Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Q&A with Elizabeth Cobbs




Elizabeth Cobbs is the author of the new book Fearless Women: Feminist Patriots from Abigail Adams to Beyoncé. Her other books include The Hello Girls. She holds the Melbern Glasscock Chair in American History at Texas A&M University.


Q: What inspired you to write Fearless Women, and how did you choose the women to include?


A: One might say that Fearless Women was born of a perfect storm, beginning with the 2016 presidential nomination of Donald Trump. I think that that campaign raised questions for many people about the definition, durability, and reach of feminism in America.


I was particularly sad to see how many were unaware of the tools that previous generations had forged for them. They had been told that only "other people," unattractive people, were feminists, and that if they defended women's rights, they must be bitter ideologues.


Roger Ailes of Fox News, for example, propagated the notion that only "radicals" would object to sexual harassment or stereotyping. Nothing could be further from the historical record. I wanted to give Americans across the political spectrum their history back.


Q: How would you define feminism, and how do you think it relates to patriotism?


A: I define feminism as an offshoot of democracy, meaning the commitment (always imperfectly realized) to guaranteeing everyone the same basic rights, regardless of gender. This sounds simple, but history shows that the fight has been bloody, difficult, and protracted -- and that it has been driven by a patriotic belief in what America could, and should, be.


Literally, feminists from Abigail Adams to Beyoncé spoke in terms of the American dream, and what it should mean for the female half of the population. They loved their country and wanted to improve it as they would their homes. That does not mean they agreed on which improvements were necessary, or how they could be achieved. Democracy always elicits disagreement and debate.


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, in part, “Feminists will savor the depth and intimacy of this optimistic survey.” What do you think of that description, and do you see your book as optimistic?


A: I object! I hope that all readers will savor the book's "intimacy and depth," and that many will recognize themselves in it, not just those who walk in with "feminist" pinned to their shirts.


As to the book's optimism, with that I can certainly agree. Indeed, I think many Americans have lost the thread on how much progress the nation has made. Doing so is dangerous because it leads us to take gains for granted, and thereby neglect to appreciate or defend them.


Fearless Women shows how each generation went to the mat for some new, additional right--beginning with the right to an education, which is still denied girls in some countries.


Q: Of the various women you write about, are there one or two that especially stand out for you?


A: I never knew that I would fall so hard for Susan B. Anthony. I was not even going to include her as too obvious, safe, and boring. I could not have been more wrong! Now I hope that others will rediscover her as I did. Black suffragist Mary Church Terrell captured my heart, too, and I would give anything to ride horseback behind Ann Marie Riebe, holding on for dear life.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Normally, I alternate between writing fiction and nonfiction, so I'm due for another novel (my fourth), but I'm playing around with a memoir at the moment. It would elucidate the comment at the end of Fearless Women, to the effect that "feminism literally saved my life." However, that does not mean I am actually brave or foolhardy enough to publish it.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Fearless Women devotes half of each chapter to revealing the conditions under which women labored in different time periods. It is eye-opening! Did you know that husbands could previously imprison wives in insane asylums for disagreeing with them? Or that mothers had no legal right to their children? What Americans considered once "normal" is truly remarkable--and frightening. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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