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The Power of Place: Structure, Culture, and Continuities in U.S. Women's Movements

  • Author(s): Nelson, Laura K.
  • Advisor(s): Voss, Kim
  • et al.

This dissertation challenges the widely accepted historical accounts of women's movements in the United States. Second-wave feminism, claim historians, was unique because of its development of radical feminism, defined by its insistence on changing consciousness, its focus on women being oppressed as a sex-class, and its efforts to emphasize the political nature of personal problems. I show that these features of second-wave radical feminism were not in fact unique but existed in almost identical forms during the first wave. Moreover, within each wave of feminism there were debates about the best way to fight women's oppression. As radical feminists were arguing that men as a sex-class oppress women as a sex-class, other feminists were claiming that the social system, not men, is to blame. This debate existed in both the first and second waves. Importantly, in both the first and the second wave there was a geographical dimension to these debates: women and organizations in Chicago argued that the social system was to blame while women and organizations in New York City argued that men were to blame. My dissertation documents, clarifies, and explains the geographical divide in these positions. Rather than seeking differences between the first and second wave as most historians have done, I claim we should investigate regional differences within waves and continuities between waves. We cannot understand the second wave without understanding its connections to the first wave.

I conceive of the women's movement as a field, consisting of a network-- actors who are connected to one another-- and a cognitive framework--a set of background assumptions about the way the world works. The women's-movement fields in New York City and Chicago, I argue, were distinct. I present a heuristic of overlapping waves for understanding the unique shape of different women's-movement fields. The women's-movement field, consisting of organizations that embody different cognitive frameworks, overlaps with the larger left milieu within a city. If an organization within the women's-movement field is in sync with the larger left milieu it will be amplified, just as two overlapping sound waves that are in sync are amplified, while organizations out of sync with the left milieu will be diminished or canceled. Because every city has a left milieu with a different cultural wave pattern, the same organization may be amplified in one city and canceled in a different city. As a result, each city has a distinct field.

The dissertation supports this argument through four substantive chapters. The first substantive chapter, chapter 2, presents a historical narrative that demonstrates qualitative differences between the ways women approached politics in New York City and Chicago in both the first and second waves. These different approaches were influenced by the larger left milieu in which women were embedded in the two cities. Overall, the New York City left milieu was open, diverse, and extensible, encouraging self-expression and the creation of new forms and narratives in multiple arenas, including politics. Here, women in the first wave organized independently as feminists around gender universalist politics. Chicago was alternatively establishing itself as the center of revolutionary working-class politics, nurturing the development of unique and influential socialist and anarchist organizations. Here, feminists were embedded in left organizations fighting against capitalism, and they intimately linked gender politics with class politics. I show that this difference was repeated in the second wave, with socialist feminist groups in Chicago and radical feminist groups in New York City.

Chapter 3 presents the women's movement in each city as distinct fields. This chapter measures the structure of each field through a network analysis of social-movement organizations within and connected to the women's movement. This chapter shows that the structure of the women's-movement field in Chicago in both periods was relatively centralized compared to the structure in New York City, and also that women--and women's-movement organizations--were embedded in the larger left compared to New York City's relatively independent women's-movement organizations. I additionally determine the structural position of individual organizations within each field, identifying which organizations were most central in each city and each time period: Hull House in Chicago in the first wave and Chicago Women's Liberation Union (CWLU) in the second wave, and Heterodoxy in New York City in the first wave and Redstockings in the second wave.

In Chapter 4 I use computer-assisted text analysis to determine the cognitive frameworks embodied in these four central organizations, effectively measuring the culture of these fields. I find that Hull House and CWLU embodied a cognitive framework that assumed social change happens through institutions and is achieved through short-term goals around particular issues that win concrete changes. Heterodoxy and Redstockings in New York City embodied a cognitive framework that assumed social change happens through individuals and is achieved by changing the individual consciousness of women through abstracting from their individual experiences to build solidarity and make claims about social structures. Fully understanding any one field, I argue, requires analyzing both the structure and culture of the field.

Chapter 5 turns to the question of how we might explain the persistence of these fields over time. I present evidence for two explanations. I first present evidence of institutional legacies within each city--the same types of organizations were founded in the first and second waves in each city. I also demonstrate that co-existing first- and second-wave organizations provided concrete mechanisms connecting the two waves. I use historical narrative to suggest three different mechanisms through which the second-wave women's movement was concretely connected to the first wave: (1) first- and second-wave organizations interacted through common issues, represented by the case of Planned Parenthood in Chicago, (2) they interacted through common alignments, represented by the case of the Women's City Club of New York City, and (3) they shared ideas, represented by the case of Women Strike for Peace. The women's movement, I argue, should not be thought of as two distinct waves but as one continuous movement that ebbs and flows over time.

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