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Gender in US Foreign Relations  

Heather Stur

Throughout US history, Americans have used ideas about gender to understand power, international relations, military behavior, and the conduct of war. Since Joan Wallach Scott called on scholars in 1986 to consider gender a “useful category of analysis,” historians have looked beyond traditional diplomatic and military sources and approaches to examine cultural sources, the media, and other evidence to try to understand the ideas that Americans have relied on to make sense of US involvement in the world. From casting weak nations as female to assuming that all soldiers are heterosexual males, Americans have deployed mainstream assumptions about men’s and women’s proper behavior to justify US diplomatic and military interventions in the world. State Department pamphlets describing newly independent countries in the 1950s and 1960s featured gendered imagery like the picture of a young Vietnamese woman on a bicycle that was meant to symbolize South Vietnam, a young nation in need of American guidance. Language in news reports and government cables, as well as film representations of international affairs and war, expressed gendered dichotomies such as protector and protected, home front and battlefront, strong and weak leadership, and stable and rogue states. These and other episodes illustrate how thoroughly gender shaped important dimensions about the character and the making of US foreign policy and historians’ examinations of diplomatic and military history.

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Women in the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements  

Christina Greene

Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X are the names that come to mind for most Americans if asked about the civil rights or Black Power movements. Others may point to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, both of whom backed pathbreaking civil rights legislation. However, recent scholarship suggests that neither black male leaders nor white male presidents were always the most important figures in the modern struggle for black freedom. Presidents took their cues not simply from male luminaries in civil rights organizations. Rather, their legislative initiatives were largely in response to grassroots protests in which women, especially black women, were key participants. African American women played major roles in local and national organizing efforts and frequently were the majority in local chapters of groups as dissimilar as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Black Panther Party. Even familiar names like Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King have become little more than sanitized national icons, while their decades-long efforts to secure racial, economic, and gender justice remain relatively unknown. Aside from activists and scholars, even fewer of us know much, if anything, about the female allies of the black freedom struggle, including white southerners as well as other women of color. A closer look at the women who made enormous contributions to both the modern civil rights and Black Power movements sheds new light on these struggles, including the historic national victories we think we fully understand, such as the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In short, examining women’s participation in the “long civil rights movement,” which historians increasingly date to the New Deal and World War II, calls for a redefinition of more conventional notions of leadership, protest, and politics.

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Race, Gender, and Sex Education in 20th-Century America  

Courtney Q. Shah

A concerted movement to promote sex education in America emerged in the early 20th century as part of a larger public health movement that also responded to the previous century’s concerns about venereal disease, prostitution, “seduction,” and “white slavery.” Sex education, therefore, offered a way to protect people (especially privileged women) from sexual activity of all kinds—consensual and coerced. A widespread introduction into public schools did not occur until after World War I. Sex education programs in schools tended to focus on training for heterosexual marriage at a time when high school attendance spiked in urban and suburban areas. Teachers often segregated male and female students. Beyond teaching boys about male anatomy and girls about female anatomy, reformers and educators often conveyed different messages and used different materials, depending on the race of their students. Erratic desegregation efforts during the Civil Rights movement renewed a crisis in sex education programs. Parents and administrators considered sexuality education even more dangerous in the context of a racially integrated classroom. The backlash against sex education in the schools kept pace with the backlash against integration, with each often used to bolster the other. Opponents of integration and sex education, for example, often used racial language to scare parents about what kids were learning, and with whom. In the 1980s and 1990s, the political power of the evangelical movement in the United States attracted support for “abstinence-only” curricula that relied on scare tactics and traditional assumptions about gender and sexuality. The ever-expanding acceptance (both legal and social) of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender identity directly challenged the conservative turn of abstinence-until-marriage sex education programs. The politics of gender, race, class, and sexual orientation have consistently shaped and limited sex education.

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Native American Women in the Modern United States  

Brianna Theobald

In the years following the US Civil War, the federal government implemented a campaign to assimilate Native peoples into an expanding American nation and a modernizing American society. As policymakers and social reformers understood it, assimilation required a transformation in Native gender roles, and as a result, Native American women were the targets of several assimilationist initiatives. Native women navigated federal interventions strategically, embracing what was useful, accommodating what was necessary, and discarding what was not. As mothers, grandmothers, and healers, women provided stability for families and communities enduring disruption and coerced change. In the 20th century, Native women embraced new economic and political roles even as they adapted long-standing customs. Many began working for wages; although often confined to menial labor such as domestic service in other women’s homes, growing numbers of Native women also pursued white-collar occupations in the Bureau of Indian Affairs and later in tribal governments. As tribal governance evolved over the course of the century, some women obtained positions on tribal councils and tribal courts. Native women have also made intellectual contributions—as tribal members and ultimately as American citizens—to modern understandings of democracy, citizenship, sovereignty, and feminism. Since the late 20th century, Native women have been at the forefront of movements to revitalize Indigenous languages and cultures.

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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.

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Women and the US War in Vietnam  

Jessica M. Frazier

Women on all sides of the US war in Vietnam pushed for an end to the conflict. At a time of renewed feminist fervor, women stepped outside conventional gender roles by publicly speaking out, traveling to a war zone, and entering the male-dominated realm of foreign affairs. Even so, some claimed to stand squarely within the boundaries of womanhood as they undertook such unusual activities. Some American women argued that, as mothers or sisters of soldiers and draft-age men, they held special insight into the war. They spoke of their duty to their families, communities, and nation to act in untraditional, but nevertheless feminine, ways. But women did not act uniformly. Some joined the military as nurses or service personnel to help in the war effort, while others protested the war and served as draft counselors. By the end of the war, some anti-war protestors developed feminist critiques of US involvement in Vietnam that pointed to the war as a symptom of an unjust society that prioritized military dominance over social welfare. As in wars past, the US war in Vietnam created upheavals in gender roles, and as nurses, mothers, lovers, officers, entertainers, and activists, women created new spaces in a changing society.

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The Enlightenment and America  

John M. Dixon

The Enlightenment, a complex cultural phenomenon that lasted approximately from the late seventeenth century until the early nineteenth century, contained a dynamic mix of contrary beliefs and epistemologies. Its intellectual coherence arguably came from its distinctive historical sensibility, which was rooted in the notion that advances in the natural sciences had gifted humankind with an exceptional opportunity in the eighteenth century for self-improvement and societal progress. That unifying historical outlook was flexible and adaptable. Consequently, many aspects of the Enlightenment were left open to negotiation at local and transnational levels. They were debated by the philosophes who met in Europe’s coffeehouses, salons, and scientific societies. Equally, they were contested outside of Europe through innumerable cross-cultural exchanges as well as via long-distance intellectual interactions. America—whether it is understood expansively as the two full continents and neighboring islands within the Western Hemisphere or, in a more limited way, as the territory that now constitutes the United States—played an especially prominent role in the Enlightenment. The New World’s abundance of plants, animals, and indigenous peoples fascinated early modern natural historians and social theorists, stimulated scientific activity, and challenged traditional beliefs. By the eighteenth century, the Western Hemisphere was an important site for empirical science and also for the intersection of different cultures of knowledge. At the same time, European conceptions of the New World as an undeveloped region inhabited by primitive savages problematized Enlightenment theories of universal progress. Comparisons of Native Americans to Africans, Asians, and Europeans led to speculation about the existence of separate human species or races. Similarly, the prevalence and profitability of American slavery fueled new and increasingly scientific conceptions of race. Eighteenth-century analyses of human differences complicated contemporary assertions that all men possessed basic natural rights. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the American Revolution focused international attention on man’s innate entitlement to life, liberty, and happiness. Yet, in a manner that typified the contradictions and paradoxes of the Enlightenment, the founders of the United States opted to preserve slavery and social inequality after winning political freedom from Britain.

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The Equal Rights Amendment  

Robyn Muncy

The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), designed to enshrine in the Constitution of the United States a guarantee of equal rights to women and men, has had a long and volatile history. When first introduced in Congress in 1923, three years after ratification of the woman suffrage amendment to the US Constitution, the ERA faced fierce opposition from the majority of former suffragists. These progressive women activists opposed the ERA because it threatened hard-won protective labor legislation for wage-earning women. A half century later, however, the amendment enjoyed such broad support that it was passed by the requisite two-thirds of Congress and, in 1972, sent to the states for ratification. Unexpectedly, virulent opposition emerged during the ratification process, not among progressive women this time but among conservatives, whose savvy organizing prevented ratification by a 1982 deadline. Many scholars contend that despite the failure of ratification, equal rights thinking so triumphed in the courts and legislatures by the 1990s that a “de facto ERA” was in place. Some feminists, distrustful of reversible court decisions and repealable legislation, continued to agitate for the ERA; others voiced doubt that ERA would achieve substantive equality for women. Because support for an ERA noticeably revived in the 2010s, this history remains very much in progress.

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Women’s Movement and Women Workers, Post-1945  

Dennis Deslippe

Working women and their issues played a central role in the women’s movement in the decades following World War II. Feminists lobbied, litigated, and engaged in direct action for workplace fairness. Working women, especially those in unions, joined feminist organizations and established their own organizations as well. There were fault lines within the women’s movement over the issues, strategies, and level of commitment to the causes of working women. In the first two decades after 1945, the unionists and liberal reformers who constituted the so-called Women’s Bureau Coalition (named after the U.S. Women’s Bureau) opposed the mostly affluent and conservative members of the National Woman’s Party for their support of the Equal Rights Amendment, supporting instead protective laws and policies that treated women differently from men in the workplace. With the arrival of second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, “labor feminists” clashed with the middle-class professional women at the helm of newly formed feminist organizations. As support for gender equality transformed employment practices, some labor feminists sought to retain (or extend to men) selected protective measures introduced in the early 20th century to shield women workers from the worst aspects of wage labor. In the face of harsh economic conditions in the 1970s, labor feminists again opposed other feminists for their efforts to modify the union practice of “last hired, first fired” as a way of retaining affirmative-action hiring gains. In recent decades feminists have focused on equity measures such as comparable worth and pregnancy leave as means of addressing the unique challenges women face. In addition they have expanded their concern to lesbian and transgender workers, and, increasingly, to the needs of immigrant workers who make up an increasingly percentage of the working population.

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Women and American Political Parties, 1972–2021  

Allida Black

As we begin the second century of women’s suffrage, American women increasingly outvote men. Six women ran for president in 2020. A woman is vice president of the United States, the Speaker of the House is female, and there are record numbers of women in Congress. Women are leading strategists for both major parties. Yet the Republican and Democratic parties continue to approach the women’s vote and the issues that drive them to the polls in fundamentally opposite ways. This division carries over into the House of Representatives and the Senate, where 89 of 102 congresswomen and 17 of 25 women senators are Democrats. This was not always the case. A bipartisan similarity dominated the parties’ approach toward women until the mid-1970s, when intraparty divisions over abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, pay equity, and childcare, followed by debates over global warming, gun violence, healthcare, immigration, LGBTQ rights, and war, ripped that commodity apart in ways that would define women’s votes and party identity for the next five decades. Women and their parties responded to these challenges in different ways. Women organized their own social movements; challenged their party’s infrastructure; created their own political action committees, research centers, and candidate training schools; formed their own coalitions; drafted their own candidates; and ran for office. Political parties took notice and slowly adjusted their rules—though in different ways and with different intent—and in the process solidified the party gender gap.

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Rap Music  

Austin McCoy

Rap is the musical practice of hip hop culture that features vocalists, or MCs, reciting lyrics over an instrumental beat that emerged out of the political and economic transformations of New York City after the 1960s. Black and Latinx youth, many of them Caribbean immigrants, created this new cultural form in response to racism, poverty, urban renewal, deindustrialization, and inner-city violence. These new cultural forms eventually spread beyond New York to all regions of the United States as artists from Los Angeles, New Orleans, Miami, and Chicago began releasing rap music with their own distinct sounds. Despite efforts to demonize and censor rap music and hip hop culture, rap music has served as a pathway for social mobility for many black and Latinx youth. Many artists have enjoyed crossover success in acting, advertising, and business. Rap music has also sparked new conversations about various issues such as electoral politics, gender and sexuality, crime, policing, and mass incarceration, as well as technology.

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Fur Trades  

Carolyn Podruchny and Stacy Nation-Knapper

From the 15th century to the present, the trade in animal fur has been an economic venture with far-reaching consequences for both North Americans and Europeans (in which North Americans of European descent are included). One of the earliest forms of exchange between Europeans and North Americans, the trade in fur was about the garment business, global and local politics, social and cultural interaction, hunting, ecology, colonialism, gendered labor, kinship networks, and religion. European fashion, specifically the desire for hats that marked male status, was a primary driver for the global fur-trade economy until the late 19th century, while European desires for marten, fox, and other luxury furs to make and trim clothing comprised a secondary part of the trade. Other animal hides including deer and bison provided sturdy leather from which belts for the machines of the early Industrial Era were cut. European cloth, especially cotton and wool, became central to the trade for Indigenous peoples who sought materials that were lighter and dried faster than skin clothing. The multiple perspectives on the fur trade included the European men and indigenous men and women actually conducting the trade; the indigenous male and female trappers; European trappers; the European men and women producing trade goods; indigenous “middlemen” (men and women) who were conducting their own fur trade to benefit from European trade companies; laborers hauling the furs and trade goods; all those who built, managed, and sustained trading posts located along waterways and trails across North America; and those Europeans who manufactured and purchased the products made of fur and the trade goods desired by Indigenous peoples. As early as the 17th century, European empires used fur-trade monopolies to establish colonies in North America and later fur trading companies brought imperial trading systems inland, while Indigenous peoples drew Europeans into their own patterns of trade and power. By the 19th century, the fur trade had covered most of the continent and the networks of business, alliances, and families, and the founding of new communities led to new peoples, including the Métis, who were descended from the mixing of European and Indigenous peoples. Trading territories, monopolies, and alliances with Indigenous peoples shaped how European concepts of statehood played out in the making of European-descended nation-states, and the development of treaties with Indigenous peoples. The fur trade flourished in northern climes until well into the 20th century, after which time economic development, resource exploitation, changes in fashion, and politics in North America and Europe limited its scope and scale. Many Indigenous people continue today to hunt and trap animals and have fought in courts for Indigenous rights to resources, land, and sovereignty.

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Native American Captivity and Slavery in North America, 1492–1848  

Ann Little

The capture, adoption, and/or enslavement of enemies in North American warfare long predated the European invasion of the 16th century. In every region and among nearly every nation of Native North America, captive-taking continued after the arrival of the Spanish, English, and French and accelerated in the 18th century as a result of the opportunities and pressures that colonialism brought to bear on indigenous peoples. Although the famous narratives of Indian captivity were written by people of European descent, the majority of people who were taken and adopted or enslaved by Native Americans were themselves Native American women, girls, and boys. One scholar estimates that perhaps as many as 2.5 to 5 million Indigenous slaves were owned by Europeans in the Western hemisphere from 1492 to 1900; this estimate excludes the millions more who were retained within other Indigenous communities. Within these Native American communities, captives served a variety of purposes along a continuum: depending on their age and sex, they might be adopted fully into a new kinship network, or they might be ritually executed. Most captive adults seem to have endured fates in-between these dramatic poles: they might be marked as “adopted slaves” and set to the most tedious and repetitive work; they might be traded or given as gifts for profit or diplomacy; they might be subjected to coerced sex; or they might marry a captor and have children who were full kin members of their new community. Most would probably experience more than one of these fates. In the early 21st century, important scholarship on Native American captivity has emphasized its similarities to African slavery and how the African slave trade influenced Native American captive raiding, trading, and enslavement in the colonial era and in the early United States. But there were two possibly interrelated important differences between these two slaveries. First, unlike the adult male African captives who were preferred by Europeans for enslavement in North America, most captives taken by other Native Americans were women and children. Second, this Indigenous slavery was not heritable, although the captives themselves were frequently marked or even mutilated to signify their status as outsiders, or not-kin, in a world defined by kinship ties. Although the differences of intersecting European and Indigenous cultures, chronology, and context made for widely disparate experiences in Indian captivity and slavery over four centuries, one constant across time and space is that captive-taking seems to have been intended to grow the captors’ populations as well as deprive their enemies of productive and reproductive labor. The appropriation of girls’ and women’s sexuality and reproductive power became the means by which female captives might suffer intensely as well as possibly improve their standing and their children’s futures.

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Women, Gender, and the Economies of Colonial North America  

Ellen Hartigan-O'Connor

North American women were at the center of trade, exchange, economic production, and reproduction, from early encounters in the 16th century through the development of colonies, confederations, and nations by the end of the 18th century. They worked for the daily survival of their communities; they provided the material basis for economic and political expansion. There were no economies without them and no economy existed outside of a gender system that shaped and supported it. Connections of family, household, and community embedded the market economies in each region of North America. Gender acted through credit networks, control over others’ labor, and legal patterns of property ownership. Colonialism, by which Europeans sought to acquire land, extract resources, grow profitable crops, and create a base of consumers for European manufactured goods, transformed local and transatlantic economies. Women’s labor in agriculture, trade, and reproduction changed in the context of expanding international economies, created by the transatlantic slave trade, new financial tools for long-distance investment, and an increasing demand for tropical groceries (tea, coffee, and sugar) and dry goods. Women adjusted their work to earn the money or goods that allowed them to participate in these circuits of exchange. Captive women themselves became exchangeable goods. By the end of the 18th century, people living across North America and the Caribbean had adopted revised and blended ideas about gender and commerce. Some came to redefine the economy itself as a force operating independently of women’s daily subsistence, a symbolic realm that divided as much as connected people.

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Material Culture in the 18th Century  

Jennifer Van Horn

Material culture refers to human-manufactured, human-altered, or human-used physical things of all sizes and materials, from houses to domestic artifacts to tools to landscapes. Material culture also refers to the study of artifacts and scholars’ use of objects as a form of evidence to ask and answer questions about the 18th century. Material culture studies is not limited to physical examination of artifacts. It also involves consideration of an array of documentary, literary, and visual sources that provide information about material life. In 18th-century colonial America, the meanings and uses of material goods changed radically. Anglo-American colonists obtained greater numbers and novel types of objects through transatlantic and global trade networks. The British manufactures that flooded the colonies fulfilled colonists’ desire to assert social status and to participate in social rituals that demonstrated refinement. Scholars have labeled these changes the “Consumer Revolution” and the system of “gentility.” Artifacts also built communities and buttressed political beliefs, particularly through non-importation or boycotts of British goods during the imperial crisis. Ideas of gender shaped how women’s growing activity of shopping was understood and critiqued, as well as the association of fashion with women. The importation of Asian and Indian goods, primarily textiles and porcelain, fulfilled fantasies of the exotic while enabling American consumers to demonstrate their worldliness and status. Material goods facilitated cultural exchange and trade between those of different races and ethnicities. At the same time, oppression and political and economic disenfranchisement shaped American material culture. Indigenous peoples expressed consumer preferences for manufactured goods during negotiations within the fur trade. They incorporated British manufactures into preexisting material practices. Enslaved African Americans entered the market as both commodities and consumers. Through their purchases and creative use of refined artifacts, bond people expressed individual identity despite their legal status as property.

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The Gay South  

Jerry Watkins

Regional variation, race, gender presentation, and class differences mean that there are many “Gay Souths.” Same-sex desire has been a feature of the human experience since the beginning, but the meanings, expressions, and ability to organize one’s life around desire have shifted profoundly since the invention of sexuality in the mid-19th century. World War II represented a key transition in gay history, as it gave many people a language for their desires. During the Cold War, government officials elided sex, race, and gender transgression with subversion and punished accordingly by state committees. These forces profoundly shaped gay social life, and rather than a straight line from closet to liberation, gays in the South have meandered. Movement rather than stasis, circulation rather than congregation, and the local rather than the stranger as well as creative uses of space and place mean that the gay South is distinctive, though not wholly unique, from the rest of the country.

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Black Soldiers in World War II America  

Robert F. Jefferson

The history of the African American military experience in World War II tends to revolve around two central questions: How did World War II and American racism shape the black experience in the American military? And how did black GIs reshape the parameters of their wartime experiences? From the mid-1920s through the Great Depression years of the 1930s, military planners evaluated the performance of black soldiers in World War I while trying to ascertain their presence in future wars. However, quite often their discussions about African American servicemen in the military establishment were deeply moored in the traditions, customs, and practices of American racism, racist stereotypes, and innuendo. Simultaneously, African American leaders and their allies waged a relentless battle to secure the future presence of the uniformed men and women who would serve in the nation’s military. Through their exercise of voting rights, threats of protest demonstration, litigation, and White House lobbying from 1939 through 1942, civil rights advocates and their affiliates managed to obtain some minor concessions from the military establishment. But the military’s stubborn adherence to a policy barring black and white soldiers from serving in the same units continued through the rest of the war. Between 1943 and 1945, black GIs faced white officer hostility, civilian antagonism, and military police brutality while undergoing military training throughout the country. Similarly, African American servicewomen faced systemic racism and sexism in the military during the period. Throughout various stages of the American war effort, black civil rights groups, the press, and their allies mounted the opening salvoes in the battle to protect and defend the wellbeing of black soldiers in uniform. While serving on the battlefields of World War II, fighting African American GIs became foot soldiers in the wider struggles against tyranny abroad. After returning home in 1945, black World War II-era activists such as Daisy Lampkin and Ruby Hurley, and ex-servicemen and women, laid the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement.

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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.

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Women and Domesticity in the 1950s  

Wendy Gamber

Two images dominated popular portrayals of American women in the 1950s. One was the fictional June Cleaver, the female lead character in the popular television program, “Leave It to Beaver,” which portrayed Cleaver as the stereotypical happy American housewife, the exemplar of postwar American domesticity. The other was Cleaver’s alleged real-life opposite, described in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) as miserable, bored, isolated, addicted to tranquilizers, and trapped in look-alike suburban tract houses, which Friedan termed “comfortable concentration camps.” Both stereotypes ignore significant proportions of the postwar female population, both offer simplistic and partial views of domesticity, but both reveal the depth of the influence that lay behind the idea of domesticity, real or fictional. Aided and abetted by psychology, social science theory, advertising, popular media, government policy, law, and discriminatory private sector practices, domesticity was both a myth and a powerful ideology that shaped the trajectories of women’s lives.

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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.