The State and Sexuality

The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America. Margot Canaday (2009).

Margot Canaday explores shifts in how homosexuality was viewed over time- what George Chauncey described in Gay New York as a shift from sex as an activity to an identity- in state policies within the expansion of the U.S. federal government in the postwar period (midcentury to 1980s).  Canaday argues that there was a slow increase in policing of homosexuality by the federal government culminating in the postwar period as a process of state building and creation of a national identity. The creation of a national identity based in a heterosexual “traditional” family separated Americans from liberal Europeans, and from the communist bloc where gender hierarchies were destroyed- as explored in Homeward Bound by Elaine Tyler May as well as The Lavender Scare by David K Johnson.

This concept of national identity is not fully articulated by Canaday, as her focus is on the multitude of ways the United States government defined citizenship and sexuality. The Federal government during this period protected heterosexual individuals as citizens, but excluded homosexual individuals from full citizenship in a variety of ways. Identity as an American, and sexuality became integral to citizenship. Canaday breaks down the arms of government which worked to define citizenship and sexuality into three categories:

  • Immigration
  • Military
  • Welfare System

Not only was citizenship determined by how one interacted with the government, but the definition of masculinity was also dependent on which facet of government being examined. The immigration system categorized individuals based on their exhibition of masculinity, and presumed ability to perform in a heteronormative way; providing for their family and contributing to society. Any failure to appear masculine enough was grounds to be denied entrance into the United States, because homosexuality would, in the mind of the government at the time, result in vice flowing into the country.

The military defined masculinity through behavior with other men, rather than an individual’s personal exhibition of masculinity. This resulted in an overall militarization of manliness that emphasized strength, power, and toughness. Indications that one was “feminine” or homosexual would bar them from serving in the military, or result in them being dishonorably discharged because the “degenerate” behavior threatened the security of the military and the nation.

Welfare (this included the GI Bill) defined masculinity through one’s status as provider and central role in the home, according to Canaday. The rhetoric of welfare mothers as a drain on society habits roots in this moment, as the state looked for ways to reify heterosexual families through emphasis on a male head of household who would provide for his family. A man who did not adhere to the nuclear family ideal could be denied benefits under the GI Bill. Performative masculinity was considered crucial to combating poverty during this period.

Canaday demonstrates the multi-layered and fluid definitions of citizenship. Federal regulation of homosexuality and the homo & heterosexual binary in policy formation created a category of “second-class” citizenship for homosexuals or anyone who did not fit into the ideal of the period. The concept of second-class citizenship was not new in American society, but was redefined to ensure that “new” threats to national identity were contained. Homosexuality was policed indirectly through the exclusion of sexually “degenerate” immigrants and other regulatory measures aimed at combating poverty, violence, and vice.


Cold War Families, Binding Women to the Home

Elaine Tyler May. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. (1988)Homeward Bound Cover

This week we are exploring mid-twentieth century women’s lives. I will be responding to Homeward Bound by Elaine Tyler May.

The generation that birthed the baby boomers (as Tim Brokaw called them “the greatest generation”) is interesting because they retreated from the sexual revolution, political “progressivism”, and grassroots social movements that their parents, and later their children, embraced. The generation that came of age in the Great Depression had a vibrant and unique youth culture, embraced the woman’s movement, and celebrated sex; their children, according to Tyler May, embraced conservative political ideologies, and a strong domestic ideal that focused on a strong “nuclear” family (7-8). This appears to be a return to late nineteenth-century ideals of Domesticity and conceptions of citizenship. For example, the Cold War was being fought through reinforcing the nuclear family which restricted women (in Tyler May’s research pool) to the home. Tyler May describes the new American dream as “successful breadwinners supporting attractive homemakers in affluent suburban homes” (Tyler May 21). In post-war America, women were pushed out of the labor force and into homes, in what Nancy Isenberg described in Sex and Citizenship as economic necessity,women were driven into marriage by economic necessity, because all lucrative means of support were seized by men”(Isenberg 130).50swar

Homeward Bound  is not the first of our readings that seek to define citizenship for women; Stephanie McCurry and Nell Painter both argued in their books that creating paid labor was crucial to an individual becoming a citizen in Antebellum America, when the ideal citizen was linked directly to capitalism.  This emphasis on labor as affirmation of one’s citizenship was key to the Woman’s Movement that fought for and gained suffrage at the turn of the century, and influenced the ideas of womanhood and modernity that were the focus of the 1920s and 1930s.

Leading up to and during WWII, President Roosevelt created a new concept of citizenship, one based on obligations to the state and entitlements claimed from the state. This new citizenship as explored by James Sparrow in Warfare State redefined the relationships of individuals with the state by defining a citizen in terms of action; physical action in the form of paying taxes, social action in the form of supporting the war effort, and modern patriotism through laying claim to civil rights earned through obligation, and sacrifice for the nation. It is through this new citizenship envisioned by FDR that the generation that Tyler May examines lay claim to their position in Cold War America, with a sense of entitlement and obligation that made them uniquely positioned to fight the Cold War at home.

The connection between citizenship and economic power found a way to continue into the 1940s and 50s as women became the main purchasers of consumer goods. More companies began to target the ideal domestic woman with their products and their advertising. In post-war America, obligation to the state was no longer serving the war effort, but rather ensuring that capitalism remained healthy and strong through making purchases. American patriotism became inextricably linked to consumer power during this time. Tyler May explores this not just by examining popular culture of the period, but also in her discussion of the growth of suburbs. Suburban living assured white middle-class Americans that they would be protected while also allowed them to demonstrate their patriotism through home buying. This also reaffirmed the new definition of whiteness that Tyler May identifies in her introduction as the result of urban flight by ethnic white Americans to the suburbs. How could one be considered ethnic if they were not explicitly part of a ethnic neighborhood in a city?

While Elaine Tyler May’s book provides unique insight into one group of Americans during the early years of the Cold War, her analysis isolates her subjects from social and political movements that were occurring simultaneously to this containment policy at


home. Tyler May devotes some time to discussing the fears of Cold War Americans in regards to sexual and political “deviants”, but completely ignores the ways that these fears of sexual non-normativity spread across the nation in the form of the Lavender Scare. In David K. Johnson’s book, The Lavender Scare, the effects of the expanded the national security state during the 1950s and 1960s in combination with McCarthyism are closely examined. McCarthyism linked homosexuality within the State Department to the idea of security risks due to the perception that homosexual activity made individuals more susceptible to blackmail. The removal of gay federal employees and rejection of gay applicants became more widespread and systemic over the course of the 1950s as bureaucracies across the country, and even international organizations, tried to demonstrate their adherence to concepts of ‘loyalty’ and Western family values. Tying this into the exploration of the “ideal” American Family would have developed a much richer background for the systemic fear that fueled this focus inward by the “greatest generation”.

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Another missed opportunity, in my opinion, is Tyler May’s reliance on the Kelly Longitudinal Study for her book.  The Kelly Longitudinal Study (KLS) was a voluntary survey that began between 1935 and 1938, with 300 engaged couples volunteering to respond to an extensive battery of physiological and psychological tests and measures. Couples agreed to notify the investigator of their marriage, or of the broken engagement. In 1954-1955, 512 of the original 600 spouses participated in the second wave of data collection. A follow up survey was conducted by James Connolly between 1979 and 1981. Participants completed mailed questionnaires containing both precoded and open-ended responses (both collections are housed at the Murray Research Archive at Harvard University). Not only were the respondents to the KLS not representative of the nation as a whole, consisting of upper-middle class heterosexual couples from New England, who were white and well-educated and predominantly Protestant. Tyler May’s response to this criticism of the study is, “[a]lthough all groups contributed to the baby boom, it was the values of the white middle class that shaped the dominant political and economic institutions that affected all Americans. Those who did not conform to them were likely to be marginalized, stigmatized, and disadvantaged as a result” (Tyler May 15). I am suspicious of this justification for utilizing the KLS  as a representative tool for the nation as a whole during the Cold War. The Kinsey Report, while focused primarily on sexuality, was conducted during the same time and could have provided additional insight into the everyday American; perhaps allowing more analysis of the ideal versus reality during this period.

While Tyler May’s research provides an important foundational understanding of what the ideal American family was like during the Cold War, there remain several under- or unexplored facets of women in the Cold War. Black women, working women, non-Protestant women, and lesbian women are invisible in this history- hopefully the other books for this week will reveal those histories.


Works cited:

Johnson, David K. The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2004.

McCurry, Stephanie. Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations,             & the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country (1995).

Painter, Nell. Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol (1996).

Sparrow, James. Warfare State: World War II Americans and the Age of Big Governments. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.


Disability, Representation, and Academia

Disability, Representation, and Academia

Michelle, Kim and I had the pleasure of attending UC Berkley Professor Susan Schweik’s talk “Here the diaries end: or, a basic kit to confront the human disposal authority” on March 27, 2018. After perhaps the most beautiful introduction from a prior student that I have ever heard, Professor Schweik began her talk.

Left to right: Michelle, Kim, Sarah

Scweik’s discussion of May V. Seagoe and “her” book, Yesterday was Tuesday, all day and all night; the story of a unique education (1964) is focused on both the fact that this is the first autobiography of Down’s syndrome person, Paul Scott, in Scott’s own words from

Screen Shot 2018-03-29 at 8.56.17 AM
Biography of Paul Scott

his journals; and on the tragic fact that representations of disability continues to be curated by parents or family members, editors, or doctors.

By the 1990s a large group of growing writing by Down’s

syndrome persons, Schweik stated that this was a Syracuse based movement- I would have loved to hear more about how this was Syracuse based. As examples of the works that were considered groundbreaking, Prof. Schweik provided cursory information on Lost in a Desert World by Roland Johnson (1999), Bus Girl Poems by Gretchen Josephson (1997), and Jason Kingsley and Mitchell Levitz’s Count Us In: Growing Up with Down’s Syndrome (1994). These publications are considered representations of people with Down’s syndrome by people of Down’s syndrome, but Scweik emphasizes the title of “author” is also given to other individuals-such as the mother of Jason Kingsley-effectively diminishing the competency inherent in creating such a work.

An earlier publication, that Professor Schweik also discussed is The World of Nigel Hunt: the diary of a mongoloid youth (1982) is hailed as first book of Down syndrome by a person with Down’s syndrome. Schweik is working to refocus the beginning of these publications with Paul Scott and May Seagoe’s Yesterday was Tuesday, all day and all night; the sotry of a unique education. Many of the texts are written by parents of kids with Downs Syndrome and actually erased the voices of the individuals whom the works

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The World of Nigel Hunt (1982)

claim to be representing. May Seagoe and Paul Scott were actually published years before Nigel Hunt, and as Schweik emphasizes, Paul Scott’s words are the majority of the book, though Seagoe edited and provided commentary, the book clearly provided Scott’s words. This is not to say that Yesterday was Tuesday is a paragon of representative literature; Schweik points out that Seagoe’s exoticism of Scott, makes Scott the Other, through describing him in racist and terrible language


The book is comprised of decades of Scott’s journal with psychological commentary by Seagoe, according to Schweik the journal entries read as a travelogue, with reviews of books and films. As Scott matured his writing became poetic and proves Scott’s capacity for educability- yet Schweik argues that Scott was incarcerated in his own biography. Framed between two experiences in institutions, Scott’s life begins and ends with incarceration in institutions according to Seagoe. Scott’s diaries are considered to have ended with his incarceration at age 43, even though he continued to write for four more years until his death. Seagoe describes the institution as a wonderful place and Scott as a boy- something that struck me as a way of reinforcing societal conceptions of disability with infantile cognition. Yet, Schweik provided the audience with letter that Scott wrote his sister demanding to be brought home and describing his hatred of the institution. Paul Scott’s words prove his competency to plead his case, but he was unable to prevent his own doom. The epilogue as curated by Seagoe becomes a case against freedom and for institutions for disabled people.

Image of Letter from Paul Scott to his stepmother complaining of his institutionalization 


How does this research connect with our Study of Women’s History? I have a few thoughts. Paul Scott, like so many other people with disability, have been marginalized in history, were considered evidence in the early twentieth century of the need for eugenics, and continue today to struggle for accurate and respectful representation and inclusion. In a few weeks we will be reading about motherhood in the twentieth century, a concept that is almost inseparable from a discussion of forced sterilization, eugenics, and birth control as scientific medicine began to promote patriot and racial ideas of “health”. Professor Schweik is clear to make sure this story is not about May V. Seagoe, female psychologist in the 1960s, but rather Paul Scott, a young man with Down’s syndrome and a literary voice. Schweik is working diligently to raise awareness of the lack of visibility historically of people considered disabled, and the silencing of their voices. This is a field of historical study that I hope we see continue to grow, and even if it isn’t explicitly part of my research, I hope to remain cognizant of.

An interesting article to read for some additional understanding of disability and eugenics is “Defective or Disabled?: Race, Medicine, and Eugenics in Progressive Era Virginia ad Alabama” Gregory Michael Dorr. The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, Vol. 5, No. 4 (Oct., 2006), pp. 359-392.

The impact of New Womanhood and Eugenics on women is another fascinating topic closely tied to this discussion. Check out Daylanne English, Unnatural Selections: Eugenics in American Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (2004).

Professor Schweik’s bio info:

There will be two more speaking events this week at Syracuse University featuring Professor Susan Schweik, so you still have time to see her.

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

Reconstructing Gender, Class, and Race

Laura Edwards. Gendered Strife and Confusion: The Political Culture of Reconstruction. Chicago: University of Illinois, 1997.

The theme for this week’s readings is Reconstruction, and women’s place within the turmoil that accompanied the end of the Civil War. Laura Edwards argues in Gendered Strife and Confusion  that the social upheaval that resulted with the end of slavery caused Southern white men to seek a way to reinforce the patriarchal structure upon which southern society rested. Edwards builds on the foundation we explored with Stephanie McCurry’s book Masters of Small Worlds, and Jeanne Boydston’s book Home and Work to craft her argument. Edwards breaks down the role of gender, class, and race in reinforcing and redefining the social hierarchy in the post-bellum south through the reinforcement of marriage as a legal, and patriarchal contract.

In her example of Susan Daniels and Henderson Cooper, Edwards demonstrates the perceived fragility of white female virtue after emancipation. In an interesting case that began before the Civil War, a white woman’s accusation of rape changed in significance after Emancipation. Edwards argues that before Emancipation, Daniels would have been ignored as a victim because she was an unmarried poor white woman, known to be promiscuous; and as such would not have been worth the resources as there was no benefit to society in protecting her person. After Emancipation, Daniels’ virtue gained value as the racial hierarchy was ruptured; so prosecution of her accused rapists gained significance as a means of reinforcing white supremacy (despite class) in southern society.

It was through overcoming these class divisions that had structured Antebellum white society that politicians were able to create a rhetoric that united (or attempted to unite) southern whites through creating racial hierarchies based on gendered notions of white virtue and black hypersexuality. These political ideas of white feminine virtue were not only negotiated in the public spheres of Reconstruction but also within the homes of individuals, as revealed through court cases where the patriarchal role of husbands and fathers were challenged.

In many ways this book, in connection with Tera Hunter’s To ‘Joy My Freedom,  and Janney’s Burying the Dead (I haven’t read any of Glymph’s book but look forward to Kim’s response to it) add insight into David Blight’s Race and Reunion. While Blight argues that Reconstruction was dominated by three visions of Reconstruction, these books show how in practice those visions were more complicated and often obstructed. I have found myself enjoying more, and more exploring Reconstruction and the many different ways that it ruptured and restructured American life, and the echoes of that rhetoric and rupture that continue into the twenty-first century.

Reading Schedule for Spring 2018

We are excited to have US History MA student, Kimberly Hodges joining us this semester as we continue our exploration of Women’s History (soon with a real microphone). Here is our reading schedule as it currently stands:

Week 1 January 16-19

a. Laura Edwards, Gendered Strife and Confusion: The Political Culture of Reconstruction, University of Illinois Press, 1997 Sarah

b. Hunter, Tera. To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War, Harvard University Press, 1997. Amber

c. Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage Kim

d. Caroline Janney, Burying the Dead, but not the past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause Michelle

Week 2 January 22-26

Sklar, Florence Kelley and the Nation’s work

Week 3 January 29- February 2

Mary Odem, Delinquent Daughters Kim

Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements Amber

Nan Enstad, Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure Sarah

Elizabeth Clement, Love for Sale Michelle

Week 4 February 5-9

Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization

Week 5 February 12-16

Mae Ngai, The Lucky Ones

Week 6 February 19-23

Lisa Tetrault, The Myth of Seneca Falls Amber

Allison Sneider, Suffrage in the Imperial Age Sarah

Goodier and Pasquarello, Women will Vote Kim

Ellen Carol DuBois, Harriot Stanton Blatch Michelle

Week 7 February 26- March 2

Alice Kessler Harris, In Pursuit of Equity

Week 8 March 5-9

Susan Cahn, Sexual Reckonings

Spring Break March 12-16

Week 9 March 19- 23

Margot Canaday, The Straight State Michelle and Sarah

Victoria Wolcott, Remaking Respectability: African American Women in Interwar Detroit Amber and Kim

Week 10 March 26-30

Professor Watson visit and blogging opportunities

March 21, March 27, and March 29:


Week 11 April 2- 6

a. Meyerowitz, Joanne. ed. Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Post-War America, Temple University Press, 1994. Kim

b. Rebecca Jo Plant, Mom: The Transformation of Motherhood Amber

c. Lizbeth Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic Michelle

d. Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound Sarah


Week 12 April 9-13

Dorothy Sue Cobble, The Other Women’s Movement Amber

Annelise Orleck, Storming Caesar’s Palace. Michelle

Ruth Rosen, The World Split Open Sarah

Marjorie J. Spruill, Divided We Stand Kim

Week 13 April 16-20

a. Leslie Reagan, Dangerous Pregnancies Amber

b. Mary Zeigler, After Roe Kim

c. Roberts, Dorothy. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction and the Meaning of Liberty, Vintage Books, 1997. Sarah

d. Joanna Schoen, Choice and Coercion Michelle

Week 14 April 23-27

Andi Zeisler, We were feminists once