NWSA Journal 15.1 (2003) 177-179
[Access article in PDF]
Sapphic Slashers: Sex, Violence, and American Modernity by Lisa Duggan. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000, 310 pp., $49.95 hardcover, $17.95 paper.
In The Use of Pleasure, Michel Foucault comments that "There are times in life when the question of knowing if one can think . . . and perceive differently . . . is absolutely necessary" (1990, 8). Lisa Duggan has given us the opportunity not only to think differently, but also to reflect more comprehensively on this complex analysis of the murder of Freda Ward by her lover, nineteen-year-old Alice Mitchell, in Memphis, Tennessee, 1892. In that same year, in the same streets, after a decade of lynchings, Ida B. Wells began the pamphlets that rewrote the cultural narrative of "nationalism, eugenics, domestic protection, white racial superiority, and legitimate racial dominance," justifying the murders of black men (19). By drawing together these dissimilar events, Duggan provides a dense and broad reading of their narratives. Contextually set in turn-of-the-century America, the bodies of so-called black rapists and the incomprehensible behavior of upper middle-class white female lovers were mobilized to perform the cultural work of white America.
During the sensationalist press coverage of the "Mitchell-Ward love-trial" (ironically, but unfortunately, reflected in the study's inadequate title), new and incomprehensible images of desire entered public consciousness: the sexual invert, who eventually became the violent, mannish lesbian, and the even more troubling figure of the normal woman who was attracted to her. Duggan's analysis of the lynching narrative and the story of the Mitchell-Ward love-murder trial, in the specific contexts of race, gender, and economics, reveals threats to the heart of white America, the white home; these events, through very different discourses, helped to construct American whiteness. Duggan's meticulous, ironic style deploys cultural theory, material analysis, and Foucauldian method in a nuanced account of combined forms of status to coerce the binary oppositions that structure today's notions of race and sexuality. Duggan immerses us in newspaper accounts and takes us into the courtroom, the boarding school, the theatre, the doctor's office, the "alienists" couches, and, most chillingly, the haunts of the eugenicists and sexologists. Her critique necessarily focuses on how press coverage of the trial of Alice Mitchell and her friend Lillie Johnson stabilized notions of gender and naturalized the binary division of sexuality. However, because Duggan consistently returns to Ida B. Wells's resistance to the lynching narrative and its myth of the black rapist who threatens the white home, we understand more clearly how the violent, mannish woman—who wants to become the husband of her female lover—also threatens white domesticity. [End Page 177] We are never allowed to forget that the dynamics of race, class, gender, and sexuality are equally and inextricably involved in the construction of American lives.
Tragically, none of the parties involved had any inkling of the desperation and social suffering that motivated this crime. In a discussion of the "stone butch" in Female Masculinity, Judith Halberstam observes, "the sexual discourse we have settled for is woefully inadequate when it comes to accounting for the myriad practices that fall beyond the purview of homo- and hetero-normativity" (1998, 139). Similarly, the discourses that coalesced around the Mitchell-Ward trial in 1892 entirely excluded the desires and expectations of its principals. Duggan writes movingly about the lovers at the center of public excitement who were ignored and misunderstood, not a little because of the defense strategies employed in the trial and the testimonies of the defense experts. 1
Although sexology was a minor component of the trial itself, Duggan's lucid discussion of a scientific discipline that shaped European and American understandings of inversion (later, homosexuality) comprises some of the study's most compelling pages. As one whose secret and uninformed search for sex and gender identity in the late 1950s began with Richard von Kraft-Ebbing and Havlock Ellis, I read Duggan's precise placement of these sexologists within the context of culture, race, and class with a...