Joan Scott Was Not Alone: The Emergence and Investigation of Gender in U.S. Women’s History 1980 – 1992

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Over the past two decades, the combined influences of cultural studies and theory have reshaped history. If the 1960s and 1970s ushered in a new cohort of practitioners which illustrated a greater diversity encompassing regions, ethnicities, races, classes, and genders previously ignored or excluded, the resulting social history shifted the historical discourse away from its long running obsession with “great” men, notably white men, and political histories. As some have argued new analytics like gender have refurbished historical study, infusing studies with new perspectives, considerations, and ideas.

Among the numerous historical fields affected, women’s history provides a clear delineation of this process. Though debates between respected historians such as Joan Scott and Joan Huff over the role of gender, its meaning, and how it is employed continue, the fundamental fact remains gender now serves as a disputed but central presence in history.

Twenty years have passed since Scott’s now seminal AHR article “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis”. Scott prodded historians to employ poststructuralist theory, Foucualdian ideas of power and gender, and literary criticism. Scott challenged historians to reconsider their understanding of “the sexes, of gender groups in the historical past.” For Scott, the “goal is to discover the range in sex roles and in sexual symbolism in different societies and periods to find out what meaning they had and how they functioned to maintain the social order or to promote its change.” Not everyone embraced Scott’s provocations, Joan Huff responded sharply suggesting that Scott’s dependence on poststructuralists and postmodernism illustrated a flawed understanding of history and that it functioned to erase historical discourse. Meyerwitz summarized Hoff’s objections in a 2008 AHR article reflecting on Scott’s influence, “Joan Hoff …. accused postructuralists gender historians, and Scott in particular, of nihilism, presentism, ahistoricism, obfuscation, elitism, obeisance to partriarchy, ethnocentrism, irrelevance, and possibly racism.”

Of course, even a cursory examination of the prominent works over the last ten years yields a clear winner in this debate: Joan Scott. Gender’s utility to explore power relations has served historians exploring U.S. imperialism well, notably Paul Kramer’s Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States and the Philippines (2006), Laura Briggs’s Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico (2002), and Allison Sneider’s Suffragists in the Imperial Age: U.S. Expansion and the Woman Question 1870 – 1929 (2008). By employing gender as an analytic outside of formal U.S. boundaries these authors also reveal the effects of foreign policy on racial logics within the contiguous United States. Peggy Pascoe’s What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America (2009) and Hannah Rosen’s Terror in the Heart of Freedom (2008) provided two discrete domestic examples, which utilized gender to explore issues of race and sexuality. However, these works also engage in second crucial shift, the study of intimacy. Though recent scholarship like the edited Ann Stoler volume Haunted by Empire: Geographies of Intimacy in North America illustrates this trend most clearly, earlier works in the U.S. field of women’s studies began to explore these areas before, during, and after Joan Scott’s academic broadside. Scott’s challenge reflected theoretical and schematic turns unfolding in graduate institutions across America. Works by Karen Anderson, Beth Bailey, and David Farber, covering the period from 1980 to 1992, exhibit numerous aspects of Scott’s argument but also shift history’s focus to sites of intimacy, reflecting on the meanings and importance of such interactions more broadly.

Publishing in the same era as contemporary women’s historians Joanne Meyerowitz, Ruth Rosen, and Kathy Peiss, Karen Anderson helped to realign the traditionally masculine historical narrative. Unlike historians from previous decades, these authors explored women’s lives from the vantage point of their own agency. Though each author acknowledged the influence of gendered economic markets which ultimately reduced women’s choices and ability to remain independent, Rosen, Peiss, and Meyerwitz all exhibited understandings that women served as actors not just unfortunate victims. Moreover, women’s agency in these periods created spaces for future women and men. In sum, these authors revealed the influence working women exerted in turn of the century America, helping to shape then nation’s future sexual mores.

In relation, Wartime Women preceded all these works setting the tone for their later scholarship. Shifting the focus of World War II from the battlefield and leading political figures to women on the domestic front, the book reexamines the various roles women occupied in wartime America. Anderson argues that though some historians attribute women’s postwar employment changes simply to economics, she suggests that the 1941-46 period played a more prominent role in these developments, helping to accelerate the economic changes that emerged in postwar America. Moreover, though such studies exist in abundance today, in 1981 few historians explored the effects of living in a society with severe sex ratios. Finally, historians had not investigated “the effects of war on sex role socialization and family structure and role divisions … “ and the influences of such experiences in thinking about postwar America. Importantly Anderson points out that despite continuing occupational sex segregation, a lack of appropriate child care, and the lingering negative attitudes regarding female employment, women did gain employment, opening doors for themselves and later generations. The necessities of wartime America undermined “somewhat the sex segregated labor market and the ideas that perpetuated it …” Lacking national uniformity, local municipal government and attitudes greatly influenced the breath of change. Using Seattle, Detroit, and Baltimore, Anderson illustrates the influence of local factors on policies as each municipality exhibited differences in interpretation and execution of federal wartime policies. “Mobilization themes” employed several rationales in convincing women to pursue employment among them patriotism, the prestige of war workers, and “a stress on women’s capacities for nontraditional work.” For women themselves, motives included patriotism, economic necessity, escape from the home, desire for social independence, and prevention of loneliness or anxiety. Though rates of women’s participation in the workforce vary between Seattle, Detroit, and Baltimore, in all three over 90 percent of female workers contributed to family upkeep, as families grew accustomed to increase purchasing power. This resulted in increasing income levels and “property mobility” for women and their families. Predictably, race intervened for some women. Employer discrimination against black women resulted in their inability to secure the kind of industrial/manufacturing jobs that their white counterparts were able to secure. For black women, the intersection of racism and sexism undermined their employment opportunities meaning they frequently were referred to domestic work and other service sectors. Despite progress, the war failed to change “conventional ideas regarding women’s proper social and economic role.” Still in spite of this persistent prejudice, the war provided women with a means for refuting these very biases. Women expressed an appreciation for the “economic independence, sense of accomplishment and social contacts” that came with employment.

Occupational changes brought by the war contributed to alterations in the workplace, but family life experienced new developments including fears over juvenile delinquency, increased birth, marriage, and divorce rates, and increased stress from wartime conditions. However, Anderson points out that though the war brought changes, it also “reinforced and perpetuated existing role divisions and their ideological underpinnings.”

During the war, fears over women’s sexual conduct proliferated. Regulation of women’s behavior became a central aspect of psychological and social welfare officials as they attempted to explain and control female sexuality. Postwar America then turned to these practices as precedents to employ. Anderson notes the paucity of historical works that explore the “unbalanced sex ratio of the war years.” Since Wartime Women’s 1981 publication, this area has received attention. For example, Beth Bailey and Farber’s The First Strange Place: The Alchemy of Race and Sex in World War II Hawaii examined the effects of such ratios on the then territory of Hawaii. Anderson, Bailey, and Farber generally agree that the absence of males increased their importance, as Anderson suggests “men became a scarce and valued commodity.” Accordingly, an increase in teen marriage, going steady, and a general changes to sexual behavior were all results of this development.” Marital strains grew in this period as work schedules, women’s employment, new responsibilities for housewives, overcrowded housing, and “new opportunities for social and sexual contacts outside marriages” combined to stress many couples of the period. Unsurprisingly, these stresses and others resulted in rising divorce rates. Working class families especially encountered tensions as women’s employment threatened men’s marital roles more so than in middle class homes. In this way workplace resistance to female workers may have reflected not only individual economic labor interests but also the “ideological and cultural bases for” family authority. The perceived abandonment of conventional feminine sex roles only contributed to apprehensions. For Anderson the war made a significant difference in a very short time for women. While this did not ensure linear progress it contribute to “shaping the post war decisions of women.” As the demands of the labor market changed in the postwar period, reconversion overwhelmingly benefitted men over women. Returning veterans and “the reimposition of discriminatory policies on the part of employers, unions, and government agencies all contributed to the problems of women workers in the postwar period. “ Still, some shifts in employment were voluntary as some women found the demands of work to be too much or the benefits too few.

The postwar shift toward mass consumption made women’s employment less antagonistic as Anderson points out “the materialism of the years after 1945 was probably an even more significant cultural value than the veneration of domesticity …” Even so, like Lizabeth Cohen after her, Anderson notes the nature of the G.I. bill required wives to support their veteran husbands as they took advantage of benefits. Moreover, symbols like the Rosie the Riveter attracted a new negative sheen as psychologists suggested that “wartime changes had fostered the development of widespread individual neuroses and social maladjustments largely caused by the failure of women to accept their femininity” which really meant being subordinate to men. Unfortunately, the intense focus on the family during the war and the failure of public child care resulted in maintaining “conventional attitudes regarding the role of women within the family.” Following Anderson eight years later, Beth Bailey’s From the Front Porch to the Back Seat: Courtship in the Twentieth Century (1989) also illustrates the shift in perspectives to sites of intimacy. However, unlike Anderson, Bailey’s work employs Foucault, notably aspects of Discipline and Punishment and governmentality, as it investigates how sexual conventions regarding courtship and dating both affected and were shaped by adolescents and others from the turn of the century to the 1960s.

The rise of dating and the gradual retirement of courtship serves as Bailey’s initial focus. Courtship had been a fundamentally private exercise that took place within the women’s home giving her power over the process . However, dating brought these interactions into the public sphere, emphasizing the economic nature of the process which in a heavily gendered labor market privileged men over women.. In this context, women became a commodity with appearance, femininity, and virtue as their defining features. However, though courtship faded as dating rose in prominence and many older folks expressed disappointment over this occurrence, society ultimately accepted its ramifications, but did so by employing discursive controls over behavior. Here Bailey utilizes aspects of Foucault as she explores how youth and adult conventions attempted to regulate sexual activity. Bailey argues that by the 1920’s and afterward, sex became youth culture’s defining characteristic, “sex became [its] central public symbol … a fundamental part of the definition that separated youth from age.” As youth cultural institutions developed, a formidable mass media emerged which trumpeted “new sexual norms” in the public arena. This proved unique as Bailey notes that “sexual experience in the twentieth century was laid open to the public view as never before in history.” The system of rules governing dating did not “control sex itself” but they did make sex more challenging by making it “logistically difficult”. However, beneath the regulatory nature of conventions operated an ideology based on “historically and culturally produced understandings of male and female roles and of systems of value and exchange,” which did not support the idea that “youth” could be united. Instead, for this ideology gender intervened. The two systems operated in tandem as Bailey notes, “While the regulatory systems attempted to control sex by controlling women, this ideological system made women, themselves, the controllers of sex.” In this sense, petting, necking, premarital sex, and even rape was described as a woman’s failure to impose sexual limits on men who by nature pursued such activity. Karen Anderson’s Wartime Women illustrates the amplified nature of these systems during war as most American cities imposed strict controls over women’s sexuality, even reinterpreting prostitution such that it “came to be defined not only as intercourse for hire but also as indiscriminate or promiscuous intercourse.”

Again, like Anderson, Bailey acknowledges women’s increasing role in the national economy and those of their families. If Anderson pointed to the war’s contribution to this development, Bailey similarly concludes that the economic benefits of female employment allowed middle class families to “enjoy the good life.” Even if antagonisms declined, both Anderson and Bailey acknowledge that due to this development the “crisis of masculinity” that had begun with economic and social changes at the turn of the century accelerated.

The rise of organizational men, with skills that had been in the past viewed as more feminine, and presence of women in the workforce bred fears that modern society sublimated masculinity. Women’s employment “robbed men” of their masculinity, while threatening to usurp their position as family provider. In part to order such changes, etiquette manuals and scientific theories developed to enforce performative gender roles. Rules of etiquette established the proper behaviors that protected a women’s virtue, which by mid-century had become of central value, while enforcing men’s masculinity. The separateness of the sexes could most visibility be witnessed by Hugh Hefner’s burgeoning Playboy empire, that rejected the “togetherness” tropes that he and others argued undermined masculinity. The turn to “scientific experts” and the use of social sciences to shape women’s sexuality, which Anderson pointed out twisted the symbol of Rosie the Riveter from a patriotic dutiful citizen into a neurotic, man challenging female, augmented these various controls. Though the roles that Playboy and etiquette manuals proved superficial and even false, the public accepted the message broadly as Bailey suggests “they [the public] wanted to know the rules governing relations between the sexes, the rules that would tell them how to be masculine or how to be feminine.” When women began to outnumber men in postwar America, some believed the dominant themes of the day embracing the “charade” since it proved a framing mechanism for relationships, “it could make the first dates with an interesting partner seem ideal. In a time of rapid change and confused sex roles, there was satisfaction in the clearly defined roles etiquette offered.” Moreover, etiquette served as a “neutral” arbiter, balancing the power of men in women in courtship. Bailey’s exploration of the performative nature of gender served as a central aspect of several works that came afterward which focused on masculinity and femininity but also the complexities of homosexual worlds and identities which Front Porch to Back Seat ignores. Such works include George Chauncey’s Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture and the Making of the Gay Male World (1995), Daniel Hurewitz’s Bohemian L.A.: Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics (2007) and Nan Boyd’s Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965 (2005).

Three years after From the Front Porch to the Back Seat, in the aforementioned The First Strange Place: The Alchemy of Race and Sex in World War II Hawaii (1992) Bailey along with David Farber, once again explored gender and sexuality but this time included the relation of race to each. If works such as Kramer’s Blood of Government, Briggs’s Reproducing Empire, Stoler’s Haunted by Empire reflect the recent marriage of gender, race, intimacies, and transnationalism, The First Strange Place sits at the front of this movement. Tellingly, Bailey and Farber point this out in their introduction, justifying their choice of atypical Hawaii, “Hawaii was at the margin of American life as well as of the war. But sometimes it is at the margins that the messy definitions and complicated interactions are pushed to extremes and made visible; far reaching changes sometimes germinate in marginal places.” In terms of government policies, Hawaii exhibited numerous characterstics at odds with mainland America. First, the racial mix in Hawaii created a complicated ethnic and racial hierarchy, heavily influenced by large numbers of pacific Islanders and Asians, most prominently Japanese/Japanese Americans. Moreover, the lack of white working class altered dynamics. As result, unlike the mainland, internment never occurred. Second, the acceptance by military officials of men’s, specifically soldiers’, inherent sexual nature bred a belief that soldiers who “won’t fuck won’t fight” , thus, there existed need for female companionship in a territory where men drastically outnumbered women. As such, officials, military and eventually local, instituted a regulated system of prostitution. On the surface, this would seem to confirm Anderson’s assertion that local municipalities shaped wartime policies, however, the Hawaiian government - in part because it sat in the warzone for several months of the war – relented to military officials, giving martial law and military authority more control than other areas. In this sense, the lack of local government or their unique lack of control in this instance did determine how policies were enacted. War workers and enlisted personnel upset the delicate class and racial sexual balance that haole elites had enforced, one that separated the island’s “respectable white women” from the lower class white and darker hued residents.

Thematically, issues of race and gender predominate. Hawaii’s multicultural demographics resemble today’s increasingly diverse population more than the America of World War II. Arriving troops hailing from the mainland carried with them a set of racial beliefs and hierarchies that often conflicted with Hawaii’s own byzantine race and ethnic relations. The introduction of black troops amidst large numbers of white southern recruits allowed for numerous racial exchanges. The multiracial nature of Hawaii enabled black troops to occupy public spaces and enjoy equal footing with white soldiers more so than on the mainland. However, their lives remained circumscribed. If Hawaiian residents had no opinions of African Americans before the war due to isolation, then many white soldiers offered their views of blacks often imbuing African Americans with animalistic features and behaviors. This discourse proved pervasive, the most damaging being the conflation of black soldiers with rape. The combination of this discourse and a well publicized rape/murder in Maui by a black soldier resulted in what military officials claimed was “a Negro problem … creating poor morale among Island residents.”

White soldiers’s correspondence home often derided blacks for not knowing their place and similar sentiments. Whites resented the extra room accorded blacks in Hawaii’s multicultural milieu. The military government promoted tolerance as it saw it as the only way to avoid unrest. The army’s newspaper transformed itself into a “steady instrument for racial progress.” Army busses transporting troops from the base to the downtown area prohibited segregation, which in close quarters led to numerous fights. Nevertheless, blacks endured discrimination. Black war workers and sailors absorbed “a steady drumbeat of racist remarks, insults, and slights” from white shipyard workers. Moreover, Naval Intelligence regarded blacks as subversives on par with communists and the Japanese. For blacks, their opposition to racism served as adequate evidence for the categorization. For the many women not involved in the sex industry, the island’s sex ratio proved simultaneously exciting and overbearing. Though due to conscription, men were in short supply on the mainland, they overflowed in Hawaii. However, their constant attentions to the fairer sex often overstepped respectful boundaries resulting in unwanted touching or groping. Some soldiers who had befriended women, feared for their female friends safety such that they upbraided them for traveling alone at night. The war, as other writers such as Alice Clement and Marilyn Hagerty have noted, changed sexual behaviors and attitudes. Farber and Bailey confirm many of Wartime Women’s and Bailey’s own conclusions regarding younger marriages, marital stress, and sexual behavior, as Farber and Bailey acknowledge, “Sexual boundaries were also renegotiated.”

Still, many women on the island resented the overly masculine atmosphere that implied the women should give up something in return for the soldier’s own sacrifices. Even young adolescent’s endured/enjoyed the attentions of servicemen. However, the public whistles earned a special enmity among the island’s female population as many grew tired of this “promiscuous sexual claiming.” Yet, though women endured these daily frustrations, many noted that they understood the stresses and difficulties these men operated under.

Soldiers own prejudices also interfered with their romantic lives. Many envisioned blond blue eyed Hawaiians to greet them, an image no doubt encouraged by films. When they encountered a Pacific Island and Asian women instead, some reacted negatively as one man explained his dating preferences, “I guess I have too much pride to be walking with a Jap, a Chinese, or the black girls. (Hawaiians are really black.)” Of course, plenty of soldiers viewed dating Asians and other nonwhites as “unobjectionable” considering the circumstances and some welcomed the opportunity with few or any prejudices. Marriage proved another issue. First, the nature of military service meant many men were not considering marriage at all. Second, mainland America forbade interracial marriages, though a territory, military officials had to approve pending nuptials. As such, they banned interracial couplings or at the very least severely discouraged them since many believed these marriages would not be acknowledged on the mainland. Furthermore, socially not only haoles opposed such marriages. Though they expressed different rationales, local Japanese American also viewed such couplings unfavorably .

The shift toward gender as an analytic may have gained professional attention due to Joan Scott’s now famous article, however, well before its publication in 1986, graduate students and others had considered many of Scott’s arguments. Moreover, as attentions turned to gendered analytics so too did the sites of historical investigation find new inspiration as intimacies provided new and exciting insights into the past. Anderson, Bailey, and Farber all exhibit aspects of these developments, though Bailey’s two works probably go the farthest. Through these works, one can trace the trajectory of scholars, culminating with the transnational race and gender focused The First Strange Place. While it remained a work of U.S. history, it also hinted at the future of the field as it simultaneously engaged mainland America and its colonial history. Moreover, though direct comparisons equate it with works such as Haunted by Empire, it also relates to recent scholarship such as Charlotte Brookes Alien Neighbors. Foreign Friends, which like The First Strange Place, notes that demographics in the nation’s more remote regions actually more precisely reflect the nation’s racial and ethnic demographics. From the margins, one may find the center.

Ryan Reft