DISORDERLY CONDUCT: Visions of Gender in Victorian America by Carroll Smith-Rosenberg

DISORDERLY CONDUCT: Visions of Gender in Victorian America

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KIRKUS REVIEW

In these essays of twelve years, U. of Pennsylvania historian Smith-Rosenberg effectively applies anthropological theorizing on language, discourse, and ritual (especially Mary Douglas, Victor Turner, semiologist Roland Barthes) to questions of gender change in 19th-century America. An early essay, ""The Female World of Love and Ritual,"" has, as Smith-Rosenberg says, ""assumed a life of its own,"" with its revelation of the loving friendships among Victorian women: ""Even now, after years of puzzling, we are as far from understanding these erotic and loving relations as when I first read Molly's letters to Helena."" Here, this essay figures as part of a larger contrast of female and male bourgeois ""discourses"" in the Age of Jackson and the Progressive Era. in the first period, bourgeois men were captivated by two contrasting myths of adolescence: ""the fragile and dependent son of the Eastern reformers"" and ""the autonomous young man of the frontier"" (like Davy Crockett). To deal with rapid change and the consequent disorder, many Jacksonian women turned to religion and moral crusades--in which the discourse was heavily anti-male. (In The Advocate of Moral Reform, the prostitute is portrayed as an innocent--""without discretion. . . open-hearted, sincere, and affectionate""--while the male lecher is simply ""The Destroyer."") In the Progressive Era, doctors dealt with male fears of female biology and sexuality by insisting on female weakness; they defused the symbolically-laden periods of puberty and menopause by treating women as invalids. Hysterical women fought back (if unconsciously) against the regimen of passivity, even as hysteria appeared to heighten their dependence. ""Through her illness, the bedridden woman came to dominate her family to an extent that would have been considered inappropriate--indeed, shrewish--in a healthy woman."" The Progressive Era did offer more attractive alternatives. In ""The New Woman as Androgyne,"" Smith-Rosenberg shows how the original New Woman combined traditional female discourse with previously male concepts of individual rights and achievement. This upset male definitions of the ""natural,"" and, especially following Havelock Ellis, led to the definition of the New Woman as unnatural, mannish, lesbian. While modernist women (Virginia Woolf, Natalie Barney, Gertrude Stein) played brilliantly with gender definitions in their work, dress, and sexuality, the public world was increasingly closed to them. Smith-Rosenberg wisely credits their failure not to their ""choosing the wrong discourse,"" but to their lack of power to enforce their vision of a genderfree world. Conceptual order from history's disorder, challenging and stimulating.

Pub Date: May 15th, 1985
ISBN: 0195040392
Publisher: Knopf