Against Obscenity: Reform and the Politics of Womanhood in America, 1873-1935

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2004 Hard cover New in new dust jacket. Excellent. Brand New, Perfect Condition. Sewn binding. Cloth over boards. 272 p. Contains: Illustrations. Reconfiguring American ... Political History. Audience: General/trade. In Against Obscenity, Leigh Ann Wheeler offers new answers to questions through a study of women's anti-obscenity activism from 1873 to 1935. This period saw the emergence of an increasingly sexualized popular culture comprised of burlesque shows, risqu? vaudeville acts, and indecent motion pictures. It also witnessed the enfranchisement of women. Read more Show Less

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Overview

Radio "shock jocks," Super Bowl entertainment, music videos, and internet spam—all of these topics inspire passionate disagreements about whether and how to regulate sexually explicit material. But even in the midst of heated debate, most people agree that children should be shielded from exposure to pornographic images. Why are children the focal point of debates over sexually explicit material? And how did a culture rooted in Puritanism and Victorianism become saturated with sex?

In Against Obscenity, Leigh Ann Wheeler offers new answers to these questions through a study of women's anti-obscenity activism from 1873 to 1935. This period saw the emergence of an increasingly sexualized popular culture comprised of burlesque shows, risqué vaudeville acts, and indecent motion pictures. It also witnessed the enfranchisement of women. These momentous cultural and political developments come together in a story about middle- and upper-class women who mobilized against lewd public amusements and, simultaneously, challenged the men whose work as activists, jurors, and even law enforcement officials, had defined and regulated obscenity for several decades.

By the 1920s, women who led the anti-obscenity movement enjoyed the support of millions of American women and the attention of presidents, congressmen, and Hollywood moguls. Today we live in a world profoundly shaped by their work but largely ignorant of their influence. Using primary sources as intimate as private correspondence and as formal as meeting minutes, Against Obscenity tells the story of these all but forgotten women, exploring their passionate disagreements over whether to ban a touring stage show, close a local burlesque theater, disseminate explicit sex education pamphlets, or create a federal agency to regulate Hollywood films. It shows that the rise and fall of women's anti-obscenity leadership shaped American attitudes toward and regulation of sexually explicit material even as it charted a new era in women's politics. In the end, the book argues that essentialist identity politics divided and ultimately disarmed women's anti-obscenity reform, helping us understand the curiously muted impact of woman suffrage. It also cautions against framing debates over sexual material narrowly in terms of harm to children while highlighting the dangers of surrendering discourse about sexuality to the commercial realm.

Johns Hopkins University Press

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Editorial Reviews

American Quarterly - Hiroshi Kitamura
Deftly illuminates the 'possibilities in our past' while addressing the complex struggles of women and citizens in more recent times.
Journal of American Studies - Encarna Trinidad
The study gives a very good sense of the anti-obscenity reform activity and concern in the period under study.
Journal of Social History - Rebecca J. Mead
This is a very good book about an important topic.
American Studies - Christine Erickson
Wheeler's impressively researched study is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of anti-obscenity reform and women's activism in general.
Choice
What constitutes obscenity is a contentious issue, and Wheeler makes it clear that historically, it has been dangerous ground for feminists... Her analysis is convincing.
Choice

What constitutes obscenity is a contentious issue, and Wheeler makes it clear that historically, it has been dangerous ground for feminists... Her analysis is convincing.

American Historical Review
Wheeler’s account of the anti-obscenity campaign illuminates the importance of gender to that history; she seamlessly explores the movement as it shifted from the local to the national level; and she meticulously recounts the day-to-day struggles women faced. Along the way, she draws on an impressive list of archival sources to reconstruct women’s involvement in the campaign, provides a detailed account of the victories and hardships women experienced as they attempted to shape the... anti-obscenity movement, and offers a thoughtful and well-argued addition to a growing number of studies about women activists and how their concerns for mothers and children shaped public policy.
Journal of American History
A welcome addition to the growing historiography of obscenity and censorship. In its solid research, Wheeler’s book is [also] an important addition to the historiography of grassroots struggles over free speech and other rights in twentieth-century America.
Journal of Popular Culture
In this important book, Leigh Ann Wheeler examines a little-discussed corner of popular culture, women’s campaigns to regulate ‘obscenity’ in the late 1800[s] and early 1900s. Those interested in issues of obscenity and the development of the concept of free speech in the United States will find Wheeler’s work compelling.

— Lisa K. Boehm

H-Net Book Review/H-SHGAPE
Wheeler has uncovered a fascinating chapter in the story of women’s perennial attempts to protect children and vulnerable young women from the dangers of commercial vice. Her study considers several of these dangers, such as prostitution and burlesque shows, but focuses above all on the new medium of film.

— Cynthia Eagle Russett

American Quarterly
Deftly illuminates the 'possibilities in our past' while addressing the complex struggles of women and citizens in more recent times.

— Hiroshi Kitamura

Journal of American Studies
The study gives a very good sense of the anti-obscenity reform activity and concern in the period under study.

— Encarna Trinidad

Journal of Social History
This is a very good book about an important topic.

— Rebecca J. Mead

American Studies
Wheeler's impressively researched study is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of anti-obscenity reform and women's activism in general.

— Christine Erickson

Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000 - Heather Lee Miller
Tells the complicated and compelling story of women's meteoric rise to prominence in competing branches of the anti-obscenity movement prior to and immediately following passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, and their arguably more rapid exit from the scene during the late 1920s and early 1930s... A superbly written book.
Journal of Popular Culture - Lisa K. Boehm
In this important book, Leigh Ann Wheeler examines a little-discussed corner of popular culture, women’s campaigns to regulate ‘obscenity’ in the late 1800[s] and early 1900s. Those interested in issues of obscenity and the development of the concept of free speech in the United States will find Wheeler’s work compelling.
H-Net Book Review/H-SHGAPE - Cynthia Eagle Russett
Wheeler has uncovered a fascinating chapter in the story of women’s perennial attempts to protect children and vulnerable young women from the dangers of commercial vice. Her study considers several of these dangers, such as prostitution and burlesque shows, but focuses above all on the new medium of film.
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801878022
  • Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/2004
  • Series: Reconfiguring American Political History Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 251
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.96 (d)

Meet the Author

Leigh Ann Wheeler is an associate professor of history and American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University.

Johns Hopkins University Press

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Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments
Introduction. Crossing the Great Divide: Women, Politics, and Anti-obscenity Reform 1
1 "Protect the Innocent!": Men, Women, and Anti-obscenity Reform, 1873-1911 9
2 Dressing Elsie: Women's Theater Reform, 1912-1919 31
3 "Censorship Does Not Protect": Women's Motion Picture Reform, 1919-1922 46
4 "Woman vs. Woman": The Leading Ladies of Motion Picture Reform, 1923-1930 73
5 "We Don't Want Our Boys and Girls in a Place of That Kind": Women's Burlesque Reform, 1925-1934 96
6 "Thinking as a Woman and of Women": Sex Eduction, Obscenity's Antidote, 1925-1934 115
7 "Sinful Girls Lead": Crises in Women's Motion Picture Reform, 1932-1934 133
8 "'Catholic Action' Is Blazing a Spectacular Trail!": The Collapse of Women's Anti-obscenity Leadership, 1934-1935 163
Conclusion. Anti-obscenity Reform and Women's History 181
List of Abbreviations 193
Notes 195
Note on Sources 235
Index 243
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