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Article

Anna May Wong and Asian American Popular Culture  

Shirley Lim

Anna May Wong (January 3, 1905–February 3, 1961) was the first Chinese American movie star and the first Asian American actress to gain international recognition. Wong broke the codes of yellowface in both American and European cinema to become one of the major global actresses of Asian descent between the world wars. She made close to sixty films that circulated around the world and in 1951 starred in her own television show, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, produced by the defunct Dumont Network. Examining Wong’s career is particularly fruitful because of race’s centrality to the motion pictures’ construction of the modern American nation-state, as well as its significance within the global circulation of moving images. Born near Los Angeles’s Chinatown, Wong began acting in films at an early age. During the silent era, she starred in films such as The Toll of the Sea (1922), one of the first two-tone Technicolor films, and The Thief of Baghdad (1924). Frustrated by Hollywood roles, Wong left for Europe in the late 1920s, where she starred in several films and plays, including Piccadilly (1929) and A Circle of Chalk (1929) opposite Laurence Olivier. Wong traveled between the United States and Europe for film and stage work. In 1935 she protested Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s refusal to consider her for the leading role of O-Lan in the Academy Award–winning film The Good Earth (1937). Wong then paid her one and only visit to China. In the late 1930s, she starred in several B films such as King of Chinatown (1939), graced the cover of the mass-circulating American magazine Look, and traveled to Australia. In 1961, Wong died of Laennec’s cirrhosis, a disease typically stemming from alcoholism. Yet, as her legacy shows, for a brief moment a glamorous Chinese American woman occupied a position of transnational importance.

Article

Arab American Literature  

Pauline Homsi Vinson

Arab American literature as a category has only become recognized since the 1980s; its origins, however, extend back a century earlier to the 1880s, when writers from Arabic-speaking countries formed literary associations, established printing presses, and participated in a thriving intellectual atmosphere that included literary centers in the United States, Brazil, and Argentina, among other places in the Americas, as well as in Beirut, Damascus, and Cairo. While US-based Arab American literature is heavily enmeshed in the context of its location in the United States, it also intersects with literatures produced in the Americas more broadly and with transnational Arabic literature globally. Prevalent narratives of US–Arab American literature typically divide it into three distinct phases that mirror a wave model of immigration from Arabic-speaking countries to the United States from the 1880s to the early 21st century. A non-linear, and transnational approach to Arab American literature in the United States can yield a layered picture of continuities, breaks, and redirections in Arab American writing, thereby deepening appreciation for the rich history, complex politics, and manifold aesthetics of Arab American literary expression.

Article

Arabs in America  

Akram Fouad Khater

Between 1880 and 1940, more than 130,000 Arabs immigrated to the United States as part of the Great Migration of the long 19th century. They lived and worked across the breadth of the United States, fought its many wars, and were engaged in the transformative debates about labor, race, gender, and citizenship that raged throughout this time period. As they struggled to carve out a place in “Amirka” they encountered and fought efforts to racialize them as the uncivilized and undesirable “Other.” Their struggles not only contributed to shaping the United States and its immigration policies, but also confronted them with the conundrum of how to belong: to accept and seek admission into the existing system delineated by race, gender, and class, or to challenge the premises of that system. While there was not a singular response from this diverse community, the majority opted to fight for a place in “white” America even if in return this rendered them a liminal ethnicity.

Article

Asian and Asian American Women in the United States before World War II  

Shirley Hune

Asian women, the immigrant generation, entered Hawai’i, when it was a kingdom and subsequently a US territory, and the Western US continent, from the 1840s to the 1930s as part of a global movement of people escaping imperial wars, colonialism, and homeland disorder. Most were wives or picture brides from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and South Asia, joining menfolk who worked overseas to escape poverty and strife. Women also arrived independently; some on the East Coast. US immigration laws restricting the entry of Asian male laborers also limited Asian women. Asian women were critical for establishing Asian American families and ensuring such households’ survival and social mobility. They worked on plantations, in agricultural fields and canneries, as domestics and seamstresses, and helped operate family businesses, while doing housework, raising children, and navigating cultural differences. Their activities gave women more power in their families than by tradition and shifted gender roles toward more egalitarian households. Women’s organizations, and women’s leadership, ideas, and skills contributed to ethnic community formation. Second generation (US-born) Asian American women grew up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and negotiated generational as well as cultural differences. Some were mixed race, namely, biracial or multiracial. Denied participation in many aspects of American youth culture, they formed ethnic-based clubs and organizations and held social activities that mirrored mainstream society. Some attended college. A few broke new ground professionally. Asian and Asian American women were diverse in national origin, class, and location. Both generations faced race and gender boundaries in education, employment, and public spaces, and they were active in civic affairs to improve their lives and their communities’ well-being. Across America, they marched, made speeches, and raised funds to free their homelands from foreign occupation and fought for racial and gender equality in the courts, workplaces, and elsewhere.

Article

Black Girlhood in 20th-Century America  

Miya Carey

Examining American history through the lens of black girlhood underscores just how thoroughly childhood everywhere is not “natural” but depends heavily on its social construction. Furthermore, ideas about childhood innocence are deeply racialized and gendered. At the end of Reconstruction, African Americans lost many of the social and political gains achieved after the Civil War. This signaled the emergence of Jim Crow, placing many blacks in the same social, political, and economic position that they occupied before freedom. Black girls who came of age in the 20th century lived through Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, Black Power, and the rise of the New Right. Moreover, black girls in the 20th century inherited many of the same burdens that their female ancestors carried—especially labor exploitation, criminalization, and racist notions of black sexuality—which left them vulnerable to physical, emotional, and sexual violence. In short, black girls were denied the childhood protections that their white counterparts possessed. If fights for cultural representation, economic justice, equal access to education, and a more just legal system are familiar sites of black struggle, then examining black girlhood reveals much about the black freedom movement. Activists, parents, and community advocates centered black girls’ struggles within their activism. Black girls were also leaders within their own right, lending their voices, bodies, and intellect to the movement. Their self-advocacy illustrates their resistance to systemic oppression. However, resistance in the more obvious sense—letter writing, marching, and political organizing—are not the only spaces to locate black girls’ resistance. In a nation that did not consider black children as children, their pursuit of joy and pleasure can also be read as radical acts. The history of 20th-century black girlhood is simultaneously a history of exclusion, trauma, resilience, and joy.

Article

Black Women’s Internationalism from the Age of Revolutions to World War I  

Brandon R. Byrd

Black internationalism describes the political culture and intellectual practice forged in response to slavery, colonialism, and white imperialism. It is a historical and ongoing collective struggle against racial oppression rooted in global consciousness. While the expression of black internationalism has certainly changed across time and place, black liberation through collaboration has been and remains its ultimate goal. Since the emergence of black internationalism as a result of the transatlantic slave trade and during the Age of Revolutions, black women such as the poet Phyllis Wheatley and evangelist Rebecca Protten have been at its forefront. Their writings and activism espoused an Afro-diasporic, global consciousness and promoted the cause of universal emancipation. During the 19th century, black women internationalists included abolitionists, missionaries, and clubwomen. They built on the work of their predecessors while laying the foundations for succeeding black women internationalists in the early 20th century. By World War I, a new generation of black women activists and intellectuals remained crucial parts of the International Council of Women, an organization founded by white suffragists from the United States, and the Universal Negro Improvement Association, a global organization formally led by Jamaican pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey. But they also formed an independent organization, the International Council of Women of the Darker Races (ICWDR). Within and outside of the ICWDR, black women from Africa and the African Diaspora faced and challenged discrimination on the basis of their sex and race. Their activism and intellectual work set a powerful precedent for a subsequent wave of black internationalism shaped by self-avowed black feminists.

Article

Free Civil Legal Assistance in the United States, 1863–1980  

Felice Batlan

Legal aid organizations were first created by a variety of private groups during the Civil War to provide legal advice in civil cases to the poor. The growing need for legal aid was deeply connected to industrialization, urbanization, and immigration. A variety of groups created legal aid organizations in response to labor unrest, the increasing number of women in the workforce, the founding of women’s clubs, and the slow and incomplete professionalization of the legal bar. In fact, before women could practice law, or were accepted into the legal profession, a variety of middle-class women’s groups using lay lawyers provided legal aid to poor women. Yet, this rich story of women’s work was later suppressed by leaders of the bar attempting to claim credit for legal aid, assert a monopoly over the practice of law, and professionalize legal assistance. Across time, the largest number of claims brought to legal aid providers involved workers trying to collect wages, domestic relations cases, and landlord tenant issues. Until the 1960s, legal aid organizations were largely financed through private donations and philanthropic organizations. After the 1960s, the federal government provided funding to support legal aid, creating significant controversy among lawyers, legal aid providers, and activists as to what types of cases legal aid organizations could take, what services could be provided, and who was eligible. Unlike in many other countries or in criminal cases, in the United States there is no constitutional right to have free counsel in civil cases. This leaves many poor and working-class people without legal advice or access to justice. Organizations providing free civil legal services to the poor are ubiquitous across the United States. They are so much part of the modern legal landscape that it is surprising that little historical scholarship exists on such organizations. Yet the history of organized legal aid, which began during the Civil War, is a rich story that brings into view a unique range of historical actors including women’s organizations, lawyers, social workers, community organizations, the state and federal government, and the millions of poor clients who over the last century and a half have sought legal assistance. This history of the development of legal aid is also very much a story about gender, race, professionalization, the development of the welfare state, and ultimately its slow dismantlement. In other words, the history of legal aid provides a window into the larger history of the United States while producing its own series of historical tensions, ironies, and contradictions. Although this narrative demonstrates change over time and various ruptures with the past, there are also important continuities in the history of free legal aid. Deceptively simple questions have plagued legal aid for almost a century and have also driven much of the historical scholarship on legal aid. These include: who should provide legal aid services, who should receive free legal aid, what types of cases should legal aid organizations handle, who should fund legal aid, and who benefits from legal aid.

Article

The History of Jewish Women in the United States  

Joyce Antler

The story of Jewish women in the United States is one of impressive achievement. Despite their numerically small representation in the American population, they made major contributions to politics and culture, and their organizations were among the nation’s most influential women’s groups. Yet both as women and as Jews, they often confronted troubling inequities in religious and secular life and struggled to balance their multiple identities. Jewish women played vital roles in colonial and revolutionary America, managing their household economies and family life. Highly literate and with extensive social networks, they often engaged in commerce in the interconnected Atlantic world. Jewish women were the mainstays of religious observance, promoting religious worship and the construction of synagogues and schools. Intermarriage was infrequent, with Jewish men marrying out more frequently than women. In the early 19th century, some Jewish women attended the new female academies, becoming teachers, social reformers, and writers. They also founded and managed educational and philanthropic institutions, including the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society, the coeducational Hebrew Sunday School, orphan associations, and mutual aid groups, including the Independent Order of True Sisters, the first national Jewish women’s organization. Jewish women constituted roughly half of the Jewish immigrants who came to the United States from German-speaking European nations in the first half of the 19th century. They also constituted about half of the two and a half million Eastern European immigrants who arrived between 1880 and 1920. Upper- and middle-class Jewish women established sisterhoods, settlement houses, clubs, and schools to aid the new arrivals, inaugurating the first Jewish women’s movement. In 1909, laboring under exploitative conditions, Jewish women garment workers launched an eleven-week strike that transformed the labor movement. Highly represented in movements like socialism, anarchism, and communism, Jewish women also participated in campaigns for birth control and international peace. By the mid-20th century, a new generation assumed leadership at the National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah, and other Jewish women’s groups. Involved in campaigns against immigration restriction, rescuing refugees from Nazism, and efforts to create a Jewish national homeland, they strengthened Jewish communities throughout the world. In the postwar decades, Jews migrated in significant numbers to the suburbs, where they were the mainstay of synagogue life and helped popularize new rituals like the bat mitzvah. Major leaders in the campaigns for civil rights, nuclear disarmament, and peace, in the 1960s and 1970s they helped launch second-wave feminism. Jewish women were prominent in both liberal and radical branches of the women’s liberation movement. As Jewish feminists, they challenged sexism within Jewish religious and community life and pressed for more egalitarian practices across the denominations. By the early 1970s, Jewish women began to serve as rabbis in the Reform and Reconstruction movements; the first Conservative woman rabbi was ordained in 1985. In the 21st century, Jewish women reflect a more culturally, religiously, and racially diverse population than before. Jewish women and men are increasingly likely to marry or partner with non-Jews, but to raise their children Jewishly. They are more than twice as likely as prior generations to identify with a race or ethnicity other than white. Asian American, Syrian American, and African American women rabbis have been among the most influential voices in their communities. The gay and lesbian synagogue movement, which began in the early 1970s, provided a locus for lesbians to explore their own religious identities. Jewish Women of Color, an expanding group, places itself at the intersection of racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism as it pursues an intersectional vision of social justice.

Article

New Women in Early 20th-Century America  

Einav Rabinovitch-Fox

In late 19th- and early 20th-century America, a new image of womanhood emerged that began to shape public views and understandings of women’s role in society. Identified by contemporaries as a Gibson Girl, a suffragist, a Progressive reformer, a bohemian feminist, a college girl, a bicyclist, a flapper, a working-class militant, or a Hollywood vamp, all of these images came to epitomize the New Woman, an umbrella term for modern understandings of femininity. Referring both to real, flesh-and-blood women, and also to an abstract idea or a visual archetype, the New Woman represented a generation of women who came of age between 1890 and 1920 and challenged gender norms and structures by asserting a new public presence through work, education, entertainment, and politics, while also denoting a distinctly modern appearance that contrasted with Victorian ideals. The New Woman became associated with the rise of feminism and the campaign for women’s suffrage, as well as with the rise of consumerism, mass culture, and freer expressions of sexuality that defined the first decades of the 20th century. Emphasizing youth, mobility, freedom, and modernity, the image of the New Woman varied by age, class, race, ethnicity, and geographical region, offering a spectrum of behaviors and appearances with which different women could identify. At times controversial, the New Woman image provided women with opportunities to negotiate new social roles and to promote ideas of equality and freedom that would later become mainstream.

Article

Southern Textile Worker Struggles in the 20th Century  

Joey Fink

The rise of the southern textile industry in the early 1900s shifted the center of American textile production from the northeast to the Piedmont and created a new class of southern industrial workers: the “cotton mill people.” Throughout the 20th century, larger economic and political forces changed the industry and its people. Technological innovations, wars, and the diversification of the southern economy affected how textiles were made, the consumer demand for them, and mill workers’ wages and working conditions. The labor, civil rights, and women’s movements produced federal laws and legal victories that desegregated the mills, drew attention to the particular vulnerabilities of women workers, and provided protections for all workers against exploitation and poverty. Continuity, however, was as significant as change for mill workers. Women’s labor was always crucial in the mills, and women were key leaders in strikes and organizing drives. Unionization efforts were consistently undermined by technological innovations that replaced human labor, the global movement of capital, and the united power of mill owners and political leaders. Throughout the 20th century, cotton mill people struggled to resist the dehumanizing aspects of industrialization and insist on the dignity and value of their labor. The story of their struggles reveals important dimensions of 20th-century southern labor and life. With the movement of textile manufacturing from the American South to the Global South, their 20th-century struggles offer insights into the 21st-century struggles of textile workers worldwide.

Article

Women and Alcohol in the United States during the 20th Century  

Meg D. O'Sullivan

Women in the United States have drunk, made, bought, sold, and organized both against and for the consumption of alcohol throughout the nation’s history. During the second half of the 20th century, however, women became increasingly visible as social drinkers and alcoholics. Specifically, the 1970s and 1980s marked women’s relationship to alcohol in interesting ways that both echoed moments from the past and ushered in new realities. Throughout these decades, women emerged as: (1) alcoholics who sought recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous or a lesser-known all-women’s sobriety program; (2) anti-alcohol activists who drew authority from their status as mothers; (3) potential criminals who harmed their progeny via fetal alcohol syndrome; and (4) recovery memoirists who claimed their addictions in unprecedented ways.

Article

Women and Sexual Assault in the United States, 1900–1940  

Mara Keire

In the United States, the history of sexual assault in the first half of the 20th century involves multiple contradictions between the ordinary, almost invisible accounts of women of all colors who were raped by fathers, husbands, neighbors, boarders, bosses, hired hands, and other known individuals versus the sensational myths that involved rapacious black men, sly white slavers, libertine elites, and virginal white female victims. Much of the debate about sexual assault revolved around the “unwritten law” that justified “honorable” white men avenging the “defilement” of their women. Both North and South, white people defended lynching and the murder of presumed rapists as “honor killings.” In courtrooms, defense attorneys linked the unwritten law to insanity pleas, arguing that after hearing women tell about their assault, husbands and fathers experienced an irresistible compulsion to avenge the rape of their women. Over time, however, notorious court cases from New York to San Francisco, Indianapolis and Honolulu, to Scottsboro, Alabama, shifted the discourse away from the unwritten law and extralegal “justice” to a more complicated script that demonized unreliable women and absolved imperfect men. National coverage of these cases, made possible by wire services and the Hearst newspaper empire, spurred heated debates concerning the proper roles of men and women. Blockbuster movies like The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind and Book of the Month Club selections such as John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Richard Wright’s Native Son joined the sensationalized media coverage of high-profile court cases to create new national stereotypes about sexual violence and its causes and culprits. During the 1930s, journalists, novelists, playwrights, and moviemakers increasingly emphasized the culpability of women who, according to this narrative, made themselves vulnerable to assault by stepping outside of their appropriate sphere and tempting men into harming them.

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Women, Gender, and Red Scares in the Modern United States  

Erica J. Ryan

The first Red Scare, after World War I, and the Red Scare that followed World War II, both impacted American women in remarkably similar ways. Many women found their lives hemmed in by antifeminism and the conservative gender ideology that underwrote anticommunist national identity in 1919, and then again in the late 1940s. This cultural nationalism tied traditional gender norms to the defense of American values and ideals, positioning the family as a bulwark against communism while making women’s performance of gender roles symbolic of national health or sickness. Within this gendered nationalism, the first Red Scare offered opportunities for conservative women to join the antiradical cause as protectors of the home. These same antiradicals maligned radical and progressive women for their feminism and their social activism. The second Red Scare played out in similar fashion. Anticommunism provided a safe platform for conservative women to engage in political activism in defense of the family, and in turn, they participated in broader efforts that attacked and weakened civil rights claims and the social justice efforts of women on the left. In each Red Scare the symbols and rhetoric of anticommunism prioritized women’s relationship to the family, positioning them either as bastions of American virtue or as fundamental threats to the social and political order. Gender proved critical to the construction of patriotism and national identity.

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Women, Gender, and World War II  

Melissa A. McEuen

The Second World War changed the United States for women, and women in turn transformed their nation. Over three hundred fifty thousand women volunteered for military service, while twenty times as many stepped into civilian jobs, including positions previously closed to them. More than seven million women who had not been wage earners before the war joined eleven million women already in the American work force. Between 1941 and 1945, an untold number moved away from their hometowns to take advantage of wartime opportunities, but many more remained in place, organizing home front initiatives to conserve resources, to build morale, to raise funds, and to fill jobs left by men who entered military service. The U.S. government, together with the nation’s private sector, instructed women on many fronts and carefully scrutinized their responses to the wartime emergency. The foremost message to women—that their activities and sacrifices would be needed only “for the duration” of the war—was both a promise and an order, suggesting that the war and the opportunities it created would end simultaneously. Social mores were tested by the demands of war, allowing women to benefit from the shifts and make alterations of their own. Yet dominant gender norms provided ways to maintain social order amidst fast-paced change, and when some women challenged these norms, they faced harsh criticism. Race, class, sexuality, age, religion, education, and region of birth, among other factors, combined to limit opportunities for some women while expanding them for others. However temporary and unprecedented the wartime crisis, American women would find that their individual and collective experiences from 1941 to 1945 prevented them from stepping back into a prewar social and economic structure. By stretching and reshaping gender norms and roles, World War II and the women who lived it laid solid foundations for the various civil rights movements that would sweep the United States and grip the American imagination in the second half of the 20th century.

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Women, Militarized Domesticity, and Transnationality in the U.S. Occupation of Okinawa  

Mire Koikari

After World War II, Okinawa was placed under U.S. military rule and administratively separated from mainland Japan. This occupation lasted from 1945 to 1972, and in these decades Okinawa became the “Keystone of the Pacific,” a leading strategic site in U.S. military expansionism in Asia and the Pacific. U.S. rule during this Cold War period was characterized by violence and coercion, resulting in an especially staggering scale of sexual violence against Okinawan women by U.S. military personnel. At the same time, the occupation also facilitated numerous cultural encounters between the occupiers and the occupied, leading to a flourishing cross-cultural grassroots exchange. A movement to establish American-style domestic science (i.e., home economics) in the occupied territory became a particularly important feature of this exchange, one that mobilized an assortment of women—home economists, military wives, club women, university students, homemakers—from the United States, Okinawa, and mainland Japan. The postwar domestic science movement turned Okinawa into a vibrant theater of Cold War cultural performance where women of diverse backgrounds collaborated to promote modern homemaking and build friendship across racial and national divides. As these women took their commitment to domesticity and multiculturalism into the larger terrain of the Pacific, they articulated the complex intertwining that occurred among women, domesticity, the military, and empire.