Sex and Manners: Female Emancipation in the West, 1890-2000.
In Sex and Manners, Cas Wouters presents part of a larger comparative study of change in twentieth-century manners books in the United States, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Germany. The focus here is on ideas and practices relating to gender relations, especially courtship. Wouters' work is useful because of its comparative, empirical, synthetic and systematic approach. He is able to develop a convincing theory of change on the basis of clear patterns of similarity and difference in the different nations he examines. In all four areas he finds that manners have become more informal and emotions more free over the course of the twentieth century; and that psychic and social gaps between groups have narrowed, allowing greater integration and easier identification between groups. At the same time, the process of individualization has proceeded, as individual identity has grown at the expense of group identity. This trend has been linked in turn to an increasing reliance on self-control rather than external controls for behavior. All of these were "spiral" trends, with periods of accelerated change followed by periods of retrenchment, but in the overall direction just described. The national differences Wouters finds are mostly the result of a vanguard surge of change in the United States in the 1920s, where, in courtship as in other areas, the United States experienced developments that other western nations did not realize until after World War II. Interestingly, Wouters finds that an earlier start did not lead to the greatest degree of sexual and gender emancipation by 2000, but rather circumscribed change in the U.S., at least in comparison to the Western European societies that he surveys.
Wouters structures his analysis of manners books with a trope from his gender focus: women's "escape" from their nineteenth-century confinement to "the home and good society." After describing the starting point of female parlor power in the Victorian age, subsequent chapters detail the ways in which women got free in the twentieth century--to pay for themselves in public, to go out to work, to go about without chaperones, and to "do their own courting." In each chapter he examines ideas and practices in each country. The centerpiece of the book is a long chapter that describes the last two "developments in courting regimes." It is here that Wouters describes how sexual emancipation happened earliest in the U.S. and that European nations did not catch up until the 1960s. But the timing had interesting consequences in terms of equality. Because Europeans only got around to embracing sexual liberation in the era of "second wave" feminism (and the second wave of youth culture), the practices of a new dating regime reflected a more egalitarian consensus. Since the U.S., in contrast, pioneered the dating game on college campuses in the 1920s--before significant strides were made in gender equality--the resulting rituals inscribed male dominance. Wouters follows this long chapter with a shorter discussion of the history of what he calls the lust-balance (between desires for sex and love) since the sexual revolution. In a final chapter he reviews the trends he has uncovered and exposes theoretical "regularities in [the] processes."
Historians of manners and courtship in particular places, such as Beth Bailey (the U.S.), Michael Curtin and Leonore Davidoff (Britain), will appreciate how his comparative approach adds to their findings by putting them in a larger context. Historians who have studied earlier periods, such as Anna Bryson (early modern England), Richard Bushman, or John Kasson (eighteenth and nineteenth-century U.S.) will appreciate how he describes the distinctive overall trend of "informalization" of the twentieth century, and yet connects it to the processes of rising self-controls that all scholars have been tracing since Norbert Elias put (early modern) manners on the map. Specifically, Wouters shows how informalization involves more self-control than the seemingly self-controlled Victorians. At least the latter had clear conventions to follow, signaling the persistence of some degree of external control even as the importance of self-control was rising. Wouters also shows the twentieth-century continuation of the trend of avoidance of expressions of superiority and inferiority that were inaugurated in the late eighteenth-century democratic revolutions. His comparative analysis and twentieth-century focus thus allows Wouters to add significantly to the story of manners and society that scholars have been investigating since the translation of Elias in the 1980s. His systematic and empirical approach--he starts with evidence and ends with theory, as opposed to the other way around--will make it easier for others to evaluate and use his work. Indeed, this book and the larger work to come will consolidate Wouters' many previously published contributions to the story of manners and emotions in twentieth-century Europe and America.
Historians might find two aspects of this work frustrating. Wouters is a sociologist and therefore the theoretical parts of his writing can be a rough hike for historians inclining more and more to jargon-free narrative. In addition, Wouters' penultimate chapter, where he describes trends since the sexual revolution, is a bit of an odd fruit in this book. Of necessity, he has to go beyond his manners-book base to get at current sexual practices, making considerable use, for example, of a Dutch feminist magazine. Wouters' own views about sex and gender also tend to color his survey of the current scene, whereas in earlier chapters he was careful to describe the spectrum of opinion among advice writers. Finally, despite his sensitivity to women's experience as sexual subject versus sexual object, Wouters' book might have been richer for more systematic comparison of male and female positions. The focus on female emancipation is paradoxically confining. In all, however, Wouters offers yet another of his important contributions to the history of sex and manners.
C. Dallett Hemphill
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|Author:||Hemphill, C. Dallett|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2006|
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