Sex Expression and American Women Writers, 1860-1940

Sex Expression and American Women Writers, 1860-1940

Sex Expression and American Women Writers, 1860-1940

Sex Expression and American Women Writers, 1860-1940


American women novelists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries registered a call for a new sexual freedom, Dale Bauer contends. By creating a lexicon of "sex expression," many authors explored sexuality as part of a discourse about women's needs rather than confining it to the realm of sentiments, where it had been relegated (if broached at all) by earlier writers. This new rhetoric of sexuality enabled critical conversations about who had sex, when in life they had it, and how it signified.

Whether liberating or repressive, sexuality became a potential force for female agency in these women's novels, Bauer explains, insofar as these novelists seized the power of rhetoric to establish their intellectual authority. Thus, Bauer argues, they helped transform the traditional ideal of sexual purity into a new goal of sexual pleasure, defining in their fiction what intimacy between equals might become.

Analyzing the work of canonical as well as popular writers--including Edith Wharton, Anzia Yezierska, Julia Peterkin, and Fannie Hurst, among others--Bauer demonstrates that the new sexualization of American culture was both material and rhetorical.


Sex behaviors, sex experience, sex rationalism, sex propensity, sex excess, sex values, sex suppression, sex starvation, sex freedom, sex inclination, sex impulses, sex distinction, sexual efficiency, sex morality, sex potentiality—Mary Austin deploys all of these terms in Love and the Soul Maker (1914), her treatise on how women might understand “the great adventure of sex life” in the twentieth century (137). In explaining the modernization of sexuality, including the moral values associated with love and the emergence of women's sex expression, Austin uses these and other similar phrases to devise a new rhetoric of sexuality. Nor was she alone in using these phrases, of which only “sex appeal” seems to have survived. The term “sex expression” was thus introduced into the cultural lexicon as a means of describing this radical upheaval in sex imagination, a new discourse that corresponded to the visual signs of women's signifying on the body and putting on style, a discourse that belonged to expressive culture rather than to nature or the marketplace. In this way, the new sexualization of American culture at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth was indeed both material and rhetorical.

Much of the fiction concerning sex expression is inevitably middle class since these are stories written by women fitting narrative styles (like dresses in Anzia Yezierska's fiction) to passions that have no settings or forms. These women would even seem at odds with themselves since they were, according to Freudian theories of their sexual constitution, conflicted by the opposing desires of self- and sex expression, the former through work and power and the latter through heterosexual pleasure. And that conflict is deflected onto age and aging, beauty and ugliness, race and ethnicity, and psychology: women must “do” sex first while young, then—as middle-aged agents in the world—move on to power. Working-class women's stories, on the other hand, are mediated through middle-class desires to discover sexual ownership. But there is . . .

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