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There's No Turning Back for Feminist Scholar Estelle Freedman
By Olivia Boler
March is Women's History Month, and a good way to celebrate might be to pick up Noe Valley resident Estelle Freedman's new book, No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women, which will be published by Ballantine Books on March 1.
"I never meant to write a history of feminism, but someone once asked me to recommend a good one, and I realized I couldn't," says Freedman, who as a history professor and founder of Stanford University's feminist studies program has taught an Introduction to Feminist Studies course since 1988.
In writing her latest book, Freedman, 54, drew upon her own research and the work of other feminist scholars to trace women's role in society from prehistoric cultures in Asia and the Middle East, to the first U.S. women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848, to the present-day repression of women under regimes like the Taliban. She describes her book as a sympathetic account of feminism, framed historically but balanced by contemporary studies. Readers will learn a lot about women's achievements, but the book also raises questions about the slow pace of social reform.
Freedman thinks No Turning Back will be an excellent tool for teaching, but is also accessible to non-scholars. The pre-publication reviewers seem to agree: Publishers Weekly notes that the book will "fit well both in the classroom and on the bedside table."
"Often, my students have said to me, 'I wish my parents could have taken [Introduction to Feminist Studies],' and as I wrote the book, I kept in mind those readers who are unable to take the class but who want to learn more about the dilemmas of gender that we all grapple with today," says Freedman.
A native of Harrisburg, Pa., Freedman received her bachelor's degree in U.S. history from Barnard College and her doctoral degree from Columbia University. After teaching for two years at Princeton University, she received an appointment at Stanford in 1976. In 1978, she moved her residence from Palo Alto to Noe Valley and has been in the neighborhood ever since.
When speaking about her life in Noe Valley, Freedman's eyes light up. She says she's glad to be in a neighborhood that has the culture and diversity of a big city, but the feel of a small town.
"Truly, it's a privilege to live in a neighborhood where you can walk into Global Exchange [the world crafts store on 24th Street]," she says. "Not every neighborhood has that. It's wonderful."
She shares her cozy home with her partner, Susan Krieger, a sociology professor at Stanford, as well as their 3-year-old poodle, Esperanza, and several cats.
Whether discussing her avocation as a folksinger (she is a member of the San Francisco Folk Music Club) or deconstructing gender politics, Freedman conveys a strong passion for her interests. The author of three other books of feminist scholarship, she is understandably knowledgeable about the subject, but talks about it without sermonizing.
Her first book, Their Sisters' Keepers: Women's Prison Reform in America, 18301930 (University of Michigan Press, 1981), was based on her graduate research into the origins of separate prisons for women. Her second book, Maternal Justice: Miriam Van Waters and the Female Reform Tradition (University of Chicago Press, 1996), won the Sierra Award from the Western Association of Women Historians. "Miriam Van Waters was the major woman prison reformer in modern America," Freedman notes, "but she has been largely ignored by history."
She is also the co-author of Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (Harper & Row, 1988), which addresses society's changing attitudes towards sex and power. Freedman describes No Turning Back as "an Intimate Matters of feminist studies."
In No Turning Back, Freedman defines feminism as "a belief that men and women are inherently of equal worth." Most societies around the globe value men over women, and because of this, Freedman thinks social movements that promote women -- with the understanding that culture and hierarchy complicate attitudes towards gender -- are necessary.
Freedman came to feminism when she entered the "real world" after graduating from Barnard. Ironically, she was working for a religious organization in New York that sought social change through cooperation between Jewish and African-American clergy -- but of course, all the clergy were men.
"The cause was a good one," Freedman recalls with a smile. "But I did think to myself, Where are the women? And because I was a young woman in a male-dominated organization, it was assumed I would be inherently skilled at fetching coffee and sandwiches. But I was eager to use my mind."
Even after she entered graduate school, Freedman realized with frustration that "a woman's career line could go all the way up to executive secretary." She was told the university offered a master's degree program specifically for women who would want to eventually work "downtown."
"In the sixties, with the [Vietnam] War on, questioning the established, inherited wisdom was normal, and my personal experiences set the stage for me to be open to change," she says.
As for the feminist movement in the 21st century, Freedman believes that some progress has been made, but much still needs to be done. For example, men are not viewed as equal partners when it comes to parenting.
"We need more family-friendly policies so that women do not have to do it all," Freedman says. Although gender divides are not as strict as they once were -- there are more stay-at-home fathers, Freedman admits -- reforms still need to account for the gender-role imbalances.
Reflecting on the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Freedman believes that those events brought home a sense of vulnerability to Americans, particularly men, and that many men have since expressed empathy for the helplessness women often feel.
"Because of the attacks, there have been both women and men who say, 'I want to be in [New York] helping,'" Freedman says. "We no longer live in a world where only the men protect the women and the men are heroes. Some men want to be protected and some women want to be heroes."
On the international level, the attacks and ensuing war have also brought the plight of Afghan women to the fore. For years, feminists have been trying to call the world's attention to the fact that many of these women were risking their lives to secretly educate girls and to give women assistance in health care. Because women are now being included in Afghanistan's interim government, Freedman is cautiously hopeful for the future, but warns that there are many other patriarchal sources besides the Taliban, and that the struggle for gender equality around the world is far from over.
Freedman is more than aware that in order for the social movement of feminism to make a difference, feminists cannot live in a vacuum.
"You can believe women are of equal worth to men," Freedman says. "But you also need to act as if they are of equal worth. You can do this by lobbying, by teaching, even by making art that empowers women and girls. There are lots of ways for women and men to be feminists in the real world."
Freedman will read from No Turning Back and sign books at Barnes & Noble in Berkeley on March 9 at 7:30 p.m. and at Cover to Cover on 24th Street on April 6 at 7 p.m. For a list of her other talks, go to www.stanford.edu/~ebf/booktalks.html.