Mysteries of Sex: Tracing Women and Men through American History

Mysteries of Sex: Tracing Women and Men through American History

Mysteries of Sex: Tracing Women and Men through American History

Mysteries of Sex: Tracing Women and Men through American History

Excerpt

It is the winter of 2005, a harrowing time in the history of the United States. The front pages are plastered with images of the continuing brutality and bloodshed of the war in Iraq. The catastrophic hurricanes that pounded the coastline along the Gulf of Mexico have laid waste to a region, gutted a great and beloved city, and exposed governmental inefficiency and flagrant social inequity. Even the Olympus of the American system of government, the Supreme Court, is unsettled. The appointment of two new Justices seems likely to tip the delicate balance of opinions that has held for over a decade. Those who pick up this book are apt to be attentive to patterns of sexual difference in the daily news reports. The headlines suggest that the advances of women into the public sphere heralded by the feminist movement some thirty years ago have stalled. Women hold the office of secretary of state and the governorship of beleaguered Louisiana, but they are still exceptional among political leaders. The president recommended the appointment of a woman to the Supreme Court, but her nomination was withdrawn amid conservative opposition and doubts about her qualifications. The president's second choice was a male and by no means a champion of women's rights. The ranks of soldiers in Iraq have been integrated by sex, but both the occupants of command posts and the rosters of combat fatalities remain overwhelmingly male, testimony to one of the oldest, bluntest, and deadliest examples of the sexual division of labor. Incidentally, the best-selling history books commemorate the lives of politically prominent white men.

Given the perilous condition of the nation and the world at the outset of the twenty-first century, this tabulation of sex ratios may seem a petty distraction. A look beneath the surface of the headlines, however, indicates that further attention to matters of gender is still warranted. Contemporary scholars, many of them a generation or more removed from the high tide of the feminist movement, can point to the mark of gender in each column of newsprint and every electronic image: raw wounds of masculinity and sexuality were on display at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq; the nervous attention to the Supreme Court appointments was focused on a single issue charged with sex and gender, the right to abortion; and fundamental structures of gender, all colored by race, came to the surface with the floodwaters of New Orleans — . . .

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