In Contemporary Society: After Roe to the Current ‘Feminist’ Movement

Zeigler, Mary. After Roe: The Lost History of the Abortion Debate. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Zeisler, Andi. We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. New York: Perseus Books, 2016.

The last two books of the semester, After Roe and We Were Feminists Once, offer a glimpse into the more recent struggles and activities of feminist issues. While After Roe examines the pro-life and pro-choice movements responses after the Roe v. Wade (1973) decision, We Were Feminists Once analyzes the downfalls of the contemporary feminist movement.

In her book After Roe, historian Mary Zeigler offers a comparative study of the pro-choice and pro-life movements’ responses to Roe. Zeigler argues that the decade after Roe experienced fluidity between both movements rather than political polarization (pg. xii). This included a small group of women on both sides of the abortion wars that believed a coalition would prove to be a stronger front in representing women’s diverse interests. For example, both pro and anti-abortion activists joined to advocate for fetal research and anti-discrimination laws relating to pregnancy. Traditional scholarship depicts the Supreme Court decision as the ultimate influence in partisan politics (pg. 22). However, according to Zeigler, each movement’s responses to the decision (not the decision itself) eventually created a more concrete divide between women. Furthermore, traditional narratives portray both sides of the debate as respective homogeneous groups. However, Zeigler’s monograph shows that there were internal factions within each movement. For example, the coalition of “environmentalists, civil rights advocates, and population control groups” in the pro-choice movement began to splinter in the decade leading up to Roe. Feminists began to distance themselves from the population control movement after allegations of racism and forced sterilization emerged (pg. 5). Such an example exemplifies how Zeigler applies social movement theory to her analysis of the abortion wars after Roe.

One aspect Zeigler analyzes is the judicial activism of the pro-life movement following the Roe decision. While a presentist mindset would assume that anti-abortion activists would favor little court interference in the anti-abortion movement, in actuality many anti-abortion lawyers and grassroots activists “opposed efforts to strip the Court of its authority” (pg. 28). The 1970s saw activists supporting court involvement for a fetal-protective amendment. The ‘judicial overreaching’ argument that we associate with the pro-life movement today did not originate until the 1980s (pg. 38). Additionally, one tactic utilized by anti-abortion activists was the incrementalist strategy. This strategy called for compromise abortion regulatory policies rather than attempting to completely eradicate Roe v. Wade. For example, these activists pushed for laws requiring parental consent to abortion.

Another aspect Zeigler examines is how the ‘woman’s choice argument’ became synonymous with the pro-abortion movement. By the late 1970s, feminists initiated a campaign to portray a woman’s choice to abortion as one that exemplified her independence (pg. 129). Furthermore, in order to consolidate their movement, feminists chose a single issue agenda (abortion) for women to focus their supports. This was also in reaction to feminists’ efforts to distance themselves from the controversies surrounding the population control movement. Pro-abortion feminists portrayal of their movement as one that favors woman’s autonomy and their coalesced focus to a single issue as a symbol for the overarching feminist movement proved to define future efforts post-1970s.

Feminist and co-founder of the organization Bitch Media, Andi Zeisler’s book We Were Feminists Once analyzes how the current feminist movement serves the interests of popular culture and has distanced itself from the true goals of feminism. Zeisler states that this “feel-good feminism” is run by consumer politics that portrays feminism to be a “cool, fun, accessible identity that anyone can adopt” (pg. xiii). This filtered version of feminism inadvertently disassociates itself with deeply-embedded structures of social, political, and economic inequalities women still face today but rather focuses on female unity (pg. xv).

Of particular interest was Zeisler’s analysis of the perceptions of women in television. As seen in the examples below, there was a duality in the relationship between television and popular culture. Both entities greatly influenced and responded to each other. During the ‘second-wave’ feminist movement in the 1970s, television shows included the multi-faceted aspects of the reality of women’s experiences such as divorce and single parenthood. However, the 1980s witnessed a decline in female characters due to assumptions that the radicalism of the feminist movement in the 1970s was a “done deal” (pg. 86). Moreover, the emergence of reality television into mainstream media simplified women’s interests and capabilities to that of beauty and sexual objects (i.e.: The Bachelor).

In contemporary feminist discourse, the word ‘empowerment’ is omnipresent in popular culture. However, Zeisler believes this term embodies the notion that “anything can be a feminist choice if a feminist makes the choice” (pg. 171). The use of ‘empowerment’ evidently turned into a marketing strategy. This consumer empowerment strategy was and is seen in a variety of popular culture modalities, from the Spice Girls “Girl Power marketing” to Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ campaign (pg. 179).  Rather, Zeisler believes that so-called “feminists” must grapple with the ‘tough’ questions and issues women still face today.


The Search for Women’s Equity: Alice Kessler-Harris’s “In Pursuit of Equity” and Kathryn Kish Sklar’s “Florence Kelley and the Nation’s Work”

Harris, Alice Kessler. In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in 20th-Century America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Sklar, Kathryn Kish. Florence Kelley and the Nation’s Work: The Rise of Women’s Political Culture, 1830-1900. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

The search for women’s equity has been a long struggle throughout the course of history. Both In Pursuit of Equity and Florence Kelley and the Nation’s Work highlight this process.

Kessler-Harris’s book examines, as the title suggests, women’s pursuit for economic citizenship in the twentieth-century. Focusing on the 1930s-1970s, Kessler-Harris explores “ideas of fairness” in particular economic policies and how assumptions of gender were an integral component in shaping such policies (pg. 5). As with Bederman’s view of gender in Manliness and Civilization, Kessler-Harris’s views gender as a “continual and changing process rather than a static entity” (pg. 6). However, what constituted fairness and who determined what defined fairness inevitably excluded portions of the population. Gender was a perpetuating force behind this exclusionary process. For example, single, widowed, and divorced women were excluded. Moreover, these policies excluded those who could not find jobs. These were more often than not African American and poor families (pg. 5).

The first set of policies Kessler-Harris examines are those of the New Deal in the 1930s, specifically the thirty-hour workweek, unemployment insurance, and the 1935 Social Security Act. These policies were embedded with a “widely shared set of assumptions about gender” (pg. 66). For example, unemployment insurance tended to exclude married females under the assumption that they received financial support from their husbands. This viewed females as members of a family rather than individuals. The debate over if married women constituted legitimate members of the workforce was a bone of contention that would endure up until the mid-twentieth century. Although the federal government’s power increased during this time period and thus altered the relationship between the state and its citizenry, policymakers left this debate to “administrative discretion” (pg. 99). Moreover, the preservation of beneficiaries’ dignity was a motive behind the gendered shaping of such policies. The design of the 1935 Social Security Act (known then as Old Age Insurance) to favor males attempted to support males’ self-sufficiency and independence as their wives had to rely on their husband’s support (pg. 120). However, this design also excluded those who worked intermittently, most notably three-fifths of African American workers (pg. 131).

Tax exemptions, too, were discriminatory towards women’s quest for full economic citizenship. However, by the 1970s, there were challenges to such gendered-assumptions in policies. This included the Supreme Court case Kahn v. Shevin (1974). This case arose from a Florida law that gave widows, the blind, and the disables a $500 dollar tax exemption (pg. 170). Future Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Melvin Wulf argued that this law implicitly nested views of women’s inferiority. Similarly argued later in Serena Mayeri’s book Reasoning from Race: Feminism, Law, and the Civil Rights Revolution (2014), Kessler-Harris asserts that women viewed “civil rights movement became a model, and the equal opportunity slogan a political strategy” (pg. 241). Women insisted that sex be considered a special protective category just as race was.

Kathryn Kish Sklar’s book Florence Kelley and the Nation’s Work offers a biographical approach to women’s quest for equity. Sklar uses Florence Kelley’s life as a method to view women’s entry into political culture. Florence Kelley’s scope follows Kelley’s childhood up until her departure at Chicago’s Hull House and the beginning of her career as national-secretary of the National Consumers’ League. Two such figures that greatly shaped Kelley’s childhood were her father, Representative William Darrah Kelley, and her great-aunt, Sarah Pugh (pg. 4). In particular, Kelley’s great aunt symbolized the expansion of women’s activities from 1830-1860 that thus laid the foundation for future female activism. According to Sklar, women’s political culture during Pugh’s period constituted primary involvement in women’s organizations, “…its reliance on the leadership of single women, its essentialist views of women as a homogeneous group, [and] its use of religious justification…” (pg. 16). Furthermore, women’s involvement typically included fundraising efforts as seen through Pugh’s involvement in the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society (pg. 22). Pugh’s activism showed Kelley that women’s voluntary involvement was not limited to notions of republican motherhood within the home but rather could be used as a collective vehicle into public life.

While Kelley did not know it at the time, her personal and educational experiences at Cornell would later influence her activism. Known as the “first generation of college women”, Sklar outlines how two changes led to the emergence of some white, middle-class women into colleges: (1) the establishment of women’s colleges between 1865-1875 and (2) the requirement of state colleges to be “open for all” (pg. 50). Around this time, the emergence of social science offered Kelley objective “tools for analysis that enhanced women’s ability to investigate economic and social change” (pg. 69). This philosophy would later define Kelley’s later public career, most notably as Illinois’s chief factory inspector where she investigated working and living conditions.

Apart from her educational opportunities and the emergence of social science, Kelley’s engagement with socialism proved to be one of the most critical factors in her pursuit for equity. Kelley’s marriage to Russian Lazare Wischnewetzky gave her “cultural access” to European socialism. This included her translation into English of Frederick Engel’s The condition of the working class in England, from personal observation and authentic sources. According to Sklar, this experience gave her an understanding of how to combine class and gender issues (pg. 100). Such experiences ultimately led Kelley to believe that it was the state’s role in working women and children’s welfare (pg. 140). This philosophy influenced Kelley to navigate national issues of public policy in her work. This included her efforts for the Philadelphia Working Women’s Society (later the Women’s Trade Union League) and Chicago’s Hull House after the deterioration of her marriage. Specifically, Kelley shifted the emphasis from the Hull House’s “neighborly aid and towards larger issues in public policy” (pg. 194). This included her activism in anti-sweating legislation and her subsequent involvement in the National Consumers’ League. As exemplified in Kelley’s life, women’s entering wedge into political culture was perpetuated by their goal for equity.

Current Research in Disability and Surveillance Studies: A Reflection on Talks by Susan Schweik and Michael Willrich


The past few weeks I have had the pleasure of attending a few talks hosted by the University. While both were not explicitly about gender, they showcased the emerging scholarship in the last few decades of two academic sectors, disability and surveillance studies. Both talks offered interdisciplinary insights and reflections on various methodologies of research. Firstly, as my colleagues Sarah and Michelle mentioned, Susan Schweik explored in her talk, “Here The Diaries End: Intellectual Disability and the Ends of Life Writing”, the evolution of disability autobiographies and the ways in which the voices of persons with disabilities are often misconstrued or silenced in their own writing. Schweik’s talk led to an increased awareness of how and if we, as scholars, are accurately giving justice to the voices we write about. Secondly, Michael Willrich’s talk entitled “‘Writ of Hocus Pocus’: Anarchists, Lawyers, and the U.S. Surveillance State in the World War I Era” examined the relations of the surveillance state to anarchists in the early twentieth century. Willrich’s talk showcased the dynamic process of the surveillance state: its malleability influenced by growing fears of communism and immigration.

“While we know people can be incarcerated in their own home, one can also be incarcerated in their own autobiography”, Susan Schweik acknowledged. This quote exemplifies the respectability politics that often influenced disability writings. While texts published by persons with Down syndrome detailing their experiences surged in the 1990s, Schweik noted how its genesis began in the 1960s. The most notable example is Nigel Hunt’s The World of Nigel Hunt: The Diary of a Mongoloid Youth (1967). However, even the term “mongoloid boy”, as Schweik stated, is racially charged. Roland Johnson’s autobiography, Lost In A Desert World: An Autobiography (1999) describes institutionalization, his escape from it, and eventual emergence in disability activist culture. As an audience, we analyzed the potential implicit and explicit messages of the book covers of these autobiographies. One person in the audience spoke of “respectability politics” due to the suit Roland Johnson wore on the book’s cover, as seen in the image below.


Another text Schewik highlighted was Bus Girl, a series of poems by Gretchen Josephson highlighting her experiences with Down syndrome. While one audience member noted that busing tables and the word ‘bus’ in the title could be symbols of her mobility in an “ordinary” world, Schewik also emphasized the review found on the back cover of the book from Emily Perl Kingsley, writer of Sesame Street. Kingsley stated, “These verses establish Ms. Josephson, not as a poet with Down syndrome, but as a poet!”. This review – whether intentional or not – subtly suggests that if Josephson wrote in a manner that revealed her Down syndrome, the series of poems would not be as respectable.

In another graduate history course I was enrolled in this past semester, I read an article by Dawn Spring entitled “Gaming History: Computer and Video Games as Historical Scholarship” which examines the possibilities of the intersection between video games and historical scholarship as a means to present historic authenticity to gamers. For this to be a possibility, Spring states, “The historian in their continual attempt to transcend bias in the historical process must allow the evidence to speak for itself. In other words, the questions that initiate the research cannot be allowed to distort what the evidence says.” If one of the historian’s responsibilities is objectivity (cue Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream), it is a scholar’s responsibility to be acutely aware of how we give voice to the historical subjects we write about.

The second talk I attended was Michael Willrich’s “‘Writ of Hocus Pocus: Anarchists, Lawyers, and the U.S. Surveillance State in the World War I Era”.  Willrich began his talk by describing the current state of surveillance studies; that scholars have only recently viewed the surveillance state historically. According to Willrich, surveillance “blurs the line between public and private information” and deserves to be studied extensively in its own rightful entity. While popular memory acknowledges the surveillance state as an extension of governmental power, there were instances of surveillance privatization as well. During the Progressive Era, companies hired private detectives to eradicate any union activism on the ‘shop floor’.


One of the most well-known female anarchists of the twentieth century, Emma Goldman (1869-1940).

While labor activists were a prime target, Willrich described the ways in which the surveillance state targeted anarchists as well. For example, he included how Ellis Island had a specific detention center for anarchists. One of the most notable residents was Emma Goldman, who was eventually deported to the USSR. Goldman established the League for the Amnesty of Political Prisoners. This discrimination against anarchists tended to be racially-charged; a reaction to anarchist hysteria perpetuated by the media. This hysteria simultaneously encompassed the nationalistic sentiments of the time. Political cartoons of “alien anarchists”, who tended to be Jewish or Italian, infiltrated newspapers. These depictions typically included them as new immigrants who practiced extreme violence. As seen in the political cartoon below, a man identified as a ‘European anarchist’ is holding a bomb close to the Statue of Liberty symbolizing anarchists danger to liberty. Moreover, the assassination of President William Mckinley in 1901 by anarchist Leon Czolgosz only intensified this hysteria. Willrich argued that these growing fears led to the justification for an increased surveillance state. While the surveillance state did have a powerful hand in their attempt to suppress anarchism, Willrich also established the agency of anarchists in the courtroom. The emergence of civil liberty lawyers in the American judicial system was due to these anarchists taking the government to court. This included attorneys Clarence Darrow and Edgar Lee Masters in anarchist case Turner v. Williams (1904).


The Power of Social Scientific Research in Shaping Gendered Understandings


Bederman, Gail. Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Cahn, Susan K. Sexual Reckonings: Southern Girls in a Troubling Age. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012.

The power of social scientific research (whether faulty or pseudo-scientific) in shaping public perception and policy is one facet of my research interests. Two such books this semester that highlighted this power dynamic were Gail Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization and Susan K. Cahn’s Sexual Reckonings. While Bederman’s book reveals social scientific research through the life of G. Stanley Hall in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Cahn’s book illuminates the destructive power of the eugenics movement on Southern adolescent females in the mid-twentieth century.

Gail Bederman’s groundbreaking book, Manliness and Civilization, traces the connectivity of race and gender between 1890-1917, specifically analyzing the evolution of a “racially based ideology of male power” (pg. 5). While traditional narratives view gender as a set “collection of traits, attributes, or sex roles”, Bederman asserts that gender is a “continual, dynamic process” (pg. 6-7). This process in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century witnessed how American idealization of manliness shifted from one of self-constraint and moral character to one of infatuation with an overt, assertive manhood. Bederman uses the lives of President Theodore Roosevelt, psychologist G. Stanley Hall, feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and journalist/activist Ida B. Wells to illuminate how racial and gender perceptions changed American culture.

One of the motivating factors behind psychologist G. Stanley Hall’s research was his fear that an over-civilized society posed a threat to manhood. Since Victorian notions of self-restraint began to lose its power among the middle class, social scientific research reflected this changing attitude. At first, instead of rejecting these notions entirely, scientists attempted to explain “cultural weaknesses of manly restraint…as a bodily weakness” in order for white men to maintain a degree of dignity (pg. 84). This was known as neurasthenia, a disorder that “resulted when a highly evolved person seriously overtaxed his body’s finite supply of nervous force” discovered by George M. Beard (pg. 85). In the cultural purview, this civilized notion of self-restraint was destroying manliness. In order to solve this problem, psychologists such as G. Stanley Hall began to write extensively about recapitulation theory. This theory stated that “acquired traits could be inherited…that children actually, physically relived the adult development of their primitive ancestors” (pg. 92-93). Hall believed this theory solved the problem of a ‘manliness crisis’ as (1) boys could have a “healthfully savage” childhood and (2) adolescent males could further develop the white race by “taking advantage of the racial variations of their primitive ancestors” (pg. 119). As seen, social scientific research such as neurasthenia and recapitulation theory not only greatly influenced cultural perceptions of race and gender but were often scientific responses that reflected changing cultural attitudes as well.

19551-004-BC668069                                                                   G. Stanley Hall

Susan K. Cahn’s Sexual Reckonings analyzes how from 1920-1960, the perceived cultural perceptions of adolescent girls’ sexual assertiveness and delinquency posed a threat to the Southern social order. Cahn argues that adolescent girls’ sexual subjectivity was a factor in remaking Southern society and “provided a terrain on which American’s publicly negotiated and profoundly altered relations of race, class, and region” (pg. 15). By focusing on regulatory policies relating to ‘unruly’ women, Cahn reveals how such policies were embedded with certain gendered assumptions and resulted in ‘adolescence’ as a new cultural category.

One aspect of Cahn’s book that illuminates the power of science in shaping gendered understandings and subsequent policies was the eugenics movement of the early to mid-twentieth century. Cultural and scientific perceptions of unrestrained sexuality stated this delinquency was due to mental and moral weaknesses. This thus justified state intervention through regulated institutionalization. However, some policymakers influenced by the eugenics movement saw surgical sterilization of “morally defective” or “socially inadequate” young women to be a “cost-effective measure” (pg. 157). Racial, class, and gendered dimensions were underlying and determinant forces in these practices. While, historically, forced sterilization was ultimately higher among African American females, the inception of such policies first targeted single, white, female laborers with a low IQ score. These groups posed a threat to traditional, Southern female respectability. Overtime, however, this gap widened to include “immigrants, the poor, racial minorities, and people with mental disabilities” (pg. 162). Policymakers, influenced by growing fears of the supposed deterioration of southern society, used current scientific practices in establishing gendered, class, and racially-charged policies that targeted adolescent females.

Both Manliness and Civilization and Sexual Reckonings reveal the implications of science in shaping public opinion and policies. As shown in neurasthenia, recapitulation theory, and eugenics practices, these policies were used as justification for detrimental actions under the guise and ‘objectivity’ of science. Such policies, while not exclusive, showcase that a motivating factor behind such research were current cultural and societal fears. In historically revealing such modalities of thought allows us to reflect on what policies in today’s society are often perpetuated by such anxieties.

Questions of Identity and Reinterpreting Women in Postwar America

51+35d1vLyL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_ 51Fg7PJ7PbL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Meyerowitz, Joanne, ed. Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.

Wolcott, Victoria W. Remaking Respectability: African American Women in Interwar Detroit. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

The series of essays edited by Joanne Meyerowitz in Not June Cleaver seek to centralize the “other” women in postwar America (1945-1960), namely labor women activists, women of color, lesbians, and ‘beat’/non-conformist women.  Traditional portrayals often mold postwar women into one construct: white, middle-class, conservative, and suburban. While popular culture (advertisements) and politicians (Nixon’s Kitchen Debates) were powerful forces in perpetuating this construct, scholars too have preserved such an image. Last semester, in another graduate seminar, I read Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (1988) by Elaine Tyler May. While May masterfully correlates female domesticity to the larger Cold War culture, she inadvertently depicts all women in this era to encompass a domestic nature. While I did enjoy May’s book, Not June Cleaver was a refreshing supplement in incorporating women from a variety of racial and class backgrounds. Similarly, Betty Friedan, whose book The Feminine Mystique (1963) was influential in the “second wave” feminist movement, reinforced “the popular ideology that she said had suppressed them [women] (pg. 3). Meyerowitz states that while historians tend to critique the homogeneous nature of women’s experience, they “virtually all accept her [Friedan’s] vision of the dominant ideology, the conservative promotion of domesticity” (pg. 230). While Not June Cleaver allows scholars to outwardly reevaluate prevailing notions of postwar womanhood and the power that lies in our interpretation of these women, Victoria W. Wolcott’s Remaking Respectability traces inwardly the evolution of how African American women constructed their own identity in the early 20th century.

The first perspective highlighted in Not June Cleaver is that of labor women. Traditional narratives depict many postwar women returning to the home, with working women on the margins of historical analysis. However, as historian Dorothy Sue Cobble highlights in her essay “Union Women in the Postwar Era”, “the labor upheavals of the 1930s and the continued feminization of the workplaces in the 1940s and 1950s led to the emergence of union women activists” (pg. 58). Not only were some women still working, they were also politically active in unions, most notably the 1947 nationwide telephone strike, which saw 230,000 women strike in the largest walkout of women in U.S. history. These women unionists argued for ‘equal pay for equal work’, which originated in labor women’s discourse in the 1940s. These lobbying efforts led to the passage of equal-pay legislation. Another example is the dichotomic relationship between home and work responsibilities. While popular memory assumes that some women would ultimately chose family over work, policies proposed by labor women sought to accommodate and recognize “women’s dual commitments” (pg. 73). Such examples reveal that many contemporary labor issues faced by women today have historical roots.


Picture of the 1947 Nationwide Telephone Strike

Another perspective illuminated is that of ‘women of color’, specifically the perspectives of Chinese, Hispanic, and African American women. Historian Xiaolan Bao’s essay, “When Women Arrived: The Transformation of New York’s Chinatown” examines the ways in which Chinese women initiated “profound changes in family pattern, economic structure, and culture” of New York’s Chinatown (pg. 20). Prior to the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943, Chinatown was a “small, service-oriented bachelor society” with a sex-ratio imbalance of 6:1 in 1940 (pg. 19). However, the postwar era saw an influx of Chinese immigrant women into the United States, which saw the sex-ratio imbalance drop to 3:1 in 1950 (pg. 24). These women were responsible for changing the day-to-day contours of Chinatown, including the reintroduction of traditional Chinese values and the growth of Chinatown’s garment industry. Moreover, Mexican American women too played an integral role in shaping postwar America. Historian Margaret Rose in her essay “Gender and Civic Activism in Mexican American Barrios in California: The Community Service Organization, 1947-1962” highlights Mexican American women’s activism in the 1950 zinc strike in Bayard, New Mexico. These women demanded “better housing, hot water, and indoor plumbing” on top of better wages for their husbands’ work. (pg. 178). Lastly, as indicated in historian Susan Lynn’s essay, “Gender and Progressive Politics: A Bridge to Social Activism of the 1960s”, African American women activists played a crucial role in linking “the prewar progressive work of women reformers with women’s activism in the civil rights, antiwar, and feminist movements of the 1960s” (pg. 105). Through organizations such as the Young Women’s Christian Association, these women shifted activists’ emphasis from economic to racial issues. This indicates the long history of mid-20th century activism: that it did not suddenly emerge in the 1960s but had its roots in the 1940s and 1950s.

The last perspective of postwar women included is that of “sexual outlaws and cultural rebels”, the women identified as ‘outcasts’ by society. Donna Penn’s essay, “The Sexualized Women: The Lesbian, the Prostitute, and the Containment of Female Sexuality”, analyzes the cultural perceptions of lesbianism, specifically how cultural taboos long ingrained in society portrayed prostitutes as symbols of sexual danger and deviancy that translated over to lesbians during this era. (pg. 359). Penn’s essay reveals the broader notions of how deviants are often “the ‘other’ against which the norm is measured and determined” (pg. 360). Wini Brein in her essay, “The ‘Other’ Fifties: Beats and Bad Girls”, revisits the beat culture of the 1950s and rejects public memory that “beats” were exclusive to the male sex. Rather, she highlights how some white, middle-class girls participated in non-conformity and were instrumental in laying the groundwork for future activism in the 1960s.

These essays in Not June Cleaver force a reassessment of how we as scholars portray our historical subjects as well as reveals notions of identity construction. Similarly, Victoria W. Wolcott’s Remaking Respectability showcases identity construction, specifically concerning respectability politics. The early 20th century saw an influx of African Americans from the South to Northern cities. Traditional scholarship highlights African American men in this process with African American women often excluded from the narrative. According to Wolcott, the incorporation of these women’s perspectives, specifically that of reformers, preachers, prostitutes, and domestic servants, reveals the variation of individual experiences and the complexities of a “cohesive community identity.” African American women were instrumental in transforming their identity from one of “bourgeois respectability in the 1910s and 1920s to a more masculine ideology of self-determination during the Great Depression” (pg. 4). Within this transformation, however, middle class African Americans, who wished to centralize their identity in ‘respectability’, disassociated themselves from these ‘other’ African Americans (i.e.: prostitutes). Mae Ngai in The Lucky Ones similarly studied this disassociation process where Chinese-Americans distanced themselves from Chinese immigrants.

But what encompassed respectability politics and who was to deem what appropriate behavior constituted? These were the exact questions African American women grappled with in this transformation process from female respectability to a more masculine ideology/self-determination. These women’s perceptions of respectability were influenced in the Anglo-American tradition. Wolcott outlines these phases of respectability in American society: (1) 18th/19th century – praise for hard work and piety to distinguish between the “rough” and “respectable” working classes and (2) 19th century – status increasingly determined through tangible symbols such as dress and organizational affiliation. African American women conjoined this respectability politics with their own racial uplift ideology to argue that some African Americans can acquire respectability (pg. 6). For example, African American women were strong proponents for the professionalization of domestic service in order to de-stigmatize certain African American workers. However, African American women reformers were quick to criticize any practice deemed disrespectable. This included backlash of traditional forms of African American worship such as ‘excessive’ emotionalism in church services.

Respectability as a reform strategy began to lose its grip, however, in the 1930s due to its lack of success and the changing relationship between the state and the worker. African American labor activists began to demand improved rights rather than “putting a respectable face towards the white community” (pg. 209). Wolcott includes how organizations such as the Nation of Islam, whose ideology called for a separatist rather than an integrationist African American society, were established during this era. This evolution in tactic reminded me of a similar transformation in the Civil Rights Movement: leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. in the early 1960s saw integration as the primary goal for racial equality while the 1960s saw an increased emphasis of a separatist platform (i.e.: Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam). Since social movements are one of my key research interests, I wonder what other social movements throughout history witnessed this evolution in tactic from integration to separatism? Something to definitely research!

Family, Race, Class, and Assimilation in Chinese America

See the source image

Mae Ngai, The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Mae Ngai’s history of the Tape family is a microhistory, focusing on a singular family in order to explore wider transformations in American life during the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. While not grounded in argument per se, Ngai’s exploration of several decades of this family nonetheless takes readers through several significant chapters in U.S. history such as the industrialization of California, the Supreme Court case Tape v. Hurley, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904 in St. Louis, the destruction of San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1906 by earthquake, and the experience of Chinese immigrants in the wake of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. The Tape family was impacted by and navigated these events in ways that illustrate the significance of race and class in American life at the turn of the 20th century.

From the very first, the Tapes were unique Chinese Americans in that Joseph (originally Jeu) and Mary had come to the United States as individuals instead of with a family. Chinese families that immigrated to the U.S. were much more likely to settle in ethnic towns (hence San Francisco’s China Town) than immigrants who came alone. Ngai writes that their paths of assimilation into American ways of life were facilitated by the fact that they largely had to forge their own paths from adolescence upon arrival to the U.S. In his early years in the states, Joseph performed domestic work and drove a milk cart, which allowed him to learn English and interact with many more American people than other young boys his age. Mary was raised in a young girls’ home largely made up of white children, which was where she learned English and became accustomed to American ways of life.

Ngai performs a great deal of speculation in attempting to figure out how Mary came to be placed in such a home. A variety of hypothetical scenarios explore where she came from in China, what ship she disembarked from, her potential for being solicited by brothel-keepers, and her final “rescue” into an orphanage created by the Ladies’ Relief and Protection Society. This is not the only place Ngai speculates throughout the book. In attempting to place the Tape family within the larger context of Chinese America, Ngai becomes distracted from sources specifically pertaining to the Tape family. While the goal itself is admirable and indeed interesting, this piecing together of various aspects of the Chinese immigrant experience often seems forced. Because there is so much available information on the Tape family, the hypothetical seems unnecessary and distracts from the most interesting aspects of the Tapes’ lives.

Throughout the book, Ngai comes back to the idea that “the Tape family was exceptional, yet it was also archetypal of the first Chinese middle class” (223). Their exceptionality is explained within the context that this Chinese middle class, the first one according to Ngai, was very limited in the number of families who achieved it. Perhaps the most interesting exploration of the book is the means by which the Tape family was able to become middle class. Joseph, the patriarch of the family, and his son Frank, balanced their assimilated American identity with their Chinese heritage in order to make a profit. For Joseph, this meant acting as a teamster and broker for Chinese immigrants come to shore in California. For Frank, this meant working with the federal government in exposing Chinese immigrants who had smuggled themselves into the U.S. While Joseph was perhaps more successful in this venture, Frank’s crazy life (Frank is indeed a fascinating character to follow) is very much informed, according to Ngai, by the pressures placed on Frank to be as successful, as American, as his father. This is what connects this book to the study of gender in American society; at its center is the family and the various roles and expectations of different members of the Tape family. Frank’s success was dependent upon making a respectable, middle class living like his father, while the success of his sisters (Mamie, Gertrude, and Emily) was dependent upon them marrying a respectable, middle class man. As Ngai points out, these expectations rarely played out as Joseph and Mary had intended.

What Ngai essentially presents to the public is the story of one family’s journey navigating American life at the turn of the 20th century. Like other families, the Tapes experienced successes, failures, marriage, divorce, vacations, disappointment, and a variety of experiences general to the American middle class. However, the Tapes also combated racial discrimination and stereotypes in a way that most other middle class Americans did not. While a couple of Joseph and Mary’s children became involved in Chinese culture in California, Joseph and Mary themselves were not. They made deliberate decisions not to live in Chinatown and wanted their children to go to an American public school and faced challenges because of these decisions.

As a work of factual history, this book is somewhat ineffective. As a work of story-telling, however, it is compelling while also illuminating some crucial moments in America’s past.

See the source image

The Tape family, 1884 (from left to right: Joseph, Emily, Mamie, Frank, and Mary).


Divided We Stand: How Feminist Issues Aided in Polarizing Politics


Spruill, Marjorie J. Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women’s Rights and Family Values that Polarized American Politics. New York: Bloomsbury, 2017.

Marjorie J. Spruill’s Divided We Stand chronicles how feminist issues relating to the ERA and reproductive rights were a key factor in leading to political polarization that we now see in a contemporary political context between the Democratic and Republican Parties. Spruill focuses on 1970s politics and evenly discusses both the feminist and conservative women’s movement. While Divided We Stand chronicles the evolution of how presidential administrations and political parties solidified their stance on feminist issues, Spruill also equally asserts that the 1977 National Conference and Pro-Life, Pro-Family Rally should be central to the study of women’s history.

As a scholar of the late 19th & early 20th century, there were a few misconceptions I had on the relation of politics to feminist issues that Spruill disproved in her narrative. Most notable is the myth that the Republican Party always supported the stances of conservative women. However, the early 1970s saw both Democratic and Republican Parties supporting – monetarily and through public declaration – the modern women’s movement (pg.2). Spruill illuminates an often misplaced notion that the Republican Party has had a long history with the pro-life movement. Rather, in the formative stages of the feminist movement in the 1970s, the Republican Party supported the ERA and pro-choice platforms. Some examples she includes of Republican involvement in the women’s movement include:

  • The presidency of Gerald Ford – Spruill highlights how traditional historical scholarship often does not portray Gerald Ford as an ardent supporter for feminism, but rather did so reluctantly  as a means to “support his wife” (pg. 42). However, from the early stages of his presidency, Ford met with women members of Congress and representatives of major women organizations. Spruill described his presidency as a “peak period of feminist influence” whereas feminists had support from the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government (pg. 47).
  • The International Women’s Year (IWY) Commission – Republican president Gerald Ford signed an executive order that commissioned women (which included moderate Republican feminists) about the current status of women and what appropriate steps the government should take to resolve any gendered barriers. These women eventually presented President Ford with “To Form A More Perfect Union…Justice For American Women”, a 382 page report which included 115 recommendations for the future status of women (pg. 59). The federal government funded the commission, which greatly angered conservative feminists such as Phyllis Schlafly who saw the federal government’s support as exclusionary to other (conservative) women’s ideologies.

Another misconception that Spruill disproves is the notion that republicans took an anti-abortion stance on ideological and religious grounds. While religion was at the core of the anti-ERA and  pro-life movement, the perpetuating force behind republicans siding with conservative family stances was political. Regarding abortion, early opposition to its legalization came primarily from the Democratic Party, whose religious constituency included Catholics. However, Spruill argues that Republicans saw the issue of abortion as an “opportunity to bring Catholics into the GOP fold” (pg. 64). This shows that the Republican platform attached itself to anti-abortion rhetoric in order to expand their voter base.

Furthermore, Spruill centralizes the 1977 National Women’s Conference as a defining moment that catalyzed both the women’s rights and conservative women’s movement. Argued as the “crest” of the second wave feminist movement, the Conference was a huge spectacle, with prominent women across various fields in attendance, including former first ladies, Billie Jean King (who four years earlier won the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match), Maya Angelou, and Coretta Scott King. The goal of the conference called for unity of American women behind an agenda that reflected diverse interests. This agenda, the ‘National Plan for Action’, included various planks that called for the elimination of gendered barriers in education and employment as well as increased access to child care facilities and pregnancy disability benefits. To make the movement more broad and inclusionary, a minority caucus was formed, where the term “women of color” originated which we now hear in current socio-political discourse. The contemporary components we associate today with the feminist movement – the rights of minorities, lesbians, and reproduction – grew and were solidified at the Conference.

While the National Women’s Conference  brought a degree of unity among feminists, built grassroots support, and led to an increased awareness of the status of women,  its overarching goal to formulate a common agenda for the future of all women became more polarized. Rather, Houston in 1977 was a place of contention between the women’s rights and conservative women’s movement. Across town, Phyllis Schlafly helped initiate a pro-life, pro-family conference as a conservative backlash response to the National Women’s Conference. Only a few years earlier, the general consensus among the media and public did not give much merit to Shalfley’s small and ultra-conservative crusade. However, as other scholars have emphasized, Shalfley had a crude ability to unite people with diverse interests under one ‘umbrella’ agenda. While anti-ERA and pro-life groups previously did not carry the same identity, the pro-life, pro-family conference converged these two movements in closer contact with each other. Schaefly also managed to merge different religious denominations under a common emphasis of “divinely created gender roles and familial structure”. As Spruill states, “…leaders from these previously hostile religious groups seemed to fear encroaching secularism and the threat posed by feminism more than they feared one another” (pg. 92). In the study of social movements, this is a common theme of resource mobilization: the larger the coalition, the stronger (in theory) the movement is. While a larger  coalition can be disadvantageous due to competing ideologies, history has shown that sometimes diverging groups cast their differences aside because a particular goal creates a stronger pull than their own personal ideologies. Another strategy Schlafly utilized that is a common tactic studied in social movement scholarship is her recognition of the role the media can play in highlighting a movement. Schlafly’s strategy of ‘all media is good media’, created an atmosphere whereas the more prominent of a presence she was, the more airtime it gave to the movement. She even went so far as to file lawsuits against media companies who did not give airtime to the anti-ERA side of the debate (pg. 95). As Spruill notes, Schlafly was the “face” of the pro-life, pro-family movement which evidently led to easy accessibility whenever the media needed a representative from the movement. While being the face of the movement tends to silence grassroot supporters, Schlafly’s easy accessibility to the media – however a contentious relationship that was – led to increased awareness of the pro-life, pro-family movement.

Divided We Stand offers new insights into the intersection of gender & politics and how this dualism influenced each other. While it was enlightening to examine the strong role feminist issues contributed to political polarization, it left me wondering what other factors led to this sharp political divide. However, this does not diminish the narrative Spruill exceptionally wrote. She makes a strong case for how, as Ms. Magazine noted, the National Women’s Conference was “four days that changed the world.” For those interested in the genesis of how political parties attached themselves to certain feminist issues and the historical significance of the National Women’s Conference & Pro-Life, Pro-Family Conference, Divided We Stand is a good place to begin.


Below is a news report of the National Women’s Conference from a local Houston TV station: