Gender and American History since 1890

By Barbara Melosh | Go to book overview

3

SEXUAL GEOGRAPHY AND GENDER ECONOMY

The furnished room districts of Chicago, 1890-1930

Joanne Meyerowitz

The physical space and cultural geography of the city provide a focus for Joanne Meyerowitz’s innovative contribution to the discussion about the sexual revolution. Urban life opened up new possibilities for young women removed from the surveillance and supervision of families and small towns or rural communities. Meyerowitz acknowledges that such arrangements also rendered working-class women vulnerable to sexual exploitation, and she points to the low wages that motivated the exchange of sexual favors, whether in dating or in outright prostitution. But she cautions us not to take middle-class reformers’ depictions of working-class women at face value: these women were not merely victims of city life and predatory men, but also active historical subjects who made their own choices about sexuality. At the same time, she questions a more positive representation of wage-earning women as it emerges in Hollywood movies and the work of urban sociologists: the image of the emancipated urban woman downplayed the constraints of poverty and the sexual vulnerability that women experienced. Finally, Meyerowitz challenges a view of the sexual revolution as a middle-class creation. Even as sexologists were articulating new theory about sexuality, working-class women were living out their own versions of a revised sexual code.

* * *

The broad outlines of the early twentieth-century sexual revolution in the United States are now well known. 1 From roughly 1890 to 1930, public discussions and displays of sexuality multiplied in popular magazines, newspapers, and entertainments. At the same time, women began to adopt more sexual, or at least less modest, styles; shorter skirts, cosmetics, bobbed hair, and cigarettes, once the styles of prostitutes, all seemed evidence of a larger change in mores when adopted by “respectable” working- and middle-class women. Men and women mingled freely in new commercialized recreation industries and in workplaces. And surveys of the middle class revealed increases in premarital intercourse.

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