Eleanor Flexner Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Eleanor Flexner was a pioneer feminist historian. Her Century of Struggle remains an influential work that continues to open paths for historical exploration. Eleanor’s father, Abraham Flexner, the child of German-Jewish immigrants, became famous for his 1910 “Flexner Report” on medical schools, which caused the demise of many inadequate proprietary schools and led to the reformulation of medical education on scientific principles. He later founded the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University. Eleanor’s mother, Anne Crawford, was a descendant of Georgia plantation owners and a great-granddaughter of William Harris Crawford, a leading contender for the United States presidency in 1824. She became a successful playwright; her adaptation of Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1904) appeared on stage, screen, and radio often over three decades, making her independently wealthy and the financial supporter of her family.

Eleanor graduated from Swarthmore College in 1930. Her senior thesis on Mary Tudor won her a fellowship for a year of further historical study at Somerville College, Oxford. Horrified by the massive unemployment she witnessed upon her return to a United States gripped by the Great Depression, she gravitated to left-wing causes. Following her mother into the theater, Eleanor served an apprenticeship at the Civic Repertory Theater, where she acted as assistant stage manager for several productions by actor and producer Eva La Galliene. She tried writing plays, focusing on social and economic unrest and the rise of fascism. She also spent two years on the staff of left-leaning New Theatre Magazine, contributing critical articles and play reviews.

Flexner’s first book, American Playwrights, 1918-1938, reflected both her theatrical experience and her radicalism. She dismissed most American playwrights, including Maxwell Anderson and Eugene O’Neill, as deficient in their understanding of social and economic causation. As a result of this inadequacy, she said, their plays were confused and pessimistic. Her concluding chapter praised left-wing playwrights such as Marc Blitzstein, Irwin Shaw, and especially Clifford Odets, whose work demonstrated that life and character were the products of social forces and relationships in perpetual dynamic...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

DuBois, Ellen C. “Eleanor Flexner and the History of American Feminism.” Gender and History 3 (Spring, 1991). The author uses an interview with Flexner, as well as her own knowledge of the course of feminist historiography, to assess the importance of Century of Struggle.

Fitzpatrick, Ellen. Foreword to Century of Struggle, by Eleanor Flexner. Enlarged ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996. Fitzpatrick uses Flexner manuscripts at the Schlesinger Library to provide a detailed biography of the historian.

Flexner, Abraham. Abraham Flexner: An Autobiography. Rev. ed. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960. Eleanor’s father describes the family and milieu in which his daughter grew up.