- Sex Among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender and Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1730-1830
It may be unseemly to describe a book about the history of sexuality, gender, and race as masterful, but Clare A. Lyons's Sex Among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender and Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1750–1830 is just that. Part of an emerging body of scholarship explaining how early American societies shifted among social, political, and cultural systems through exploring the relationship between ideas and practices, Lyons's book locates sexual culture at the heart of [End Page 172] power struggles in revolutionary-era Philadelphia. She chooses her city wisely, for by the middle of the eighteenth century Philadelphia proved a far more free-wheeling town, sexually speaking, than its British American counterparts due to its diversity, cosmopolitanism, and absence of long-standing sexual regulation. Such features made it a battleground for a host of competing sexual ideas and practices and ultimately a crucible for the creation of new ideas about sexuality, Lyons argues. The regulation of sexual culture had far-reaching and long-lived implications for social, racial, gender, and political hierarchy in the early American republic.
The book is structured in three parts, giving its narrative a tidy before-during-and-after trajectory that is nonetheless richly complex. Part One maps the "sexual terrain" of colonial Philadelphia, by the mid-eighteenth century, a town rife with self-divorcing couples, out-of-wedlock offspring, and erotica, none of which bore the stigma of deviance. Lyons's sources are impressively broad, ranging from newspaper notices and court and other public records to literature, and her interpretation of those materials deep. Studying advertisements disowning runaway wives, Lyons demonstrates that women could exercise free will through flight, yet they also used the public prints to contest claims of desertion. Social understandings of a wife's economic role, combined with notions of her dependence, meant that women enjoyed legal protection and financial support from husbands who attempted to shirk their duties through desertion or publicly proclaimed dissolution.
Marriage was undoubtedly a site of gender conflict, but Philadelphians had a sense of humor about it, as well as about the common phenomenon of "illegitimate" births, which reflected the city's demography. Using bastardy cases adjudicated by the Overseers of the Poor beginning in 1767, Lyons shows that the public held men economically responsible for their out-of-wedlock offspring and that mothers could expect monetary support, whether from fathers or through public relief, without suffering punishment for the offense. The environment tolerated not only illegitimacy but also the practices that often produced it, such as prostitution. All was part of an overall "pleasure culture," as Lyons terms it, created through sexual behavior and discursively produced in print.
Following the American Revolution, the period covered in Part Two, "sexual expression in the city blossomed," yet ran squarely up against the discourse of virtue touted by social and political architects of the new republic (188). Authorities continued to prove lax in their prosecution [End Page 173] of sexual offenses, the legislature passed a divorce law in 1785, and Philadelphians tolerated cross-racial intimacies no longer legally proscribed after gradual emancipation. Yet in a republican nation and a democratic state such as Pennsylvania, the behavior of the "lower sorts" came increasingly under scrutiny by men of influence who perceived threats to a moral citizenry everywhere. With older models of subordination such as slavery and coverture questioned, leaders searched for new ways to cement social order. Women's sexuality provided just such a means, Lyons demonstrates in one of the book's most remarkable contributions. Inhabiting an intellectual culture undergoing a transition from a unified to a dichotomous model of sex difference, a shift with profound consequences for notions of sexuality, Philadelphians increasingly regarded lust and sexual prerogative as a hallmark of men...