No Turning Back: The History of Feminism
and the Future of Women
Estelle B. Freedman
London: Profile Books, 2002.
£20.00, 450 pages, ISBN 1-86197-345-4.
Université de Rouen
No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women begins
like many feminist books with the reason why it was written, and like many
feminist books the answer is that someone, or a number of people,
asked the author which
book they should read to learn about feminism, or about feminist scholarship
(see the review of bell hooks's Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics in
Cercles). It seems every feminist scholar feels there is a gap to fill and
undertakes at some point in her/his career to do just that. That is not only
but quite welcome, as I for one believe we'll never have enough of those books.
Such an observation is probably true for every field of research, but it is
even truer when it comes to Women's Studies and Gender Studies. As I never
pointing out, there are as many feminisms as there are feminists, and every
new angle is interesting. In the last paragraph of her Preface, Estelle B.
states that she hopes "this book can do for others what early feminist
writing did for [her]" (xiii), and I dare say it can.
No Turning Back is extremely well organized in five parts and fourteen
chapters, leaving aside very few aspects of feminist struggles and theories.
Freedman, as she puts it herself, explains "why and how a feminist revolution
has occurred" (1) and delineates the historical contexts that brought along
and/or made possible that revolution. She looks at the origins of the term "feminism" and
at the evolution of its uses, which is always useful. She reminds the reader
of a couple of basic facts, such as "[we live in a world] in which 70 percent
of those living in poverty and two-thirds of those who are illiterate are female" (8);
and she states, placing herself right away against diehard essentialists, that "there
is no single, universal female identity, for gender has been constructed differently
across place and time" (8). "We cannot universalize the female",
she repeats (9), and I say, amen to that. So she does use the term "woman",
obviously, but she recognizes that the category itself is suspicious. She also
addresses the issue of "fear of feminism", showing that it is frequently
the term itself people fear, and its sometimes unwelcome connotations, even if
they hold opinions that could easily be called feminist. The media, of course,
are partly to blame for this. She does not, thankfully, present feminism "in
the oversimplified language of male oppression and female victimization" (11),
and announces: "The future of women depends on how we continue to redefine
and implement feminist goals." (12) I couldn't agree more.
The section entitled "Gender and Power", is at once historical, anthropological,
ethnological and sociological. Freedman looks at different forms of patriarchy
in the past. She uses examples like Chinese foot binding ("a concern about
controlling women's sexuality to ensure virtuous mothers") and the "ideal
of separate spheres" (33), she looks at class, religion, capitalism, colonialism,
all very convincingly. Part II is entitled "The Historical Emergence of
Feminisms" (note the plural) and is quite complete without being drawn out.
Freedman is good at balancing her data and is never boring. The book is 347 pages
long if you do not count the notes, appendices, bibliography and index. She examines
the eighteenth century and the nineteenth century, reminding us that "women
in England, France, Germany, and the United States were the first to organize
for their political rights" (46). No-one is forgotten, from Sor Juana Inés
de la Cruz to Susan B. Anthony, taking in Olympe de Gouges, Mary Wollstonecraft,
Emma Goldman, etc. This part ends with five highly interesting pages about
Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Virginia Woolf. Any person interested in feminism
Gilman's utopian novel Herland (1915), if s/he hasn't already.
Part III is entitled "The Politics of Work and Family"; the titles
of its three chapters speak for themselves: "Never Done: Women's Domestic
Labor", "Industrialization, Wage Labor, and the Economic Gender Gap",
and "Workers and Mothers: Feminist Social Policies". Unlike some of
her "sisters", Freedman does not invent statistics, nor does she
report erroneous and grossly exaggerated ones. We all remember the ludicrous
of 150,000 females dying of anorexia each year in the US as reported by Gloria
Steinem and Naomi Wolf, among others, when the true figure is roughly 100 (see
Christina Hoff Sommers's 1994 Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed
Part IV, "The Politics of Health and Sexuality", offers some very interesting
insights on the medicalization of the female body, among other things, such as
HIV, or contraception and abortion, obviously. Freedman briefly goes back to
early civilizations which practiced goddess worship, evokes long gone celebrations
of "the sacredness of female sexuality" (205), and moves on to today's
Western view of women's bodies, which began to be medicalized roughly in the
1600s, when science could in its turn, after religion, be used by men to enhance
their control over women's bodies. As part of her research into "markets
and the female body", Freedman also looks at the commercialization of bodies,
addressing "the body beautiful in consumer culture" (209). To my mind,
Freedman should have written more about fashion, which is dealt with rather hastily.
Besides, she simply states when she examines "the politics of representation" (222)
the contradicting views of various feminists and feminist waves, without so much
as a vague indication of her own stance on the subject. I know she is trying
for some sort of scholarly objectivity. Yet in my experience it is the one area
in which feminists usually find it hardest not to establish their own credoif
only through their own clothing and use or refusal of makeup. I am one of those
rampant semioticians who trust that every outfit is a political statement of
sorts. She does cover the most important differences of opinion, though, however
briefly, from the anti-miniskirt factions to the heterosexual or lesbian sexy
third-wavers who don't see why they should dress drably. She quotes a fan of
a "riot grrrl" musician who "wanted you to know that no matter
what she wore, she wasn't asking for it" (223), and even evokes Afghan
women under Taliban rule.
Part V, "Feminist Visions and Strategies" is possibly the most original
section of No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women.
Freedman first describes "New Words and Images: Women's Creativity as Feminist
Practice" (305), mentioning women's bookstores and Virginia Woolf again.
The existence or non-existence and desirability or non-desirability of l'écriture
féminine is one of the most fascinating academic feminist debates
ever, one which several of my female literature-teaching colleagues and myself
engage. Needless to say, even if you accept that females do not write like
males, you still have to wonder if this is due to genetics or to twenty-five
years of patriarchal brain-washing. Every feminist agrees about one notion,
though: writing and appropriating and/or changing language can and does constitute
resistance (see Adrienne Rich, Hélène Cixous, Ursula LeGuin,
etc.). At a time when the release of the movie The Hours makes us
reread Michael Cunningham's eponymous novel, which in turn makes us reread
Virginia Woolf's Mrs.
Dalloway, and when more and more interesting female novelists are emerging
every month in the Western world, this notion is more important than ever.
I recommend, in this order of ideas, the fiction and non-fiction of Lucia Etxebarria.
More generally, Freedman asks all the right questions as to the reasons why
comparatively few women creators have been celebrated throughout the ages.
She wraps up the
book with politics, stricto sensu, but without forgetting that "the personal
is political", as the 1960s oh-so-not-out-of-date feminist slogan had
To conclude, I'll quote a few significant sentences of Freedman's last three
] today transnational feminist politics helps sustain diverse movements
in their quest for full economic, reproductive, and sexual justice for women
]. Ever malleable, sometimes contradictory, feminism itself is not likely
to disappear [
]. Understanding the complex history of women's movements
can help ensure that the feminist revolution will succeed. (345-347) Estelle
B. Freedman definitely helps us understand that complex history with this book.
And as she so rightly puts it, there is "no turning back".