Mysteries of sex: tracing women & men through American history.
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Subject:||Books (Book reviews)|
|Author:||Ginzberg, Lori D.|
|Publication:||Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2008 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529|
|Issue:||Date: Summer, 2008 Source Volume: 41 Source Issue: 4|
|Topic:||NamedWork: Mysteries of Sex: Tracing Women and Men through American History (Book)|
|Persons:||Reviewee: Ryan, Mary P.|
Mysteries of Sex: Tracing Women & Men through American History.
By Mary P. Ryan (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
448 pp., 19 llus. $37.50).
When I started graduate school in the late 1970s, my single shelf of women's history books included Mary P. Ryan's Womanhood in America: From Colonial Times to the Present. (It now seems quaint that, on its back cover, Richard B. Morris warned "any male chauvinist [to] be wary about entering the lists with an adversary so well-armed.") The book was a valuable attempt to "describe the making of the social and cultural category, womanhood, the artificial mold into which history has persistently shaped the female sex" (Womanhood, 3). "What is woman?" Ryan asked, which reminds us that while postmodernists may have appropriated the idea, the social construction of gender has always been central to feminist inquiry. In later books, Ryan explored more specialized aspects of the history of American women, but in Womanhood in America she offered a broad, if early, synthesis of the field and a view of what remained to be done. (1)
If her "youthful audacity" (Mysteries, 5) led Ryan to hurtle across several hundred years of women's history in 1975, how much more daring to "Trac[e] Women and Men through American History" now. Mysteries of Sex, while it reconsiders aspects of Womanhood in America, should not be mistaken for a revised edition of that work. Neither a textbook nor a narrow scholarly intervention, it wrestles with thirty years of scholarship in an attempt to answer a question that Ryan still finds compelling: "What has that complicated and ever-recurring process of dividing humanity according to sex done in the world and over time?" (12) Shaped by three closely related concerns--"gender asymmetry, the relations of the sexes, and gender hierarchy" (13)--Ryan's book explores how particular historical moments illuminate the meanings and uses of gender. Part I, "Making Sex in America," which sweeps across the years 1500 to 1900, describes cross-cultural encounters, ideologies of domesticity, and the intercon-nectedness of sexual and racial systems. Part II focuses on the so-called public realm, and asks "What is the Sex of Citizenship?" Part III, which explores topics in paid work, sexuality, and immigration, suggests how divisions of peoples, races, classes, and nationalities have remade boundaries between male and female up to our own time. By the year 2000, Ryan argues, "Each of the three dimensions of the modern constellation of gender had been seriously eroded ... " (281) and she offers a wide array of stories to ground that argument.
As in any grand narrative, Mysteries of Sex offers both challenges of selection and problems of interpretion. Inevitably, readers will get cranky about what is not here--the untold stories, absent connections, and uncited books. But rather than quibble with Ryan's choices, I hope readers will discuss what is here and will engage critically with how Ryan fleshes out her understanding of gender over time and place.
My own disagreements with Ryan reflect two concerns: first, there is some slippage from viewing gender as a locus of power and authority to seeing sexual difference as a reflection merely of prescription or "culture." In Ryan's analysis, "patriarchs" organized societies in which their own dominance as men was natural and just. But when formerly enslaved men, in Frances Harper's phrase, " 'positively beat their wives,'" they have committed "missteps," (129) and when union men resist federal control over their, and women's, labor, they are simply-trying to hold onto "manly self-reliance" (185). If gender helps to mark status and authority for elite men, it also does the work of distributing power within less privileged communities.
My second concern is perhaps more fundamental. Like many historians who were shaped by late twentieth-century feminism (and here I include myself), Ryan is finally unwilling to reconsider the usefulness of gender itself as a conceptual framework across time and place. When she argues that the "border between male and female" (291) has become complicated by greater gender equality in education, women's increased workforce participation, and the transformation of cultural symbols, she seems to take "gender" itself to mean many things, most of them apparently inherent in nature. Phrases like "Gender could act like salt in the wounds of immigration and economic restructuring" (312) and "Gender politics garnered strength all along the route of postmodern migration" (315) fail to explain clearly whether Ryan considers gender a framework for understanding particular power relations or a euphemism for old-fashioned feminism, a transhistorical given or a piece of a shifting puzzle. If every historical act that includes men and/or women is "about" gender, then we fail in our effort to explicate the historical nature of the concept itself.
Some of my frustration arose because of the book's writing. Ryan's affection for complicated metaphors, while presumably (and appropriately) intended to attract readers allergic to scholarly prose, often obscures her analysis: Europeans who came to North America without women were "social amputees" (44); European challenges to Native American men constituted "mutations of masculinity" (50, 51); a county without women had "a genocidal sex ratio" (48); and the icon of "motherhood and apple pie" was "just a clay god" (63). More than merely clunky, these phrases underscore the limitations of Ryan's questions; they imply that gender was indeed a natural thing, an "ever-recurring process," a limb or an idol--something that could be mutated, worshipped, or lopped off. Ryan has not truly demanded that we engage the ways that gender itself was, all along, a "clay god," that it is, in Jeanne Boydston's phrase, a "historically and culturally specific category" in its own right. (2)
By the twenty-first century, Ryan concludes, the "boundaries between the sexes ... had weakened and become more difficult to discern and describe. No longer a single, deep canyon, the dividing line between male and female has stretched across a whole landscape of meandering hills and gullies." (281) Certainly gender is complex, its meanings varied, and its uses contradictory. But this was true at every point of Ryan's story: the "dividing line" we persist in calling gender was never reflected in "simple, blunt divisions" (281) but was always, as Ryan herself notes, intertwined with multiple hierarchies and relationships. For all its important work, Mysteries of Sex does not move enough beyond our own conception of gender to rethink the hard questions about power, privilege, and transformation in people's lives that have long infused Mary Ryan's work.
(1.) Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York, 1790-1865 (Cambridge, 1981); Women in Public: Between Banners and Ballots, 1825-1880 (Baltimore, 1990); Civic Wars: Democracy and Public Life in Nineteenth Century America (Berkeley. 1997).
(2.) Jeanne Boydston, "Historicizing Gender," Unpublished Paper delivered to rhe Organization of American Historians Meeting, March 30, 2007, Minneapolis, MN. Quoted with permission of the author.
Pennsylvania State University
Lori D. Ginzberg
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