Local historian Elizabeth Cobbs tells the stories of feminist heroines in ‘Fearless Women’
Here’s a little insider secret: Almost every writer, whether they’re a bestselling novelist or diligent historian, thinks their new book is their best book.
This isn’t always true, of course, but in the case of local writer, historian, stateswoman, novelist and downright prolific polymath Elizabeth Cobbs, her recently released “Fearless Women” might truly be one of the most important books she’s ever written.
It’s also might be her best work and, to hear it from her, it’s a book that she’s been waiting to write her entire life.
“In a way, it’s also a book that I’ve been avoiding my whole life,” Cobbs says with a chuckle. “I had always thought that the one field in American history that I was never going to write about was the history of feminism.”
Still, readers should not infer that Cobbs wasn’t interested in writing about the history of American feminism through the lens of some of the most important women within the movement. Quite the opposite, actually. Rather, she says she “came to feminism very young,” but that she eventually opted for a more objective outlook once she decided to become a historian and scholar.
“I just decided that it was important to not write about things that you were personally passionate about or that you’ve been personally involved in,” Cobbs says, who has mostly focused on topics such as U.S. foreign relations in her previous books.
Still, she says she felt a distinct desire to pen a book that would “give voice to these pathbreakers, as well as to those who believe that feminism points only to ruin.”
“I just realized, especially in this time of deep dissent, that there’s such a rush to mischaracterize the point of view of other people,” says Cobbs, who splits her time between San Diego and her job as a history chair at Texas A&M University.
“It happens on the left and it happens on the right. It seems too important to me, particularly now, that we understand the values that unite us as a people. Because if we can take those things for granted, then we can argue in more civil ways on the areas where we disagree,” she said.
The subtitle (“Feminist Patriots From Abigail Adams to Beyoncé”) is a succinct encapsulation of the book, but one that doesn’t fully encompass the stories presented in the book. She acknowledges early on in the book that “patriotism” and “feminism” are both words that seem tainted and, in the case of the latter, “irredeemably tarnished.”
But through the stories she lays out in the book, Cobbs hits home the point that “patriotism” is, at its core, a rebellion against patriarchy. Whether it’s the Founding Fathers rebelling against a historical patriarchal system of government (the British king), the tenets of American patriotism align with the principles of feminism. For Cobbs, laying out these parallels was of the utmost importance.
“Feminism was born in the United States, it historically begins here,” Cobbs points out. “The ideas of feminism that are first articulated were in the United States and by women who were personally involved in the American Revolution.”
“It’s not a coincidence that these ideas come from the idea that a man, one man, should not stand over all of us, whether he’s king or whether he’s a husband,” Cobbs continues. “That all humans, because we have reason, have a right to equality, to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Cobbs was also keen on recognizing and writing about women who might not be household names, but who still played an instrumental role in the cause of equality.
We all may know who Susan B. Anthony and Beyoncé are, but it’s unlikely they’re familiar with the fascinating journeys of women such as Frances Perkins, a workers-rights advocate and the first woman to hold a presidential Cabinet position. Or they may not know Rosa Cavalleri, an Italian immigrant whose memoir and public speaking helped fuel the women’s suffrage movement.
“It would be weird and useless to focus only on a tiny group of people who we already know about and who also only represent a small part of America,” Cobbs says. “Black women have been leading feminists since the beginning. Chicana and Hispanic women, also, how do you think feminism has become so deep in the Latin American community? It’s not because of Gloria Steinem.”
Another aspect of “Fearless Women” that particularly stands out is how fluidly readable the book is in its style and presentation.
Cobbs devotes each chapter to a particular cause or right (“The Right to Learn,” “The Right to Vote,” etc.) and then picks two women whose very distinct and separate stories encapsulate that cause. Cobbs then dutifully weaves back-and-forth between the two narratives, writing with a historian’s eye for detail and a novelist’s virtuosity for storytelling.
“I really wanted to make this a personal story,” Cobbs says. “Every time you write in a different genre, you learn something new about writing. I think novel writing helped me.”
Another great discovery for readers, and one that Cobbs hopes is one of the main takeaways, is how many of the rights we’ve come to cherish and sometimes take for granted were the result of feminism. Public education and abolitionism, for example, were the result of women whose names are, ironically, not often found in textbooks. Cobbs does well to also point out that the great majority of groundbreakers were not full-time activists, and the reader comes away with a sense that it’s not always the loudest voice in the room that can make the most difference.
“These basic rights that we do take for granted do make us all feminists at heart,” Cobbs says. “Often it was in the pursuit of something that seems obvious and simple to people today, something that had to do with just being a human being, and those women realizing that, because they were a woman, they were denied that.”
“Every single time they were considered radicals and it was a tough fight,” Cobbs continues. “But every single time, they were always consistent with our American values of equality, before the law and to each other.”
“Fearless Women: Feminist Patriots from Abigail Adams to Beyoncé”
by Elizabeth Cobbs
(Harvard Press, 2023; 480 pages)
Warwick’s presents Elizabeth Cobbs
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Warwick’s, 7812 Girard Ave., La Jolla
Combs is a freelance writer.
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