American Playwrights, 1918-1938: The Theatre Retreats from Reality, 1938
Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States, 1959, revised 1975, enlarged 1996 (with Ellen Fitzpatrick)
Women’s Rights–Unfinished Business, 1971
Mary Wollstonecraft: A Biography, 1972
Eleanor Flexner was a pioneer feminist historian. Her Century of Struggle remains an influential work that continues to open paths for historical exploration. Eleanor’s father, Abraham Flexner, the child of German-Jewish immigrants, became famous for his 1910 “Flexner Report” on medical schools, which caused the demise of many inadequate proprietary schools and led to the reformulation of medical education on scientific principles. He later founded the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University. Eleanor’s mother, Anne Crawford, was a descendant of Georgia plantation owners and a great-granddaughter of William Harris Crawford, a leading contender for the United States presidency in 1824. She became a successful playwright; her adaptation of Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1904) appeared on stage, screen, and radio often over three decades, making her independently wealthy and the financial supporter of her family.
Eleanor graduated from Swarthmore College in 1930. Her senior thesis on Mary Tudor won her a fellowship for a year of further historical study at Somerville College, Oxford. Horrified by the massive unemployment she witnessed upon her return to a United States gripped by the Great Depression, she gravitated to left-wing causes. Following her mother into the theater, Eleanor served an apprenticeship at the Civic Repertory Theater, where she acted as assistant stage manager for several productions by actor and producer Eva La Galliene. She tried writing plays, focusing on social and economic unrest and the rise of fascism. She also spent two years on the staff of left-leaning New Theatre Magazine, contributing critical articles and play reviews.
Flexner’s first book, American Playwrights, 1918-1938, reflected both her theatrical experience and her radicalism. She dismissed most American playwrights, including Maxwell Anderson and Eugene O’Neill, as deficient in their understanding of social and economic causation. As a result of this inadequacy, she said, their plays were confused and pessimistic. Her concluding chapter praised left-wing playwrights such as Marc Blitzstein, Irwin Shaw, and especially Clifford Odets, whose work demonstrated that life and character were the products of social forces and relationships in perpetual dynamic conflict.
As the Depression continued through the 1930’s, Flexner became convinced that the American Communist Party offered meaningful political and economic solutions for the nation’s grim situation. She joined Popular Front organizations and raised money for Republican Spain during the civil war of the 1930’s. In the 1940’s Flexner worked as an organizer for a Congress of Industrial Organizations union of clerical and secretarial workers. She was proud of her occasional success in shaming nonprofit organizations into hiring well-qualified black secretaries.
In the 1950’s Flexner began extensive research into the history of women’s rights in the United States. Century of Struggle, published by Harvard University Press in 1959, was the first major narrative of this movement not written by a participant in the events. Flexner covered the years from the colonial period to the enactment of the Women’s Suffrage Amendment to the Constitution in 1920. Her involvement in radical movements led her to see her subject as more than an effort to gain the vote; she stressed the importance of economic and social rights and included material on women labor leaders and black women whose contributions had previously been ignored. With more than a dozen paperback reprints and a revised edition in 1975, Flexner’s book remained continuously in print. As interest in women’s history grew in the 1960’s, it was frequently assigned as a basic text on American feminist history. Her work continues to inspire new generations of women historians.
Flexner assisted the editors of Harvard University Press’s three-volume Notable American Women, 1607-1950 (1971) in selecting women to include, and she contributed more than a dozen articles to the set. Many essays were on less well-known women labor leaders and black women; she also wrote major entries on Carrie Chapman Scott and Anne Howard Shaw.
In 1972 Flexner published a carefully researched biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, whose A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792) was the first English-language manifesto calling for equal political rights for women. Drawing on manuscript material, as well as printed memoirs and previous biographies, Flexner stressed the way Wollstonecraft’s difficult life led her to develop radical ideas on education and human equality. Although her book received respectful reviews, appeared in paperback the following year, and was nominated for a National Book Award in 1973 (her first cousin James Thomas Flexner won the biography award for his work on George Washington), Flexner was disappointed when the book thereafter received little notice. Again, Flexner was ahead of her times; increasing interest in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects led to an outpouring of new biographies and critical articles on Wollstonecraft in the 1980’s and 1990’s.
When her live-in companion, Helen Terry, became a librarian at Smith College, Flexner moved to Northampton, Massachusetts, to be with her. A rare independent scholar producing major historical work, Flexner was ambivalent about academic historians who she felt did not fully appreciate her. She was particularly negative about Smith College, whose faculty, she believed, failed to acknowledge or take advantage of her presence in Northampton. After Terry died, and as her own health deteriorated, Flexner moved to a nursing home in Westboro, Massachusetts. Ignoring Smith College’s major women’s history collection, she left her papers to Harvard University’s Schlesinger Library.
Century of Struggle established Flexner’s reputation as a historian. Its detailed and moving narrative of the struggle to achieve women’s rights remains a substantial work of research and critical analysis. It rescued the memory of the struggles of previous generations of women activists and stimulated succeeding generations of historians to further explore the paths Flexner had pioneered.