Gender and Sexuality

In her seminal article “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” Joan Scott defines gender as being comprised of two interrelated parts: “gender is a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes, and gender is a primary way of signifying relationships of power.” (1067) Each of this week’s readings adhere to this definition of gender and elucidate the ways in which gender is a demonstration of power, either between individuals or groups. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, in “African-American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race,” argues that women’s historians need to include the history of women of color and address race, rather than analyzing and presenting a monolithic and homogenous history of women. Higginbotham contends that race is a metalangauge because “it speaks about and lends meaning to a host of terms and expressions, to myriad aspects of life that would otherwise fall outside the referential domain of race.” (255)

Louise Michele Newman’s White Women’s Rights: The Radical Origins of Feminism in the United States directly addresses Higginbotham’s concerns by articulating the ways in which the early feminist movement was built on and contributed to racist and imperialist ideology. Using theories of social evolution, elite and middle class white women argued for the expansion of their sphere and participation in public and political life by working as missionaries, explorers, educators and ethnographers in an effort to “civilize” and “uplift” African Americans and indigenous peoples. Middle class white women had to prove that the franchise would not interfere with their abilities to be wives and mothers, and would not be detrimental to their health and reduce their fertility. Newman examines the women’s movement responses to coeducation and labor legislation. The movement was opposed to the idea that education should be segregated by sex, but backed the idea that sexual difference is a legitimate reason to protect women who worked in industry. Newman details May French-Sheldon’s expedition to Africa to “civilize” Africans. The media heralded Sheldon as a heroine because she acted within traditional racial norms. Alice Cunningham Fletcher’s work among Native Americans is also discussed in relation to white women’s work to teach Native women domesticity and homemaking, and their entreatment to Native women to adopt the same economic and household arrangements as whites, as well as white ideas of private property, patriarchal marriage, and gendered division of labor. Newman does not shy away from analyzing the works of well-known feminists Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Mary Roberts Smith Coolidge, both of whom believed that sexual difference would disappear once non-white women became civilized and less primitive. Newman ends with a chapter on Margaret Mead’s trip to Samoa.

Kevin Murphy, in Political Manhood: Red Bloods, Mollycoddles, and the Politics of Progressive Era Reform also addresses gender in its relation to citizenship in white America. Murphy analyzes the political and class contexts in which the idea of “strenuous manhood” was produced as well as the generation of male reformers who came of age in late nineteenth century New York City. This younger generation of reformers distanced themselves from the earlier generation of mugwumps and aligned themselves with white working class men, who they believed possessed manly virtues, and espoused reform as an appropriately masculine endeavor. Much of the early chapters are devoted to describing and analyzing Tammany Hall, the concept of the third sex, and the ways in which politicians used the concept to feminize and ridicule political opponents. Murphy details civic militarism in relation to the work of Jacob Riis and George Waring. Riis worked to reconfigure immigrant neighborhoods in ways that would produce better citizens–for example, he worked to raze Mulberry Bend, an immigrant neighborhood he characterized as squalid and depraved . The ways in which Riis depicted immigrant men made them less masculine and more cowardly and violent than native-born men. George Waring worked as the commissioner of street cleaners and reconfigured the management of the department. Waring communicated his militarist social vision through public parades of street cleaners, where the cleaners–dressed in white–were seen as having been assimilated into American society. Murphy also details the settlement house reforms of Charles Stover at University Settlement and John Elliott at  Hudson Guild. Stover and Elliott’s work differed significantly from Riis and Waring, as neither pursued a militaristic approach to reform. Both Stover and Elliott were dissatisfied with circumscribed sexuality and traditional family life, and formed companionate relationships with the young men they mentored. Murphy then discusses the work of Osborne and George, who promoted self-government reform. Both were embroiled in sex scandals as a result of their work at the Republic and penal institutions, respectively. At the Republic, youths were not simply students but actively involved in the running of the school. At the Republic, George utilized militaristic practices and worked to convert perceived criminal gangs into successful citizens. Osborne voluntarily committed himself to Auburn Penitentiary while arguing that prisons failed because inmates were treated as a distinct class and were in an environment that did not resemble the outside world . Theodore Roosevelt figures prominently in Murphy’s work, as he was the most influential reformer to employ gendered rhetoric against other reformers, created the ideal of “strenuous manhood,” and urged well-off, educated men to participate in politics.

Discussion questions

  1. In Murphy’s work, masculinity is a prominent theme. What role does masculinity play in Scott and Higginbotham’s articles and in Newman’s work?
  2. Why was reform such a contested space in terms of gender?
  3. In tying with the theme of fitness for citizenship that we discussed last week, how does gender affect the notion of a “good citizen”?

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