75: Kathy Peiss’ Cheap Amusements

In Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York, Kathy Peiss looks at the new spaces of leisure in New York – public halls, picnic grounds, nickelodeons, “pleasure clubs,” and street corners to see how gender relations “played out.”  In particular, she is interested in the process by which ideas about sexuality, courtship, male power, female dependency, and autonomy got legitimated by and for women.  Working from a wide variety of primary and archival sources, Peiss argues that working-class gender constructs were directly related to changing organizations and meanings of leisure in the new industrial capitalism, which rationalized and controlled labor even as it commercialized and commodified leisure time.  In other words, leisure both reflects and shapes working-class gender constructs.

Peiss focuses on the agency white working women had in constructing gender from 1880-1920.  While married women’s leisure time generally occurred within the home and fit into the rhythms of daily life, single working women often led two lives: dutiful daughter on female work rhythms at home, wage-earner on regimented male rhythms at work.  Stuck between male and female worlds, young working women did not seek out the traditional domains of male leisure (saloons); instead, they flocked to the new commercial dance halls, amusement parks, and movie theatres.  Young men soon followed, and the connections between leisure, mutual aid, and manhood loosened as a result.  Instead, leisure became associated with pleasure, mixed-sex company, and individual consumption, and women were more than welcome to come spend their money.

While capitalism is not the best thing ever, in this case it was beneficial to working class women because it provided safe leisure spaces for them to experiment with new gender roles.  Mass culture also allowed young women to develop a distinct style that further flouted cultural norms; tamed for middle-class culture, it became the New Woman, who was less sexual but just as athletic and independent and even more mediated by mass culture.  While Peiss is careful to show that changing gender and class relations needs a lot more than just style and consumption, that these new practices replaced patriarchy with capitalism, and that women generally ended their leisure activities when they married and had children, her qualified conclusion – that working-class women were active in creating new, more independent roles for women even as those roles were heavily mediated – reveals a productive tension still at the heart of feminist scholarship today.

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