In Formidable: American Women and the Fight for Equality, 1920–2020, Elisabeth Griffith ’69 undertakes the daunting task of documenting a century of women’s activist history in the United States. This volume is an impressive compilation of stories of American women who fought for equal rights and social justice with varying degrees of success and recognition. As an introductory text for a broad audience, Formidable succeeds, as it highlights well-known women and stories as well as amplifying those less familiar to readers.
Griffith begins with a thoughtful author’s note explaining her nomenclature and approach for such an impressive undertaking. “Women are a complex cohort,” she writes, acknowledging that there is complexity and nuance in all historical figures. She does not set out to write a hagiography of “The American Woman,” but instead an honest, respectful, and inclusive account of the many women who, for good or for ill, influenced the country.
She takes the reader from the ambitious period after the 19th Amendment’s implementation, when feminists asserted, “Now we can begin,” to the war-torn 1940s to the tumultuous 1960s to histories that read more “current events” than past, such as the Bush v. Gore election in 2000 and Obergefell v. Hodges ruling in 2015.
Griffith’s strength is pairing well-known American women with those who have traditionally received less attention. In Chapter 3, “The Eleanor Effect, 1928 to 1945,” for example, she addresses the 1930s and ’40s. Eleanor Roosevelt is the obvious choice for a woman to define the era; however, Griffith offers a thoughtful retelling of Roosevelt’s influence, connecting the iconic first lady with music and civil rights icons of the era Marian Anderson and Billie Holiday. Additionally, she fleshes out the politics of the New Deal era by highlighting Molly Dewson (Wellesley class of 1897) and Frances Perkins, pioneers in the Democratic Party.
Griffith works to be inclusive; many stories of nonwhite, marginalized communities find their way into her work. However, there is a notable gap: a thorough examination of class as a social identity. While she mentions working women in passing during the decades, she does not engage with American women who centered class as their impetus for activism. Socialists, anarchists, communists, and most radicals are not present in Formidable, and therefore anti-capitalist, militant organizations like the Communist Party, the Civil Rights Congress, and Combahee River Collective receive little to no attention. This is to the reader’s detriment, as some of the richest social movements—civil rights, voting rights, Black feminism, the antiwar movement, and Black Lives Matter—originated with the working-class struggle.
While Griffith celebrates the successes of women during each period she covers, she carefully places these moments of triumph within the longer, and enduring, struggle for equality. She lauds Sandra Day O’Connor’s rise to the Supreme Court and Geraldine Ferraro’s vice presidential nomination. But, as she writes, “Famous firsts in the 1980s did not offset the realities of race and sex discrimination, violence and poverty.” This is the recurring refrain in Formidable: As impressive, passionate, and strong as these women are, their fight is never finished.
Ford, associate professor of history at Slippery Rock University, is the author of A Brick and a Bible: Black Women’s Radical Activism During the Great Depression.