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by Kathleen R. Parker
Assistant Professor of History
Waynesburg College, Waynesburg, PA
With the growth of industry in the GAPE, rapid urbanization, immigration, and occupational dislocation contributed to a general perception that traditional family arrangements and sexual prohibitions were at risk. Parents, for instance,feared that innocent farm daughters might be lured into a life of commercialized sex in a city teeming with unwashed and illiterate (southeastern European) immigrant men. Preoccupied with protecting white women's sexual purity, social movements variously emerged to limit (or promote) the practice of birth control, eradicate (or regulate) prostitution, raise the age of consent in statutory rape, prevent the spread of venereal disease, and end the sexual double standard.
For black women, there was no mainstream alarm in regard to their sexual morality during the GAPE because they were assumed to be promiscuous. In reality, however, black women's sexuality had been vulnerable to abuse by their white male owners while in slavery and by any white man after slavery ended. Further,the free black husbands, fathers, and sons of black women were subject to lynching (mostly in the South), as they, even more than immigrant men, were targeted as sexual predators of white women.
Inextricably linked to fears of sexual anarchy was the growing realization that middle-class women were practicing birth control, in large part, an economic consequence of the shift from rural to urban life. James Reed offers a still valuable account of this movement in _From Private Vice to Public Virtue_, which also sheds light on prevailing sex practices. A fascinating and more politicized history of this movement is found in Linda Gordon's _Woman's Body, Woman's Right_. In "Family, Sexual Morality, and Popular Movements in Turn-of-the-Century America," Barbara Epstein examines the ways in which the need for birth control was negotiated in the face of its implicit threat to traditional heterosexual marriage and the authority of men in the family. Connections can be made between Epstein and Brumberg, whose "Ruined Girls'...in Upstate New York" argues that illegitimacy among teen-age girls was a more traumatic event by the 1890s than in either the eighteenth or early nineteenth century. These works, as well as appropriate chapters from D'Emilio and Freedman's _Intimate Matters_ and Sheila Rothman's _Woman's Proper Place_, expose the extent to which nineteenthcentury sexual practices did not, in fact, meet with middle-class ideals, and moreover, how pervasive was popular literature exhorting women to maintain proper standards of behavior.
Recent histories examine class distinctions in sexual practice, as is seen in Kathy Peiss' _Cheap Amusements_ and her related article, "Charity Girls and City Pleasures." Peiss's work observes that working girls practiced a more open and fluid sexual style relative to middle- and upper- class women, while Clelia Duel Mosher's first-of-its-kind survey of sex attitudes among college-educated women, analyzed in Degler's article, "What Ought to Be and What Was," points out that the Victorian view of women's sexuality was more ideology than prevalent practice, even among middle-class women. Degler cites the lack of medical consensus on women's sexual feelings. See also _The Mosher Survey: Sexual Attitudes of 45 Victorian Women_.
For the most comprehensive history of popular morals-reform responses to perceived threats to traditional sexual arrangements in the Gilded Age, see David Pivar's _Purity Crusade: Sexual Morality and Social Control, 1868-1900_, which highlights campaigns for legislation to prevent the dissemination of obscene materials (defined as pictures of nudes and information relating to contraceptives or abortion) and to raise the age of consent (to prevent prostitution). Efforts to police female delinquency in the guise of prosecuting statutory rape are seen in Kathleen Parker's ""To Protect the Chastity of Children Under Sixteen'".
The medical profession's campaign to license and regulate prostitution to prevent the spread of gonorrhea is described in Allan Brandt's _No Magic Bullet: A Social History of Venereal Disease in the United States Since 1880_ and John Burnham's "The Progressive Era Revolution in American Attitudes Toward Sex." The medical discovery of the seriousness of gonorrhea gave added impetus to the Social Hygiene Movement, which was more concerned with public health than public morals.
The feminist view that prostitution was a result of both socio-economic constraints on women and the sexual double standard is best presented in Barbara Meil Hobson's _Uneasy Virtue: The Politics of Prostitution and the American Reform Tradition, and _ Ruth Rosen's _The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918_ . Further, Rosen's editing of _The Maimie Papers_ reveals, through the letters of Maimie Pinzer to her wealthy benefactress and friend, Fanny Quincy Howe, how women moved in and out of prostitution as necessitated by their financial constraints. Pinzer's story is an intimate corrective to any presumptions one might make about prostitutes in this period.
Paul Boyer's general treatment of this period in _Urban Masses and Moral Order_ is useful in showing a change in tone among charity workers from one of "rigid moralism" in the 1870s to a more sociological recognition of the "wretched material environment" of the poor by the 1890s. It is this shift in rationale that accompanied a professionalized social engineering approach in the Progressive Era. Recent excellent histories more specifically document this transition. In particular see Mary Odem's _Delinquent Daughters_, Regina Kunzel's _Fallen Women, Problem Girls_, and for a comparative view of similar developments in Canada, see Karen Dubinsky's _Improper Advances_. The fallacies behind reform-minded thinking throughout the GAPE are engagingly exposed in Joanne Meyerowitz' _Women Adrift: Independent Wage Earners in Chicago, 1880-1930_. Finally, David Langum's _Crossing Over the Line_ details the first federal effort at legislating morality with the Mann Act of 1910.
The fact that the Mann Act deliberately excluded protections for black women is conspicuous evidence of black women's sexual vulnerability in white society. Jacqueline Dowd Hall's now classic article, "The Mind That Burns in Each Body," explains that Freedmen's Bureau records and the oral histories collected by the Federal Writers' Project "testify to the sexual atrocities endured by black women as whites sought to reassert their command over newly freed slaves." Evelyn Brooks Higgenbotham's _Righteous Discontent_ elucidates the strategies employed by black women to avoid such episodes of sexual exploitation. Further, Darlene Clark Hine's article, "Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West" argues that black women consciously created positive images of their sexuality in the context of club and church work to overcome public perceptions left behind by the long legacy of sexual exploitation. On the subject of lynching, Hall's _Revolt Against Chivalry_ explains how this practice gave racial significance to the sexual double standard, masking "masculine guilt over miscegenation and veiled hostility toward women in a patriarchal society." For socioeconomic interpretations of lynching, see Hall in "The Mind..." and others (Bennett; Friedman; Steinberg), who assert that the scapegoating of black men was accomplished less to preserve white women's purity than to prevent black men's upward mobility.
The extent to which medical practice functioned out of misconceptions of women's sexuality, whether they be white or black, is startlingly exposed in Barker-Bentfield's _Horrors of the Half-Known Life_. Cliterodectomies were performed on white women to "cure" them of a tendency to experience orgasms; experiments in gynecological surgery were performed on black women without anethesia in the belief that they were less likely to feel the pain than white women.
Brandt, Allan ((1985) _No Magic Bullet: A Social History of Venereal Disease in the United States Since 1880_. New York: Oxford University Press.
Barker-Bentfield, G.J. (1976) _Horrors of the Half-Known Life: Male Attitudes Toward Women and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century America_. New York: Harper and Row.
Dubinsky, Karen (1993) _Improper Advances: Rape and Heterosexual Conflict in Ontario_. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Gordon, Linda (1976,1977) _Woman's Body Woman's Right: A Social History of Birth Control in America_. New York: Penguin.
Hall, Jacqueline Dowd (1993) _Revolt Against Chivalry: Jessie Daniel Ames and the Women's Campaign Against Lynching. New York: Columbia University Press.
Higgenbotham, Evelyne Brooks (1993) Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movment in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press.
Hobson, Barbara Meil ( 1987) _Uneasy Virtue: The Politics of Prostitution and The American Reform Tradition_. New York: Basic Books.
Kunzel, Regina (1993) _Fallen Women, Problem Girls: Unmarrried Mothers and the Professionalization of Social Work_. Conn: Yale University Press.
Langum, David (1994) _Crossing Over the Line: Legislating Morality and the Mann Act_. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Meyerowitz, Joanne (1988) _Women Adrift: Independent Wage Earners in Chicago, 1880-1930_. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Odem, Mary E. (1995) _Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920_. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press.
Peiss, Kathy. (1986) _Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn- of-the-Century New York_. Philadelphia, Pa.: Temple University Press.
Pivar, David J. (1973) _Purity Crusade: Sexual Morality and Social Control, 1868- 1900_. Westport, Conn. and London, England: Greenwood Press.
Reed, James (1978) _From Private Vice to Public Virtue: The Birth Control Movement and American Society Since 1830_. New York: Basic Books.
Rosen, Ruth (1983) _The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918_. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Rosen, Ruth (ed.) (1977) _The Maimie Papers_. The Feminist Press and Indiana University Press in cooperation with The Schlesinger Library of Radcliffe College.
Brumberg, Joan Jacobs. "Ruined Girls': Changing Community Responses to Illegitimacy in Upstate New York, 1890-1920" in _Journal of Social History_ 18 (Winter 1984), pp. 247-272.
Burnham, John C. "The Progressive Era Revolution in American Attitudes Toward Sex" in _Journal of American History_ 59.4 (March 1973), pp. 885-908.
Epstein, Barbara. "Family, Sexual Morality, and Popular Movements in Turn-of-the- Century America" in Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson (eds.) (1983) _Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality_. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Degler, Carl N. "What Ought to Be and What Was: Women's Sexuality in the Nineteenth Century" in Michael Gordon (ed.) (1978) _The American Family in Social-Historical Perspective_. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Hall, Jacqueline Dowd. "The Mind That Burns in Each Body': Women, Rape, and Racial Violence," in Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, & Sharon Thompson (eds.) (1983) _Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality_. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Hine, Darlene Clark. "Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West: Preliminary Thoughts on the Culture of Dissemblance," in Ellen Carol DuBois and Vicki L. Ruiz (eds.) ) (1990) _Unequal Sisters: A Multicultural Reader in U.S. Women's History_. New York and London: Routledge.
Parker, Kathleen. "To Protect the Chastity of Children Under Sixteen': Statutory Rape Prosecutions in a Midwest County Circuit Court, 1850-1950," _The Michigan Historical Review_, 20.1, Spring 1994.
Peiss, Kathy. "Charity Girls and City Pleasures: Historical Notes on Working-Class Sexuality, 1880-1920" in Kathy Peiss and Christina Simmons (eds) (1989) _Passion and Power: Sexuality in History_. Philadelphia, Pa.: Temple University Press.
Bennett, Lerone, Jr. (1993) _Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America_. pp. 271-272. New York: Penguin Books.
Boyer, Paul (1978) _Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820-1920_, pp. 121- 219. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press.
D'Emilio, John and Estelle Freedman (1985) _Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America_, pp. 171-221. New York: Harper and Row.
Friedman, Lawrence M. (1993) _Crime and Punishment in American History_, pp. 187-192. New York: Basic Books.
Rothman, Sheila M. (1978) _Woman's Proper Place: A History of Changing Ideals and Practices, 1870 to the Present_, pp. 63-85. New York: Basic Books.
Steinberg, Stephen (1981, 1989) _The Ethnic Myth: Race Ethnicity, and Class in America_, pp. 173-200. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Last updated on October 3, 1996
Patrick D. Reagan
Tennessee Technological University
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