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Journal of Women's History 14.3 (2002) 177-182
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Partners in Crime?
Writing the Social History of Women and the Poststructural History of Gender
Birgitte Søland, Becoming Modern: Young Women and the Reconstruction of Womanhood in the 1920s. Princeton University Press, 2000. x - 249 pp., bib. 0-691-0492-70 (cl.).
Lisa Duggan, Sapphic Slashers: Sex, Violence, and American Modernity. Duke University Press, 2000. xi - 310 pp., bib. 0-8223-260-94 (cl.); 0-8223-261-75 (pb.).
The lynch rope, the make-up case, the insane asylum, the dance hall: these seemingly dichotomous artifacts and social locations of turn-of-the-twentieth-century life became props and settings for the forging of modernity in the United States and Western Europe. Birgitte Søland and Lisa Duggan each have written important and engaging books that explore in very different and often surprising ways the shift from Victorian systems of hierarchy to distinctively modern regimes. Individually and considered in tandem, these two books change how we think about the construction of gender and sexual hierarchies, the process of social change, and methods of conducting this business of the history of women and gender.
Birgitte Søland's Becoming Modern: Young Women and the Reconstruction of Womanhood in the 1920s makes young women central players in the definition and development of "modernity." Søland traces the quite self-conscious efforts of young women in Denmark in the 1920s to shift the terms of womanhood for their generation, and finds that they created a fashionable female style, embraced new physical activity and the right to personal expression, claimed access to public spaces of leisure and the right to spend the money they earned as wage workers, forged new patterns of sociability with men, worked toward an ideal of companionate marriage, and sought to professionalize housework. In all of these efforts, they constructed themselves as "modern" and different from their mothers, whom they saw as old fashioned and beleaguered by endless labor. This large majority of women did not question gender differences between men and women, and they sharply distinguished themselves from feminists. [End Page 177] Rather, their goals were to expand their freedoms and redefine their relationships to men without critiquing marriage itself or challenging gender hierarchies. Søland's work is based on a plethora of source materials, including fifty-nine oral interviews with Danish women born between 1895 and 1911, divorce records, parliamentary transcripts, popular magazines, newspapers, and advice manuals.
Lisa Duggan's Sapphic Slashers: Sex, Violence, and American Modernity examines the 1892 murder of Freda Ward by Alice Mitchell in order to trace the development of the "lesbian love murder story" and its role in the construction of renewed, modern social hierarchies of gender, sexuality, class, and race. The two women shared an intense, romantic attachment and plans to marry; Alice intended to crossdress to support Freda. When parental intervention and a male suitor for Freda spoiled these plans, Alice murdered Freda on a Memphis public avenue. In the first part of the book, Duggan shows how journalists, lawyers, and doctors struggled in Memphis to make sense of the initially unintelligible crime. The second part of the book examines the precursors and successors to the narrative created locally in Memphis by looking at the popular press, literature, and psychiatry in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Duggan places this developing narrative in the context of lynching and the swirling charges of black men raping white women. Duggan argues that both the lesbian love murder story and the lynching story portrayed an external threat (the mannish woman, the black man) to the white middle-class home. Duggan is careful to note that the two narratives were not entirely parallel, but she shows how both defined new deviants in the face of bids for greater political and economic power by all blacks and by white women. Duggan deftly shows that the real power of these narratives to construct social hierarchies came not simply by characterizing black men or "lesbians" as having...