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The "Girl Problem": Female Sexual Delinquency in New York, 1900-1930.

The construction and regulation of female adolescence has recently drawn the attention of a number of historians. Focusing on the early years of the twentieth century in particular, such historians as Kathy Peiss (Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York, 1986), Linda Gordon (Heroes of Their Own Lives: The Politics and History of Family Violence, 1988), Joanne Meyerowitz (Women Adrift: Independent Wage Earners in Chicago, 18801930, 1988), Regina Kunzel (Fallen Women, Problem Girls: Unmarried Mothers and the Professionalization of Social Work, 1890-1945, 1993), and Mary Odem (Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1995) have provided a nuanced, vivid portrait of the collective experience of the many poor and working-class young women - most of them Northern whites, both native and foreign born - who drew middle-class censure and came under professional scrutiny on account of their independent, flamboyant, and sometimes unruly behavior. Many of these young women flocked to large cities, where they lived outside the familial nexus, alone or with their peers, and earned their keep working in new service and pink-collar occupations. Rejecting the moral strictures of their elders and social betters, they were enthusiastic participants in the burgeoning culture of commercial amusements, eager to experiment with dicey new forms of sexual expression that offered them new pleasures but also confronted them with new dangers. Together with the social scientists and reformers who chronicled their brash exploits and at times sad predicaments, these young women invented a new stage in the female life cycle, adolescence.

Ruth Alexander enters a crowded field with her new book, a field with its own orthodoxy and loosely defined paradigm. Working with a revisionist social control framework that allows for young women's agency in their encounters with authorities, Alexander does not attempt to challenge or alter the field's paradigm. She does, however, supplement it in several interesting ways.

The "Girl Problem" is based in large part on the records of one hundred young women incarcerated between 1900 and 1930 in two institutions, the New York State Reformatory for Women at Bedford Hills (of which Katherine Bement Davis was the first superintendent) and the Western House of Refuge for Women at Albion, in upstate New York. The records are rich with detail, including psychological assessments, correspondence from families and between inmates and others, and parole applications, that Alexander has used to good effect. Nearly all of those incarcerated were poor and came from immigrant or African American homes. Twenty-two percent of them were committed at the behest of their parents under the provisions of various incorrigible girl statutes as well as a melange of vagrancy, disorderly conduct, and, eventually, wayward minor laws. Reformers committed to eradicating prostitution (with which many in Alexander's sample were charged) were happy to ally themselves with desperate families, lobbying for ever easier means of commitment, as well as to entrap the unsuspecting in patently contrived circumstances. Alexander adduces several examples of black women framed by police in particularly egregious ways - one was committed after having been "caught" talking late one night with a white man - and argues that despite well-publicized critiques of police overzealousness, particularly with respect to African American women, entrapment became accepted policy.

An ideology with roots, at least ostensibly, in a notion of protection thus supported race and class biased policing. Alexander stresses the irony in the fact that the state's efforts to address the girl problem escalated in an ever more punitive direction as the problem itself was reconceptualized as one of deviant parental, not adolescent, behavior. By the twenties, an ethos of adjustment had taken hold among a range of mental hygienists, who, in contrast to censorious Progressive reformers, advocated independence for the young, one arguing, for example, that both boys and girls should "leave behind the comfortable protection of the family and maternal solicitude." (p. 84) Psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers normalized adolescent rebellion and turned professional attention to the issue of too much parental oversight - excessive meddling - not too little. The state's criminal courts system, the refuge of poor families, was thus increasingly out of step with this network of clinics and child guidance centers, which were promulgating a critique of parental authority to the middle class. Alexander has landed here on an extraordinarily interesting problem, the simultaneous rise of repressive and therapeutic stances in parallel and sometimes overlapping sites, advocated, at times, by the same personnel. It would be interesting to trace how the mental hygienists' critique of the family was reconfigured as an attack on women in the forties and fifties literature of maternal overprotection and momism. Harsh and domineering fathers dropped from professional view as nagging, undersexed, frustrated, and pinched mothers assumed center stage.

Another interesting aspect of Alexander's book is her treatment of young women on parole, women faced with what she calls "the perils of reinventing the self." Parole presented opportunities for self-fashioning, but it could also land young women in the very circumstances that had occasioned their initial falls from respectability. How to construct a new identity? Alexander writes that most of the inmates on parole - in the range of 70 percent - eventually "made good," having learned well the lessons of conformity and accommodation their keepers impressed upon them. She stresses that young women on parole claimed the right to judge their own moral reformations, demanding that they be allowed autonomy and self-definition; conversely, she shows, reformatory staff took some care in placing them, finding highly desired employment in stores, offices, and factories for some. Still, a number were returned to cold, even abusive, families and to communities that would not let them forget their transgressions. Forbidden amusements and less-than-respectable peers beckoned the bored and lonely, and a number of parolees were re-institutionalized two and three times. Some repeat offenders simply gave up, adopting respectability as a means to secure freedom. Others attempted to live respectably, but were foiled by straitened circumstances.

Alexander's presentation of the careers of a number of parolees is compelling, but the rich, suggestive texture of the parolees' testimony undermines her rather straightforward framing of the issue around submission and rebellion, respectability and its achievement. More attention to the ambiguities of "conventional morality" as well as to the conventions of confession and self-disclosure, the idiom in which much of the parolees' testimony was articulated, might have pushed Alexander's analysis beyond the limits of her social control framework. Her conclusion that former inmates "decided" on conformity cannot convey the complexity of her subjects' emotional lives, their need to please as well as to shock, to boast as well as to admit defeat and seek solace. Might not continued, painful ambivalence characterize their lives beyond parole better than the acceptance of conservative cultural norms Alexander posits?

Elizabeth Lunbeck Princeton University
COPYRIGHT 1997 Journal of Social History
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Author:Lunbeck, Elizabeth
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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