Gender & Sexuality

  • Murphy, Kevin. Political Manhood: Red Bloods, Mollycoddles, and the Politics of Progressive Era Reform. Reprint. Columbia University Press, 2010.
  • Newman, Louise Michele. White Women’s Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Scott, Joan W. “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis.” The American Historical Review 91, no. 5 (1986): 1053–75.
  • Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. “African-American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race.” Signs 17, no. 2 (1992): 251–74.

This week’s readings explores the development and complexity of gender and sexuality in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The two articles really serve as the foundation or launching point in understanding the arguments made by Newman and Murphy.

Laying the foundation for gender history, Joan Scott’s “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis” addresses the search for a theoretical framework concerning, the rejection of gender by non-feminist scholars, and then provides a framework/defintion of gender. Scott argues that gender is both a “constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes” and a “primary way of signifying relationships of power.” [1067] Scott posits that perhaps the most important element of those arguing for “gender” was its ability to transofrm disciplines of study (which is illistrated by both Murphy and Newman).

Evelyn Higginbotham, six years after Scott’s article was published, argues against the prevalent depiction of gender as a monolith. Instead, she posits that race is a metalanguage in which other categories, such as gender, class, and sexuality, can be understood and better explored. Higginbotham explores each of these constructions in order to illustrate the prevalence of race wihtin that category. For example, when discussing the racial construction of gender, Higginbotham cites the 1855 State of Missouri vs. Celia in which black women were defined outside the boundaries of “woman.” Thus they did not receive the same legal treatment or protection as white women. In her conclusion, Higginbotham states “By analyzing white American’s deployment of race in the construction of power relations, perhaps we can better understand why black women historians have largely refrained from an analysis of gender along the lines of the male/female dichotomy so prevalent among white feminists.” [273]

In direct connection to Evelyn Higginbotham’s article and arguments, Louise Michele Newman’s text White Women’s Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States, approaches the women’s rights and suffragist movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through the lens of race. Her argument centers around evolutionist understanding of gender distinctions and the prevalence of social darwinism when dealing with other ethnic and racial groups. Newman illustrates at (white) elite women used the prevalent theories of social darwinism to increase their political and social participation. She argues that these (white) elite women used their position as the top of the evolutioanry/civilizing framework in order to move them closer to equality with the (white) elite men. Newman highlights the irony that while these (white) elite women were critiquing the patriarchal system of gender difference, they were propogating the same ideology to non-white groups as part of their civilizing uplift. Newman engages with the works of May Franceh-Sheldon, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Mary Roberts Smith Coolidge, and others to illustrate the complexity of the racialized foundations to the women’s movement.

Kevin Murphy’s Political Manhood: Red Bloods, Mollycoddles, and the Politics of Progressive Era Reform  engages with questions of gender, masculinity, and politics during the Gilded and Progressive Ages. At the center of his narrative is “strenuous manhood,” municipal reform, and questions of social/political engagement for lower class individuals. Murphy focuses on the mollycoddle as “it illuminates competing ideologies of manhood and demonstrates how the strenuous model was deployed in order to marginalize the careers and projects of political actors successfully stigmatized as week and effeminate.” [3] Murphy follows the political career of many differen reformers from Theodore Roosevelt to George E. Waring, John Jay Chapman, Richard W. G. Welling, and others. Murphy devots a chapter to the discussion of what he calls “civic militarism” which was used to “bring the discipline and collecive values associated with waging war to the deomestic arena.” [70]. Another important theme is the sexual invert or those of the “third sex.” These terms were employed in political discourse against reformers as a way to attack their masculinity and gender. The third sex exhibited effeminate traits while occupying a male form. As the term mollycoddle would develop into a term for homosexuality, these epithets were used to de-emasculate reformers and led them to move out of their elite spheres and connect with lower class immigrants in order to reinvigorate their masculine natures.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does Murphy’s depiction of masculinity, the “mollycoddles” and “red bloods,” fit with Newman’s depiction of the male “side” of the gender differences? How would each historian react to the other’s narrative?
  2. What is the role of epithets in relation to gender? Both Murphy and Newman discuss the various monikers attached to different gendered (and racialized) groups. Are these important and why?
  3. Higginbotham argues that the monolithic nature in which individuals have discussed gender is misleading and incorrect. In what ways do Newman and Murphy adhere to Higginbotham’s argument and in what ways do they treat entities as a monolith (if they do at all)?
Gender & Sexuality

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