I should have read this book years ago. In every way, it deserves its reputation as one of the founding works of intersectional feminism. It’s immensely satisfying as an opinionated history because it connects broad historical trends into a convincing narrative. For example – the idea that the industrial revolution commoditized many objects that were before made in the home, and thus narrowed women’s role into that of motherhood. An insight that now seems self-evident but had never crossed my mind.
Like Settlers – another of my most loved books – this is a book with an opinion, and also like Settlers, that opinion is roughly Communism. Which means that it judges its historical characters, and it does so harshly. You’ve probably never read such a critical account of Susan B. Anthony, or of Margaret Sanger, the creator of the term ‘birth control’. However, W.E.B. Dubois, insufficiently radical in the realm of labor politics for Sakai in Settlers, is sufficiently feminist for Davis.
It’s also a story about expediency: about how the suffragette movement repeatedly chose to sideline Black women to win political and southern support. I describe myself as, usually, a pragmatist, but this made me reconsider, because it shows so clearly that intersectional feminism (a focus on Black and working-class women) was delayed in a way that meant that it never became a focus of that generation of suffragettes.
In a few chapters Davis explicitly goes beyond history and makes recommendations. For example, she has an interesting theory for the relationship between industrial production and the household - that childcare should be socialized and housework industrialized. This is a future that has, for coastal elites, been incarnated by gig-economy startups like TaskRabbit - but in such a way that is still exploitative and gendered.
Read this book. It’s hard-hitting, substantial, and concise.