Daughter of Abraham and Anne Crawford Flexner
Eleanor Flexner grew up in an intellectual world; her father was an educator and writer, her mother a playwright. After graduation from Swarthmore College (1930) she spent a year at Somerville College, Oxford (1930-31).
Although Flexner's first book, American Playwrights, 1918-1938 (1939), survives as a substantial piece of research and criticism, her prominence derives chiefly from writings on the women's movement. Century of Struggle: The Women's Rights Movement in the United States (1959), with 13 paperback printings followed by revised editions in 1975 and 1996 (expanded, with E. Fitzpatrick), is often used as a basic text for the history of the modern American feminist movement. Flexner said that in 1954 she looked for a book about the women's rights movement in the U.S. and, unable to find an adequate one, she decided to write one. The book's dedication to the memory of her mother is apt: she describes Anne Crawford Flexner as one whose "life was touched at many points by the movement whose history I have tried to record.… She marched in the New York suffrage parades. She made her mark as a playwright at a time when such an achievement was still unusual for a woman."
Flexner's Century of Struggle chronicles much that her mother either knew or hoped for. Comparisons of the original preface with that of the revised edition reveal both Flexner's concern with women's rights in 1959, at a time when such concerns were virtually unvoiced, as well as searching questions about the status and prospects of the movement in the 1970s. There she speaks of "a host of new issues" and reflects on their origins and their implications for historians today and women in the future.
As in all her work, her informal narrative style in Century of Struggle holds the reader while she conveys a textbook's burden of information. Early in the book, as Flexner approaches the famous Seneca Falls Convention, her participants become a cast of characters. The event itself comes vividly alive as these women launch their new movement to "leave its imprint on the lives of their daughters and of women throughout the world." Century of Struggle covers well the intellectual progress of women, the battles and achievements of suffrage, and most impressive, women in American labor. As Flexner says in her own bibliographical summary of the six-volume History of Woman Suffrage, it "stands in a class by itself"; so these words apply, if more modestly, to her own work.
Century of Struggle established Flexner's stature as a historian of feminism; her Mary Wollstonecraft: A Biography (1972) adds to her prestige in that area. The reader is carried through a "life of struggle" in the psychological study of a woman, externally a feminist, internally dependent on men for love and approval, sometimes so beaten by circumstances that suicide attempts and irrational behavior seem expected; yet she is brilliant and strong enough to rise above the turbulence of her life in order to create what remains a classic, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Flexner portrays a living woman, Mary, as she refers to her, who struggles for independence, for love, for family life, for a place in her society, for stability perhaps, so clear when one notices, as Flexner does, that she can also write Maria, a quasi-Gothic work replete with the sentimentality of her times.
With Mary, Flexner draws a parallel between the life of the woman she portrays and her own, having been "kicked around the job market" in World War II. Thus, in feeling and in its value as social history, Mary Wollstonecraft emerged as one of the feminine biographies receiving excellent reviews.
Though Flexner is best known for her work as a feminist historian, she goes beyond this definition in her writing and scholarly interests: she contributed, for example, to Volume I of Shelley and His Circle, from which her interest in Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Mary Shelley, may have grown. From her home in Northampton, Massachusetts in the early 1980s, she described herself as "a moderate" who believes strongly in equal opportunities and equal pay for women; and, in personal terms, as a scholar, writer, and woman who would continue, until 1995 when she died, to follow the affairs of women.
Women's Rights: Unfinished Business (Public Affairs Committee pamphlet, 1971). Journey: Poems (1984).
CA (1974). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
A Century of Struggle & Enterprising Women (audiocassette, 1976).