Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Designed as a supplementary text for courses in twentieth century United States history and women’s history, Women in Modern America: A Brief History offers an analytic narrative of the actions of women from the end of the nineteenth century to the mid-1970’s. Lois W. Banner’s goal is to acquaint the reader with the women, both famous and obscure, who shaped the story of females in the United States and to “provide a corrective to the traditional histories from which women are absent.” She wrote her book at a time when the modern interest in women’s history was just getting under way, and her account became an influential contribution to the literature in the field during the 1970’s.

Banner divides the time span of the book into three distinct periods: 1890 to 1920, when women pursued suffrage and other reforms; 1920 to 1960, an era of “greater complacency about women’s problems”; and 1960 to 1974, when a more radical feminism emerged. Within these three broad eras, Banner considers a wide range of women, including African Americans, immigrants, the poor, and the middle class. Her goal is to portray how these groups of women responded to social changes while giving appropriate attention to the women who fought for greater rights for all females.

The years covered in the book were a time of rapid change that subjected women at all levels of society to new pressures and strains. Throughout the period, however, Banner...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Textbooks do not usually have a large effect on the direction of scholarship in their subject field. That is not the case, however, with Lois Banner’s volume. Her ability to summarize the state of existing knowledge about women in the twentieth century in clear prose with relevant examples made the book a favorite with instructors in women’s history courses. Banner’s suggestions about further research and opportunities for new inquiries also encouraged graduate students to mine her text for potential dissertations and articles.

Decades after its publication, Women in Modern America also stands out for its prescience in identifying broad areas where historians would do constructive work. Banner’s section on prostitution in the Progressive Era was a harbinger of numerous monographs and articles on this controversial topic. Banner also pointed the way toward the intense interest about the activities of women during the 1920’s and 1930’s that has characterized writing about women’s history since the mid-1970’s. Textbooks often become dated soon after they are published, but Banner’s book remains as fresh, thoughtful, and provocative as when it first appeared. It repays reading for the beginning student of women’s history and the expert alike.

After Women in Modern America, her first book, Banner published a biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1979, an exploration of the importance of appearance in American Beauty (1983), and a book on women and aging called In Full Flower: Aging Women, Power, and Sexuality (1992).


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Banner, Lois W. In Full Flower: Aging Women, Power, and Sexuality. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992. Banner’s more recent work offers an opportunity to see how her thinking about women and feminist issues has evolved since the publication of Women in Modern America in 1974.

Chafe, William. The Paradox of Change: American Women in the Twentieth Century. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Chafe first published his history of American women in the twentieth century in 1972. This revised and updated volume can be used to contrast how two scholars approach what are essentially the same type of historical issues.

Evans, Sara. Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America. New York: Free Press, 1989. This overview of the whole history of women in the United States offers a good basis for comparison with Banner’s treatment of the period between 1890 and the 1970’s.

Hartmann, Susan. From Margin to Mainstream: American Women and Politics Since 1960. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989. One of a series of brief narratives on key decades during the twentieth century, Hartmann’s book offers a more detailed examination of the period covered in the last chapters of Banner’s text.

Kerber, Linda K., and Jane De Hart Mathews, eds. Women’s America: Refocusing the Past. 3d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. A collection of documents and essays about women in American history, this text provides an indication of the direction that more recent scholarship on women has taken.

Kessler-Harris, Alice. Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. This book indicates how the study of women in the workforce evolved during the decade after Banner’s book was first published.

Rosenberg, Rosalind. Divided Lives: American Women in the Twentieth Century. New York: Hill and Wang, 1992. Rosenberg deals with the same issues as Banner does, but her interpretations reflect the impact of feminist scholarship in the two decades since Banner’s work first appeared.

Sklar, Kathryn Kish, and Thomas Dublin, eds. Women and Power in American History: A Reader. Vol 2. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1991. This volume, which begins with 1870, is a useful collection of scholarly essays that illuminates many of the issues that Banner treated in her overview of the twentieth century American woman.