Rachel Hope Cleves
The task of recovering the history of same-sex love among early American women faces daunting challenges of definition and sources. Modern conceptions of same-sex sexuality did not exist in early America, but alternative frameworks did. Many indigenous nations had social roles for female-bodied individuals who lived as men, performed male work, and acquired wives. Early Christian settlers viewed sexual encounters between women as sodomy, but also valued loving dyadic bonds between religious women. Primary sources indicate that same-sex sexual practices existed within western and southern African societies exploited by the slave trade, but little more is known. The word “lesbian” has been used to signify erotics between women since roughly the 10th century, but historians must look to women who led lesbian-like lives in early America rather than to women who self-identified as lesbians. Stories of female husbands who passed as men and married other women were popular in the 18th century. Tales of passing women who served in the military, in the navy, and as pirates also amused audiences and raised the spectre of same-sex sexuality. Some female religious leaders trespassed conventional gender roles and challenged the marital sexual order. Other women conformed to female gender roles, but constructed loving female households. 18th-century pornography depicting lesbian sexual encounters indicates that early Americans were familiar with the concept of sex between women. A few court records exist from prosecutions of early American women for engaging in lewd acts together. Far more common, by the end of the 18th century, were female-authored letters and diaries describing the culture of romantic friendship, which sometimes extended to sexual intimacy. Later in the 19th century, romantic friendship became an important ingredient in the development of lesbian culture and identity.
Jessica M. Frazier
Women on all sides of the US war in Vietnam pushed for an end to the conflict. At a time of renewed feminist fervor, women stepped outside conventional gender roles by publicly speaking out, traveling to a war zone, and entering the male-dominated realm of foreign affairs. Even so, some claimed to stand squarely within the boundaries of womanhood as they undertook such unusual activities. Some American women argued that, as mothers or sisters of soldiers and draft-age men, they held special insight into the war. They spoke of their duty to their families, communities, and nation to act in untraditional, but nevertheless feminine, ways. But women did not act uniformly. Some joined the military as nurses or service personnel to help in the war effort, while others protested the war and served as draft counselors. By the end of the war, some anti-war protestors developed feminist critiques of US involvement in Vietnam that pointed to the war as a symptom of an unjust society that prioritized military dominance over social welfare. As in wars past, the US war in Vietnam created upheavals in gender roles, and as nurses, mothers, lovers, officers, entertainers, and activists, women created new spaces in a changing society.
Rebecca J. Mead
Woman suffragists in the United States engaged in a sustained, difficult, and multigenerational struggle: seventy-two years elapsed between the Seneca Falls convention (1848) and the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment (1920). During these years, activists gained confidence, developed skills, mobilized resources, learned to maneuver through the political process, and built a social movement. This essay describes key turning points and addresses internal tensions as well as external obstacles in the U.S. woman suffrage movement. It identifies important strategic, tactical, and rhetorical approaches that supported women’s claims for the vote and influenced public opinion, and shows how the movement was deeply connected to contemporaneous social, economic, and political contexts.
Working women and their issues played a central role in the women’s movement in the decades following World War II. Feminists lobbied, litigated, and engaged in direct action for workplace fairness. Working women, especially those in unions, joined feminist organizations and established their own organizations as well. There were fault lines within the women’s movement over the issues, strategies, and level of commitment to the causes of working women. In the first two decades after 1945, the unionists and liberal reformers who constituted the so-called Women’s Bureau Coalition (named after the U.S. Women’s Bureau) opposed the mostly affluent and conservative members of the National Woman’s Party for their support of the Equal Rights Amendment, supporting instead protective laws and policies that treated women differently from men in the workplace. With the arrival of second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, “labor feminists” clashed with the middle-class professional women at the helm of newly formed feminist organizations. As support for gender equality transformed employment practices, some labor feminists sought to retain (or extend to men) selected protective measures introduced in the early 20th century to shield women workers from the worst aspects of wage labor. In the face of harsh economic conditions in the 1970s, labor feminists again opposed other feminists for their efforts to modify the union practice of “last hired, first fired” as a way of retaining affirmative-action hiring gains.
In recent decades feminists have focused on equity measures such as comparable worth and pregnancy leave as means of addressing the unique challenges women face. In addition they have expanded their concern to lesbian and transgender workers, and, increasingly, to the needs of immigrant workers who make up an increasingly percentage of the working population.
The reproductive experiences of women and girls in the 20th-century United States followed historical patterns shaped by the politics of race and class. Laws and policies governing reproduction generally regarded white women as legitimate reproducers and potentially fit mothers and defined women of color as unfit for reproduction and motherhood; regulations provided for rewards and punishments accordingly. In addition, public policy and public rhetoric defined “population control” as the solution to a variety of social and political problems in the United States, including poverty, immigration, the “quality” of the population, environmental degradation, and “overpopulation.” Throughout the century, nonetheless, women, communities of color, and impoverished persons challenged official efforts, at times reducing or even eliminating barriers to reproductive freedom and community survival.
Between 1900 and 1930, decades marked by increasing urbanization, industrialization, and immigration, eugenic fears of “race suicide” (concerns that white women were not having enough babies) fueled a reproductive control regime that pressured middle-class white women to reproduce robustly. At the same time, the state enacted anti-immigrant laws, undermined the integrity of Native families, and protected various forms of racial segregation and white supremacy, all of which attacked the reproductive dignity of millions of women. Also in these decades, many African American women escaped the brutal and sexually predatory Jim Crow culture of the South, and middle-class white women gained greater sexual freedom and access to reproductive health care, including contraceptive services.
During the Great Depression, the government devised the Aid to Dependent Children program to provide destitute “worthy” white mothers with government aid while often denying such supports to women of color forced to subordinate their motherhood to agricultural and domestic labor. Following World War II, as the Civil Rights movement gathered form, focus, and adherents, and as African American and other women of color claimed their rights to motherhood and social provision, white policymakers railed against “welfare queens” and defined motherhood as a class privilege, suitable only for those who could afford to give their children “advantages.” The state, invoking the “population bomb,” fought to reduce the birth rates of poor women and women of color through sterilization and mandatory contraception, among other strategies. Between 1960 and 1980, white feminists employed the consumerist language of “choice” as part of the campaign for legalized abortion, even as Native, black, Latina, immigrant, and poor women struggled to secure the right to give birth to and raise their children with dignity and safety. The last decades of the 20th century saw severe cuts in social programs designed to aid low-income mothers and their children, cuts to funding for public education and housing, court decisions that dramatically reduced poor women’s access to reproductive health care including abortion, and the emergence of a powerful, often violent, anti-abortion movement. In response, in 1994 a group of women of color activists articulated the theory of reproductive justice, splicing together “social justice” and “reproductive rights.” The resulting Reproductive Justice movement, which would become increasingly influential in the 21st century, defined reproductive health, rights, and justice as human rights due to all persons and articulated what each individual requires to achieve these rights: the right not to have children, the right to have children, and the right to the social, economic, and environmental conditions necessary to raise children in healthy, peaceful, and sustainable households and communities.
Maxine Leeds Craig
Black beauty culture developed in the context of widespread disparagement of black men and women in images produced by whites, and black women’s exclusion from mainstream cultural institutions, such as beauty contests, which defined beauty standards on a national scale. Though mainstream media rarely represented black women as beautiful, black women’s beauty was valued within black communities. Moreover many black women used cosmetics, hair products and styling, and clothing to meet their communities’ standards for feminine appearance. At the beginning of the 20th century, the black press, which included newspapers, general magazines, and women’s magazines, showcased the beauty of black women. As early as the 1890s, black communities organized beauty contests that celebrated black women’s beauty and served as fora for debating definitions of black beauty. Still, generally, but not always, the black press and black women’s beauty pageants favored women with lighter skin tones, and many cosmetics firms that marketed to black women sold skin lighteners. The favoring of light skin was nonetheless debated and contested within black communities, especially during periods of heightened black political activism. In the 1910s and 1920s and later in the 1960s and 1970s, social movements fostered critiques of black aesthetics and beauty practices deemed Eurocentric. One focus of criticism was the widespread black practice of hair straightening—a critique that has produced an enduring association between hairstyles perceived as natural and racial pride. In the last decades of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, African migration and the transnational dissemination of information via the internet contributed to a creative proliferation of African American hairstyles. While such styles display hair textures associated with African American hair, and are celebrated as natural hairstyles, they generally require the use of hair products and may incorporate synthetic hair extensions.
Beauty culture provided an important vehicle for African American entrepreneurship at a time when racial discrimination barred black women from other opportunities and most national cosmetics companies ignored black women. Black women’s beauty-culture business activities included beauticians who provided hair care in home settings and the extremely successful nationwide and international brand of hair- and skin-care products developed in the first two decades of the 20th century by Madam C. J. Walker. Hair-care shops provided important places for sharing information and community organizing. By the end of the 20th century, a few black-owned hair-care and cosmetics companies achieved broad markets and substantial profitability, but most declined or disappeared as they faced increased competition from or were purchased by larger white-owned corporations.
By the end of the 19th century, the medical specialties of gynecology and obstetrics established a new trend in women’s healthcare. In the 20th century, more and more American mothers gave birth under the care of a university-trained physician. The transition from laboring and delivering with the assistance of female family, neighbors, and midwives to giving birth under medical supervision is one of the most defining shifts in the history of childbirth. By the 1940s, the majority of American mothers no longer expected to give birth at home, but instead traveled to hospitals, where they sought reassurance from medical experts as well as access to pain-relieving drugs and life-saving technologies. Infant feeding followed a similar trajectory. Traditionally, infant feeding in the West had been synonymous with breastfeeding, although alternatives such as wet nursing and the use of animal milks and broths had existed as well. By the early 20th century, the experiences of women changed in relation to sweeping historical shifts in immigration, urbanization, and industrialization, and so too did their abilities and interests in breastfeeding. Scientific study of infant feeding yielded increasingly safer substitutes for breastfeeding, and by the 1960s fewer than 1 in 5 mothers breastfed. In the 1940s and 1950s, however, mothers began to organize and to resist the medical management of childbirth and infant feeding. The formation of childbirth education groups helped spread information about natural childbirth methods and the first dedicated breastfeeding support organization, La Leche League, formed in 1956. By the 1970s, the trend toward medicalized childbirth and infant feeding that had defined the first half of the century was in significant flux. By the end of the 20th century, efforts to harmonize women’s interests in more “natural” motherhood experiences with the existing medical system led to renewed interest in midwifery, home birth, and birth centers. Despite the cultural shift in favor of fewer medical interventions, rates of cesarean sections climbed to new heights by the end of the 1990s. Similarly, although pressures on mothers to breastfeed mounted by the end of the century, the practice itself increasingly relied upon the use of technologies such as the breast pump. By the close of the century, women’s agency in pursuing more natural options proceeded in tension with the technological, social, medical, and political systems that continued to shape their options.
After World War II, Okinawa was placed under U.S. military rule and administratively separated from mainland Japan. This occupation lasted from 1945 to 1972, and in these decades Okinawa became the “Keystone of the Pacific,” a leading strategic site in U.S. military expansionism in Asia and the Pacific. U.S. rule during this Cold War period was characterized by violence and coercion, resulting in an especially staggering scale of sexual violence against Okinawan women by U.S. military personnel. At the same time, the occupation also facilitated numerous cultural encounters between the occupiers and the occupied, leading to a flourishing cross-cultural grassroots exchange. A movement to establish American-style domestic science (i.e., home economics) in the occupied territory became a particularly important feature of this exchange, one that mobilized an assortment of women—home economists, military wives, club women, university students, homemakers—from the United States, Okinawa, and mainland Japan. The postwar domestic science movement turned Okinawa into a vibrant theater of Cold War cultural performance where women of diverse backgrounds collaborated to promote modern homemaking and build friendship across racial and national divides. As these women took their commitment to domesticity and multiculturalism into the larger terrain of the Pacific, they articulated the complex intertwining that occurred among women, domesticity, the military, and empire.
Courtney Q. Shah
A concerted movement to promote sex education in America emerged in the early 20th century as part of a larger public health movement that also responded to the previous century’s concerns about venereal disease, prostitution, “seduction,” and “white slavery.” Sex education, therefore, offered a way to protect people (especially privileged women) from sexual activity of all kinds—consensual and coerced. A widespread introduction into public schools did not occur until after World War I. Sex education programs in schools tended to focus on training for heterosexual marriage at a time when high school attendance spiked in urban and suburban areas. Teachers often segregated male and female students.
Beyond teaching boys about male anatomy and girls about female anatomy, reformers and educators often conveyed different messages and used different materials, depending on the race of their students. Erratic desegregation efforts during the Civil Rights movement renewed a crisis in sex education programs. Parents and administrators considered sexuality education even more dangerous in the context of a racially integrated classroom. The backlash against sex education in the schools kept pace with the backlash against integration, with each often used to bolster the other. Opponents of integration and sex education, for example, often used racial language to scare parents about what kids were learning, and with whom.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the political power of the evangelical movement in the United States attracted support for “abstinence-only” curricula that relied on scare tactics and traditional assumptions about gender and sexuality. The ever-expanding acceptance (both legal and social) of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender identity directly challenged the conservative turn of abstinence-until-marriage sex education programs. The politics of gender, race, class, and sexual orientation have consistently shaped and limited sex education.
In late 19th- and early 20th-century America, a new image of womanhood emerged that began to shape public views and understandings of women’s role in society.
Identified by contemporaries as a Gibson Girl, a suffragist, a Progressive reformer, a bohemian feminist, a college girl, a bicyclist, a flapper, a working-class militant, or a Hollywood vamp, all of these images came to epitomize the New Woman, an umbrella term for modern understandings of femininity. Referring both to real, flesh-and-blood women, and also to an abstract idea or a visual archetype, the New Woman represented a generation of women who came of age between 1890 and 1920 and challenged gender norms and structures by asserting a new public presence through work, education, entertainment, and politics, while also denoting a distinctly modern appearance that contrasted with Victorian ideals. The New Woman became associated with the rise of feminism and the campaign for women’s suffrage, as well as with the rise of consumerism, mass culture, and freer expressions of sexuality that defined the first decades of the 20th century. Emphasizing youth, mobility, freedom, and modernity, the image of the New Woman varied by age, class, race, ethnicity, and geographical region, offering a spectrum of behaviors and appearances with which different women could identify. At times controversial, the New Woman image provided women with opportunities to negotiate new social roles and to promote ideas of equality and freedom that would later become mainstream.