Gilded Age/Progressive Era Essay & Bibliography (Nov 1996)

Editor's Note: This bibliographical essay was commissioned by H-SHGAPE and cross-posted to H-Women as a courtesy.



by Kathleen R. Parker

Assistant Professor of History

Waynesburg College, Waynesburg,PA

With the growth of industry in GAPE, rapid urbanization, immigration and occupational dislocation contributed to a general perception that the 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 teaming 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' 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 nineteenth-century 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 Piess' Cheap Amusements and her related article, "Charity Girls and City Pleasures." Piess'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 Daughter, 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 sexual 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 socio-economic 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 anesthesia in the belief that they were less likely to feel the pain than white women.

Related Bibliography

Brandt, Allan No Magic Bullet: A Social History of Venereal Disease in the United states Since 1880. (New York, Oxford Univ. Press, 1985)

Barker-Bentfield, G.J. Horrors of the Half-Known Life: Male attitudes Toward Women and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century America (NY, Harper and Row, 1976)

Dubinsky, Karen Improper Advances: Rape and Heterosexual Conflict in Ontario (Chicago & London, U of Chicago Press, 1993)

Gordon, Linda Woman's Body, Woman's Right: A Social History of Birth Control in America

(NY, Penguin, 1976,1977)

Hall, Jacqueline Dowd Revolt Against Chivalry: Jessie Daniel Ames and the Women's Campaign Against Lynching (NY, Columbia U Press, 1993)

Higgenbotham, Evelyne Brooks Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920 (Cambridge, Mass. and London, Harvard U Press, 1993)

Hobson, Barbara Meil Uneasy Virtue: The Politics of Prostitution and the American Reform Tradition (NY, Basic Books, 1987)

Kunzel, Regina Fallen Women, Problem Girls: Unmarried Mothers and the Professionalization of Social Work (Conn., Yale U Press, 1993)

Langum,David Crossing Over the Line: Legislating Morality and the Mann Act (Chicago, U of Chicago Press, 1994)

Meyerowitz, Joanne Women Adrift: Independent Wage Earners in Chicago, 1880-1930 (Chicago & London, U of Chicago Press, 1988)

Odem, Mary E. Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920 (Chapel Hill & London, U of North Carolina Press, 1995)

Peiss, Kathy Cheap Amusements: working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (Philadelphia, Temple U Press, 1986)

Pivar, David J. Purity Crusade: Sexual Morality and Social Control, 1868-1900 (Westport, Conn, and London, Greenwood Press, 1973

Reed, James From Private Vice to Public Virtue: The Birth Control Movement and American Society Since 1830 (NY, Basic Books, 1978)

Rosen, Ruth The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918 (Baltimore, John Hopkins U Press, 1983)

Rosen, Ruth (ed) The Maimie Papers (The Feminist Press and Indiana U Press in cooperation w/The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, 1977)


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.

Degler, Carl N. "What Ought To Be and What Was: Women's Sexuality in the Nineteenth Century" in Michael Gordon (ed) The American Family in Social-Historical Perspective (NY, St. Martin's Press, 1978).

Epstein, Barbara "Family, Sexual Morality, and Popular Movements in Turn-Of-The-Century America" in Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson (eds) Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality (NY, Monthly Review Press, 1983).

Hall, Jacqueline Dowd "The Mind That Burns in Each Body: Women, Rape, and Racial Violence" in Ann Snitow, Christine Stansell & Sharon Thompson (eds) Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality (NY, Monthly Review Press, 1983).

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 Vickie L. Ruiz, (eds) Unequal Sisters: A Multicultural Reader in U.S. Women's History (NY & London, Routledge, 1990).

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 Christine Simmons (eds) Passion and Power: Sexuality in History (Philadelphia, Temple U Press, 1989).

Book Excerpts:

Bennett, Lerone Jr. Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America pp.271-272 (NY, Penguin, 1993).

Boyer, Paul Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820-1920 pp.121-219 (Cambridge, MA and London, Harvard U Press, 1978)

D'Emilio, John and Estelle Freedman Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, pp171-221 (NY, Harper and Row, 1985)

Friedman, Lawrence M. Crime and Punishment in American History pp.187-192 (NY, Basic Books, 1993)

Rothman, Sheila M. Woman's Proper Place: A History of Changing Ideals and Practices, 1870 to the Present pp.63-85 (NY, Basic Books, 1978)

Steinberg, Stephen The Ethnic Myth: Race, Ethnicity, and Class in America PP. 173-200 (Boston, Beacon Press, 1981, 1989)

Return to H-Women Home Page.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]