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Overlooked No More: Eleanor Flexner, Pioneering Feminist in an Anti-Feminist Age

Anne Crawford Flexner was a successful playwright. Her big hit was the theater and film adaptation of the Alice Hegan Rice novel “Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch,” a tale of urban poverty. She wanted Eleanor to become a writer and supported her research with royalties from “Mrs. Wiggs,” along with additional money she left her when she died in 1955. Eleanor Flexner dedicated “Century of Struggle” to her mother, whose “life was touched at many points by the movement whose history I have tried to record.”

The Flexners were related by marriage to M. Carey Thomas, a suffragist and founding dean of Bryn Mawr College. Eleanor met Thomas at 14, when she went to her sister’s graduation at Bryn Mawr. Flexner recalled in a 1988 interview that Thomas put her hand on her head and said to her father, “Abe, when are we getting this one?” Eleanor was determined to go to Swarthmore instead.

There, after she was kept out of a sorority because of her Jewish background, she and her best friend organized a campaign to bar Greek societies from campus (they weren’t successful).

After a brief stint doing graduate work in London, Flexner moved to Manhattan, living in her parents’ apartment while they were in Princeton, N.J., where her father was charged with establishing the Institute of Advanced Study, a pioneering institute for scholars and scientists pursuing independent research. (Albert Einstein was one of its first faculty members.)

She alternated between writing and left-wing activism. In 1938 she published her first book, “American Playwrights, 1918-1938: The Theater Retreats From Reality,” an indictment of contemporary playwrights for their lack of interest in the social conditions shaping their writing. She helped to organize clerical workers and to break down racial segregation in the nursing profession in connection with the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (now part of the American Nurses Association).

In 1946 she became, at the urging of the Communist Party, the executive director of the Congress of American Women, a popular front organization with links to the heyday of the suffrage movement — its members including the granddaughter of the suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the grandniece of Susan B. Anthony. It was the training ground for several other important pioneering women’s historians, including Gerda Lerner and Aileen Kraditor.

From the beginning of her research for her book, Flexner knew that she wanted to highlight African-American women, whose presence and contributions to securing women’s rights were almost entirely absent from earlier accounts. But she was discouraged from many sides.

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