Legacy 20.1&2 (2003) 209-211
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Laura L. Behling's The Masculine Woman in America, 1890-1935 contributes to the thriving and rapidly expanding field of sexuality studies. More specifically, she joins scholars such as Lucy Bland and Laura Doan, George Chauncey, Lisa Duggan, Jonathan Katz, Vernon Rosario, [End Page 209] Siobhan Somerville, and Jennifer Terry who focus their work on the nineteenth and/or early twentieth centuries, tracing the production and emergence of categories of sexual identity in discourses ranging from science to law to journalism to literature. Behling's work does not engage these scholars as productively as it might, perhaps because some of the work on sexology and inversion may have been published too recently for Behling's consideration. Still, Behling does offer a thorough indexing of the figure of the masculine woman at the turn of the century, and her book will encourage further discussion of this important topic.
Behling reads the figure of the masculine woman as a response to the increasing "social and political independence" of U.S. women, an independence that Behling sees embodied in the woman suffrage movement. Drawing on a wide range of literary and popular press sources, she demonstrates that unconventional female gender roles were associated with homosexuality (or inversion, as it was more commonly known in the period). She then tracks literary responses to this figure of "deviant womanhood, responses which, not surprisingly, work to contain or diffuse the threat of such a figure.
The book's opening chapters focus on texts by Gertrude Stein, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Henry James, and William Lee Howard, covering ground that (apart from the reading of Howard's novel) will seem familiar to many readers. The balance of the book is comprised of chapters that delineate various literary strategies of containment. These strategies range from "diagnosing her [the masculine woman] as organically aberrant and behaviorally criminal" (5), to recuperating her into heterosexuality, to belittling her via "parody and removal" (7). Behling argues that by the 1930s the figure of the masculine woman had been successfully refeminized and the heterosexual status quo had been successfully reestablished (9).
While Behling discusses texts by certain well-known literary figures—Stein, James, Gilman, Radclyffe Hall, Djuna Barnes—the bulk of the book focuses on representations from popular press sources: stories, articles, and an impressive range of cartoons, illustrations, and advertisements. Behling has unearthed an enormous amount of primary materials; a great deal of impressive archival research went into this book.
This wealth of rich material, however, merits a more nuanced analysis than Behling provides. Two areas in particular would have benefitted from more attention. First, as Behling rightly points out, the figure of the masculine woman is implicitly or explicitly contrasted in these texts to a cultural ideal of feminized womanhood. But as feminist scholars have established, U.S. images of ideal womanhood have always been class and race encoded. How, then, do race and class inflect representations of masculine womanhood? How are these figures racially marked and how do they depend on race? Second, all of Behling's examples read the masculine woman as a negative figure in the U.S. imagination. While homophobia certainly was alive and well in this period, were there no representations challenging or complicating the status quo? Were any of these negative images appropriated and transformed in the realm of popular culture? On a more minor note, the book suffers from repetition, careless editing, and typographical errors that distract from the argument.
In the chapter on parody, Behling's reading of Henry von Rhau's parodic Hell of Loneliness (1929) exemplifies both the book's great strength—the recovery of wonderful primary material—and the limits of its analysis. This parody of Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (1928) replaces Hall's Stephan Gordon with a brutish and very heterosexual male protagonist who marries a feminine woman but loses her to a masculine woman. Behling argues that the parody is...