Jean Matthew’s new study of the early years of the women’s rights movement outlines the period from 1828 to 1976 as a distinct “first phase.” Ms. Matthews situates this early feminist activity within the lively nineteenth-century debate over the Woman Question and pays attention to the opponents as well as the advocates of equal rights for women. Her book demonstrates that the intense conflict generated by the movement was due less to any specific reform proposals than to the realizationamong men and womenthat the early feminists were aiming at a complete rethinking of what womanhood meant and of the relationship between the sexes. In many ways, as Ms. Matthews shows, the early nineteenth-century movementin its origins, individualism, hostility to tight organization, dedication to self-discovery, and concern for health issuesstrongly resembled the revived feminism of the 1970s. Like the late-twentieth-century movement, its nineteenth-century precursor fostered an initial yearning for personal “liberation” and opportunity, and was later riven by issues of race and sexuality, and confused over the perennial question of “difference.” Women’s Struggle for Equality builds upon recent scholarship to present a concise synthesis of what was probably the most exciting period of early American feminism.
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