Sisterhood Questioned: Race, Class and Internationalism in the American and British Women's Movements c. 1880s-1970s. By Christine Bolt. (London: Routledge, 2004). 272 pp. Paper, $31.95, ISBN 0415158532.

Reviewed By Rumi Yasutake, Konan University, Kobe, Japan


   Sisterhood Questioned is a comprehensive comparison of American and British women's movements at home and abroad, with a special focus on the period between 1914 and 1945. In her historical study based on wide-ranging sources, Christine Bolt, late professor emeritus at Kent University, uses "internationalism" in addition to "race" and "class" as key categories of analysis. While explaining the reasons and circumstances for the quarrels and divisions that inflicted the women's movements, Bolt provides a complex picture of feminist dynamics and a genealogy of the various brands of feminism and numerous national and international women's organizations.

   The author argues that divisions over race, class, and internationalism/nationalism were most profound, thus shaping the development of feminist movements of the two nations. While these divisions were "the creation of male society," women played them out to advance their status and goals. For example, nineteenth-century racial thinking that claimed the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race had far-reaching effects and ramifications. Women were not its architect, but middle-class white women activists on both sides of the Atlantic adopted this racial thinking and participated in contemporary debates on such issues as progress and civilization, racial and social purity, and the essence of citizenship. In the process, they legitimized their movements, confirmed their respectability and social status, and qualified themselves as speakers for "less advanced" and "less fortunate" women. The most eminent examples are British white women who adopted racial thinking in connection to imperialism toward non-western women, and American white women, in the context of slavery and its aftermath, toward black women. In the case of the United States, elite black women activists acquired middle-class respectability and displayed a similar sense of mission towards the less fortunate in their race. These black feminists attempted to cooperate with white feminists, but their limited success resulted in disappointment, because white-led movements reflected rather than challenged white dominance. The study illuminates the needs of black feminists to develop their own networks and movements to meet their necessities as well as their contributions in altering white feminists' presumption of universal sisterhood.

   Class is another source of division with women's movements, especially in Britain. Historically, both British and American female trade unionists suffered from male members' hostility against working-class women bonding within their own class and also with women from the middle class at the national and international levels. In order for female workers to improve their conditions, they were in desperate need of an ally beyond the male-led labor/socialist movements. Marxian socialists' dismissal of feminism as a bourgeois sideshow, however, created a divide between working-class and middle-class women especially in Britain. In the United States, the collaboration between women of the two classes began earlier and had a noticeable success in the early twentieth century. Nonetheless, their collaborative efforts became less effective as women displayed their inability in forming a political block and divided over protective laws and the Equal Rights Amendment. The disputes soon spread to the international level, causing tension within and between the American and British women's movements. Until the onset of second wave feminism, women could not effectively tackle the reluctance of pro-labor parties, governmental institutions, and international organizations in admitting distinct women's demands in work and welfare.

   While the divisions by race and class were firmly entrenched before women became active, internationalism was, in a sense, an area where women were allowed to take an initiative to realize a peaceful and egalitarian world in the early twentieth century. Through the advocacy of peace, American and British feminists successfully entered this arena as pressure groups, but it was much more difficult for them to be employed as officers by their nation's foreign services and the emerging international organizations. At the same time, nationalism was an intrinsic part of internationalism, and the erupting rivalry between Britain and the United States soon loomed. To sustain amity in their women's movements, American and British feminist internationalists made efforts to focus on their national priorities while limiting their overseas activities to the regions closely connected with those of their nations, namely American women, in Latin America, and British women, in the British Empire. Internationalism relations and rivalries became a important factors in shaping the women's movements in the two nations and the rest of the world.

   The decades after World War II saw the emergence of a less Eurocentric world and the rise of second wave feminism striving for equality and sexual liberation. The pluralism of today’s women’s movements proves that forming a women’s united front is unrealistic. The author considers this reality somewhat unfortunate but suggests that women's efforts and success in unification might have caused a regression in the ideological development of feminism. Historically, it was the reformists rather than egalitarian feminists who were willing to and effective in overcoming the differences of race, class, and nation. As a result, their achievements, for example, in establishing protective laws for women and in entering into the international arena by advocating peace, perpetuated rather than challenged the conventional subscription of women's role as mothers and homemakers. On the other hand, the members of the National Woman's Party (NWP), who most fiercely advocated equality both nationally and internationally, were contentious and did not have any interest in reformulating their demands to be agreeable to all women. The author argues that NWP's drive for blanket equality probably undermined the achievements of women's movements in general but disturbed the reformists' assumption of women's role, somewhat similar to black activists, whose persistent protests eventually altered white feminists' presumption of gender in relation to race and class.

   In the author's view, forming a united feminist front is desirable but impractical. She celebrates feminists' tireless debates over their differences and their determination to seek a common ground despite divisions ingrained in their social structures and numerous constraints placed on each group. By integrating national and international developments, the book opens up a new perspective to understand the dynamics of feminism and women's movements during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

    Rumi Yasutake is the author of Transnational Women's Activism: The United States, Japan, and Japanese Immigrant Communities in California, 1859-1920, published by New York University Press in 2004. She received her Ph.D. from UCLA in 1998.

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