Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Eleanor Flexner’s Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States covers the period from the early nineteenth century to the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1920, which gave women the right to vote. Published in 1959, it was one of the first histories of the women’s rights campaign and explored the question facing women, and the nation, in the nineteenth century and since: whether the Jeffersonian ideal that “all men are created equal” applied to whites males only or encompassed all people, regardless of race or sex.

Century of Struggle is organized chronologically. Although Flexner briefly discusses the Colonial and Revolutionary periods, the story proper begins in the early nineteenth century with the movement to provide an advanced education for women. Emma Hart Willard’s Troy Female Seminary opened in 1821 in New York City. The first college that offered education to women and men equally was Oberlin College in Ohio, and Mount Holyoke, the oldest women’s college in the United States, opened its doors in 1837. After the Civil War, the new land-grant colleges were more supportive of women, and at the same time new women’s colleges were founded, such as Smith, Wellesley, Vassar, and Bryn Mawr colleges.

The antislavery movement drew many women, both black and white, into the campaign to free African Americans from bondage. Some women saw their status as similar to slaves. The abolitionist Sarah Grimké argued for women’s equality, stating that “I ask no favors for my sex. . . . All I ask of our brethren is that they will take their feet from off our necks.” Lucy Stone also found it impossible to separate abolition from women’s rights, and when she married Henry Blackwell in 1855, they publicly objected to a legal system which perpetuated women’s inferior status.

The major watershed of the women’s rights movement before the Civil War took place at...

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Century of Struggle Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Flexner’s Century of Struggle was one of the first scholarly histories of the women’s movement since the six-volume History of Woman Suffrage (1881-1922), and that earlier work was, as one scholar noted, unreadable. When Flexner’s volume was published in 1959, there were few other studies that told of the challenges that women had faced in achieving recognition, if not parity, in American society. As the author noted in her introduction, as long ago as 1928 Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., had complained that histories of the United States ignored the story of women and their fight for rights, and little had changed by the late 1950’s.

As a work of academic history, Century of Struggle did not have the obvious revolutionary impact of other contemporary works about women, such as Simone de Beauvoir’s Le Deuxième sexe (1949; The Second Sex, 1953) and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963). Nevertheless it was a milestone, coming as it did at the end of the complacency of the 1950’s and the beginning of the upheavals of the 1960’s. More than filling a gap, Flexner’s work became the standard text in the numerous courses in women’s history that came into being in the 1960’s and 1970’s. More than any other single volume, Century of Struggle educated a generation of students about the women who had fought for increased opportunities and legal rights in the hundred years before the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment.

In time, however, Century of Struggle was superseded by more recent works with new approaches and philosophies, as well as new information. The Great Depression, World War II, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, and the feminist movement of the 1970’s made Flexner’s study, ending as it did in 1920, no longer sufficient to be the standard text in women’s history classes. Nevertheless, if not the last word (or even the latest word), Century of Struggle will stand as an enduring landmark in the story of women in the United States.

Century of Struggle Bibliography

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

Blumberg, Dorothy Rose. Review of Century of Struggle. Science and Society 25 (Winter, 1961): 90-92. Blumberg admires Flexner’s scholarship in re-creating the past from obscure archival records but wishes that she had placed more emphasis on the role of women in the socialist movement.

Dearing, Mary R. Review of Century of Struggle. The American Historical Review 65 (April, 1960): 620-621. Dearing, in the premier journal for American historians, reviews Flexner’s volume and praises its comprehensiveness and objectivity. The reviewer particularly liked the book’s organization and the many biographical sketches.

Degler, Carl N. Review of Century of Struggle. Mississippi Valley History Review 46 (March, 1960): 733-734. Degler, one of the history profession’s most eminent scholars, reviewed Century of Struggle for this major journal of American history, praising it as readable, balanced, and comprehensive. He noted, however, Flexner’s lack of interest in the ideology of her characters.

Evans, Sara M. Born for Liberty. New York: Free Press, 1989. One of the more recent histories of American women which has replaced Flexner’s Century of Struggle in women’s studies courses. Written from a feminist perspective, it carries the history of women through the 1980’s.

Flexner, Eleanor. Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1972. In this prize-winning biography, Flexner tells the story of England’s Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) and an inspiration to later generations of women.