this important literature of remembering."—Kris Hoover, Feminist Bookstore News

"Questions about practical strategy, and about the theoretical differences they reflect . . . have always split feminist and women's ranks, as Nancy Cott's useful new book demonstrates through detailed historical analysis."—Jean Bethke Elshtain, New Republic

"A fine historical study of women's movements in the United States between 1910 and 1930. Historians and academic feminists will enjoy Ms. Cott's detailed, well-written, scrupulously documented narrative; general readers can profit from the pertinence of the story to our own feminism, the so-called "second wave.". . . . The Grounding of Modern Feminism is as much a commentary on our own moment as a study of the years when the first wave of feminism lost its power in American life."—Nina Baym, New York Times Book Review

"Women's history has evolved and deepened over the last decade, focusing less on female victimization and more on the social construction of gender. . . . A fine contribution because it takes seriously the social construction of 'feminism' itself. . . . This is a book that will reorient future discussions of women's past."—Richard Wightman Fox, Commonweal  (Critics' Choices for Christmas)

"A classic in women's history. . . . Cott's study establishes a solid basis for understanding feminism in the early-and mid-twentieth century."—Choice

"An extremely impressive piece of research that offers us valuable insights into the women's movement during the early part of this century."—T. J. Banks, Hartford Courant

"Nancy F. Cott has given us a new way to understand the paradoxes of modern feminism. Her brilliant book literally grounds feminism in history, both as an ideology and as a social movement, and clarifies its inescapable dilemma."—Sara M. Evans, The Nation

"History is here clearly, fascinatingly, frighteningly presented."—Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Kenyon Review

"Cott traces the evolution of early feminist thought and practice through three main epochs."—Jose Harris, Times Literary Supplement

"[A] splendid new study of feminism in the 1910s and 1920s."—Ruth Rosen, Women's Review of Books

"A pathbreaking study of the paradoxes, diverse meanings, and contradictions of American feminism and of the historical context in which feminism developed and declined between  1920-1930."—Kate Wittenstein, Women Historians of the Midwest

"This book is helpful in understanding contemporary feminism as well as its history and that puzzling gap between the first and second wave of feminism."—Academic Library Book Review

"Cott's work provides a rich context for understanding how and who 'the story of feminism in the late twentieth century continues, as not only women but also feminism grow toward the plural.'"—Steven M. Buechler, American Journal of Sociology

"A crucial study of the history of feminism in the early part of this century. It is equally riveting to those who might be more interested in today's feminism. . . . The Grounding of Modern Feminism is brilliant. It shows the marks of careful scholarship; it is beautifully written; its few illustrations are gems. It will become a key part of the canon of works to read on the history of feminism and women's politics. But it will also be of tremendous value to other scholars in its capacity as a case study of social movement politics and of the political response to the establishment of industrial society in the United States."—Virginia Sapiro, Political Science Quarterly

"There is a strong interpretive framework for this book and whether one agrees with it or not, I expect that it will serve as the new point of departure for future studies of feminism."—Myra Marx Ferree, Contemporary Sociology

"Along with elegantly written history, The Grounding of Modern Feminism raises significant theoretical questions about the definition of feminism and collective action on the part of women as a gender class."—Ellen Herman, Sojourner: The Women's Forum

"Cott's complex work stands among the most important books on United States women's history. It recovers the broad range of the early twentieth-century women's movement and uncovers the neglected roots of contemporary feminism. Spiced with insight and irony, this is subtle and sophisticated fare."—Joanne Meyerowitz, Journal of American History

"A well-written, richly illustrated, and deeply researched book. . . . Cott's argument and coverage are subtle and extensive. I found myself underlining and underlining, making exclamation marks and stars in the margins as I was struck by the superb quality of the work. When I finished the book, I could only say, 'I wish I had written this.'"—J. Stanley Lemons, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography

"Nancy Cott probes the thought of our predecessors to sound the fault lines in the groundwork for 1960s feminism." —Phyllis Palmer, Reviews in American History

"The Grounding of Modern Feminism explain[s] why, although women were no less active in the 1920s than they had been earlier, no large-scale, coherent movement could grow from this seedbed at that time. Cott also makes clear that women's experiences in those 10 years did, in fact, define many of the questions feminists are grappling with today. By clarifying these issues, and by exploring the tensions and paradoxes within feminist thought that surfaced in that decade, this book offers a valuable new perspective."—Sydney Stahl Weinberg, New Directions for Women

"[Cott's] persuasive interpretation will almost certainly recast scholarship on the history of women in the 1920s and beyond. . . . In a series of fascinating chapters, Cott imaginatively and systematically examines every route tried by feminists of the 1920s, from the careful focusing of energies on the achievement of legal equality tried by the National Woman's Party, to the varied, often contradictory endeavors to improve women's situation as wage-earners."—Anita Clair Fellman, Canadian Review of American Studies

"The traditional view of early twentieth-century feminists is that they stood for the right to vote and, having won that, promptly abandoned the movement. In this important book, Cott. . . . provides a fresh look at this period and redefines the feminist movement that was active then."—A. B. Bookman's Weekly

"A landmark in the study of U.S. feminism, useful as a reference on the women's movement during the crucial period 1910-1930, and a fascinating book to read for understanding the roots of the tensions, goals, and paradoxes of the contemporary movement."— Feminist Bookstore News

"This superbly researched study describes the development of American feminism between 1910-1930. It replaces the old story of the demise of the feminist movement in the 1920s with a more sophisticated understanding of how feminism changed, rather than dissolved. . . . Her tight theoretical argument and control of an immense amount of both old and new material is impressive. Her concise, vivid summations present new interpretative frameworks. This important book is sure to shape the historical debate on the feminism of the post-suffrage era for some time to come."—Dee Garrison, Journal of Social History

"Nancy Cott bravely attempts to define feminism and to place the term in a proper historical context. . . . Clearly this is a path-breaking book which provides a theoretical framework for studying the modern women's movement and for understanding the multi-faceted dimensions of feminism."—D'Ann Campbell, The Historian

"Why did the first wave of feminism collapse after suffrage?  Nancy F. Cott at last provides a satisfying answer. . . . Cott dissects the split. . . in a fresh and original way, acknowledging the roles of personality conflicts and old enmities from the suffrage campaigns but emphasizing serious political and philosophical differences. . . . Cott has opened the way to the logical but difficult next steps."—Susan Porter Benson, American Historical Review

"[This] book is firmly rooted in the past and grippingly informed by the present. . . . A rallying cry for women."—Johanna Alberti, Women's Studies International Forum

"Nancy Cott has written a thoroughly documented, readable reinterpretation of the 1920s. . . . The Grounding of Modern Feminism is so rich in detail and suggestion that several books based on her footnotes and cast of secondary characters. . . will most certainly follow."—Rosalyn Fraad Baxandall, NWSA Journal

"The Grounding of Modern Feminism is an engaging, well-documented, and provocative analysis of what happened to feminism from the peak of the suffrage campaign to the beginning of the Great Depression. By scrutinizing feminism in a period that traditionally has been characterized as devoid of feminist activity and by examining a broad range of groups that promoted changes in women's status in these years, Cott makes a major substantive contribution to the history of feminism. The Grounding of Modern Feminism is an example par excellence of the kind of path-breaking research that women's historians are doing on the women's movement. Cott's study goes beyond simply filling in the missing record and uncovers the origins of a major paradox in feminism. . . . Cott cogently and insightfully examines some of the issues that divided women. . . . [Her] research has greater conceptual significance than she has made it, for it suggests a fundamentally new view of the history of the American women's movement. . . . An important book that undoubtedly will become a classic among scholars of the American women's movement."—Verta Taylor, Gender and Society

"The range of topics is wide and the historical sweep of this book impressive. . . . Cott does an excellent job of identifying a range of relevant actors, writers, and others to sort out the meaning and place of feminism as a form of consciousness during this period. She pays careful attention to describing the activities of all women and includes evidence about Black women and working-class women wherever possible."—Joan Tronto, Feminist Studies

"Nancy Cott's study of American feminism between 1910 and 1930 makes important contributions to the emerging revision of our view of the period. . . . This book offers both a warning of how difficult it is to summarize the events of a century so complex without losing sight of many of its parts, and a formula with great potential to include and organize that diversity."—Vivien Hart, Journal of American Studies

Honorable Mention for the Emily Toth Award, given by the Women’s Caucus for Popular Culture of the Popular Culture/American Culture Association
ISBN: 9780300042283
Publication Date: September 10, 1989
378 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
The Bonds of Womanhood

"Woman's Sphere" in New England, 1780-1835: With a New Preface
Second Edition

Nancy F. Cott

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The Bonds of Womanhood

"Woman's Sphere" in New England, 1780-1835

Nancy F. Cott; With a New Preface

View details