Category Archives: Gender studies

Review: The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks

over The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks

The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks

“If not for Mrs. Parks nobody would have ever heard of Martin Luther King Jr.” – E.D. Nixon

After reading Jeanne Theoharis’ “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks” I have to say that if not for Mrs. Parks there is a lot we never would have heard of and the world today would be a worse place for it. Growing up, and well into adulthood all I knew about Rosa Parks was the popular myth, she was a tired seamstress who was tired and refused to give up her seat. Earning a degree in history I learned that that story was a simplification of the real story. Reading Theoharis’ book i discovered that what I learned in college was a simplification of the truth.

I don’t know why some books are harder for me to review and with other books the review almost writes itself. This is one of the difficult ones. It is a great book. I think it could be the best book I read this year and I read some very good books this year. That could be part of my problem. It is good on many levels. I learned Mrs. Rosa Parks life story as well as can be written until the last archive of her papers is opened to researchers. I also learned about classism and the power of showing up.

I have to recommend this book to anyone interested in the Civil Rights Movement or American culture. It is well written, well researched, and well reasoned. I hope it gets wide exposure, the country could use some of Mrs. Parks tenacity and hope.

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Filed under Book review, Gender studies, History, Politics, Race Relations, Social History

Review: The story the soldiers wouldn’t tell : sex in the Civil War.

Book cover

The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell

Dr. Thomas P. Lowry’s 1994 book, “The story the soldiers wouldn’t tell : sex in the Civil War” is still, as far as I can see, the primary book on its topic. That is not bad for a 21 year old history text, but then it is about sex, a topic Americans seem to deny exists. Lowry is a great writer, he controls the scholarly temptation to rely on a multitude of polysyllabic verbiage and keeps it simple and direct. He even manages to keep it light sometimes he is almost funny. He also is a good historian and I expect a good medical doctor. The book is well organized, he makes sure to show us what we need to know before we need to know it. the first two chapters, “Our Founding Fathers” and “The Birds and the Bees” set the stage by showing us what the relationship was between the male armies of the Revolution and the females of the era and then what Americans knew or thought they knew about sex.

General Braddock starting out on his march to Fort Dunquesne limited his army to six women per company and the British arrived in America with one woman for each ten men. Officially the woman were not there to serve the carnal desires of the officers and men but to cook and clean to remove men from those duties. Some were wives of the men or officers. The number of women following the troops as they moved from encampment to encampment and battle to battle grew. Wives and families who still depended on their men for sustenance and protection, women needing paid work who would cook and clean. Doing what men and women do they formed relationships and had sex. Some of the camp followers were willing to have sex for money.

Lowry assumes that people’s behavior and biology don’t change much is a few hundred years so he says that he expects that what Kinsey discovered in the 1940s and 50s was true in the 1840s and 50s. Then he goes to the sources to show us that maybe the people of the 19th century were the reason that Americans are still so ashamed and afraid of their biology. The Church of the Latter Day Saints and their “sister wives”, John Humphry Noyes’ Oneida Colony and its “Complex Marriage”, then there was Sylvester Graham’s views on sex, I will never look at a graham cracker the same way.

Using the soldier’s own words from letters written to home and to friends Lowry shows that the young men in the U. S. Civil War behaved like young men always have but, using statistics on the ratio of couples marrying while already expecting a child he does show that during times of unrest “illicit” sexual activity, sex outside of marriage, increases. Regardless of the praise Mark Twain and other writers gave to the originality of 19th century cursing the remaining letters and court transcripts prove otherwise.

Some of the most interesting revelations Dr. Lowry uncovered concerned venereal diseases, the medical topic that brought him to this subject. In two occupied southern cities the military officer in control set up systems of licensing prostitutes who agreed to submit to weekly medical checks. If they were found to be sick they received free treatment and were isolated from their occupation until a doctor cleared them. Both cities saw a remarkable drop in the rate of disease among the troops and the working women. I am not a student of the U. S. Civil War but apparently the Army of the Pacific, the federal troops from the Pacific area who fought against tribal nations during the war performed very poorly. Apparently many military historians have speculated why that was but Dr. Lowry may have come across the answer, very nearly half of the troops, and officers, suffered from VD during their deployments. As Lowry points out the symptoms of syphilis and gonorrhea do not make riding and fighting any easier.

Lowry gives a full chapter to love and romance, looking at the letters of longing between soldiers and their partners at home. He examines evidence of rape, officers, and clerics, who were not gentlemen, possible transvestites, contraception, abortion, and homosexuality, a term that was not invented until a generation after the war although the term “sodomy” had been in use since the late 13th century. He examines the question of Abraham Lincoln’s sexuality and comes up with what I feel has to be the final answer on that question, there is evidence to support both sides of the argument but nothing to prove either.

“The story the soldiers wouldn’t tell” was an interesting and entertaining read and with it Lowry opened a window into a seldom investigated are of American history. This is one of the better books I have read so far this year and may be the best.

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Review: Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement

Book Cover: Household Workers Unite

Household Workers Unite

I love labor history. I find learning about how the underdog resisted and, sometimes, triumphed over adversity exciting. You can imagine how I felt when I was selected to review Premilla Nadasan’s “Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement” I was overjoyed. That joy faded soon after I started reading.

I expected a scholarly work of history., something that started with a detailed look at the conditions that lead to the early attempts at organizing household workers. Then I expected to learn, step by step, how the movement progressed and changed and suffered setbacks through the decades. All that should have been, in my expectations, stuffed with details that many people would consider to be dry. What I found was a disjointed collection of micro-biographies that, like Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, seemed unstuck in time.

Like any scholarly writer Nadasan repeats points. I am used to seeing controversial points the author is trying to prove whenever they provide fresh evidence. Here the points are that household workers work in intimate settings with their employers and unlike factory workers they are dispersed from each other. Are those controversial points? Do they need repeating? Another repeated point is that organizers cannot reach household workers congregated in one spot like factory workers are. I shook my head every time I read that. No factory, no shop, no mine ever allowed union organizers on the premises to talk to workers. Every union organizer had to come up with ways to find workers and bring them together. Nadasan points to several strategies that organizers of household workers used to find them, often more that one at a time, on the bus, in church, and by talking to local businessmen.

I confess I had to give up on this book about fifty pages shy of the end. I just could not force myself to struggle on to the end. I hope my opinions are not from some personal bias of mine, some readers and writers just do not suit each other. I don’t think that is the case here. Nadasan’s writes well and she makes her points are clear. She picked an interesting topic but somehow turned out a disappointing book. I hope I will be able to find other writings on the attempts to organize household workers.

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Review: Striptease, the untold history of the girlie show

Book cover

Striptease the untold history of the girlie show

On an opera stage in France, sometime in the 1830s, a dancer showed her ankle and shocked the audience. One hundred and fifty years later Goldie Hawn was gyrating in a gilded birdcage wearing only a bikini, her act broadcast to every American living room and only few people objected. Rachel Shteir looks at the evolution of stripping, of undressing, as part of a performance, in her book “Striptease: the untold history of the girlie show”, which won the 2004 George Freedley Award for Excellence in Live Theater Writing.

Social and technological changes seem to be the principal driving force behind the evolution of theatrical “undressing”. For most of the 19th century the rules were stable. If a “dancer” moved on stage she must stay covered. If a dancer stood still bare skin was permissible. Flesh was only exposed, legally, in “living art”, a still life representation of well known paintings or sculpture. If the dancer moved the most that they could expose was a form fitting “union suit”. It was the female form, not female flesh, on display. During this time dance was not even the principle “undressing act”. Most often their was a simple, often unimaginative, skit that provided the rationale for the undressing, bathing, preparing for bed, or the ever popular game of strip poker. Eroticism was a product of making public the private act of undressing .

Shteir points out that at least one change in fashion was necessary for the development of modern strip and tease, each started as a separate style of undressing act. The whalebone corset fell out of fashion, increasing the ease and speed for a woman to undress. With the coming of the first world war came the dawn of the Jazz Age, a result of moralists and the US military shutting down Storyville, New Orleans’ vice district, unemployed musicians spread the New Orleans sound up the Mississippi river to St. Louis and Chicago where it took root and spread across the nation and soon the world. In the roaring post war economy burlesque adopted jazz, a energetic boost to its Tin Pan Alley roots. A six piece band, a “strip band”, became the norm in the industry. The Midwest in the 1920s gave birth to both the “tease”, where the dancer performs a short song then ducks behind the curtain to remove an article of clothing before popping back on stage for another number repeating the sequence as far as local law enforcement will allow, and the “strip”, where the dancer slowly and deliberately undoes buttons and hooks while performing a song or to a song. Not all performers sang, often the theater would have someone singing just off stage, a job referred to as a “tit serenader”. By 1928 Billboard magazine had combined them into one word, striptease.

The Depression did not stop burlesque, top performers could earn $400 a week. Beginners and older dancers could still make $35 a week. Comedy played a bigger part in the performances, lifting the spirits of people enduring economic hard times. The comedy kept women in the audience of burlesque performances through the 1930s. Fannie Brice and Gypsy Rose Lee worked to put humor in their acts. It was also the age of burlesque queens, Sally Rand, Ann Corio, Gypsy Rose Lee and others who moved beyond the burlesque circuit into “legitimate theater” and the movies but maintained a relationship with striptease. With the bad economic times the moralists became more vocal, blaming the hard times on burlesque rather than on bad management by WASPs.* Moralists came out in force during the depression, doing their best to ruin business and slander performers. Ferdinand Pecora, a name I respected, the lawyer that investigated and prosecuted the big banks and oligarchs who brought on the Depression, prosecuted the Minsk’s for obscenity.

With the outbreak of World War II burlesque and striptease found some acceptance in the general population. Americans saw no need to deprive young soldiers going off to war a chance to have a good time. The war also exposed the world to what had been described as one of only two American art forms, striptease. Striptease caught on in France after WWII the same as jazz caught on after WWI. The late 1940s and 1950s were a highpoint for striptease but they also were the opening chapters in its fall from prosperity.

With television people had less reason to leave home. With changing fashions people had less need to pay to see the female form. Low revenue forced theaters to close, some reopening to show films featuring skin, movement, and no teasing. Fewer theaters meant fewer performers could find work and those that did tended to keep doing the acts that had worked in the past, originality suffered and even fewer paid admission. By 1969 Shteir says that striptease was economically obsolete. A few performers kept going into the 1980s performing in tents at county fairs to audiences that were now female by a 3 to 2 ratio. In her conclusion Shteir looks at the resurgence in interest in old fashioned striptease, neoburlesque where professional looking amateurs stage performances for their own reasons.

“Striptease” is a well written, well researched, and well organized book that was as fun to read as it was educational. Early in the book I was concerned that Shteir was using obscure words to sound more academic but it soon became evident that I just needed to be more familiar with parts of our language. The two words that I first tripped over, “chorine” is one chorus girl and “zaftig” is on the scale of “svelte” to “voluptuous” but I am still not sure where on the scale it falls, were uncommon but necessary to express the author’s ideas. Shteir also pointed out that in theater speak any action that shocks the audience, that grabs their attention is a “flash”, it is not just about breasts and behinds.

Although reviews on Amazon, which I read after reading the book, question some of the incidental facts in the book I only have to look at the list of resources Shteir researched and the detailed notes she includes to dismiss those objections as questionable at best. After all none of the reviews document their claims and anybody, even me, can post a review on the internet. Shteir’s basic premise, that striptease was an economic choice that some, but not all, performers made in spite of its hardships, is well defended and convincing. I have to recommend this book to any one interested in women’s history, economic history, and the theater.

* White Anglo Saxon Protestants for anyone younger than I am.

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