Family, Race, Class, and Assimilation in Chinese America

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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.

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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:


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 and Authorship: Reflecting on a Talk by Susan Schweik

Last week, my colleagues and I had the pleasure of attending a lecture given by Susan Schweik, Professor of English at UC Berkeley. Titled “Here the Diaries End: or, a Basic Kit to Confront the Human Disposal Authority,” Professor Schweik led us through a brief history of writing about people with disabilities, as well as writing from people with disabilities, since the mid 20th century. As Sarah has already noted, Schweik’s central focus was on May V. Segoe’s publication of the diaries of a man with down syndrome named Paul Scott, which was published in 1964. As Schweik explained, this book was revolutionary in a movement beginning to push for rights for people with disabilities. However, what remained problematic even up through the 1990s was the topic of authorship.

Before delving into the words of Paul Scott, Schweik briefly mentioned several other works by people with disabilities, including Nigel Hunt’s The World of Nigel Hunt: the diary of a Mongoloid Youth (1967); Jason Kingsley and Mitchell Levitz’s Count Us In: Growing up with Down Syndrome (1994); a collection of poems by Gretchen Josephson entitled Bus Girl (1997); and Roland Johnson’s Lost in a Desert World: An Autobiography (1999). Many of these works are problematic in that, in many cases, the actual author’s agency as author has been erased or devalued in various ways. In the case of Nigel Hunt, a foreward written by Lionel Sharples Penrose uses racist and derogatory language that emphasizes Hunt’s disability. In the case of Jason Kingsley and Mitchell Levitz, their authorship becomes erased on the back cover of another book, and I believe it was Bus Girl, which uses a quotation by Kingsley’s mother and gives credit to her as the author of Kingsley and Levitz’s book. Tracing these problems of authorship from the 1990s backward, Schweik brought us back to the publication of Paul Scott’s journals entitled Yesterday was Tuesday, All Day & All Night: The Story of a Unique Education, released in 1964, which only gives credit to May Segoe on its front cover.

For Schweik, and I found for myself as well, the entire framing of this book is problematic. Firstly, it was published more than likely without Scott’s permission after his death. Secondly, he is nowhere on the front cover. Secondly, the title is somewhat misleading, as much of Scott’s diaries concerned his travels with his dad, rather than his educational experiences. Thirdly, the word “unique” in the context of the title is offensive, as it much of Segoe’s introductory remarks and psychoanalysis throughout the book. Much of Schweik’s talk aims to give Scott back his credit as an artist. In her presentation, Schweik related instances of narrative experimentation throughout the book, as well as some excerpts that demonstrate true emotion and deep thought. After being briefly institutionalized at the age of 6, Scott remained in the custody of his father after his parents separated, who brought Scott along for a life of world travel. This is what constitutes the majority of Scott’s writings: reflections on these experiences. After his father’s death, however, Scott was institutionalized again at the age of 43. It is at this point in the book that Segoe writes, “Here the diaries end,” when, in fact, Scott continued to write and create until his death several years after.

For me, one of the best ways to connect this talk with the topic of women or gender studies, is broadening this context to examine issues of authorship for minorities throughout history. As Schweik mentions, not only has authorship been erased for people with disabilities in many cases, but their capabilities as authors have needed to be explained for their audiences through forewards and introductions, even well into the 20th century. I was instantly reminded of works from the 18th and 19th centuries which embraced very similar tactics for the publication of works by women or black authors. White men had been writing prefaces for minorities for centuries. For example, the Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682) contains a lengthy preface explaining that Rowlandson’s desire to publish is not for selfish gain but rather to further the purpose of God. This preface is largely attributed to Puritan minister and political leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Increase Mather, with the intentional purpose of explaining that a woman did indeed write this narrative, and she is not breaking conventional gender norms in the publishing of her narrative. Similarly, many slave narratives published in the 19th century also contain introductions written to prove the merit of the author. This was the case for a preface written by Theodore Pringle (a white man) to The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave. Related By Herself (1831) which aims to verify the factual nature of Prince’s narrative. Even the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself (1845) contains a preface by William Lloyd Garrison (a white man) and letter from Wendell Phillips (another white man) to demonstrate to the public the worth and merit of Douglass as an author specifically, and person more generally. These 20th century narratives from people with disabilities follow a sadly similar line of logic. While women such as May Segoe were now writing prefaces, these prefaces are premised on prejudices that prefaces are necessary for certain people because of who they are.

Schweik’s talk was sad, riveting, and insightful. She demonstrates that academia can have a significant place in advocacy and alliance. For more information on her work, visit her page using this link.


Violent Manifestations of Manliness

Image result for manliness and civilization images

Gail Bederman, Manliness and CivilizationA Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008). 

Bederman’s central point throughout Manliness and Civilization is that ideologies about racial hierarchies at the turn of the twentieth century, directly related to hierarchies of civilization, helped shape conceptions of manliness and masculinity in this period. As Bederman explains, Victorian conceptions of what it meant to be a man transformed as the United States became increasingly interested in what it meant to be a civilized versus uncivilized nation. As notions and practices of imperialism began circulating the globe, rationalized by discourse such as Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden,” the U.S. increasingly became interested how it was to stake its claim as a powerful, exemplary civilization. As Bederman explains in her first chapter, a variety of other factors influenced these transformations in definition at the turn of the century: Immigration, industrialization, women in the workforce, and early pushes for women’s suffrage led American men to forge new images of manliness that were meant to reinforce traditional racial and gender social orders. The powerful and strong male body became idealized in contrast to lean, male figures of the Victorian period. These changes were manifested in the emergence of sporting culture (particularly prize fighting), fraternal organizations, boy scouts, and the YMCA. While used fairly interchangeably today, Bederman helpfully defines “manliness” and “masculine” as they would have been conceived of prior to 1900; “manliness” encompassed the good traits of being a man, a person being worthy of being a man, while “masculine” largely referred to all traits, both good and bad, that defined a man’s character and actions.

Applying discourse theory to the writings of Ida B. Wells, G. Stanley Hall, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Theodore Roosevelt, Bederman examines how, for various purposes,  each of these people defined manliness and civilization around the turn of the century. For the sake of this series of blog posts, each of us will tackle a different person. I will be starting off with Ida B. Wells, an African American investigative journalist, anti-lynching activist, founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and women’s rights activist.

Bederman writes that Wells “manipulated dominant middle-class ideas about race, manhood, and civilization in order to force white Americans to address lynching” as a strategy for bringing about reform (46). Wells invoked Victorian notions of manhood that emphasized self-restraint over emotional and violent passions which contrasted sharply with the highly emotional nature of the mob violence that resulted in lynchings. Bederman explains that the prominent myth of the “negro rapist,” which stated that most black men were savages unable to restrain lustful passions, emphasized a fear of black men raping white women. White men, particularly in the south, saw lynchings (the punishing of these passions) as a means of defending their masculinity through their protection of white women’s virtue. While most  sexual relationships between white women and black men that resulted in the lynching of  black men were consensual, these relationships were commandeered by white supremacists to make a larger point about race and the nature of black people.

Wells emphasized that mob violence and lynchings were quite unmanly and quite uncivilized. Her words falling on deaf ears in the U.S., Wells traveled to Britain in the attempt to shame Americans into the punishment and prevention of lynchings. Britain, who welcomed and printed Wells’s arguments about the appalling nature of lynching in the U.S., represented to many Americans the peak of white civilization and thus carried substantial weight for Wells’s points. Her anti-lynching campaign gaining traction in Britain, word began to circulate that various Christian sects in Britain would send missionaries over to the U.S. South that preached against the barbaric practice of lynching. “Missionary,” in this sense, was a loaded term. In this period, missionaries were often sent to more remote, “barbaric,” places of the world to spread the word of God. 

While British influence did influence some states to enact stricter anti-lynching laws, they were largely unenforced, and five years after the British campaign, the U.S. South had moved on to create its own definition of masculinity: if lynching resembled barbarism, that was only because the most manly of men possessed an inner barbarism which manifested itself in sexual and violent urges. Thus, the civilized man still possessed these latent natural, primitive characteristics that were allowed to emerge in extreme and necessary cases. Bederman explains that this ideal of the “natural man” whose breast swelled with power and virility became the masculine norm in the 1890s, in part owing to Wells’ invocation of the primitive as unmanly and uncivilized. This transformation illustrates Bederman’s point that manliness and masculinity were framed in terms of society’s needs. The “natural man” emerged out of justification for the violence of lynchings, and so the practice continued on well into the 20th century.

After this transformation, Wells changed tactics and became much more focused on building systems of support for black men who, fleeing the dangers of the south, found themselves excluded from many white organizations (such as the YMCA and settlement houses) and were therefore more prone to residing in areas with higher crime rates and sites of vice (such as gambling and prostitution). Bederman explains that while Wells continued her involvement in women’s rights efforts, Wells saw this this support system as important in changing white notions of black inferiority and incompetence.

Bederman’s discussion on Ida B. Wells is refreshing for those who have heard of or studied Wells before. Emphasizing Wells’s strategic discourse on manliness and civilization to combat lynching, Bederman highlights Wells’s keen understanding of race and gender politics at the turn of the century.

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

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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.