“IMPUDENT NOVELTIES”: WOMEN AND PUBLICITY
In his Atlantic essay on the 1869 Boston theater season, “The New Taste in Theatricals,” Howells described the actresses impersonating men in the popular comic plays called burlesques. Although “they were not like men, [they] were in most things as unlike women, and seemed creatures of a kind of alien sex, parodying both. It was certainly a shocking thing to look at them with their horrible prettiness, their archness in which was no charm, their grace which put to shame.” For Howells, these cross-dressing performers were vivid proof of popular entertainment's ability to deform even the most fundamental of human categories, the identity of sex. By creating the illusion of an “alien sex,” neither woman nor man, the burlesque impersonations stood out as one of the “monstrous and artificial” inventions that Howells found everywhere conspicuous in commercial culture. Yet, as Howells surely knew, the burlesque shows told a truth, even if it was the skewed truth of a visual pun. The “unreal” creatures on stage, that is, bespoke a new social reality: the striking presence of women in public life. As the male-costumed actresses moved and spoke on stage, they evoked the recent entry of women into what had been male roles and traditionally male social spaces outside of the home.
The increasing participation of middle-class women in public life was one of the most striking features of post-Civil War American culture. Observers of this phenomenon stressed the changed look of American society, its transformed countenance. In the workplace, one journalist writes, there is “scarcely an occupation once confined almost exclusively to men in which women are not now conspicuous.” Commercial consumption, too, had a female face.