Buying Love in the Early Twentieth Century

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

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

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

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

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

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



Covertly to Overtly Political Women for the Lost Cause

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Searching for Domesticity in Whaling New England

Captain Ahab Had A Wife: New England Women and the Whalefishery, 1720-1870. Lisa Norling (2000)

In her lengthy examination of New England women and their lives in the whaling community, Lisa Norling argues that these women thrived within the whaling world by embracing the Victorian ideals of female domesticity.  Norling is faced with a difficult task, attempting to find a path to understanding women in a historically “man’s world”.  To rise to the challenge, Norling utilizes diaries, correspondence, and ledgers to find the women who inhabited this world. The problem with this approach, and one which I struggle with in much of my research, is that the historical records only allow us to examine women through the men to whom they were attached. I cannot claim to have an alternative approach to studying women during this period, but I do think that it is important to acknowledge this shortfall in the historical record within the analysis of the materials. Indeed, this approach further limited Norling’s study to “prominent” Quaker and then New England families, a group more likely than poor families to want to project the ideals of Domesticity.

Wrestling with the ways that Victoria domesticity could work within a whaling community results in Norling tracing the New England whaling economy nearly from inception on colonial Nantucket through the 19th century. I thought that the organization of the book, while important to laying the foundation for an understanding of New England Whaling practices and economy that shaped the world in which these women lived was separate from the main argument about domesticity. In fact, this exposition shifts the focus of much of the book onto the practice of Paternalism within New England and Fishing communities in the 18th and 19th centuries. Understanding that women, and communities, depended on paternalism to survive when such a large part of the population was gone for increasing lengths of time is crucial to understanding the roles that women had to step into, but almost half of each chapter is devoted to reviewing the state of paternalism at that point in time. The relevance to Norling’s overarching argument that Victorian ideals of domesticity were successful, are confused by the extensive discussion of paternalism and its intricacies. As Norling’s study goes further into the 19th century and the paternalism system continues to break down, women were forced to expand their roles as substitute husbands and breadwinners, at a time when Victorian Domesticity were at an all time high. The new ideals of femininity and masculinity become subverted according to Norling during this time:

For centuries a supply of firewood had been a basic necessity of life, one of the essentials granted by New England towns to their indigent and often specified as part of widows’ portions. Henry Beetle’s inability to provide his wife [who was according to her letters chopping wood herself] and child with the means to acquire wood seemed to stand for his failure as his family’s sole support and thereby, with the new definition of masculinity and femininity, challenged his very manhood. The image of Eliza outside, swinging an ax and hewing wood, seems to have upset Henry’s notions of female delicacy and dependence. (Norling 163)

This raises the question, should we emphasis that Domesticity was an ideal, and not a reality for most women during the 19th century?

Norling’s argument continues to become muddied with her consideration of the many ways that women were forced to find employment or income during the absences of their men. Norling suggests that this is offset by the romantic symbolism and epistolary writings found in the correspondence between whaling men and their wives. Norling’s use of select letters, I believe, romanticizes the relationships of these individuals. I appreciated her inclusion of letters from women detailing their struggles, and their frustrations with being left ashore with families to care and provide for, but would have liked to hear more about how frequently these letters are found in the trove of letters that Norling has explored. This frustration seems to provide a more realistic glimpse of Victorian life (as a mother today I could relate), but I think she could have used more analysis on them to reveal the reality of the world of a Whaling Wife, rather than reinforcing the Victorian idea that women wanted to be perceived as the center of romance and the home.

I don’t want to deter from the overall importance of Norling’s work. I think it is a crucial book and a fascinating read. My task for this post was to look at the success of Norling’s argument, and I am unsure that I can answer definitively that it was a successful argument. I keep returning to questions posed on Amber and Michelle’s posts for Captain Ahab Had A Wife,  How does this reliance on domesticity and separate sphere hamper Norling’s argument, and Does reading backwards preordain the conclusion? I think that Norling utilized the ideal of separate spheres for men and women, and domesticity to propel her historical narrative, but the reliance on these two (now) shaky foundational ideas of 18th and 19th century life reveal a conclusion that I don’t think fully can withstand further research or analysis.

Postscript: This is the first analysis (and even extensive writing) that I have done since I sustained a mild brain injury ending my semester early and unexpectedly. I will be posting several more posts in the next few weeks as I attempt to finish my semester work.

Summer Reading List!

Summer is upon us, and that means fun in the sun and a summer reading list!

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale (Sarah)

Martha Hodes, A Sea Captain’s Wife (Amber)

Lori Ginzberg, Untidy Origins (Michelle)

Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Amber)

Jean Fagan Yellin, Harriet Jacobs: A Life (Michelle)

Harriet E. Wilson, Our Nig (Sarah)

Frederick Douglass’s three autobiographies: Narratives in the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881), and My Bondage and my Freedom (1855)

All three of us will be reading:

Bonnie Laughlin Schultz, The Tie that Bound Us: The Women of John Brown’s Family

Leigh Fought, Women in the World of Frederick Douglass

Be on the lookout for our reviews and possibly a discussion or two soon.

We would love more reading recommendations, so feel free to leave a comment or send us an email.

Hope you have a safe and wonderful summer!

White Men, Power, and Property in the Antebellum South

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McCurry fundamentally explores power relationships between antebellum South Carolina yeoman farmers and their large planter neighbors as they went about their private and public lives within relative proximity of each other. While the planter class represented the political elite in the antebellum south, they could not function without the support of the lower class of small farmers, however much they viewed the lower class as inferior nuisances. This relationship plays out, McCurry argues, in the ways that yeoman farmers, as white landowners in the black belt of the south, asserted their social equality with plantation owners. Not only does McCurry explore the power relationships between these two classes, but she also discusses the power dynamics within these households, particular in terms of gender and race relations. One of the most significant additions McCurry makes to the historiography of the antebellum south and Civil War era is that she explains why poor whites went to fight for the Confederacy; simply, the racialized system they lived in helped yeoman farmers maintain their status as masters. While they were not masters over much, they still were a class above the black majority in South Carolina.

One of the underlying themes throughout McCurry’s book is the issue of individual property rights and community land claims in shaping these power relationships. Fences became integral to formally shaping individual properties, and McCurry states that men became masters of these fenced in worlds, and in particular, the people within them, women and slaves included. Understandably, the wealthier elites bought the most fertile, and therefore, most valuable lands; some yeoman farmers owned more property, but their property was typically made up of sand and swamplands that required much expensive maintenance to make into usable land. In these small farming households, both children and women worked the land, even alongside what few slaves they might have had. This distinguished, among other things, yeoman wives and their planter superiors; elite women did not physically work, but rather ran their households of many servants and slaves. Furthermore, both masters and mistresses of plantations attempted to establish patron-client relationships with the yeoman classes in various ways, but that ultimately failed because the small farmers believed themselves to be equals through their identities as masters over their own properties.

McCurry explains that the South Carolina Low Country remained very patriarchal; her discussion of southern churches explains in depth the interplay of both class and gender. The classes were integrated in this small community churches, kept in place by systems of pew-renting that meant planters got the best seats inside the church buildings. Many of the freedoms that were experienced even by the wealthiest of planter mistresses were kept in check by the yeoman class of men in their communities. While Brekus had briefly discussed the difficulty faced by women who wanted to be preachers in the south during this period, McCurry fleshes this argument out in full. She states that even elite planter women wishing to demonstrate charity needed to go through church elders who then designated where that charity would be allotted. The southern patriarchal system was also demonstrated through church discipline, McCurry argues; punishments almost always fell harder on women than men in many cases for similar offenses, and even southern Christianity argued for the validity of the slave system. Thus, she demonstrates the strong tie between church and politics in the south.

How and Why Housework was Devalued in the First Place

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In extensive document and theory-based detail, Boydston traces how the economic significance of women’s housework evolved in both private and public ways over the course of the late eighteenth century into the early nineteenth in the northeastern United States. Integrating both Marxist and feminist approaches in her analysis of the subject, Boydston fundamentally argues that women’s housework became increasingly devalued as an economic, societal contribution into the nineteenth century. Thus, Boydston argues that “the image of the colonial goodwife, valued for her contribution to household prosperity, had been replaced by the image of wife and mother as a ‘dependent’ and ‘nonproducer’” (xi). This speaks not only to husband-wife relationships within the home, but also American economics at large and changing societal conceptions of women’s value in general.

Boydston debunks the idea that industrialization is what devalued women’s labor; rather, she argues that this decline began well before then and was practically solidified by the end of the eighteenth century and the American Revolution. She also makes the crucial point that the term economy used to pertain specifically to issues of the household, including the work that kept it running smoothly. Because of this definition, women were valued as workers and laborers in their own right. Women’s contributions to their own homes were increasingly devalued, and sons began challenging their widowed mothers’ rights to their own contributions to the family’s home and wealth. Boydston notes that what had taken place over the course of the eighteenth century was not a change in the type of work women were doing, but the attitudes concerning that work that reflected a very negative view of housewifery in general. Also essential to this transformation was the increased dependency on a cash market and wage labor; women were significant contributors to the barter system because they were producers of finished goods including both food and textiles.

The American Revolution, Boydston argued, helped bring women’s work back to a position of value in their communities as many women contributed to the home-based production of essential goods in the midst of boycotts against the British. She states that money was again devalued which helped this shift take place. However, these sentiments did not last into the nineteenth century. Women’s home manufacture enabled their families to depend less on cash markets, yet even women grew to view their work as insignificant and themselves as dependent on their husbands’ support. These ideas were maintained through the war of 1812. The labor of women, Boydston points out, became increasingly defined as unpaid labor, while men’s work was defined as waged. Industrialization transformed the lives of the producing classes, Boydston notes; mass manufacture helped create a poor urban class dependent on the cycles of these industries, took jobs away from artisans and skilled workers, and a middle class began to develop within the developing consumerist culture. Thus, Boydston argues, the meaning of freedom transformed in the antebellum period, shifting from connotations of economic dependency to delineating wealth.

Boydston argues that housework was a crucial function for the poorest as well as elite families, though the work done by these wives was certainly different. While wealthier families could afford to pay domestic servants for their help (for duties such as cooking or laundry), these women simply shifted their attentions to other essential household duties, such as training servants. Even middle class women continued to participate in the efforts of home manufacture and yet still did the cooking, cleaning, and childrearing and essential behind the scenes work on farms. Many women themselves, Boydston claims, considered their household duties “drudgery,” and increased dependency on the cash market required new sets of skills in budgeting and market intuition. Many of these changes were influenced by the industrial threat to men’s masculinity and heads of households as breadwinners. Fundamentally, Boydston maintains that despite it being devalued in the eyes of many, both men and women, women’s household work was an essential contribution to emerging capitalist economy in the United States.