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  • Against Obscenity: Reform and the Politics of Womanhood in America, 1873–1935
  • Rebecca J. Mead
Against Obscenity: Reform and the Politics of Womanhood in America, 1873–1935. By Leigh Ann Wheeler ( Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. 251 pp.).

This book fills an important gap in historical understanding about anti-obscenity movements in the United States. As Wheeler observes, there are studies of Anthony Comstock and his colleagues in the late nineteenth century, and the issue has also generated controversy among feminists in recent decades. This book fills the void in between by describing the efforts of organized clubwomen to deal with the growing commercialization of sex in the early twentieth century. Using maternalist arguments, women often justified their reform activity by insisting that as mothers concerned with the well-being of their families they had to take public action, simultaneously subverting and reinforcing the idea that [End Page 212] proper women belonged exclusively in the domestic sphere. Wheeler observes that this powerful paradigm has its limitations, nevertheless her analysis relies heavily on its explanatory force. Yet not all women are mothers, reformers used a variety of arguments, and while maternalism can help bind together disparate groups of women, it can also suggest a false unity among them. In this case, maternalism was an appropriate and comfortable approach for the elite clubwomen who dominate the book, but it worked against the interests of female performers and audience members at racy shows, as well as political radicals who saw anti-obscenity reform as stifling sexual expression and free speech. These people receive little attention, mostly to point out the failure of the clubwomen to understand that maternalism did not successfully appeal to everyone.

Interestingly, this reform activity was initiated by two women from Minneapolis, Minnesota, but Wheeler does not really explain whether this was a coincidence, or somehow characteristic of Midwestern clubwomen, a group which has not received much detailed historical attention. Apparently the women of Minneapolis were relatively slow to organize their clubs and conflicted about whether to move away from "safe" subjects like art or Shakespeare into politics and reform. Furthermore, this was a very homogeneous population, almost exclusively white, upper-class, Republican, and largely Protestant (Catholics tended to have their own groups). Lower-class and working women, often immigrants and racial-ethnic women, were usually the targets of social reform, so they often criticized and resisted the imposition of middle-class moral values and social control measures. In this account, they remain part of a largely undifferentiated mass of obstructionists.

While some of the clubwomen's prejudices are predictable, others are quite surprising, especially on the subject of sex education. The first five chapters of the book discuss efforts to clean up or to close down local theaters and burlesque shows, and subsequent attempts to regulate the content of motion pictures. Chapter six then shifts to sex education, where reformers used maternalism in a radical way to insist that frank and open discussion of human sexuality would help inoculate young people against the appeal of salacious entertainments. In Minneapolis, their aggressive "social hygiene" agenda sent social workers into poor and wealthy homes alike to interview parents and to explain their program to the city's mothers, who apparently responded enthusiastically. For example, in 1925 they filled up so many sex education workshops that the leaders had to close enrollments (p. 125). By then, the program was receiving positive national and international attention in addition to inevitable criticisms.

Even when they agreed on goals, however, clubwomen fought bitterly over tactics and struggled for personal power and organizational control. A huge schism developed between those who advocated cooperation with the motion picture industry in developing an approved list of films, and those who felt that this was a form a cooption that benefited the industry by advertising its products. Will Hays, famous for introducing a motion picture code, is a major player in this book, but he was an ally rather than a critic of the movie industry, which encouraged him to provide a fig leaf of regulation in order to avoid the imposition of harsher measures. He succeeded by manipulating the ladies and playing them off against...


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pp. 212-214
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