Against Obscenity: Reform and the Politics of Womanhood in America, 1873–1935 (Reconfiguring American Political History)

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9780801878022: Against Obscenity: Reform and the Politics of Womanhood in America, 1873–1935 (Reconfiguring American Political History)

Radio "shock jocks," Super Bowl entertainment, music videos, and internet spam―all of these topics inspire passionate disagreements about whether and how to regulate sexually explicit material. But even in the midst of heated debate, most people agree that children should be shielded from exposure to pornographic images. Why are children the focal point of debates over sexually explicit material? And how did a culture rooted in Puritanism and Victorianism become saturated with sex?

In Against Obscenity, Leigh Ann Wheeler offers new answers to these questions through a study of women's anti-obscenity activism from 1873 to 1935. This period saw the emergence of an increasingly sexualized popular culture comprised of burlesque shows, risqué vaudeville acts, and indecent motion pictures. It also witnessed the enfranchisement of women. These momentous cultural and political developments come together in a story about middle- and upper-class women who mobilized against lewd public amusements and, simultaneously, challenged the men whose work as activists, jurors, and even law enforcement officials, had defined and regulated obscenity for several decades.

By the 1920s, women who led the anti-obscenity movement enjoyed the support of millions of American women and the attention of presidents, congressmen, and Hollywood moguls. Today we live in a world profoundly shaped by their work but largely ignorant of their influence. Using primary sources as intimate as private correspondence and as formal as meeting minutes, Against Obscenity tells the story of these all but forgotten women, exploring their passionate disagreements over whether to ban a touring stage show, close a local burlesque theater, disseminate explicit sex education pamphlets, or create a federal agency to regulate Hollywood films. It shows that the rise and fall of women's anti-obscenity leadership shaped American attitudes toward and regulation of sexually explicit material even as it charted a new era in women's politics. In the end, the book argues that essentialist identity politics divided and ultimately disarmed women's anti-obscenity reform, helping us understand the curiously muted impact of woman suffrage. It also cautions against framing debates over sexual material narrowly in terms of harm to children while highlighting the dangers of surrendering discourse about sexuality to the commercial realm.

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From the Back Cover:

In the tumultuous early decades of the twentieth century, women reformers provoked tremendous political and cultural change. Temperance activists succeeded in enacting Prohibition and then saw it repealed. Welfare reformers built and then dismantled the Children's Bureau. Suffragists cheered their momentous victory and then quarreled over its meaning. This period also saw the emergence of an increasingly sexualized popular culture comprised of burlesque shows, risque vaudeville acts, and indecent moving pictures. Politically active middle- and upper-class women began mobilizing against these lewd public amusements, challenging the male-led organizations that had for several decades defined and regulated obscenity. By the 1930s, women leaders of the anti-obscenity movement enjoyed the support of millions of American women and were courted by presidents, congressmen, and Hollywood moguls. Yet today their influence has been all but forgotten.

In Against Obscenity, Leigh Ann Wheeler restores female anti-obscenity activists to their rightful place in twentieth-century women's history, uncovering a fascinating and largely untold aspect of the Progressive Era. At the center of Wheeler's study stands Catheryne Cooke Gilman, an indomitable woman who led the anti-obscenity movement in her native Minneapolis, as well as national grassroots organizations. Through the activities of Gilman and her fellow reformers, Wheeler explains how the rise and fall of women's anti-obscenity leadership shaped American attitudes toward and regulation of sexually explicit material even as it charted a new era in women's politics. She also addresses the passionate disagreements between and among various reform organizations over these issues (and the interesting reasons for the divisions)―whether or not to ban a touring stage show, for example, or close a local burlesque theater, disseminate explicit sex education pamphlets, or create a federal agency to regulate Hollywood films.

Today's efforts to protect children from sexual imagery on television and the Internet echo the concerns of this earlier generation of reformers, as do feminist battles over pornography. By recovering the voices of earlier activists―their concerns and conflicts, victories and failures―Against Obscenity offers a fresh perspective on contemporary discussions concerning freedom of expression and the moral supervision of American entertainment.

About the Author:

Leigh Ann Wheeler is an associate professor of history and American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University.

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