Sexuality
Limits of Change

Stylish WomenTurn-of-the-century women entering public space seemed unconventional in one respect, but they failed to fully embrace modernity's exaltation of social mingling between the sexes when they remained centered in what one historian has called a "female world of love and ritual." Over one-half of the first generation of women college graduates (late nineteenth century) never married but found love and affection in the company of women. In contrast the large majority of twentieth-century women, while still appreciative of other women's companionship, defined their identities in mixed company and worked to gain men's attention and ultimately, but not immediately, a marriage partner. These new new women were, in this sense, different from both conventional and unconventional turn-of-the-century women. They were critical of matronly and domestic Victorian women as well as so-called spinsters whose passions were politics or social work.

Emma GoldmanRemaining at the fringes of these changes in sexual norms in the twentieth century were prostitutes, radical women, and lesbians, revealing significant historical continuity in sexual behavior and thought. Women reformers were among the most vocal proponents of rescuing prostitutes whose lives they pitied and sought to redeem. Although few in number, bohemian middle-class women experimented with new forms of living and loving, questioning marriage and exploring "free love." Subject to scrutiny and arrest, birth control pioneers, socialists, and feminists often paid a price for violating community norms. Also falling outside the norm were same-sex couples and emergent lesbian communities. Some women reformers in previous decades had lived with female partners (in relationships known as "Boston marriages"), supported women's rights, and wielded influence in local and sometimes national politics without tainted reputations. Yet by the 1920s, intimate relationships among women became suspect, as medical labeling of "homosexuals" and sensationalized stories of sex criminals called attention to "deviant" women and reinforced heterosexual norms.

GenerationsAccompanying the new woman's entrance into unconventional territory were new rules and restrictions as well as opposition from proponents of old-fashioned morality. Whether it was parents, media commentators, social workers, or religious leaders, critics of women's independence and indulgence in pleasures were a considerable obstacle to women's autonomy and self-expression. Young women were not simply discarding the norms of their mothers' generation, though, but adapting them to the changing landscape of modern American life. Women as a group in the 1910s and 1920s did not fully rebel, but through a process of struggle, they shifted the boundaries of what was considered acceptable. Sexual norms were recast but not shattered as prostitutes, radicals, and lesbians suffered abuse and derision; the sexual double standard persisted; and most women eventually abandoned youthful pursuit of dating and pleasure for marriage and motherhood. The new woman was nevertheless an emblem of change and a source of controversy among her contemporaries.

 

       
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The New Woman
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