‘Coolieism’ Discourse in Education and Combative Legal Strategies in Mae Ngai’s The Lucky Ones

This week, we decided to write our own individual blog posts on what aspects we found interesting in Mae Ngai’s The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America (2010). This week, I look at ‘coolieism’ discourse in California’s education system and subsequent combative legal strategies.

Ngai, Mae. The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.

In Mae Ngai’s book, a particular component that peaked my interest were the exclusionary practices in California’s education system and the legal strategies Joseph Tape utilized in the court case for the inclusion of his daughter in the public school system. Ngai outlines the often explicit discriminatory policies backed by both social custom and local school boards that excluded Chinese children from public school. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors explained their rationale by stating, “For however hard and stern such a doctrine may sound, it is but the enforcement of the law of self-preservation…by which we hope presently to prove that we can justly and practically defend ourselves from the invasion of Mongolian barbarism” (pg. 48). The board’s statement underscores racial assumptions of the Chinese prevalent, unfortunately, during this time. Known as “coolieism”, this ideology articulated the notion that the Chinese would never assimilate into American culture and would thus undermine the living standard of whites (pg. 32). This ideology morphed into a full-fledged movement in California with the establishment of anti-coolie clubs backed by craft unions as well as the formation of the Workingman’s Party in 1877 (with the slogan, “The Chinese must go!”). Joseph Tape, understandably, dismissed such ideology and took San Francisco’s school board to court for his daughter. Most interestingly, Tape utilized, as Ngai puts it, a “two-pronged legal strategy”. This strategy simultaneously (a.) “made a straightforward civil rights claim” and (b.) claimed of “mistaken racial identity”. The Tapes’ were thus playing on two different identities for their own purposes. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Japanese American Citizens League utilized such strategies by choosing the most assimilated African and Japanese Americans in their court cases. As Ngai argues, this creates a dilemma. In doing so, it inadvertently admitted that the unassimilated were of a ‘lesser’ class compared to the assimilated (pg. 53). This brought to mind the internal fissures within a common identity. While on an elementary level one would assume that all Chinese would ban around their racial identity in a new country, if one looks closer in history, that is not always the case across racial, gender, and class lines. Ngai outlines this paradox that was at the epicenter of the Tapes’ story: “they broke into the American middle class by helping manage the continued marginalization of other Chinese” (pg. 223).  Evidently, while Joseph won his case in the lower court, the California Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s ruling in favor of a Chinese Primary School in Chinatown.


Policing the Sexuality of Female, Working-Class Teenagers in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries


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

In Delinquent Daughters, Mary Odem explores how moral reform campaigns in the late 19th and early 20th century resulted in sexual regulatory policies that targeted female, working-class teenagers. Under the backdrop of industrialization and urbanization, these girls had increased opportunities for “social and sexual autonomy” free from familial supervision (pg. 2). While Odem traces these moral reform campaigns through a national lens in its two distinct phases (explained in further detail below), she also provides a local focus for the enforcement measures of such policies, specifically analyzing the criminal and juvenile court records from Alameda and Los Angeles counties. Odem’s work ultimately adds to the growing literature in recent years by scholars who have argued that women have strategically utilized state and welfare agencies for their own advantage as a tool to challenge male power. In short, Odem’s book encompasses three main arguments: (1) the ‘three axis’ – gender, class, and race – were crucial factors in influencing these moral campaigns (ex: racial divides saw the exclusion of African American women from such policies) , (2) the enforcement of these regulatory policies had different consequences than reformers intended (ex: teenage girls in detention centers were subjected to compulsory medical exams and questioning), and (3) inter-generational conflict led many working-class families to court. While Odem’s book offers many insights into female sexual regulatory policy, due to word limits I will only highlight the components I found most intriguing.

One factor most refreshing to Odem’s work is how she skillfully organizes her narrative. Since I did not have an in-depth knowledge of late 19th/early 20th century female sexual regulatory policies prior to reading this book, her categorical structure of the moral reform’s two distinct phases provided a vantage point while reading through the book. The two phases are briefly outlined below:

  • Phase I (first three chapters) – Mid 1880s-1900; National effort by reformers to make sex with teenage girls a criminal offense (age-of-consent campaign); Focus on female victimization by a sexually exuberant male.
  • Phase II (last three chapters) – 1900-1920s; Shift to a ‘female delinquent’ perception; Reformers explained female immortality due to familial and social environments; Attempted to control females and such environments through institutional practices (juvenile courts, detention centers, reformatories, etc.). This purview argued that while women’s sexual agency was acknowledged, it needed to be controlled.

Most notable between these two distinct phases is how women were perceived and who is at “fault” for sexual misbehavior which, ultimately, had major policy implications. One does not have to look far to see how this correlates with sexual culture today: how women are portrayed in a sexual context and who is to “blame”. While laws were first targeted against men in the first phase, a shift in female perceptions led to policies that targeted females. This serves as an important reminder to reflect on what underlying assumptions or perceptions are embedded in policies. Another historical lesson for policy formation is that while certain policies may be under the guise of helping people, they may have some unintended consequences. For example, as stated earlier, females held in detention centers awaiting their court hearings were subjected to compulsory pelvic exams and questioning. While the age-of-consent campaign was intended to protect young women, the enforcement of such policies could not be determined by moral reformers but rather by the State.

One theme throughout Odem’s book is her inclusion of inter-generational conflicts in both transforming sexual regulatory policy and amongst working class girls and their parents. Firstly, she argues that the shift from the first phase to the second phase of the moral reform campaign can be attributed to a new generation of white women reformers. These women disregarded the “Victorian assumption of girlhood sexual passivity and victimization”, but rather portrayed these girls to encompass increased sexual agency that thus required state intervention (pg. 95-96). Secondly, Odem also illuminates the inter-generational conflict between working class girls and their parents through the juvenile court system. Most surprisingly, Odem reveals that many parents reported their daughters cases of increased autonomy to the courts as it conflicted with their own values, needs, and expectations. Furthermore, Odem acknowledges how the immigrant culture (particularly prevalent in Alameda and Los Angeles counties) desired and exercised considerable control over their children.

Lastly, I want to highlight the connections to other historical literature I read in previous graduate courses that would help any scholars studying sexual regulatory policies. One book that would pair well with Delinquent Daughters is April R. Haynes’ Riotous Flesh: Women, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice in Nineteenth-Century America (2015) which traces the campaign to control female masturbation from 1830-1860. Similar to Odem’s book, Haynes also illustrates that white, middle-class women were the prime proponents in leading this moral campaign. Pairing both books together would allow a great understanding of sexual politics in moral reform campaigns across the long 19th century. Furthermore, David K. Johnson’s The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (2004) shares similar parallels to Delinquent Daughters. Johnson traces the persecution of homosexuals in the federal government and in Washington, DC from the 1950s to the 1970s. For example, Johnson highlights how D.C. police officers harassed and arrested men who frequented known ‘gay cruising areas’, most notably Lafayette Park. Similarly, Odem outlines how police officers patrolled public, social spaces (such as amusement parks and dance halls) for sexual immoral behavior as well as raided downtown hotel rooms. Here, we see in similar cases the government enacting discriminatory policies in order to contain sexuality.

Struggling for Ladyhood

Nan Enstad. Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. Columbia University Press: New York, 1999.

After reading “core” labor histories last semester, it was a relief to find a different perspective on this tumultuous period of labor history. Enstad set the stage for her book by asking the reader to question the default idea of a worker or laborer that dominates labor history, a brawny white blue-collar man. Enstad argues that this image of American laborers in the twentieth century was the result of perceived threats to masculinity during rapid industrialization, and a desire of working class women to be perceived as ladies as well as workers.

Enstad’s focus is primarily on the ways that egalitarian ideas about fashion, popular culture, and worker’s rights flourished in the generation of young women who came of age during the turn of the century and would be known as “New Women”. The growing availability of ready-made garments that kept up with the fashion trends in Europe, an explosion of literacy and affordable fiction, as well as a level of autonomy that had not been available to many women before the twentieth century allowed working class women to participate in American culture (as they saw it) like never before. Many of these women were immigrants who quickly adopted the accoutrements of fellow working women in order to be accepted as American and maintain employment.

1909 Shirtwaist Strikers in NYC. Note their hats.

The ability to work and spend a portion of their earnings as they saw fit, created identities as individual political actors as well as collective laborers. The example of Clara Lemlich’s list of demands during a shirtwaist strike including the desire for a hat stand demonstrates the power of fashion as a signifier of autonomy and power (8-12). When the worker’s hats got trampled during the work day, it was symbolic of the way companies were trampling over the rights of the women who worked in the factories. Consumer culture has mostly been missing from other labor histories that I have read, but Enstad demonstrates the way that the growing consumer culture allowed these workers to create identities that lead to political and collective bargaining power.

Enstad is clear to set working class women apart from middle class women. Middle class women, according to Enstad sought to strengthen Victorian ideas of middle class domesticity to set themselves apart from the working class. Enstad cites the differences in fashion and in literature as evidence of the desire to create a dichotomy between the “virtuous and enlightened” middle class and the “irrational and scandalous” working class. Enstad sets up a dichotomy between women who were inherently considered “ladies” and working women who struggled to gain “ladyhood”. I found this section of Enstad’s argument difficult to get behind completely; particularly since many of the working-class women were employed by the families of middle class women; literally giving them their class status. While the minutia of fashion and novels may provide stark differences in culture and self-identities, Enstad makes broad categorizations of very diverse groups of women.

I found the portion of her book that focused on the ways that popular culture informed working-class women’s decisions to strike and become politically active much more persuasive. Enstad discusses how the desire to achieve ladyhood gave male union leaders an opening to dismiss the strength of female workers; emphasizing their inherent vulnerability and frivolity as proof that they needed to be protected but that their work was not as skilled as the male dominated mills (See David Montgomery’s Fall of the House of Labor for more on the manly experience of working in a mill).

On its own, Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure is a good introduction into immigration and labor studies; when combined with books that take a larger focus on women’s history, immigrant history, or labor history Enstad’s book adds a much needed glimpse into popular culture and working class identities at the turn of the century.

Womens Trade Union League of New York
Women’s Trade Union League of New York. Circa 1909

Buying Love in the Early Twentieth Century

Image result for love for sale clement

Elizabeth Alice Clement, Love for Sale: Courting, Treating, and Prostitution in New York City, 1900-1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

While most definitely a book for the academic community, Clement’s exposition of the fine lines between courting, prostitution, and dating culture that emerges in the first half of the twentieth century is a subject that could definitely appeal to a much wider audience. With superb organization and narrative structure, Clement provides a convincing argument for the rise and fall of prostitution and the transformation of sexual norms in the United States, using New York City as a case study. For Clement, World Wars I and II were instrumental to shaping our modern conceptions and experiences of the dating world.

Building on the work of Kathy Peiss and other historians, Clement expands her exploration of NYC’s sex scene to delve deeper into the economic and social implications of prostitution and “treating,” a practice that emerged in the 1890s as a means for young, working class women to involve themselves in the expanding consumer and entertainment market. Clement argues that because working class women were paid less than working class men their age, and most of their earnings contributed to their families’ incomes, these “treating” or “charity” girls formulated acknowledged understandings with young men that the men would take young women out to dance halls, the theater, dinner, or other newly-emerging activities; pay for the night’s amusements; and the young women would repay with a wide variety of sexual acts ranging from kissing to actual intercourse. What distinguished these women from prostitutes, in both their own minds and that of the public, was that charity girls did not accept cash. Thus, through this distinction, they maintained a sense of social respectability while still having economic access to an explosion of “cheap amusements” (borrowed from the title of Kathy Peiss’s book) that emerged in this period.

Clement demonstrates that the U.S. Military Department’s attempts to curtail prostitution in both World Wars, as well as the exploding, legal industry in sex entertainment, led to a significant decrease in prostitution and rise in treating. During the span of WWI alone, 30,000 prostitutes were arrested and sentenced for longer jail times (up to years) in order for them to be treated for STDs such as syphilis and gonorrhea, the main culprits in damaging the productivity of American troops. Treating became more popular as an expression of patriotism in which young women boosted the morale of young soldiers being sent off to both wars. This expansion of treating among the working class, particularly after WWI, became subsumed into the language of “dating,” a new term that described couples going out in public with someone who was only a potential candidate for marriage. Treating also transitioned into the world of dating, as more young men and women began engaging in sexual activity prior not only to marriage, but engagement as well; Clement claims, based on surveys from the time, that by the start of WWII, 50% of American women were having premarital sex. Clement writes that through their observations of treating culture in dance halls, middle class men began to adopt the practice, and the concept of dating expanded into middle class relationships as well. In this period, Clement further argues, sexual power dynamics shifted in favor of young men; though the terminology of treating had faded, the expectations for women to repay their dates with sexual favors was still perpetuated for newer generations of young people.

For me, the narrative described above was the most enlightening and relevant for understanding dating culture and sexual norms today. However, she makes so many other fascinating points about the transformation of prostitution, as well as interplay of race and ethnicity. She describes the rise of pimping coinciding with organized crime, and the revival of brothels in connection with WWI and prohibition. As independent prostitutes were being jailed more and more frequently after WWI, they felt the need to seek protection from the police and legal repercussions. Another fascinating aspect of Clement’s study is her analysis that children of immigrants and African Americans were were likely to engage in treating or prostitution simply because their economic opportunities were much more limited that those of poor whites in the city. Increasingly concerned with “American” norms for courting outside of the home, many immigrants were concerned with their children marrying across ethnic and religious lines.

While there is so much more I would like to say about this book, I will simply just have to recommend it as a fascinating read with so much significance for our lives today, particularly as Americans navigate the dating world of assumptions and confusion. Why are men expected to pay at least for the first date or few? Clement provides important historical context for that question.


Gendered Power Relations in the Antebellum and Postbellum South: A Response to Thavolia Glymph’s Out of the House of Bondage

My first post on the blog! I am excited to study and work alongside these exuberant scholars as we implore on the multifaceted experiences of American women.


Glymph, Thavolia. Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Traditional studies of the slave-holding and postbellum South often emphasize power relations amongst slaves vs. male slaveholders and men vs. women. It has only been in the last few decades that the emergence of scholarship on the power dynamics between white and black women have materialized in the historian’s purview. Thavolia Glymph in her book Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household explores the power relations between Southern mistresses and black women within the plantation household before, during, and after the Civil War. Ultimately, the effects of emancipation led to the transformation of the plantation household that saw black women establishing their own homes and mistresses wielding little control over their commandment of black women’s labor. These ever changing contours of the plantation household saw white women’s attempt to dissipate the effects of emancipation while concurrently black women’s day-to-day resistance leading to the plantation household’s demise. Through her narrative, it is clear to see that one of Glymph’s main purposes is to revise common misconceptions of the plantation household and both white and black women’s role within it. Such myths Glymph punctures include the notion that the plantation household was encapsulated in the private sphere (immune to the economic and political world around it), the gendered assumption that plantation mistresses yielded little to no power, and the disvalue of black women’s resistance and agency during this time period.

To construct her narrative, Glymph primarily utilizes a micro-history approach by outlining various individual stories of mistresses and black women in order to reveal the larger picture of Southern plantation power dynamics. This includes the diaries and letters of mistresses as well as, most notably, the recollection of slaves through the Worker’s Progress Administration’s Slave Narrative Collection. This project, enacted from 1936-1938, documented over 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and would thus be an invaluable resource for any scholar studying 19th century African American history. Furthermore, Glymph expands on existing southern women’s historical scholarship such as Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South (1988) through the conception of the plantation household as an analytical construct.

Most notable in Glymph’s book is her deep-seated analysis of the everyday actions of both mistresses and black women. In Glymph’s view, every action has a symbolic significance in revealing power dynamics as well as the differing views of freedom and womanhood amongst white and black women. This line of thinking clearly aligns with Michel Foucault’s view that there is power within everyday actions. For example, freed Jane McLeod Wilburn recollected her enthusiasm over buying her own cloth and quilts. While some scholars might glance over this seemingly ordinary action, Glymph argues that this action symbolized black women’s independent purchasing power and freedom over their own lives. Glymph states, “Even evidence that seems explicitly imitative deserves deeper study” (pg. 206). This led me to recollect what evidence have scholars – including myself – often overlook when we construct our narratives?

As stated above, Glymph re-conceptualizes many prevailing notions of the plantation household, southern womanhood, and the agency of black women that is often lost within Lost Cause and gendered ideologies. One common misconception is that Southern ladies were ‘fragile flowers’ detached from the plantation’s economic and political arena and ‘soft’ on slavery and violence due to their gender. Rather, Glymph asserts that mistresses yielded a great amount of power on the plantation and often inflicted psychological and physical violence on slave women. Thus, mistresses were a crucial component in constructing the plantation household under the labors of slave women. However, this created a paradox of sorts for these white women: they were called to be gentle and lady-like while simultaneously filling the role of domestic manager for slaves.

Just as mistresses were responsible for constructing the plantation household, black women were crucial in either supporting or resisting this southern domestic ideology white women were pressured to conform to. Thus, mistresses’ identity was dependent – whether acknowledged or not –  on the cooperation of slave women.Ultimately, black women’s noncooperation and the establishment of their own homes led to the destruction of the antebellum slave society that mistresses were so desperate to hold on to. This noncooperation took the form of free labor relations, including black women deciding for themselves the hours of work and what type of work they wanted to do. Black women often resorted to tasked work as this led to greater flexibility over their time and lives. Within these labor negotiations, Glymph argues that black women had the advantage as they knew exactly how long a task would take due to their own slave experiences.

However, while black women attempted to forge their own independence in an emancipated world, Glymph alludes to the notion of de jure vs. de facto segregation in her narrative. While black women now had the flexibility to move freely and establish their own households due to emancipation, what of the small “civic capacities and everyday norms of respect” (pg. 133)? This is a struggle both African American men and women would endure for decades to come. Nonetheless, the power relations amongst mistresses and black women not only transformed the plantation household but had larger implications that resulted in the transformation of southern womanhood, power relations across racial and gender lines, and ultimately laid bare the ever changing definitions of freedom and citizenship.

For more information on the WPA’s Slave Narrative Collection, click on the link here: https://www.loc.gov/collections/slave-narratives-from-the-federal-writers-project-1936-to-1938/about-this-collection/

Covertly to Overtly Political Women for the Lost Cause

Image result for caroline janney burying the dead

Caroline E. Janney, Burying the Dead but not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations & the Lost Cause (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

Caroline E. Janney’s study on women’s Memorial Associations in the nineteenth century is an eye-opening and intriguing perspective on the origins of the American South’s Lost Cause. Fundamentally, Janney argues that the Lost Cause was initially orchestrated and perpetuated by upper middle class and elite southern women’s volunteer associations in the wake of the Civil War. Janney explores the chronological transformation of Ladies Memorial Associations (LMAS) across the South in their struggle to honor their dead, safeguard the memory of the Confederacy, and maintain their own political autonomy. In Janney’s view, these women’s struggles to reinter Confederate bodies, as well as erect monuments, memorials, and museums to Confederate soldiers and culture, are representative of larger women’s movements across the country. While the LMAS were not as progressive as many of their northern contemporaries, they nonetheless were fighting to be respected as crucial citizens of southern society. While not commending them for their motivations and ideologies, Janney gives these southern women credit where credit is due: Elite, white supremacist women helped promote the Lost Cause of the Confederate south, a movement which has repercussions into today.

Janney argues that the origins of LMAS lie in women’s dedication to, and support of, the Confederate cause during the Civil War. Their organizational efforts and help of all sorts (sewing clothing and uniforms, boycotting northern goods, and aiding wounded soldiers as nurses) gave elite, white women a purpose that extended from the larger development of women’s volunteer associations across the country. After the war, LMAS developed as a means for women to continue to prove their importance in society. In Virginia alone, the main focus of Janney’s study, women of LMAS reinterred 28 percent of the Confederate dead who were reburied in Confederate cemeteries. Building networks across all southern states and appealing to state legislatures to raise funds and support, LMAS were initially concerned with bringing the bodies and remains of dead Confederates back down south for reburial in Confederate cemeteries, as well as honoring the dead. LMAS built for themselves a reputation for holding Memorial Day celebrations of massive turnouts to recognize the sacrifices of Confederate men who had died for the cause. Janney makes the crucial point that these celebrations were promoted during Radical Reconstruction as women’s work, as emotional celebrations and mourning for lost loved ones, rather than masculine acts of political defiance. Women took up the cry of the Confederate cause, and were supported by men, to help disguise the continuation of Confederate feeling circulating in the south.

The goals of LMAS shifted after the end of Reconstruction to include the commemoration of the Confederacy at large as white women faced opposition from male and veterans’ associations who were aiming to take over the space that LMAS had carved for themselves in southern society. No longer under threat of federal military occupation, more men were willing to take up the Lost Cause and commemorative responsibilities. LMAS women remained determined not to fall to the wayside and promoted themselves as the original and crucial protectors of Confederate memory, angered over “Northern aggression” and their new problem of freedmen in the south. Women ran into struggles with men, and ex-general Jubal Early in particular, over where certain generals should be buried and where monuments in their honor should be erected. Janney relates that gender differences factored strongly in these arguments as women were struggling for political clout in a world where their men were reunifying with northern veterans over shared experiences of war, and the women feared losing their influence. Of particular significance to these women was ensuring that the Lost Cause was to be remembered by future generations. For this purpose, the Hollywood Memorial Association of Virginia saved the Confederate White House from being demolished, repaired it, and transformed it into the Confederate Museum at the end of the nineteenth century. This museum, as well control over school curriculum and the founding of youth associations, gave LMAS a hold over the continuing memory of the Confederacy.

Janney explains that LMAS women maintained significance into the twentieth century, though waned in mid twentieth century due to the influence and national, hierarchical structure of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) founded in 1894. Eventually, many local LMAS groups gathered together to form the Confederated Southern Memorial Association. While the two organizations worked together on many projects, LMAS simply could not keep membership up compared to the UDC who continued to promote Memorial Day celebrations, youth programs, and ideologies of white supremacy and the Lost Cause.

Janney’s epilogue serves to remind readers that the work of the LMAS lives on today, both in living memory of the American South, and in its physical structures. The Confederate Museum is currently in operation as part of the American Civil War Museum. Now called the Museum and White House of the Confederacy, the museum’s original goals of memorializing the Old South and ideals of the Confederacy have transformed to become more educational and inclusive of all southern people’s experiences during the war. Janney mentions that there has even been talk about dropping the word “Confederacy” from the museum’s name due to the racist connotations of the term.

Overall, this book is important and thoroughly enlightening. Janney’s purpose is not to bash or celebrate the Lost Cause, but rather explain that its origins are far more specific than many historians have previously discussed. Furthermore, while women are the central characters of Janney’s book, they are certainly not its heroes. Women of the LMAS were racist, privileged, and have helped perpetuate the idea the Civil War was not fought over the issue of slavery. Despite this, Janney explains that these women were important because they stretched the political boundaries in their confined spheres of influence. While they did not help earn the vote for women, they helped expand the public roles of women in the south dramatically.