Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920

Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920

Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920

Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920

Synopsis

Delinquent Daughters explores the gender, class, and racial tensions that fueled campaigns to control female sexuality in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America. Mary Odem looks at these moral reform movements from a national perspective, but she also undertakes a detailed analysis of court records to explore the local enforcement of regulatory legislation in Alameda and Los Angeles Counties in California. From these legal proceedings emerge overlapping and often contradictory views of middle-class female reformers, court and law enforcement officials, working-class teenage girls, and working-class parents. Odem traces two distinct stages of moral reform. The first began in 1885 with the movement to raise the age of consent in statutory rape laws as a means of protecting young women from predatory men. By the turn of the century, however, reformers had come to view sexually active women not as victims but as delinquents, and they called for special police, juvenile courts, and reformatories to control wayward girls. Rejecting a simple hierarchical model of class control, Odem reveals a complex network of struggles and negotiations among reformers, officials, teenage girls and their families. She also addresses the paradoxical consequences of reform by demonstrating that the protective measures advocated by middle-class women often resulted in coercive and discriminatory policies toward working-class girls.

Excerpt

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the sexuality of young single women became the focus of great public anxiety and the target of new policies of intervention and control by the state. Middle-class reformers and social experts expressed mounting concern about the sexual dangers and temptations that appeared to surround young working-class women in American cities. They conducted many investigations, produced a barrage of reports, and organized nationwide purity campaigns calling for government attention to the problem. Their demands resulted in an elaborate network of legal codes and institutions designed to control the sexuality of young women and girls. In particular, age-of-consent laws made sexual intercourse with teenage girls a criminal offense, and newly established juvenile courts, reformatories, and special police monitored and punished young females for sexual misconduct.

Campaigns for the moral protection of young women were not a new phenomenon in the late nineteenth century. Since the beginnings of urbanization and industrialization in the United States, middle-class Americans had worried about the impact of major social changes on the morality of young working women. In the period from 1820 to 1850, reformers in northeastern cities engaged in numerous efforts to prevent the corruption of morals among wage-earning women. Inspired by evangelical Protestantism, they ventured into working-class neighborhoods to set up missions, distribute Bibles, and establish rescue homes to convert wayward women to a Christian way of life. What was new in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, was the broadened scope of the campaigns and the mounting demands for state regulation of the problem. Public anxiety about the morality of young women greatly intensified and spread to all regions of the country during this period of rapid urban and industrial growth. Instead of the religious and voluntary efforts pursued earlier, moral reformers now began to insist on a forceful response from the state.

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