Flexner, Eleanor, 1908-1995

Hide Profile

Eleanor Flexner (October 4, 1908 – March 25, 1995) was an American distinguished independent scholar and pioneer in what was to become the field of women's studies. Her much praised Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States, originally published in 1959, relates women's physically courageous and politically ingenious work for the vote to other 19th- and early 20th-century social, labor, and reform movements, most importantly the push for equal education, the abolition of slavery, and temperance laws.

Flexner was the younger of two highly intelligent daughters of well-known parents. Her mother, Anne Crawford Flexner (1874-1955), a successful playwright and children's author, organized professional playwrights into an association that later became the Dramatists Guild of the Author's League of America.

Eleanor's father, Abraham Flexner (1866-1959), was a leader in several fields including, with his brother Simon Flexner at the Rockefeller Institute, the reform of early 20th-century medical education and medical research in the United States and Canada. Abraham founded and served as first director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.

Encouragement and financial assistance from her parents carried Flexner through the Great Depression and gave her the means to experiment as a playwright and social organizer. Her mother at her death left Eleanor a lifetime income. Both Anne and Abraham Flexner were feminists who supported passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and both marched in the 1915 New York woman suffrage parade.

Eleanor Flexner was born in Georgetown, Kentucky, but spent her youth in New York City. A biographical statement in the Schlesinger Library Archives at Harvard University outlines Flexner's early career:

After graduating from Swarthmore College with high honors in English and history in 1930, she attended Somerville College at Oxford University for one year. Back in the United States, she held a series of promotional and editorial positions in the theater and with the Institute of Propaganda Analysis, the Foreign Policy Association, and Hadassah. In 1938 she published a book of dramatic criticism entitled American Playwrights, 1918-1938.

During this period of her life Flexner found her way into New York's radical left. She joined the Communist Party in 1936 and spent several years writing CP articles and pamphlets, under pseudonyms, and working for various social and political causes. As a member of the League of American Writers, she served on its Keep America Out of War Committee in January 1940 during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact. She worked alongside the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses. In 1946, she became the executive director of the Congress of American Women This activist background allowed Flexner to appreciate the disappointments, triumphs, and bracing camaraderie experienced by the 19th- and early 20th-century women whom she later described in Century of Struggle.

In the 1940s, Flexner began researching the 19th-century labor struggles of American women but found that few historians had touched on the subject. She was by that time already planning to write a history of the American woman suffrage movement and gradually became convinced that a comprehensive treatment must deal with the experiences of working class women and politically active women of color. Flexner worked on the manuscript that was to become Century of Struggle through most of the 1950s. Her original publisher, Harper, refused to publish it unless she removed the parts about women of color. Fortunately, when she showed the completed book to the historian Arthur Schlesinger, he recognized its value and urged her to offer it to Harvard University Press, which readily accepted it for publication. It was published in 1959.

Many of the concepts that inform Century of Struggle were developed by a small group of Marxist women — including, in addition to Flexner, Susan B. Anthony II, Gerda Lerner, and Eve Merriam. It was only in 1982, however, that Flexner publicly acknowledged her past membership in the Communist Party.

In 1957, Flexner moved from New York to Northampton, Massachusetts, where her life partner, Helen Terry, was on the faculty of Smith College. Flexner completed Century of Struggle and wrote her last book, Mary Wollstonecraft, in this setting.

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Friedan, Betty, 1921-2006. Papers, 1933-1985 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Ames, Blanche, 1878-1969. Papers, 1860-1961 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
creatorOf Papers of Eleanor Flexner, 1895?-1995 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Lerner, Gerda, 1920-2013. Papers, 1950-1995 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Biography Collection MS 393., 1771-1995, 1920-1970 Sophia Smith Collection
referencedIn The Nation, records, 1879-1974 (inclusive), 1920-1955 (bulk). Houghton Library
referencedIn United States. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Files, 1937-1975 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Lerner, Gerda, 1920-2013. Papers, 1950-1995 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Dreier, Mary E. (Mary Elisabeth), 1875-1963. Papers, 1797-1963 (inclusive), 1897-1963 (bulk). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Dreier, Mary E. (Mary Elisabeth), 1875-1965. Papers, 1797-1968 (bulk 1897-1968) Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
creatorOf Papers, 1895?-1995 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn R. Buckminster Fuller papers, ca. 1920-1983 Stanford University. Department of Special Collections and University Archives
referencedIn Ames, Blanche. Papers, 1860-1961 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Social Work Archives Oral History Collection MS 417., 1970-2003 Sophia Smith Collection
creatorOf Social work archives oral history collection, 1970-1998. Smith College, Neilson Library
referencedIn Flexner, Abraham, 1866-1959. Abraham Flexner papers, 1865-1989 (bulk 1900-1959). Library of Congress
referencedIn Abraham Flexner Papers, 1865-1989, (bulk 1900-1959) Library of Congress. Manuscript Division
referencedIn DuBois, Ellen Carol, 1947-. Papers, 1972, 1988-1989 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Sophia Smith Collection. Biography collection, 1771-1995 (bulk 1920s-70s). Smith College, Neilson Library
referencedIn Luscomb, Florence, 1887-. Additional papers of Florence Luscomb, 1888-1988 (inclusive). Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn Lerner, Gerda, 1920-2013. Papers, 1950-1995 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
referencedIn May Sarton Papers, 1846-1995, 1920-1995 The New York Public Library. Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.
referencedIn Herbert Aptheker Papers, 1842-1999, (bulk 1934-1994) Stanford University. Department of Special Collections and University Archives
referencedIn Donald and Katharine Foley Collection of Penguin Books, post 1965 Bancroft Library
referencedIn Papers of Eleanor Flexner, 1895?-1995 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Ames, Blanche Ames, 1878-1969 person
associatedWith Aptheker, Herbert, 1915- person
associatedWith Aptheker, Herbert, 1915-2003. person
associatedWith Barry, Leonora Marie Kearney, 1849-1930. person
associatedWith Dreier, Mary E. (Mary Elisabeth), 1875-1963 person
associatedWith DuBois, Ellen Carol, 1947- person
associatedWith Duster, Alfreda person
associatedWith Duster, Alfreda. person
correspondedWith Flexner, Abraham, 1866-1959. person
associatedWith Flexner, Anne Crawford, 1874-1955. person
associatedWith Foley, Donald L. person
associatedWith Foley, Katharine person
associatedWith Friedan, Betty, 1921-2006 person
associatedWith Fuller, R. Buckminster (Richard Buckminster), 1895-1983 person
associatedWith Jefferson School of Social Science (New York, N.Y.) corporateBody
associatedWith Lasser, Carol person
associatedWith Lasser, Carol. person
associatedWith Lerner, Gerda, 1920-2013 person
associatedWith Lewinson, Jean F. person
associatedWith Lewinson, Jean F. person
associatedWith Luscomb, Florence, 1887- person
associatedWith Merk, Lois Bannister. person
correspondedWith Nation (New York, N.Y. : 1865). corporateBody
associatedWith O'Sullivan, Mary Kenney, 1864-1943. person
associatedWith Pollitzer, Anita, 1894-1975. person
associatedWith Sarton, May, 1912-1995 person
associatedWith Shuler, Nettie Rogers, 1862-1939. person
associatedWith Stegner, Wallace, 1909-1993. person
associatedWith Stewart, Maria W. person
associatedWith Stewart, Maria W., 1803-1879. person
associatedWith Terry, Helen. person
associatedWith Troup, Augusta Lewis, 1848-1920. person
associatedWith United States. Federal Bureau of Investigation. corporateBody
associatedWith Van Voris, Jacqueline, person
associatedWith Wells-Barnett, Ida B., 1862-1931. person
associatedWith Wollstonecraft, Mary, 1759-1797. person
associatedWith Younger, Maud. person
Place Name Admin Code Country
New York City NY US
Georgetown KY US
Westborough MA US
Subject
African American women
Afro
Mormon women
Women
Women
Women and religion
Women labor union members
Working class women
Occupation
Activist
Dramatists
Historians
Writer
Activity

Person

Birth 1908

Birth 1908-10-04

Death 1995-03-25

Female

Americans

English

Information

Permalink: http://n2t.net/ark:/99166/w6844hnx

Ark ID: w6844hnx

SNAC ID: 85711803