Sexual Reckonings: Southern Girls in a Troubling Age

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Overview

Sexual Reckonings is the fascinating tale of adolescent girls coming of age in the South during the most explosive decades for the region. Focusing on the period from 1920 to 1960, Susan Cahn reveals how both the life of the South and the meaning of adolescence underwent enormous political, economic, and social shifts. Those years witnessed the birth of a modern awareness of adolescence and female sexuality that clashed mightily with the white supremacist and patriarchal legacies of the old South. As youth staked its claim, the bodies and beliefs of southern girls became the battlefield for a transformed South, which was, like them, experiencing growing pains.

Cahn reveals how young women, both white and black, were seen as the South's greatest hope and its greatest threat. Viewed as critical actors in every regional crisis, from the economic recession and urban migrations of the 1920s to the racial conflicts precipitated by school desegregation in the 1950s, female teenagers became the conspicuous subjects of social policy and regional imagination. All the while, these adolescents pursued their own desires and discovered their own meanings, creating cracks in the twin pillars of the Jim Crow South--"racial purity" and white male dominance--that would soon be toppled by the student-led civil rights movement.

Sexual Reckonings is an amazingly intimate look at a time of deep personal exploration and profound cultural change for southern girls and for the society they inhabited, a powerful account of the clash between a society's fears and the daily lives and aspirations of its most prized, and unpredictable, population.

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Editorial Reviews

Booklist

Cahn traces female adolescence in the South from the flapper era through Elvis Presley and rock and roll and the budding civil rights movement, and the vast differences that race and class made in the judgment and treatment of female adolescent behavior. She examines the particularly volatile mixture of race and class for which the South has become famous, as the society struggled to control girls—black and white—to maintain racial purity and social conventions. This is a fascinating look at how young women fit into and affected southern patriarchy and notions of racial purity.
— Vanessa Bush

Feminist Review

Susan K. Cahn offers an empowering, well-researched, and refreshing look at the South's transformation from the period of 1920 to 1960. She relies on anecdotal evidence of countless adolescent girls, integrating their narratives with the larger narrative of Southern political, economic and cultural change...From poor white girls targeted for "reform" to wartime pickup girls to the rock 'n' roller, Cahn gives readers an insightful understanding of history that will leave you intrigued, indignant, entertained and even confer value on anyone who has suffered injustices, nourishing the possibility for change.
— Sofia Marin

Ms.

As public policy wars over morality rage unabated, the bodies of teenage girls and young women remain the battleground, making this book an urgent read...Cahn weaves the experiences and voices of girls from all classes and both black and white communities to show how girls used economic, social and cultural capital to redefine Victorian moral codes and pursue sexual experiences once viewed as the preserve of men.
— France Winddance Twine

Choice

This work makes a useful contribution to the growing field of the study of girls.
— E. Thompson

Annelise Orleck
Sexual Reckonings dramatically illustrates how attempts to regulate girls' sexual behavior were at the heart of power relations in the pre-Civil Rights South. Compelling and original, Cahn's recovery of the dreams, hopes, and heartbreaks of poor white and African-American girls of the mid-20th century South have continued to haunt me, long after finishing this remarkable book.
Pete Daniel
Sexual Reckonings is a significant analysis of how black and white teenage young women reshaped their world in the first sixty years of the twentieth century. Based on extensive and imaginative sources, Cahn's work is nuanced, challenging, and brilliantly argued.
Jacquelyn Dowd Hall
Carefully researched and beautifully written, Sexual Reckonings forges a new path by tying the history of southern adolescence to the South's own coming of age.
Estelle B. Freedman
This impressive history of the sexual cultures of southern black and white adolescent girls pays careful attention to social fears of sexual danger, state regulatory policies, and the experience of the young women who reshaped sexual meanings over the first half of the twentieth century. Cahn persuasively argues for the centrality of adolescent female sexuality to southern politics, from the changing racial focus of forced sterilizations to the shifting grounds for white resistance to school desegregation.
Nancy A. Hewitt
Sexual Reckonings offers a fascinating analysis of female adolescence in the context of racial, class and cultural upheavals across the twentieth-century South. Cahn transforms our understandings of girlhood and womanhood, sex and society, in the South and the nation, during the critical decades from 1920-1960.
Booklist - Vanessa Bush
Cahn traces female adolescence in the South from the flapper era through Elvis Presley and rock and roll and the budding civil rights movement, and the vast differences that race and class made in the judgment and treatment of female adolescent behavior. She examines the particularly volatile mixture of race and class for which the South has become famous, as the society struggled to control girls--black and white--to maintain racial purity and social conventions. This is a fascinating look at how young women fit into and affected southern patriarchy and notions of racial purity.
Feminist Review - Sofia Marin
Susan K. Cahn offers an empowering, well-researched, and refreshing look at the South's transformation from the period of 1920 to 1960. She relies on anecdotal evidence of countless adolescent girls, integrating their narratives with the larger narrative of Southern political, economic and cultural change...From poor white girls targeted for "reform" to wartime pickup girls to the rock 'n' roller, Cahn gives readers an insightful understanding of history that will leave you intrigued, indignant, entertained and even confer value on anyone who has suffered injustices, nourishing the possibility for change.
Ms. - France Winddance Twine
As public policy wars over morality rage unabated, the bodies of teenage girls and young women remain the battleground, making this book an urgent read...Cahn weaves the experiences and voices of girls from all classes and both black and white communities to show how girls used economic, social and cultural capital to redefine Victorian moral codes and pursue sexual experiences once viewed as the preserve of men.
Choice - E. Thompson
This work makes a useful contribution to the growing field of the study of girls.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674024526
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 5/15/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan K. Cahn is Professor of History at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: Scarlett Redux     1
"Holding Excitement in Their Hands" The Southern "Girl Problem"     16
Spirited Youth or Fiends Incarnate?     43
"Just as Much a Menace": Race and Sex Delinquency     68
"A Head Full of Diamonds" Fact, Fiction, and African American Girls' Sexuality     98
"Living in Hopes": An Economy of Desire     129
Sex, Science, and Eugenic Sterilization     156
The World War II Pickup Girl and Wartime Passions     181
School Days Reading, 'Riting, 'Rithmetic, and Romance     211
Would Jesus Dance? The Dangerous Rhythms of Rock 'n' Roll     241
The Sexual Paradox of High School Desegregation     269
Conclusion: Sex, Memory, and the Segregated Past     304
Notes     317
Acknowledgments     359
Index     363
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