- Bad Girls Make History
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's beautifully written "well-behaved women seldom make history" has become a feminist axiom (despite Ulrich proving that those boring, virtuous women could make history, too).1 Historians have long been interested in "disorderly" women—tomboys, delinquents, activists, and heretics. Many historians have thus read misbehavior as resistance and as a form of feminist praxis—women and girls act out to protest gender norms or heteropatriarchy. To what extent are "bad girls" feminist heroes? And what happens when historians look closely at the trajectory of bad girls' individual lives? Rather than simply framing misbehaving girls and women as heroes of their own lives and times, historians need to understand the ways in which disorderly women were caught in systems of power that sought to undermine their personhood. New work that details histories of "bad girls" aims to do just that. April R. Haynes, Amanda H. Littauer, Michael A. Rembis, and Karin L. Zipf add to the historical scholarship on disorderly conduct by examining the causes and consequences of "misbehavior" and by narrating complicated stories about power, resistance, and precarity in women and girls' lives. Together, these books investigate disobedience, virtue, and delinquency while successfully juggling multiple categories of analysis, including age, race, class, sexuality, and ability. [End Page 187]
Haynes's Riotous Flesh begins with a remarkable scene of disorder: rioters attempted to prevent Sylvester Graham from speaking to a group of women about physiology and masturbation. In 1837, Graham planned to lecture to women in Boston, but a mob of one thousand "men and boys" gathered. About two hundred disorderly women (made up of moral reformers and abolitionists) "placed themselves at the center of the conflict," pushed to the front of the crowd, and "faced off" against the mob (27–28). Haynes writes, "Boston's female reformers had not yielded their access to public space, nor had sexual slurs cowed them" (29). The scene is fascinating for its many ironies. The women, disorderly on the streets of Boston, were opponents of female masturbation and preached a sexual scrupulousness one would associate with good women. Yet there they were, engaging in public debates on the streets, as no "good" woman of their time should. The two hundred women defending Graham sought to define personal and public virtue for the nation. And thus, they constructed their unconventional behavior as virtuous and the rioters' behavior as licentious. Beginning with Graham's lectures on the righteousness of refraining from masturbation (and other carnivorous pleasures), Haynes convincingly claims that these sermons excited female moral reformers and abolitionists precisely because such theories disrupted established gender norms. By arguing that women had sexual desire just as men did, reformers like Sylvester Graham disrupted notions of female sexuality and thus "minimized the significance of physical differences such as sex and, implicitly, skin color" (7).
As seen in the standoff between male rioters and disorderly women, Haynes traces women's participation in normalizing the idea that masturbation was unhealthy, that self-mastery created healthy individuals and a healthy body-politic, and finally that women had a special (public) part to play in popular understandings of health. Female moral reformers eventually introduced these ideas to sex education, which they believed helped prevent insanity and other social ills.
Riotous Flesh weaves together an impressive story of race and sex in the moral reform movement by...