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Urban Culture: City sex: views of American women and urban culture, 1869 to 19901

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 February 2009

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Urban women are provocative; their mere presence has frequently stimulated observers to label the relationship between women and urban culture problematic. As Mary P. Ryan recently noted, ‘To search for women in public is to subvert a longstanding tenent of the modern Western gender system, the presumption that social space is divided between the public and the private and that men claim the former while women are confined to the latter.’ What follows here is an examination of the changing discourse of the relationship between women and cities since the Civil War. Perhaps for the reason indicated by Ryan, few systematic surveys have been made of that literature. Only those works which explicitly posit a connection between women and urban culture are included here; it is not enough that the women described be in cities, there must be some discussion of the interaction between the two. The term ‘culture’ is used in the anthropological sense – culture as a way of life. Many of the works reviewed here examine women who somehow deviate from the ‘ideal’ woman, who in the nineteenth century seemed to be a married Protestant middle-class non-employed mother. Thus they demonstrate abundant interest in prostitutes, immigrant women and wage-earning women, as well as in politically and sexually radical women.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1991



My thanks to Zane L. Miller, who first suggested I write this essay and then offeref his usual perceptive suggestions for improving it, and to Judy Spraul-Schmidt.


2 Ryan, Mary P., Women in Public: Between Banners and Ballots, 1825–1880 (1990), 4.Google Scholar

3 Diner, Hasia R., in Women and Urban Society: A Guide to Information Sources (1979), concluded that few studies from the years before the Second World War ‘stood out as noteworthy or valid’ with the notable exception of the work of the University of Chicago School of Sociology (Thomas, Park, Burgess, Worth and E. Franklin Frazier); however, in the years after the Second World War she found that sociologists, demographers, political scientists and anthropologists have studied societies undergoing urbanization in Asia, Africa and Latin America. ‘The literature’, she noted, ‘is strikingly deficient in historical analysis.’ In total, the 111-page annotated bibliography contains less than fifty references to the United States. An additional bibliography is that of Deborah Husted (Women and Urban America, 1988).Google Scholar Kleinberg's, Susan J. review essay, ‘The systematic study of urban women’ appeared in Class, Sex and the Woman Worker, edited by Cantor, Milton and Laurie, Bruce (1977), 2042. Several other review articles, each dealing with a handful of books, have appeared in the Journal of Urban History:Google Scholar Sochen, June, ‘Myths and realities about urban women’, JUH, 8:1 (1981) 107–15;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Murphy, Marjorie, ‘Gender relations on an urban terrain: locating women in the city’, JUH, 13:2 (1987), 197206;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Blackwelder, Julia Kirk, ‘Working class women and urban culture’, JUH, 14:4 (1988), 503–10. Writing in the Spring 1980 issue ofCrossRefGoogle Scholar Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 5:3, 185211, Wekerle, Gerda R. offered a review of recent literature of ‘Women in the urban environment’, which declared: ‘We know far less about women living in the city than we do about suburban women’ (p. 196).Google Scholar

4 Ellington, George, The Women of New York: or, The Under-World of the Great City (1869), title page. Ellington was an unidentified man writing under a pseudonym; his publisher apparently reissued the book the following year under an altered title, The Women of New York: or Social Life in the Great City.Google Scholar

5 Ellington, Women of New York, 8.Google Scholar

6 Fourth Annual Report of the Commissioner of Labor, 1988. Working Women in Large Cities (1889), 5, 31, 76–7. The cities included Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Charleston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Louisville, Newark, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Providence, Richmond, St Louis, St Paul, San Francisco, San Jose and Savannah.Google Scholar

7 Weber, Adna Ferrin, The Growth of Cities in the Nineteenth Century: A Study in Statistics (1899; reprint edn 1967), 280, 289, 290, 299. The reprint introduction to this book calls it ‘the first really sound, comprehensive, and complete contribution to urban studies by an American’. Thus, at the very beginning of urban studies, city women appear as a kind of problem.Google Scholar

8 ‘Campbell, Helen Stuart’, Paulson, Ross E., Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary (1971), vol. 1, 280–1.Google Scholar The Problem of the Poor: A Reocrd of Quiet Work in Unquiet Places (1882), 218. Among Campbell's other books are Prisoners of Poverty: Women Wage-Workers, Their Trades and Their Lives (1887; reprint edn 1970); Women Wage-Earners: Their Past, Their Present and Their Future (1893; reprint edn 1972); and Household Economics: A Course of Lectures in the School of Economics of the University of Wisconsin (1897).Google Scholar

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10 See, for example, the studies of Chicago produced by Bowen, Louise deKoven: Our Most Popular Recreation Controlled by the Liquor Interests: A Study of Public Dance Halls (1911); The Department Store Girl: Based Upon Interviews with Girls (1911); The Girl Employed in Hotels and Restaurants (1912); The Road to Destruction Made Easy in Chicago (1916).Google Scholar The autobiographies of Wald, Lillian D. are The House on Henry Street (1915) and Windows on Henry Street (1934).Google Scholar Those of Addams, Jane are Twenty Years at Hull House (1910) and The Second Twenty Years at Hull-House (1930).Google Scholar

11 Addams, Jane, The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets (1909), 5, 45, 47. Addams repeated many of these same themes in A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil (1912), an examination of prostitution in Chicago. Those unfamiliar with urban ways - the immigrant girl, the farm girl new to the city - seemed to Addams to be most susceptible to abduction into ‘white slavery’. On the other hand, among long-time urban residents, department store workers seemed most likely to enter into prostitution. These palaces of consumption awakened desires in wage-earning girls who could little afford to purchase the lifestyle they sold. For Addams the social relationships in a modern city failed to restrain behaviour and as the lod types of social control broke down, new types - based in law, publicity, literature, education and religion - became necessary.Google Scholar

12 Beard, Mary Ritter, Women' Work in Municipalities (1915), v, vii, vi. A related work by Helen Christine Bennet offered biographical sketches of women like those featured in Beard' survey. American Women in Civic Work (1915) sketches the accomplishments of leading female civic activists in such fields as water supply, street sanitation, garbage collecttion, milk supply, tenements, and gaols, and included the careers of Caroline Bartlett Crane, Sophie Wright, Jane Addams, Kate Barnard, Albion Fellows Bacon, Hannah Kent Schoff, Francis A. Kellor, Julia Tutwiler, Lucretia L. Blankenburg, Anna Howard Shaw and Ella Flagg Young. The themes that Beard first developed in Women in Municipalities continued to form an important part of her work throughout her life as she wrote history which assumed that women had always been an important presence in American culture and criticized those who claimed that the history of women had been one of exclusion.Google Scholar

13 Thomas, William I., The Unadjusted Girl: With Cases and Standpoint for Behavior Analysis (1925).Google Scholar

14 The Unadjusted Girl: With Cases and Standpoint for Behavior Analysis, 2, 78 109, 230–1.Google Scholar

15 Abbott, Edith, The Tenements of Chicago, 1908–1935 (1936), 165, 223, 337. Professor Abbott thought that her school' orientation differed from that of the sociologists. She claimed they made their observations with ‘the idel curiousity of the scientist’ while her investigators sought to cure social ills. Unlike the Sociology Department, the School of Social Service had a large number of female faculty and graduate students. Among those involved in the use of social statistics and social research to study housing conditions in different sections of Chicago were Grace and Edith Abbott, Sophonisba Preston Breckinridge, Julia C. Lathrop and Jane Addams.Google Scholar

16 Ware, Caroline F., Greenwich Village, 1920–1930: A Comment on American Civilization in the Post-War Years (1935; reprint edn 1977), 235, 253, 410, 424. The members of the Council for Research in the Social Sciences listed in the book' preface included Robert M. MacIver (Chairman), Arthur Robert Burns, Eveline M. Burns, Robert S. Lynd and Schutler C. Wallace.Google Scholar

17 Schlesinger, Arthur Meier, The Rise of the City, 1978–1998, (1933), 156, 157, 159.Google Scholar

18 Bridenbaugh, Carl, Cities in the Wilderness: The First Century of Urban Life in America, 1625–1742, (1938; reprint edn 1971). Bridenbaugh also mentions the growth of educational opportunities for American girls, the existence of female trades people (mainly windows), and the rise of the American lady of fashion.Google Scholar

19 Mumford, Lewis, The Culture of Cities (1938), 41, 114, 118, 265, 256. In a slightly different way, Bessie Louise Pierce (A History of Chicago, volume I: The Beginning of a Great City, 1673–1848, 1937) argued that the activities of women were essential to urban culture. Rather than singling out prostitution, Pierce, like Mary Beard, sought to include women's experiences as part of the story of urban development. Similar attention to the role of women can be found in the work of another female early urban historian, Constance McLaughlin Green (Holyoke, Massachusetts: A Case History of the Industrial Revolution in America, 1939).Google Scholar

20 Friedan, Betty, The Feminine Mystique (1963).Google Scholar

21 Sochen, June, The New Woman: Feminism in Greenwich Village, 1910–1920 (1972).Google Scholar Schwarz's, Judith Radical Feminists of Heterodoxy: Greenwich Village 1912–1940 (1986) is another account of the lives of Greenwich Village feminists.Google Scholar

22 Berg, Barbara J., The Remembered Gate: Origins of American Feminism, The Woman –1860, Urban Life in America (1978), 158, 268, 270.Google Scholar

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26 Hayden, Dolores, The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods, and Cities (1981), 1, 3, 8, 10, 8, 1.Google Scholar

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31 Journal of Urban History, 4:3 (1978), 251, 276, 356. The articles were as follows: Groneman, Carol, ‘Working-class immigrant women in midnineteenth-century New York: the Irish woman's experience’, 255–73;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Webster, Janice Reiff, ‘Domestication and Americanization: Scandinavian women in Seattle, 1888–1900’, 275–90;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Krause, Corinne Azen, ‘Urbanization without breakdown: Italian, Jewish and Slavic immigrant women in Pittsburgh, 1900 to 1945’, 291306;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Blackwelder, Julia Kirk, ‘Woman in the workforce: Atlanta, New Orleans, and San Antonia, 1930–1940’, 33158; see also Blackwelder, Women of the Depression: Caste and Culture in San Antonio, 1929–1939 (1984).Google Scholar Hareven, Tamara edited the Journal of Urban History, 1:3 (1975) on ‘The history of the family in American urban society’, but that volume treats ‘urban’ merely as the location of other activities. For example in her article, ‘Family time and industrial time: family and work in a planned corporation town, 19001924’ (pp. 365–89), she dispenses with the urban issue completely: ‘As a planned industrial town, Manchester did not experience the classic problems of social disorganization generally attributed to urban living … The broblems that Manchester's laborers were facing, therefore, did not derive from urban anomie, but rather from the pressures of industrial work and discipline.’ ‘These conditions,’ she concluded, ‘allow the historian to examine the role of the family in the process of industrialization without the interference of factors generally connected with the pressures of life in a large city’ (pp. 368–90).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

32 Ewen, Elizabeth, Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars: Life and Culture on the Lower East Side, 1890–1925 (1985), 269.Google Scholar See also Ewen, Elizabeth, ‘City lights: immigrant women and the rise of the movies’, in Women and the American City, 4262.Google Scholar

33 Jones, Jacqueline, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work and the Family, From Slavery to the Present (1985; reprint edn 1986). Dolores E. Janiewski traced black and white women from the fields of North Carolina to the tobacco factories of Durham. Women's condition improved in the city, as they moved from unpaid work to wage labour, from rural isolation into the public realm of work, church, community and politics. They steadily gained greater freedom in the city. But while black and white women shared certain experiences, their membership in different racial communities proved difficult to transcend. See Janiewski, Sisterhood Denied: Race, Gender, and Class in a New South Community (1985). In another account of the lives of urban black women, Elizabeth Hafkin Pleck argued that city life adversely affected black families. ‘The northern city,’ she claimed, ‘added new temptations and eroded old beliefs and ways of living.’ Rather than opportunity, city life frequently brought with it poverty, created by discrimination in employment, which placed extreme pressures on family life.Google Scholar Pleck, Elizabeth Hafkin, Black Migration and Poverty: Boston 1865–1900 (1979), 162, 176.Google Scholar

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35 Peiss, Kathy, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (1986), 6, 4, 188.Google Scholar

36 Meyerowitz, Joanne J., Women Adrift: Independent Wage Earners in Chicago, 1880–1930 (1988), xxiii, 142.Google Scholar See also Meyerowitz, Joanne J., ‘Women and migration: autonomous female migrants to Chicago, 1880–1930’, Journal of Urban History, 13:2 (1987), 147–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

37 Stansell, Christine, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789–1860 (1986), xi, 41.Google Scholar

38 For more on deconstruction in general see Eagleton, Terry, Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983), especially 132–3.Google Scholar

39 Ryan, Mary P., Women in Public; Between Banners and Ballots, 1825–1880 (1990).Google Scholar

40 Women in Public; Between Banners and Ballots, 1825–1880, 176, 175.Google Scholar

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