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Overlooked No More: Eleanor Flexner, Pioneering Feminist in an Anti-Feminist Age
“Century of Struggle,” her 1959 history of the women’s rights movement, uncovered previously ignored narratives, like the contributions of African-American women.
This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times. It is also part of The Times’s continuing coverage of the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the vote.
In the 1950s, Eleanor Flexner, a left-wing activist and writer, decided to compile a comprehensive history of the women’s rights movement in the United States, exploring a span of more than 300 years. Her timing could not have been less auspicious. Feminism was virtually a dirty word, described in Ferdinand Lundberg and Marynia F. Farnham’s celebrated book “Modern Woman: The Lost Sex” (1947) as “at its core, a deep illness.”
Moreover, the House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC, was engaged in a ruthless investigation of Communist influence in the United States, attacking left-wing artists and intellectuals. Flexner had been a member of the Communist Party from 1936 through 1956, and although she was not hauled before HUAC, the careers of some of her closest friends and associates had been ruined.
Nonetheless, Flexner, with no formal training as a professional historian, began what became a pathbreaking, wide-ranging account of activism for women’s rights in America.
“Century of Struggle: The Women’s Rights Movement in the United States” (1959) was the first authoritative narrative of one of the great dimensions of American democratic history. The book, based largely on her original research in the Library of Congress, the Sophia Smith Collection of Women’s History at Smith College and elsewhere, covered an immense amount of material, from Anne Hutchinson, the 17th-century rebel against Puritan clerical authority in Massachusetts, to the dramatic final years of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, by which women won the right to vote. It remained the pre-eminent text on the topic for more than half a century, and is still taught in schools and consulted widely by historians today.
For the book, Flexner said she tracked down the aging heroine of the Triangle shirtwaist factory strike, Clara Lemlich Shavelson, and uncovered information on the nearly forgotten Knights of Labor pioneer Leonora Barry from a granddaughter, who she said was thrilled that “somebody was going to finally take notice of my wonderful grandmother.”
She also wrote about the struggles of African-American women. With the support of her brother-in-law, the head of the Industrial Records Division of the National Archives, she was able to access petitions to abolish slavery that women had sent to Congress in the 1830s. “I practically cried,” she said — but, she added, “I was afraid of getting tears on the petitions.”
Flexner came from a distinguished family. She was born on Oct. 4, 1908, in Georgetown, Ky., about 15 miles north of Lexington, the second daughter of Abraham and Anne Crawford Flexner. Abraham Flexner, the first college graduate of an immigrant German Jewish family, published “Medical Education in the United States and Canada” (1910) for the Carnegie Foundation. Also called “The Flexner Report,” it led to a major reorganization of medical education.
Anne Crawford Flexner was a successful playwright. Her big hit was the theater and film adaptation of the Alice Hegan Rice novel “Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch,” a tale of urban poverty. She wanted Eleanor to become a writer and supported her research with royalties from “Mrs. Wiggs,” along with additional money she left her when she died in 1955. Eleanor Flexner dedicated “Century of Struggle” to her mother, whose “life was touched at many points by the movement whose history I have tried to record.”
The Flexners were related by marriage to M. Carey Thomas, a suffragist and founding dean of Bryn Mawr College. Eleanor met Thomas at 14, when she went to her sister’s graduation at Bryn Mawr. Flexner recalled in a 1988 interview that Thomas put her hand on her head and said to her father, “Abe, when are we getting this one?” Eleanor was determined to go to Swarthmore instead.
There, after she was kept out of a sorority because of her Jewish background, she and her best friend organized a campaign to bar Greek societies from campus (they weren’t successful).
After a brief stint doing graduate work in London, Flexner moved to Manhattan, living in her parents’ apartment while they were in Princeton, N.J., where her father was charged with establishing the Institute of Advanced Study, a pioneering institute for scholars and scientists pursuing independent research. (Albert Einstein was one of its first faculty members.)
She alternated between writing and left-wing activism. In 1938 she published her first book, “American Playwrights, 1918-1938: The Theater Retreats From Reality,” an indictment of contemporary playwrights for their lack of interest in the social conditions shaping their writing. She helped to organize clerical workers and to break down racial segregation in the nursing profession in connection with the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (now part of the American Nurses Association).
In 1946 she became, at the urging of the Communist Party, the executive director of the Congress of American Women, a popular front organization with links to the heyday of the suffrage movement — its members including the granddaughter of the suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the grandniece of Susan B. Anthony. It was the training ground for several other important pioneering women’s historians, including Gerda Lerner and Aileen Kraditor.
From the beginning of her research for her book, Flexner knew that she wanted to highlight African-American women, whose presence and contributions to securing women’s rights were almost entirely absent from earlier accounts. But she was discouraged from many sides.
When she visited W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the great African-American historians, he dismissed her project offhand, a curt rejection that continued to smart for decades.
Although her first book had been published by Simon & Schuster, Flexner had trouble finding a publisher for this new project. When she brought an early draft to Harper & Brothers, she was told to remove the material on Black women because it would be of no interest to general readers.
She secured the material she needed with support from two African-American librarians, Dorothy Porter of the Negro Collection of Howard University and Jean Blackwell Hutson of the Schomburg Collection of the New York Public Library.
And she eventually found a way to share her work, when the Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. persuaded Harvard University Press to publish it. The initial reviews of “Century of Struggle” were almost entirely from women historians (writing in The New York Times, the biographer Ishbel Ross complimented Flexner’s “impressive picture of the long fight for emancipation”), with the rare male historian concerned that she might be “too sympathetic” with her subjects. Soon after Betty Friedan’s 1963 blockbuster, “The Feminine Mystique,” cited Flexner’s work, “Century of Struggle” became a must-read book for a new young generation of women’s historians and feminist scholars.
In 1957 Flexner moved to Northampton, Mass., to research her biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, which she published in 1972. Never married, she shared a home with her “beloved companion,” Helen Terry, until Terry’s death in 1983. In 1988, when she was living, not very happily, in a retirement home in Westboro, Mass., she said in an interview that she was still smarting from the lack of support she initially received for “Century of Struggle.”
When asked what prompted her to write her book despite the obstacles, she gave many answers, none definitive. There was hearing the labor activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn speak of the “Lowell Girls,” young textile workers who went on strike in the 1830s for better wages. There was stumbling on the 1911 “History of Women in Trade Unions,” a federally funded study of the history of women in organized labor. And there was meeting Alma Lutz, whose biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton had been “one of the early books that fired me up.”
Flexner died in Westboro on March 25, 1995. She was 86.
Ellen Carol DuBois, a distinguished research professor of history at U.C.L.A., is the author of “Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote” (2020), among other books. Her decades-old copy of “Century of Struggle” had lost its binding by the time she interviewed Flexner in 1988.