Eleanor Flexner, Pioneering Feminist in an Anti-Feminist Age – ThenewMag

Overlooked No More: Eleanor Flexner, Pioneering Feminist in an Anti-Feminist Age

This text is a part of Ignored, a sequence of obituaries about outstanding folks whose deaths, starting in 1851, went unreported in The Instances. It is usually a part of The Instances’s persevering with protection of the centennial of the 19th Modification, which gave ladies the vote.

Within the 1950s, Eleanor Flexner, a left-wing activist and author, determined to compile a complete historical past of the ladies’s rights motion in the USA, exploring a span of greater than 300 years. Her timing couldn’t have been much less auspicious. Feminism was just about a grimy phrase, described in Ferdinand Lundberg and Marynia F. Farnham’s celebrated e book “Trendy Girl: The Misplaced Intercourse” (1947) as “at its core, a deep sickness.”

Furthermore, the Home Un-American Actions Committee, or HUAC, was engaged in a ruthless investigation of Communist affect in the USA, attacking left-wing artists and intellectuals. Flexner had been a member of the Communist Occasion from 1936 by means of 1956, and though she was not hauled earlier than HUAC, the careers of a few of her closest pals and associates had been ruined.

Nonetheless, Flexner, with no formal coaching as knowledgeable historian, started what grew to become a pathbreaking, wide-ranging account of activism for ladies’s rights in America.

“Century of Wrestle: The Ladies’s Rights Motion in the USA” (1959) was the primary authoritative narrative of one of many nice dimensions of American democratic historical past. The e book, primarily based largely on her unique analysis within the Library of Congress, the Sophia Smith Assortment of Ladies’s Historical past at Smith Faculty and elsewhere, coated an immense quantity of fabric, from Anne Hutchinson, the 17th-century insurgent towards Puritan clerical authority in Massachusetts, to the dramatic remaining years of the ratification of the 19th Modification, by which ladies gained the best to vote. It remained the pre-eminent textual content on the subject for greater than half a century, and remains to be taught in colleges and consulted extensively by historians at present.

For the e book, Flexner mentioned she tracked down the ageing heroine of the Triangle shirtwaist manufacturing facility strike, Clara Lemlich Shavelson, and uncovered info on the practically forgotten Knights of Labor pioneer Leonora Barry from a granddaughter, who she mentioned was thrilled that “anyone was going to lastly take discover of my fantastic grandmother.”

She additionally wrote in regards to the struggles of African-American ladies. With the help of her brother-in-law, the top of the Industrial Information Division of the Nationwide Archives, she was in a position to entry petitions to abolish slavery that girls had despatched to Congress within the 1830s. “I virtually cried,” she mentioned — however, she added, “I used to be afraid of getting tears on the petitions.”

Flexner got here from a distinguished household. She was born on Oct. 4, 1908, in Georgetown, Ky., about 15 miles north of Lexington, the second daughter of Abraham and Anne Crawford Flexner. Abraham Flexner, the primary faculty graduate of an immigrant German Jewish household, revealed “Medical Training in the USA and Canada” (1910) for the Carnegie Basis. Additionally known as “The Flexner Report,” it led to a significant reorganization of medical schooling.

Anne Crawford Flexner was a profitable playwright. Her large hit was the theater and movie adaptation of the Alice Hegan Rice novel “Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch,” a story of city poverty. She needed Eleanor to grow to be a author and supported her analysis with royalties from “Mrs. Wiggs,” together with further cash she left her when she died in 1955. Eleanor Flexner devoted “Century of Wrestle” to her mom, whose “life was touched at many factors by the motion whose historical past I’ve tried to document.”

The Flexners had been associated by marriage to M. Carey Thomas, a suffragist and founding dean of Bryn Mawr Faculty. Eleanor met Thomas at 14, when she went to her sister’s commencement at Bryn Mawr. Flexner recalled in a 1988 interview that Thomas put her hand on her head and mentioned to her father, “Abe, when are we getting this one?” Eleanor was decided to go to Swarthmore as a substitute.

There, after she was stored out of a sorority due to her Jewish background, she and her greatest buddy organized a marketing campaign to bar Greek societies from campus (they weren’t profitable).

After a short stint doing graduate work in London, Flexner moved to Manhattan, dwelling in her mother and father’ condominium whereas they had been in Princeton, N.J., the place her father was charged with establishing the Institute of Superior Examine, a pioneering institute for students and scientists pursuing impartial analysis. (Albert Einstein was one in every of its first college members.)

She alternated between writing and left-wing activism. In 1938 she revealed her first e book, “American Playwrights, 1918-1938: The Theater Retreats From Actuality,” an indictment of latest playwrights for his or her lack of curiosity within the social situations shaping their writing. She helped to prepare clerical employees and to interrupt down racial segregation within the nursing occupation in reference to the Nationwide Affiliation of Coloured Graduate Nurses (now a part of the American Nurses Affiliation).

In 1946 she grew to become, on the urging of the Communist Occasion, the manager director of the Congress of American Ladies, a preferred entrance group with hyperlinks to the heyday of the suffrage motion — its members together with the granddaughter of the suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the grandniece of Susan B. Anthony. It was the coaching floor for a number of different vital pioneering ladies’s historians, together with Gerda Lerner and Aileen Kraditor.

From the start of her analysis for her e book, Flexner knew that she needed to focus on African-American ladies, whose presence and contributions to securing ladies’s rights had been virtually totally absent from earlier accounts. However she was discouraged from many sides.

When she visited W.E.B. Du Bois, one of many nice African-American historians, he dismissed her mission offhand, a curt rejection that continued to sensible for many years.

Though her first e book had been revealed by Simon & Schuster, Flexner had hassle discovering a writer for this new mission. When she introduced an early draft to Harper & Brothers, she was informed to take away the fabric on Black ladies as a result of it will be of no curiosity to normal readers.

She secured the fabric she wanted with help from two African-American librarians, Dorothy Porter of the Negro Assortment of Howard College and Jean Blackwell Hutson of the Schomburg Assortment of the New York Public Library.

And he or she finally discovered a method to share her work, when the Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. persuaded Harvard College Press to publish it. The preliminary evaluations of “Century of Wrestle” had been virtually totally from ladies historians (writing in The New York Instances, the biographer Ishbel Ross complimented Flexner’s “spectacular image of the lengthy combat for emancipation”), with the uncommon male historian involved that she may be “too sympathetic” along with her topics. Quickly after Betty Friedan’s 1963 blockbuster, “The Female Mystique,” cited Flexner’s work, “Century of Wrestle” grew to become a must-read e book for a brand new younger technology of girls’s historians and feminist students.

In 1957 Flexner moved to Northampton, Mass., to analysis her biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, which she revealed in 1972. By no means married, she shared a house along with her “beloved companion,” Helen Terry, till Terry’s demise in 1983. In 1988, when she was dwelling, not very fortunately, in a retirement dwelling in Westboro, Mass., she mentioned in an interview that she was nonetheless smarting from the dearth of help she initially acquired for “Century of Wrestle.”

When requested what prompted her to jot down her e book regardless of the obstacles, she gave many solutions, none definitive. There was listening to the labor activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn communicate of the “Lowell Women,” younger textile employees who went on strike within the 1830s for higher wages. There was stumbling on the 1911 “Historical past of Ladies in Commerce Unions,” a federally funded research of the historical past of girls in organized labor. And there was assembly Alma Lutz, whose biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton had been “one of many early books that fired me up.”

Flexner died in Westboro on March 25, 1995. She was 86.

Ellen Carol DuBois, a distinguished analysis professor of historical past at U.C.L.A., is the writer of “Suffrage: Ladies’s Lengthy Battle for the Vote” (2020), amongst different books. Her decades-old copy of “Century of Wrestle” had misplaced its binding by the point she interviewed Flexner in 1988.

The put up Ignored No Extra: Eleanor Flexner, Pioneering Feminist in an Anti-Feminist Age appeared first on New York Instances.


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