This study reinterprets a crucial period (1870s-1920s) in the history of women's rights, focusing attention on a core contradiction at the heart of early feminist theory. At a time when white elites were concerned with imperialist projects and civilizing missions, progressive white women developed an explicit racial ideology to promote their cause, defending patriarchy for "primitives" while calling for its elimination among the "civilized." By exploring how progressive white women at the turn of the century laid the intellectual groundwork for the feminist social movements that followed, Louise Michele Newman speaks directly to contemporary debates about the effect of race on current feminist scholarship.
"White Women's Rights is an important book. It is a fascinating and informative account of the numerous and complex ties which bound feminist thought to the practices and ideas which shaped and gave meaning to America as a racialized society. A compelling read, it moves very gracefully between the general history of the feminist movement and the particular histories of individual women."Hazel Carby, Yale University
In this complex and often intense work, Newman (history, Univ. of Florida) examines the impact of racism and ethnography on feminist thought from the end of the Civil War to the 1920s. This period saw the widespread acceptance of Darwinian theories as well as the rise of American imperialism, both of which influenced the white middle-class women who comprised the leadership of the suffrage and women's rights movements. Hoping to elevate their own limited role in an entrenched patriarchal society, these women redefined their sphere to include the preservation of white bourgeois civilization and the education of primitive peoples. Newman focuses on the writings and activities of a select group of elite white women, including Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Mary Roberts Smith Coolidge, May French Sheldon, and Alice Fletcher. She contributes a fresh perspective on the development of women's philosophical growth in the 19th century, but the aridity of the prose will limit the appeal of this book to academic libraries.--Rose M. Cichy, Osterhout Free Lib., Wilkes-Barre, PA