Sex among the rabble: an intimate history of gender and power in the age of revolution, Philadelphia 1730-1830.
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Subject:||Books (Book reviews)|
|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: Sex among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender and Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1730-1830 (Book)|
|Persons:||Reviewee: Lyons, Clare A.|
Sex among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender and Power in
the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia 1730-1830. By Clare A. Lyons (Chapel
Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. 432 pp.).
This is a book with great strengths, especially in the areas of good writing, depth of research and integration of social and cultural history. However, there are also some arguments and interpretations that seem only weakly linked to the evidence and will certainly stimulate debate. First, as to the book's strengths, Lyons is to be commended for tackling important questions about the role of sexuality in power relations on both an intimate and a public level. She posits that sexual behavior and attitudes are key to understanding power relations between classes, genders and races and further that gendered power relations influenced the revolutionary politics and state building being played out during the period under study. Over this hundred year period from 1730 to 1830, Lyons argues that women's sexual autonomy and opportunity to participate in what Lyons calls a "culture of pleasure" came full circle. She traces the development in the late eighteenth century of an "expansive sexual culture" which freed women from the constraints of the colonial era. It was a time in which women of all classes exercised their sexual autonomy, confronting men openly in divorce and bastardy cases and even engaging in prostitution. However, by the beginning of the nineteenth century control over women's sexual lives once again limited their ability to make choices, although in a different way. The emerging middle class began to impose its own sexual culture on poor working class women and men as well as racial minorities. This meant that middle class women accepted a view of themselves as possessing an "inert" (Lyons' term) sexuality while an expansive and bawdy sexuality was identified with the non-respectable rabble. This two tiered sexual system was a new development in the early nineteenth century allowing the politically powerful middle class to blame lower class and minority women's lack of sexual control for their own poverty and lack of respectability. Thus, public responsibility for women's poverty whether through divorce, producing a bastard child or prostitution was lessened or even negated. Middle class women and men believed this new emphasis on sexual restraint, especially on the part of women, was key to family stability and by extension, political stability in the new nation.
In order to demonstrate this trajectory of change in sexual culture and power, Lyons relies on four categories: self-divorce and adultery, bastardy, prostitution and print culture (newspapers, almanacs, pamphlets) to prove her case. For each period from the middle of the eighteenth century to the early nineteenth century, she utilizes similar documents to show how each category changed. Self-divorce and adultery are explored through newspaper notices of runaway wives and husbands as well as court cases; bastardy cases are examined through the records of the Philadelphia Guardians of the Poor; prostitution is assessed using newspapers, police arrest records and information on brothels; print media are employed to show attitudes toward sexuality in contradistinction to actual behavior that emerges from the social history sources. These are all very rich sources which the author mines in great depth and with sensitivity. Especially effective is her integration of the print sources with the social history sources concerning divorce, bastardy and prostitution. She demonstrates that the bawdy sexual culture of the post revolutionary era accurately reflected actual sexual behavior as shown in public records. Lyons' accomplishment is to convincingly document the increasing openness and public nature of sexual behavior in the late eighteenth century and its suppression in the early nineteenth century. One example of this new repressive sexual culture is changes in policy instituted by Philadelphia Guardians of the Poor. In the 1820s they began to deny women support for illegitimate infants and largely gave up pursuing men, especially middle and upper class men, for child support. This new policy reflected belief of the middle-class that women's uncontrolled sexual passion led to a life of vice and poverty, therefore negating public responsibility.
Yet it is Lyons interpretation of what this change in sexual attitudes and behavior meant for women of all classes that is likely to be contested. Claiming that women's participation in the "expansive" sexual culture of the late eighteenth century was an expression of pleasure, autonomy and even equality with men does not seem entirely borne out by the evidence. Motivation for self-divorce, adultery, having an illegitimate child or becoming a prostitute is difficult to demonstrate. Although Lyons has some qualitative evidence that shows some women taking pride in these sexual choices, it is difficult to extend this far enough to claim, as Lyons seems to do, that most women were exercising independence and autonomy. And although Lyons allows for the possibility that some women were actually more vulnerable to male exploitation in this "expansive" sexual culture, her main conclusion is that this was a very positive era for women. The advent of middle-class culture with its insistence on women's natural "innert" sexuality and confinement to domesticity was, according to this interpretation, an extremely negative development that would lead only to sexual repression and political oppression. One can almost hear echoes of the "golden age" argument that used to dominate women's history!
Thus, although Lyons is very successful in showing that sexual culture changed from an open system in which sexuality was much more apparent and acceptable in public documents as well as print media, she is not as effective in demonstrating that this open sexual culture provided women with sexual independence and autonomy. However, despite my reservations on this issue, this is a richly evocative book which will be used to debate the subject of sexuality in the early national period for years to come.
University of Connecticut
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