Massachusetts, American Revolution, Regulating sexual behavior, Slavery, Sexuality, Class
In Regulating Passion, Kelly A. Ryan has expertly crafted a history of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Massachusetts that is fully intersectional in its understanding of how hierarchies of gender, race, class, and age created an enduring system of white male dominance. Her work deftly builds upon the arguments made by women of color feminists such as Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, who have long championed that identity and oppression are intersectional, and reinforces the idea that gender as a category of analysis cannot be understood in isolation. Ryan argues that sexuality and patriarchy are inextricably linked because ''Governmental, social, and private authority over Indians and African Americans derived from the power that fathers and husbands had over wives and children'' (59). Regulating Passion also demonstrates that patriarchal control was not a casualty of the War of Independence. Rather it transformed and evolved, the ''direct sexual regulation'' of the colonial era replaced by a new standard of ''sexual reputation'' promoted by the moral reformers and print literature of the early republic (4–5).
The American Revolution is the hinge on which Ryan’s analysis of sexuality and patriarchy swings. The first half of the book focuses on how elite white men used their status as patriarchs to control the sexuality of white women, poor white men, African Americans, and Native Americans through the legal system, while simultaneously ensuring that their own sexual indiscretions remained shielded from public scrutiny. The statistical evidence Ryan has assembled from court records is very persuasive, and her analysis of the legal system’s regulation of white women’s sexuality is a highlight of the book. The court records plainly show that by 1760, only women were facing criminal prosecution for unmarried sex in Massachusetts. Unwed fathers were not, however, subject to the same fines or physical punishments as unwed mothers in the [End Page 318] late colonial period. What is striking is that the courts continued to punish white women for fornication even in cases where they married the child’s father or suffered a miscarriage. As Ryan notes, the court’s interest in such cases had little to do with the maintenance of the child and a great deal more to do with punishing white women for sexual activity outside of marriage.
Even more telling is that magistrates did not prosecute Native American women and enslaved women for fornication with the same regularity as they did white women. Such prosecutions would have brought the sexual indiscretions of elite white men with slaves and servants out of the shadows and into the public eye. The courts only seemed to take an interest in cases of infanticide, when the loss of an enslaved woman’s child would have resulted in a loss of property for her master. Enslaved men were similarly not prosecuted for interracial liaisons with white women because compelling an enslaved man to support a child would have given enslaved men a right to patriarchy that undermined the slave system.
Regulating Passion is also innovative for noting the ways in which white men’s and women’s participation in the American Revolution was not only gendered but highly sexualized. In Ryan’s analysis, it is the literal need for manpower during the American Revolution that allows young and poor white men to be welcomed into the body politic as defenders of white women’s virtue. The ''hardiness'' of white American men, ''uneffeminated by luxury,'' was contrasted with the brutality and savagery of the British, as well as their African and Native American allies (85). Similarly, patriot women’s participation in boycotts of British goods was recast as a feminine effort to sexually entice American men with natural, homespun charm, instead of as direct political activity. Therefore, white women’s reward for supporting the Revolution was male attention, rather than liberty or citizenship.
After the Revolution, white women and people of color attempted to use white patriarchs’ sexual standards against them. For African American men, this...