Journal of Interdisciplinary Feminist Thought


American Politics | Politics and Social Change | Women's Studies


An analysis of how a variety of women in 19th and 20th century movements for social change in the United States negotiated normative gender expectations in both their activism and their personal lives. While challenging norms or using traditional norms as a part of a movement tactic are both common in social movements, women leaders still sometimes found themselves in a ‘respectability trap’ when they reflexively applied the dictates of respectable behavior. In these moments, the often invisible privileges attached to the social recognition of a woman’s respectability – and implied morality – become visible. Women who eschewed traditional norms of public behavior and presentation risked having themselves and their movements dismissed out of hand. Seen in this light, leaders who fell into ingrained conventional social norms should not been seen as weak or incompletely radicalized, rather their experiences point to the complexities for women inherent in negotiating social expectations.