Second-wave feminists, from the liberal-minded Betty Friedan to the more radical Ti-Grace Atkinson, targeted Freud and psychoanalysis for propagating derogatory views of women. Feminists of all political philosophies agreed that male psychoanalysts had constructed accounts of women as pathological for needing more from their lives than motherhood, as frigid for not reaching sexual ecstasy through intercourse, and as masochistic for embodying the very traits of passivity and loving tolerance that Freudian experts had assigned to them. Furthermore, sex experts created a veritable industry to treat the causes of women’s psychological ill health. Feminists angrily noted that, in psychoanalysis, women were the perpetual losers, damned for focusing too much on their children and damned for pursuing careers.
The answer to the question why sexuality mattered so much to second-wave feminists begins in part with the history of expert ideas about womanhood. Experts who outlined the parameters of the “normal” woman bolstered their assertions through theories about the “true” nature of female sexuality. For many experts, female sexuality served as the raw material from which a natural and healthy femininity was derived. Female sexuality promised to reveal, yet never fully delivered, the essence of womanhood, the kernel of unchanging truth about women. As historian Thomas Laqueur argues, “Almost everything one wants to say about sex—however sex is understood—already has in it a claim about gender.”1 The age-old hope that the true essence of womanhood was discoverable, a hope shared by experts and nonexperts alike, situated ideas about sexuality in the center of ongoing debates about women and womanhood. Psychologists, medical doctors, social workers, anthropologists, sociologists, and popular writers who strove to illuminate the mysteries of femininity, women’s proper work, or even the most efficient way to order the social relations between the sexes, drew on narratives of sexuality to do so.
Feminists were not impervious to the lure of sexuality as a way to explain women. They too relied on visions of female sexuality to strengthen their views of a new and decidedly liberated woman. Part of the feminist project of reimagining female sexuality, then, involved revisiting and reworking American sex expert discourse and its construction of an ideal woman. Feminists were the first to point out the pernicious effects this ideal woman had had on generations of women who vainly attempted to conform to its unattainable standards of normality. In showing this ideal to be impossible and, more pointedly, a male fantasy of obedient womanhood, feminists believed they could effect real change in the social meaning of femininity. They hoped to cast off the ideal woman of expert discourse and replace her with a feminist ideal of empowered and self-actualized womanhood.
The ideal woman found in the texts of psychoanalytic theory and in the pages of marriage manuals was herself an evolving figment, an ideal that developed within a changing field of expertise itself shaped by its own unique combination of internal and external forces.2 This changing ideal nevertheless had roots in American intellectual history that feminists felt compelled to revisit and revise. Betty Friedan, Kate Millett, and Shulamith Firestone each began their critique of oppressive views of womanhood by exploring the first modern ideas of female sexuality generated at the turn of the century, and each began with the man they loved to hate, Sigmund Freud. While, individually, feminists writing in the 1970s did not necessarily suffer directly at the hands of misogynistic postwar Freudian psychoanalysts, they, in ways different from their mothers before them, nevertheless encountered standards of womanhood that had roots in the ideas generated by Freud.
Historically minded and university trained, most second-wave feminists who attacked American sex expertise did not hold Freud alone accountable for oppressing women. They rightly understood that the damage wreaked on American womanhood was perpetrated as well by Freudians who elaborated upon the work of the master throughout the interwar and postwar period. Thus, the feminist project of reinventing female sexuality became intimately bound up with the exploration of psychoanalytic femininity, from its origins in the ideal of the vaginal orgasm in the 1920s, to its study of the dangers posed by frigidity in the 1930s, to popular Freudianism’s turn to outright antifeminism in the 1940s. This trajectory of ideas about healthy female sexuality set the terms that feminists coming of age in the 1960s encountered and eventually rejected.
In the 1910s and 1920s, a new style of heterosexuality emerged in relationship to a host of social and cultural transformations sweeping the country.3 Victorianism, with its emphasis on reproduction and sexual restraint, came under assault from two different cultural arenas. The first blow came from psychoanalysis, the new “science of self” that advocated the centrality of sexual expression to the healthy individual. The second came from the modern “revolution in morals and manners” that took is lead from working-class charity girls, Greenwich Village bohemians, and, eventually, “New Women.” Both psychoanalysis and the revolution in morals and manners offered new appreciation for sexual pleasure, called for greater equality between the sexes, and presented a view of marriage as an emotional and sexual union. Both used female sexual pleasure specifically as a sign of their generation’s rebellion against “stodgy” Victorianism.4 Self-declared moderns inherited a bifurcated view of sexuality from their Victorian forebears. On the one hand, the Victorians viewed sexuality as a form of spiritual union that elevated sexual intercourse into a form of romantic, emotional, and, ultimately, reproductive intimacy. On the other hand, Victorians also saw sexuality as a base physical appetite that was unfit for civilized discourse or civilized women and properly kept to back alleys and red light districts. Sexuality between husband and wife found its highest expression in children, an achievement that sanitized the “unseemly” business of copulation. These two coexistent views of sexuality were deeply gendered, with women cast as the spiritual sex and men as driven by their physical drive for pleasure and release.5 The generation of women coming of age at the turn of the century rejected their parents’ sexual worldview, dismissing Victorianism as the very epitome of dullness. Commentators called these women “new” for a number of reasons, all of which centered on women’s changing relationship to sexuality and to the public sphere. While many different types of women carried the banner of new womanhood, they all shared a rejection of Victorian ideas about women’s proper place. The first generation of new women, who came of age in the 1870s and 1880s, challenged the Victorian gender ideology of separate spheres through their involvement with the settlement house movement and their battle for the ballot.6 College-educated activists such as Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, and Lillian Wald moved out of their family homes to establish settlement houses in urban neighborhoods. These communities of women offered their immigrant neighbors a range of services, from education, parenting, and dietary advice to “betterment” through exposure to European art and music. At the same time, settlement house workers represented women’s capacity to live independently from men. Addams and others cherished their predominantly single-sexed institutions where women set their own goals, dealt with the male-dominated city services and city government, and sustained themselves financially. Settlement house workers also relished their personal relationships, the emotional bonds that literally embodied the “sex solidarity” so central to the “woman movement.”7 Importantly, these women advocated women’s singular qualifications for public and political work: as women, they were both uniquely aware of the toll industrialism took on families and children and uniquely endowed with moral and emotional vision sorely absent from early twentieth-century public culture.8 While often living out passionate relationships with other women in “Boston marriages,” this first generation of new women did not explicitly challenge the Victorian centerpiece of sexual restraint and the code of female passionlessness. That assault came from pre–World War I working-class women who worked in factories and, to a lesser degree, in department stores and “pink-collar” jobs such as secretarial services.9 Many of these women came into contact with settlement house workers through their mothers, sisters, and other relatives for whom their child services were targeted. Immigrant and native working-class young women gained a measure of independence from their families through wage work.10 While these women turned over the bulk of their earnings to help maintain their families, they nevertheless enjoyed more time away from the watchful eyes of their traditional and family communities. Working women forged their own peer networks not only around work but also around leisure and the growing consumer culture.11 These young women challenged Victorianism both by performing wage work in heterosocial settings and through their leisure activities, when they offered sexual favors to young men who “treated” them to the pleasures of dance halls, movie houses, and amusement parks.12 “Charity girls,” working-class women who exchanged sexual favors in return for a night on the town, played a crucial part in the loosening standards of female sexual expressiveness. In dance halls, with men charity girls knew and men they had just met, they danced a slow shimmy or “pivoted,” a wild spinning dance. “Tough” dances like the grizzly bear, the Charlie Chaplin wiggle, and the dip threw couples into close bodily contact and suggested sexual intercourse. Many of the social clubs charity girls attended permitted flirting, touching, and kissing games at their meetings. The music halls and cheap vaudeville shows they attended offered barely veiled sexual humor in their performances. Charity girls spent money not turned over to the family on adorning themselves to catch the eye of a male companion willing to pick up the tab for an evening’s entertainment. They donned high-heeled shoes, fancy dresses, costume jewelry, makeup, and elaborate hats on their evening escapades. Young working women linked marketplace values with sexuality in a new mix through their consumption of clothes and other finery as well as through their willingness to trade sexual favors for amusements and drinks without slipping into outright prostitution. Such behaviors brought female sexuality more in line with male sexual standards.13 Yet, despite this working-class remodeling of sexual behavior, charity girls did not come to symbolize the era’s sexual modernism. That honor fell to the “flapper,” who, after World War I, came to embody the rejection of Victorian feminine restraint. Popularly, most commentators referred to any young woman with a bobbed haircut, lipstick, and a short skirt as a flapper. Flappers took inspiration both from the first generation of settlement house workers, who lived their lives outside of marriage and nuclear families, and the sexual revolution launched by the charity girls.14 These young women were eager to distinguish themselves from suffragists and settlement house workers, whom they viewed as spinsters antagonistic toward men. Yet, like them, they rejected motherhood as women’s sole purpose. Flappers, though, were decidedly apolitical. Basking in the successes of the suffrage movement, many young middle-class women of the 1920s assumed sexual equality had been achieved and set out to enjoy their newly won prerogatives. Following the earlier generation of charity girls, the middle-class modern woman enjoyed heterosociality and the numerous opportunities to enjoy the company of men in new public settings, apart from the watchful eyes of neighbors and relatives.15 But young middle-class women who went to cabarets did not find as sexually permissive an atmosphere as working-class girls found. Cabaret owners enforced strict rules that discouraged contact between strangers. Likewise, middle-class dancers tamed the blatant sexuality of popular working-class dances into refined and more controlled movements.16 Between 1880 and the 1920s, modern women, be they settlement house workers, charity girls, feminists, or flappers, dismantled Victorian femininity on a number of related fronts. They proved, quite dramatically, that woman’s place was no longer only in the home, running the household and raising upstanding citizens. Highly visible in the public sphere, whether shopping, working, going to amusement parks, or battling city agencies, these women literally broke free of women’s domestic associations. Such challenges to the long-standing gender ideology of the Victorians changed dominant views of womanhood. As one expert explained, “By the very act of working, something has happened to her…. She had become in important psychological elements, a man…. More significantly[,] they absorb, with their jobs, the masculine attitude toward sex.”17
While female participants in the first sexual revolution rejected the tenets of sexual restraint that had structured the lives and desires of their parents’ generation, they nonetheless carried forward into their own sexual philosophies a cluster of traditional racial and class distinctions. Waves of immigration at the end of the nineteenth century, coupled with large migrations of African Americans to the cities of the North and Middle West in the early years of the twentieth century, made white middle-class Americans newly conscious of themselves as a group. Fear of new immigrants and racial others spurred many authors of marriage manuals to advocate less prudery among middle-class whites so as to combat rising numbers of frequently darker skinned immigrants—Italians, Slavs, Jews, Chinese, and Japanese—who threatened to overwhelm the dominant racial stock in the United States. The threat to white middle-class dominance lay not only in the supposed sexual potency of the foreign born but in the self-restrictive sexual morality and self-co...