Edited by Rachel Hope Cleves
Maybe it’s the come-hither look of the female subject on its pulp-inspired cover that leads Amanda Littauer’s Bad Girls: Young Women, Sex, and Rebellion before the Sixties (UNC, 2015) to fly off the shelves. More likely, the intriguing research, lucid prose, and well-crafted argument explain the book’s popularity. I assigned Bad Girls to students enrolled in my spring 2016 graduate seminar, “The History of Gender, Sexuality, and the Body,” because the book prompts us to rethink what we think we know about all three categories in the course title. Students of the history of sexuality typically come to class already steeped in the popular memory of the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s. Bad Girls shakes up this familiar narrative by detailing how young women and girls in the 1940s and 1950s pursued new sexual freedoms, often at a high cost, causing social upheavals. Long before the emergence of a counter-culture, ordinary girls and women challenged the conservative codes of sexual morality that dominated American society and discourse. Their insistence on their right to pursue sexual pleasure has been, until now, an untold story in the history of America’s long sexual revolution.
Students: Judging from the personal tone of your epilogue, Bad Girls treats a subject that is near and dear to your heart: the sexual agency of young girls and women in the twentieth century. How did you preserve your critical distance and historical objectivity when working with the sources?
Amanda Littauer: In the past and present, young women’s sexual agency matters to me a great deal. Historians tend not to write or to talk publicly about how our personal histories influence the kinds of research we do or how our research makes us feel. Working in the feminist research tradition, I aim not to deny my feelings about my subjects in the search for “objectivity” but, rather, to be reflexive about how my feelings and commitments shape the research process. On a personal level, I experienced what I think of as a sexually empowered bisexual young adulthood; on an intellectual level, I came of age at Cornell University in the 1990s, in the midst of feminist and queer theoretical transformations of the humanities and also the rise of girls’ studies. For these and other reasons, my hope when I started the project was to seek evidence of sexual agency in the mid-20th century. In grad school at Berkeley, however, my reading in women’s history grounded me in the realities of social and institutional control, and my interdisciplinary training taught me to look for multiple perspectives. When I found evidence not only of sexual independence, but also of the many harms inflicted on sexually active girls by individuals, institutions, and cultural forces, I recognized the need to revise (repeatedly) my working assumptions and arguments.
Students: How did you balance evidence of the sexual agency of the young women and girls whom you studied, with evidence of their vulnerability to sexual assault and exploitation, especially in the case of disempowered populations like women of colour? How do you know where to place the emphasis?
AL: This is a great and difficult question. The balance shifted over the course of the project. In the dissertation phase, most of the sources were generated by institutions, agencies, and experts, which lend themselves to an emphasis on oppression. For instance, I evaluated government reports on the numbers of women subjected to venereal disease testing, quarantine, and imprisonment during the war; and stacks of 30-page interview reports in the 1950s with sexually active girls of colour who had experienced a venereal infection, sexual assault, or unintended pregnancy. Even those sources, however, harbored evidence that women and girls pursued sexual independence in ways that complicated or thwarted control agendas. For instance, wartime Social Protection Division leaders lamented that African American servicemen and their female sexual partners evaded venereal disease control measures by socializing and having sex in private or semi-private, rather than commercial, spaces. Researchers who interviewed black and Puerto Rican teens about their sexual histories were surprised when some subjects claimed to be satisfied by sex with other women. In the revision process, I decided to use young women’s voices — however mediated — as a point of entry into the sources and their interpretation. By contextualizing individual stories in the broader social history, I emphasize young women’s agency in the face of daunting structural conditions. When it came to writing about women and girls of colour, specifically, I tried to be sensitive to the racial power dynamics shaping the sources. When a black teenager told a white social worker that she “preferred women to men” and hoped to have “a good job, a home, and someone to love,” she resisted not only psychiatric denigration of lesbianism as permanently immature, but also venereal disease researchers’ racist assumptions that poor girls of colour were promiscuous and irresponsible.
Students: How did you keep your heart from being crushed by the sad endings to the stories of many of your subjects, who paid such high prices for their sexual freedom? Do you agree with Jill Lepore that it is possible for historians to “Love Too Much”?
AL: Unlike the scholars who Lepore discusses in her powerful essay on microhistory, I did not have the (conflicted) luxury of falling in love with my subjects. Although influenced by recent queer and feminist theory, the book is a work of classic social history in that it analyzes the lives of people who lacked the power or influence to leave more than a trace of themselves in the archive. I rarely had more than a single document about any individual. That said, the collective stories of certain subjects were quite disheartening, particularly those who faced familial or peer rejection, educational deprivation, and interpersonal or institutional violence. I often experience feelings of frustration and sadness in my work, but I also feel grateful and inspired. Together, those mixed feelings motivate my teaching, research, and community engagement.
Students: How did the silences in the archives shape your research, especially with regard to race and class?
AL: In this case, the girls and women whose voices are less prominent in the archive are those who enjoyed socioeconomic and white racial advantage. As is still the case today, groups with racial and socioeconomic status are typically not targeted as the source of social problems. Their legal and social transgressions appear interpersonal and individual, requiring privatized or consumerist solutions. White, middle-class people in the 1940s and 1950s risked their reputations when their behavior flouted or implicitly contested social norms, so they used institutions such as private psychiatric care and out of state homes for unwed mothers, as well as affective practices such as fear and shame to hide evidence of sexual transgression. Although some evidence remains of behavior that middle-class communities tried to conceal, the richer sources actually focus on girls who, by virtue of class and often race, were most vulnerable to surveillance and intervention. In fact, because so many of my sources were generated by institutions of social control, most of my subjects in the book were poor or working-class, and many were also people of colour. By using sources generated by public agencies, then, social historians like myself may become complicit in exploiting access to disadvantaged people and communities, making it especially important to consider the potential impact of our scholarship in the present.
Students: How would you like Bad Girls to be utilized by readers, both in the realms of historiography and activism?
AL: In terms of historiography, I hope that the book shows how sexually chaotic the wartime home front really was; complicates the narrative of containment that still shapes postwar gender history; and reveals that the mid-20th century was a time of upheaval and revolt in American sexual culture. The project also aims to infuse the history of sexuality with more documentation and analysis of actual sexual practices, both same-sex and cross-sex.
My activism is focused primarily on the college classroom. When I teach about sexual and other liberation movements of the late 1960s, I often hear students comparing their own generation to that one and downplaying their own ability to create social change. They see the social action gold standard as large-scale, confrontational public protest, and most of my students can’t see themselves taking part in it (though some of them can and do partake in actions like slut walks, immigration activism, and #blacklivesmatter protests). I hope that my research helps show girls, young women, and queer youth that whenever they insist on their right to gendered and sexual autonomy, they are part of an ongoing struggle against hetero-patriarchal forces and norms. That struggle looks different today from the struggle my subjects faced in the 1940s and 50s, but it’s no less real. I especially hope that the book’s epilogue speaks to students about slut shaming. First, it isn’t new. Second, it isn’t fair. Third, it pits young women against one another, when they could be working across their differences to promote a wider range of sexual and gendered self-determination. Women and girls of all genders, races, abilities, and sexualities deserve to experience and express pleasure and desire. If there is one central message of the book, that’s it.
In light of the epilogue, which contains my reflections on the challenges to sexual autonomy that young women and girls face today, I would like to ask you a question. As voices of the younger generation, what connections do you draw between the history explored in Bad Girls and contemporary culture?
Deborah Deacon: Despite the many unhappy endings in Bad Girls, I finished the book feeling inspired by these young women and their sexual autonomy. Our culture is one that tells young women to be afraid of sex and the men who want it with — or rather “from” — us. In other words, we come to expect unhappy endings from books like Bad Girls, and in our own lives. This negative view of sex for young women can be justified by the fact that, as you show, “structural inequality tips the balance for many girls away from pleasure and toward harm.” Certainly, young women often experience fear and harm when they ought to experience pleasure and desire. Bad Girls reminds us how important it is for this to change, and how sexual autonomy is “a matter of social justice” that deserves the attention of scholars and activists alike.
Christina Fabiani: You focus on the “implicit revolt against gendered sexual hypocrisies” throughout your book. In terms of connecting the book with the present, I would say that this struggle continues today but that the agency of women is much more explicit. See the Slut Walk or Free the Nipple movements, as two examples. Women continue this battle today but, because of the groundbreaking actions of women like those who hold the spotlight in your book, there is heightened awareness/active consciousness of what is being challenged, how, and why.
Amanda Littauer is an Associate Professor in the Department of History and the Center for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Northern Illinois University. Her research focuses on 20th-century sexual culture, the history of women and girls in the modern U.S., and LGBT history. Publications include Bad Girls: Young Women, Sex, and Rebellion before the Sixties (UNC Press, 2015), “Scouts, Tomboys, and the History of Girls and Girlhood,” “‘Someone to Love’: Teen Girls’ Same-Sex Desire in the 1950s United States,” and “The B-Girl Evil: Bureaucracy, Sexuality, and the Menace of Barroom Vice in Postwar California.” Her new project is a history of queer youth in the U.S. from the 1940s through the 1970s. Amanda is also co-chair of the Committee on LGBT History. She tweets from @amandalittauer.
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