Disorderly and Unsexed: Transgressing and Performing Gender Roles

AHA Session 157
Friday, January 6, 2017: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Room 503 (Colorado Convention Center, Meeting Room Level)
M. Alison Kibler, Franklin & Marshall College
The Unsexed Mob” in the Public Mind
Shannon M. Smith, College of Saint Benedict, Saint John's University
Chivalrous or Cowardly? Suffragists, Antisuffragists, and Competing Definitions of American Manhood
Jessica Derleth, Binghamton University, State University of New York

Session Abstract

Although never fixed and stable, gender norms have consistently functioned as a site of conflict where Americans struggled to reconcile ideals and expectations with actual behaviors and lived experiences. This panel explores this tension between gendered expectations and behaviors, considering how Americans in the nineteenth and twentieth century transgressed and performed gender.    

Often based on beliefs about natural or divinely inspired differences between the sexes, gender ideologies frequently viewed men and women as complementary but binary opposites. While fluctuating and dynamic, gender expectations demarcated specific roles for the sexes in both public and private life—from childrearing and employment, to manners and decorum, personal appearance and bodily movement. And though these gender ideals did not necessarily reflect the realities of daily life, many Americans felt the pressures of normative definitions of proper manhood and womanhood. Together these papers consider how men and women have intentionally and inadvertently transgressed these expectations. Whether rioting as workers, seeking an expansion of political rights, or possessing a personal gender identity that simply did not match social norms, many Americans have stepped beyond the bounds of acceptable gendered behavior. In response, defenders of the status quo labeled these disorderly men and women a social menace with the potential to destabilize vital norms, behaviors, and institutions.

Transgressors also responded by manipulating, masking, co-opting, or redefining gender expectations. In the case of nineteenth century riots, workers recast the role of breadwinners and caregivers while simultaneously turning gendered rhetoric against their detractors. When faced with similar public criticism about gender nonconformity, male supporters of the woman suffrage movement embraced masculine chivalry to illustrate their continuity with social expectations. Public celebrities—from a noted burlesque dancer to a renowned astrologist and medium—also displayed acceptable gender, hiding their non-normative gendered lives and experiences from all but a select audience. By bringing these histories together, this panel explores the transgression and performance of gender and how historical actors manipulated those performances over time.

See more of: AHA Sessions