Category Archives: gender

158: Carolyn de la Pena’s The Body Electric

In The Body Electric: How Strange Machines Built the Modern American, Carolyn de la Pena examines the relationship between bodies and machines in American from the 1850s to the 1950s.  Using novels, cartoons, trade mags, health fraud investigation records, newspapers, manuals, and other primary sources, de la Pena recovers a wide range of technologies and devices designed to restore the body to its natural state.  In doing so she shows how industrialization led not just to a reorganization and mechanization of production and society, but to a technologically-mediated experience of the body as well.

The Body Electric is divided into three general sections: Dudley Sarget and Gustav Zander’s weight-lifting machines and training programs designed to “balance” the body through uniform muscle development and “unblock” energy trapped within; technologies like electric belts, vibration devices, and magnetic collars (mostly from 1880 to 1930) that supposedly injected energy into the body to increase its reserve force; and radium (radioactive) waters that were taken as tonics and in baths to flood the body with heat and energy, mostly from 1902 to 1940.  Throughout, de la Pena examines the relationship between these technologies and gender (increasing male strength; electrically stimulating male sexuality; curing neurasthenia), class (upper classes went to gyms; middle classes bought a wide range of technologies; working classes bought radium dispensers), and race (a Dr. Pancoast at UPenn treated African Americans by applying x-rays for up to 15 minutes at a time “allegedly” to turn their skin white.)   She also shows how these treatments were often supported with the language of science: the laws of Thermodynamics; offsetting entropy; electric transfer; energy.

Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about this book is that much of this “better living through technology” discourse held on until the atomic bomb, and some of it, like using physical fitness to cure neurasthenia, lives on in only slightly modified language today.


157: Susan Strasser’s Never Done

In Never Done: A History of American Housework, Susan Strasser argues that housework, the job done by more people in America than any other, “cannot be separated from the broader social and economic history of the United States.”  The women who did housework supported the men who built factories and cities, and the manufactured products and urban culture produced in those factories and cities in turn shaped women’s housework.  Strasser thus brings 19th century housewives into history AND provides an exhaustive history of household technologies.

Strasser is interested in what 19th century housewives actually did and what technologies they really used, not in the history of the technologies per se; the date that most households seemed to have a particular kind of technology and how most housewives seemed to use it are a lot more important to her than the date the technology was patented or the technological innovations that went into it or when the first privileged few got ahold of it.  Therefore, she uses new social history methodologies to access her subject.  Her sources include reformers’ reports on intolerable living conditions, government documents on standards of living, sociologists’ descriptions of daily life, manufacturers’ market research, ads, catalogues, travel accounts, letters, and advice manuals, cookbooks, and women’s magazines.  In all of these sources, she’s looking not so much at the opinions or prescriptive advice but at the ways in which particular technologies and practices are framed – as new, old-fashioned, commonplace, etc.  This strategy allows her to approximate what American housewives’ lives might have been like at different points in time form 1850 to 1930.

Strasser structures her book topically rather than temporally.  She traces the shift in food production from the consumer to the factory by studying transportation systems, refrigeration, mass distribution (followed by mass production), and improvements in canning techniques and packaged foods that made dietary variety more available to the urban poor and fresh produce available to the rich year round, while rural women continued to produce everything themselves.  She studies changes in cooking technology, from open grates to cast-iron stoves and eggbeaters, but argues that most women would not have had access to time saving equipment in the 19th century.  She shows how electricity reduced the winter work of chopping and carrying wood and tending fires, and indoor plumbing dramatically reduced women’s work by relieving them of carrying water.  She also discusses sewing machines, servants, childrearing, separate spheres, restaurants and a host of other topics.

Yet while Strasser often seems to celebrate the additional time freed up by a new technology, her title “Never Done” is apt.  With each new labor-saving technology, women became less attached to the community of women who labored together; they also became detached from their families, as products increasingly fed, cared for children, and provided affection in place of women.  Never Done thus relates to two things: the ongoing creep of capital into our everyday lives, shifting our attention to consumption and away from each other; and the ongoing fight by the women’s movement to shift the emphasis from individual consumers living in separate spheres to a “consolidated sphere” where both genders work together to regain mutual love, respect and community outside of capitalism.

Considering that the vast majority of the book is descriptive, this normative feminist statement at the end is a bit jarring.  At least identifying the enemy as capitalism rather than the patriarchy makes sense in the context of her discussion of industrial capitalism’s effects in the home.

116: Doreen Massey’s Space, Place, and Gender

Doreen Massey’s Space, Place, and Gender is a collection of articles from the late 1970s to the 1990s, all of which attempt to formulate concepts of space and place in terms of social relations, class and gender in particular.  Her basic arguments, many of which she develops later in For Space, have to do with the development of a decentered, relational, temporal/process-based, postmodern concept of space, and the mutually constitutive relationship between space and social relations/ inequalities.  She sees
“space-time as a configuration of social relationships within which the specifically spatial may be conceived of as an inherently dynamic simultaneity.  Moreover, since social relations are inevitably and everywhere imbued with power and meaning and symbolism, this view of the spatial is an ever-shifting social geometry of power and signification.” (3)
In other words, space is the social “stretched out.”  Hence there are echoes of Deleuze, de Certeau, Bourdieu in here, and moving space and place to the cultural plane gives her more flexibility in constructing it (yes, she insists that space and place have objective, material components, too, but what she’s talking about for the most part is meaning rather than the physical environment itself.)

While I’m not terribly interested in gendered spaces, I DO, however, like her use of feminist theory as a way in to social/ spatial difference rather than as the be-all and end-all of social difference, and I also like that she actually began with class, which I agree is probably more important than gender as far as social/spatial shaping.  

I also like that she develops her theses regarding the social construction of space, place, and gender in direct response to political issues – her empirical studies lend weight to her ideas AND provide examples for how seemingly abstract theory can actually be useful.  These case studies are particularly effective with respect to issues of gentrification (Docklands/ Isle of Dogs yuppie invasion), class and gender-based economic exploitation (siting factories where working-class or ethnic people or women will provide cheaper labor sources), or inner-city deterioration (thinking of place as porous and geography as linked to social and economic factors helps contextualize urban problems and provide support for structural solutions rather than just blaming the poor for their poverty).

Her writing is compelling and well-organized, and I can imagine using one of her case studies, or the intro to one of the sections, in a course on transportation and culture.  

Originally published on 6.8.2012.

99: Domosh & Seager’s Putting Women in Place

In Putting Women in Place: Feminist Geographers Make Sense of the World, Mona Domosh and Joni Seager show that space and place are both gendered and integral to the construction of gender.  In providing an overview of feminist geographical scholarship (up to 2001), they argue that this gendering has historically (and is currently) integral to processes of segregation, dominance, and resistance, in places like work and home as well as in the actions of everyday life.  Further, they situate this discussion of gender and geography within both local urban historical geographies in Western Europe and the US AND a structural analysis of global gender issues.  Their book is divided into six parts:

Home: history and analysis of a space almost universally associated with women.  Focusing on England and the US form the 17th century on, they show how the emerging capitalist system separated the male world of production from the female world of reproduction, from the Victorian cult of domesticity to mid-century suburbia.  They then interrogate the raced and classed connections between notions of domesticity and turn-of-the-century social engineering projects aimed at “Americanizing” urban working-class and immigrant women and rural Native American women.

Women at Work: a structural analysis of gendered definitions of “work” and an intro to women’s labor issues.  They demonstrate how women’s work, including homework, formal work, and exploitative work under global capitalism is devalued and rendered invisible around the world, and they include discussions of the glass ceiling and the feminization of poverty.

The City: history of the relationship between gender and urban landscapes.  Beginning in the late 17th century, they trace gender in the landscape, from the creation of masculine and feminine countryside to the Postmodern city.  They then examine women as both consumers and workers, and show how the city and its spaces of consumption and production have been reconfigured as gender roles have changed over time.

On the Move: a discussion of women’s mobility.  Beginning with spaces of the body, they trace mobility across scales and spatial contexts.  They examine social structures, like transportation routes, that inhibit female movement, as well as the formal and informal processes of maintaining those structures; they also discuss different kinds of female travel, from Victorian female travelers to refugee migrations and sex tourism, to suburban women buying cars and women from 3rd world countries moving for work and thus feminizing the global workforce.  They show that gender impacts how and why people move and examine what women’s movements mean.

Nations and Empires: a mostly theoretical discussion of women’s mobility in the context of imperialism.  They consider geographical scholarship in gender, imperialism, and colonialism, with an eye toward the interpenetration of the domestic and the imperial as it pertains to women, and they examine (dis)placement of women and women’s issues within nationalisms and nationalist movements.

The Environment: Discusses connections between women and the environment, from the often devastating results of importing Old World links between control of nature/ control of women to the New World, to ecofeminism and other 20th century feminist/ environmentalist movements, including 3rd world environmental degradation.

As a survey, this book provides a good introduction to the ways in which gender and geography are studied and thought together, as well as some concrete examples of how the two intersect.  I do wonder whether they end up with a simplified understanding of the category of “women,” however; more discussion of intersections with race and ethnicity, as well as thorough analyses of the social constructions of gender in 3rd world countries, would make me feel better about consistently linking female bodies with the social construction of gender.


93: Ruth Rosen’s The World Split Open

Ruth Rosen’s The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America is a conscious attempt to excavate and describe the legacy of the women’s movement – primarily second wave feminism – for generations of women (and men) who didn’t live through it, so that a kind of living, breathing social history can keep the struggle for gender equality alive.  In particular, Rosen charts the change in women’s consciousness from the 1950s to the 1990s through a vast compendium of the many issues, events, people, ideas, books, successes, and failures of the women’s movement in the United States, with some connections to women’s movements outside the US.

This book is written for a popular audience in response to her discovery that her undergraduate students in the 1980s had no idea what the women’s movement had redefined.  Accordingly, it hits all the highlights: Betty Freidan, SNCC and other civil rights groups, the coming together of the Old and New Left in what she calls the “female generation gap,” Kennedy’s commission on women and the tension between liberal and radical feminism, NOW, Gloria Steinem, the Vietnam War, abortion, the naming of hidden injuries, sexuality, the body, intersections between feminism and race and class, protests and happenings, consciousness-raising groups, sex, pornography,  ideological factionalism, trashing, paranoia, the FBI, commodification, the superwoman, and Ronald Reagan and the spread of global feminism.  Throughout, she attempts to characterize the depth and breadth of the women’s movement as much as she can while also showing just how interconnected this historical period was.  She also tries to account for the successes and failures of the women’s movement and the legacy of the movement as a whole.

Rosen’s faith in the power of narrative to continue the perpetual gender revolution is clear, and I think her point that we will lose the gains we have made if we are not vigilant is a good one – just look at the attacks on affirmative action.  However, I would very much like to read a history of this iteration of the women’s movement written by someone who was not there, to get a sense of the larger social and political context and a more thoroughgoing critique (instead of a celebration) of the movement itself.


92: Julia Mickenberg’s Learning from the Left

In Learning from the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States, Julia Mickenberg argues that “by maintaining the democratic spirit of the 1930s through the Cold War, children’s literature became a kind of bridge between the Old Left and the New Left generations” and contributed to the youth rebellions of the 1960s.  Working from a vast array of primary sources, including 33 author interviews, several hundred fiction and non-fiction books for children, and other archival materials, Mickenberg builds her argument by contextualizing close readings of children’s books in their historical time and place.  While she is not the first to discuss dissent in a Cold War context, Mickenberg shows that this dissent was right out in the open in children’s books; its very accessibility points to pervasive “counterhegemonic impulses” and the survival of the Popular Front in the midst of McCarthyism.

According to Mickenberg, it was possible for children’s literature to become the medium of transmission for 1930s radicalism partly because it was a largely feminine domain of the book world.  Publications rarely bothered to review children’s books, and the entire writing, production, distribution, and institutional dissemination system  for children’s books was inhabited almost entirely by women (most kids’ books were and still are bought by school libraries; also, children’s books were more expensive during the Cold War.)  Cleverly, many of these women were interested in introducing students to a “progressive” worldview and helping them be antifascist, antiracist, and more than a little idealist.  This interest was partly a legacy of Old Left parents and partly a reaction to 1950s repression, and these women hoped their kids would be able to change that.

Children’s literature was also largely ignored because its target audience was children, who presumably wouldn’t understand any particular ideological slant.  Thus children’s book authors foregrounded the contributions of African Americans, the working class, and other minorities in a critique of the whitewashed “American Way;” invented progressive dialogue for historical figures so that even Davey Crockett could be “an anticapitalist, antiracist, feminist friend of the Indians,” and emphasized the importance of sharing scientific discoveries for the benefit of all people.  Conveniently, many of these messages also served Cold War needs, particularly where they intersected with federal policies on racial equality and scientific progress, while also delivering subversive, Old Left messages.

While some of Mickenberg’s close readings seem a bit too intent on locating radicalism in texts where politics are a bit of a stretch, her interdisciplinary methodology shows clear links between Old Left and New Left radicalism in and around Cold War children’s literature.


90: Elaine Tyler May’s Homeward Bound

In Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era, Elaine Tyler May shows how the Cold War policy of “containment” shaped and was shaped by the combination of anti-Communism and the 1950s cult of domesticity.  May builds her argument around the newly available (in the 1980s) Kelly Longitudinal Study, a 20-year psychological study of the development of personality in marriage that covered the 1930s through the 1950s and included some 600 informants, as well as movies, newspapers, popular magazines, and contemporaneous writings by professionals in various fields.  In doing so, she explains that the nuclear family became far more important for the white American middle class in the 1950s than it was at any other time in the 20th century because of a broader shift toward privatization and individualization of social ills in an age of profound national insecurity.

Per May, the 1950s were less about placid cultural stasis than they were about controlling potentially “explosive issues,” particularly sexuality and the bomb.  Because ‘fears of sexual chaos tend to surface during times of rapid social crisis,’ sexuality and the bomb became linked both visually (as with ‘bombshell’ Rita Hayworth’s image on the bomb dropped on the Bikini Atoll) and culturally (as with crusades against homosexuals and pop culture fantasies of sex and violence).  Sex was forbidden to women outside of marriage, but once in a marriage, women were expected to be highly sexual, always-attractive partners, as though sex, like nuclear power, could simultaneously destroy and hold together families.  They were also expected to stay home with their children, in their own nucleated, sexually charged version of containment.

Within these restrictive suburban nuclei, many women, especially educated ones, felt isolated and insecure about their inability to live up to social expectations.  Unlike in the 1930s, however, in the 1950s people increasingly blamed themselves (instead of the larger system) for personal dissatisfaction, and the “therapeutic model” replaced political activism.  Because they contained sexuality and alienated women, families and the suburban homes in which they lived thus contained the seeds of the countercultural revolution.

While May’s sample is restricted to white, middle-class women and is thus not indicative of all women in the 1950s, she does effectively link cultural repression to the atomic insecurity that created it… and to the cultural explosion that it fomented.