Book Review: “Formidable” by Elisabeth Griffin

FORMIDABLE: American Women and the Fight for Equality: 1920-2020, by Elisabeth Griffith

On July 16, 1998, Hillary Rodham Clinton addressed an audience of 16,000 gathered at Seneca Falls, N.Y., to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first women’s rights convention. “Imagine, if you will, that you are Charlotte Woodward,” Clinton preached, “a 19-year-old glove maker working and living in Waterloo. Every day you sit for hours sewing … working for small wages you cannot even keep … knowing that if you marry, your children and even the clothes on your body will belong to your husband.” During her speech, Clinton claimed to hear the echoes of her predecessors — Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Lucretia Mott, Frederick Douglass — as she gripped a podium not far from the Methodist Chapel where Elizabeth Cady Stanton first demanded voting rights for women to a crowd of 300. The church had since been converted into a laundromat and car dealership, and as Clinton spoke, her husband, then president of the United States, was having a sexual affair with a White House intern. Within months, he would be impeached. Within a decade and a half, Hillary herself would run for president of the most powerful country in the world.

This snapshot illustrates the merits of Elisabeth Griffith’s engaging, relevant and sweeping chronicle of women’s fight for equality in the United States — and by examining 100 years of history through a feminist lens, a pattern emerges: Each blow from the patriarchy is countered by a well-aimed and calculated retaliation from American women.

Books of true feminist history are rare. Rarer still are these histories intersectional; feminist history tends to be synonymous with white women’s history. Not this book. Griffith delivers a multiracial, inclusive timeline of the struggles and triumphs of both Black and white women in America. “Historically, the white press has not covered the activism of Black women,” she writes. (Her previous book centered on the life of Cady Stanton.) Despite difficult-to-find archival sources, Griffith says, “I’ve named as many women as possible.”

A profoundly illuminating tour de force, Griffith’s book begins with Susan B. Anthony and unfolds chronologically, sorted into chapters that track a “pink” timeline of history. “Fifty years ago, when women’s history was struggling for legitimacy in academia,” Griffith explains, “feminists divided American history into ‘blue’ and ‘pink’ timelines. Conference panels debated whether Zachary Taylor’s presidency was more relevant to women’s lives than the invention of the tin can, or whether Jacksonian democracy deserved a chapter when the suffrage campaign did not.”

“Formidable” is organized around major fights: voting rights, working conditions, education access, health care, racial violence, reproductive rights, race and gender discrimination, the wage gap, electoral office. In this immense survey, Griffith is inclined to examine every motivation of her subjects as she unearths long-buried intersectional archives. Most notable is her articulation of the malignant dysfunction as women struggle to find a unified, inclusive path to equality. She is not content to leave out the many moments of white women falling back to self-interested silos. “White women have always been complicit in slavery,” she says.

Griffith excels in examining each feminist cause and its accompanying downsides, starting with the first women’s rights convention, which also initiated the friction between the abolitionists and feminists. “Women are a complex cohort,” she writes. “The drive for women’s rights came from the abolition movement. Enslaved African Americans suffered, struggled and sabotaged the system. A few other Americans sympathized and strategized to abolish it. White women were not exposed to the physical and sexual terror suffered by enslaved women, but their own physical vulnerability and legal subordination prompted comparisons.”

Yes, the suffragists fought for equality, but allegiance with the abolitionists was elusive. “White women wanted the same rights as white men. Black women wanted the same rights as white citizens; theirs was never a women-only movement.” Griffith does not skim over the spots when the suffrage movement splintered. Rather, she understands the assignment: All are invited but no one is off the hook.

There is power in Griffith’s writing — not the style, which is factual and straightforward, but in the cumulative efforts of the hundreds, if not thousands, of characters that she acknowledges. At times, the book’s sheer scope is overwhelming, like listening to Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” — a fire hose of information, names and actions, protests and pantsuits. Ida B. Wells and Eleanor Roosevelt. Rosie the Riveter and Rosa Parks. Josephine Baker and Aretha Franklin. Ella Baker and Flo Kennedy. Miss America and the vexation of Phyllis Schlafly. Title VII. The 19th Amendment. Roe v. Wade. Anita Hill and Alix Kates Shulman and Dolores Huerta and the United Farm Workers Union. Fannie Lou Hamer. Angela Davis and Alicia Garcia. Women’s soccer and the black bra. Patrisse Cullors. Tamika Mallory. Carmen Perez. Linda Sarsour. Bob Bland. The result is a memorial of female freedom fighters, long overdue, and the emergence of a set of instructions for the next generation.

Thus, the reader is carried not by the storyteller but by the tale and takeaway: Success comes not from short manic bursts of effort, but from a constant carrying of the torch. As America descends deeper into paralysis and polarization, Griffith’s subtle and accessible examination shows that victories arise through the miracle of cooperation. Not by factional division but through unity and perseverance. Feminist history is written every day, and Griffith leaves us with the reminder that there is much work to do, as always. That the work for equal rights is more than just hitting “like” on a supportive post, a reactionary retweet, or donning a pink knit hat at the occasional protest. Feminist work must be ongoing and unified, a long and steady lifetime commitment that will continue to propel the movement.

“Formidable” is a shock and a lesson, a reminder that if we want to persevere we must be ready to begin again and again, again and again.

Mira Ptacin is the author of the memoir “Poor Your Soul” as well as the feminist history “The In-Betweens: The Spiritualists, Mediums, and Legends of Camp Etna.” She teaches at Colby College and to incarcerated women at the Maine Correction Center.

FORMIDABLE: American Women and the Fight for Equality: 1920-2020, by Elisabeth Griffith | Illustrated | 493 pp. | Pegasus | $35

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.