“A Suppressed and Caged Desire: The Development of Sexual Identity in the Land of the Free”
The history of American women is a vital piece when configuring the puzzle of the development of American culture, society, and ideals. While most people are under the assumption that feminism and the petition for women’s rights is a modern day conception and invention, the will for liberation extends to the founding of the United States and colonization. A pivotal moment in the history of American women was the drop of reproduction rates from the 19th century to the 20th century. The number of children per mother dropped from 7 children a mother in the 1800s to 3.5 children a mother in the 1900s. Now, while some may see this as the most significant development for American women between the colonial era and the 1920s, it is not. Despite the ability for women to gain control of their fertility, the greatest significant development is the search and attainment of sexual identity within the female sex.
“She cast the unpleasant, prickling garments from her, and for the first time in her life she stood naked in the open air, at the mercy of the sun, the breeze that beat upon her, and the waves that invited her. How strange and awful it seemed to stand naked under the sky! How delicious! She felt like some new-born creature, opening its eyes in a familiar world that it had never known.” Chopin 109
Kate Chopin wrote the notorious novel The Awakening in 1899 about the sexual awakening and self-identification of a young married woman, Edna Pontellier. Stripped of her clothing and societal institutional constraints Edna is awakened to her desire, self, and being within the novel. To be completely free Edna swims bare among the waves of the ocean and submits to her timely death. Her submission is not one of ignorance but of awakening. This awakening of sexual identity and desire is not a mere invention of the Victorian period in American history. The struggle to identify sexually is deeply rooted in the history of American women beginning in the Colonial period and progressing through the American Revolution, the Victorian period, and extending into the first women’s rights movement in the 1900’s; therefore, the struggle, search, and discovery of female sexual identity is the major development for American women between the Colonial era and the 1920s.
Women in Colonial America lived in a patriarchal America as gelded and subservient to fathers and husbands with an extremely stifled and repressed sexual life. Women had no power during these times. If a woman did have any sense or type of power within the community it was urgent to suppress this power. Anne Hutchinson was a vocal woman with power behind her voice. She spoke out against the community she lived and as a repercussion she was tried for sedition (Kerber 79). During the 1600 and 1700s unconstrained female sexuality was considered a threat to maintaining society. In order to prevent women from engaging in sexual interaction before marriage, society developed structural tools to ensure abstinence and chastity. Women married young and produced many children. Within one to two years of marriage a child was expected. On average, the Colonial woman would have 8.3 children in her lifetime. While the life expectancy was about 48 years old that would infer that a woman would be pregnant for 75 months, or about 6 years of her life. While pregnancy rates were high within this era so was the death rate. 1 in 4 women would die during pregnancy and the mortality rate of infants was 15-20 percent. Every pregnancy was a chance for death and with such risks and potential for death it is of no surprise that the whole notion existing even today that “if you have sex, you will die” is not necessarily untrue but out of date. These statistics indicate women as mere reproduction tools meant for creating a populace with no consideration for personal pleasure. With a woman reproducing such large amounts of children it is obvious that sex, once married, was acceptable and great amounts of it too. The prevailing issue ensuing is that there was no sexual identity nor was there sex for mere pleasure for women. Sex was allowed but it was constrained, controlled, and targeted towards male gratification. Women were to be submissive in sexual gratification and meant to please the husband. Women are receptors in the Colonial era. Women are not initiators. If women were too forward or overtly sexual it was said that they would divert the men from their obligation to their family, work, and society hence any sexual freedom, identity, or initiative on behalf of the woman was a danger. Fornication and adultery were condemnable laws implemented by society in order to control the sexual identity and desires of women. Women who did engage in sex out of wedlock and adultery were prosecuted widespread throughout this period. This structural system of prosecution and repression prohibited women from exploring themselves sexually and creating a sexual identity. Sex was a business contract that left no room for exploration but to promote the production of children to continue the lineage of the husband and his pleasure. This patriarchal authoritarianism of sex in the lives of women gave way to the explosive sexual movement during the American Revolution.
Women during the American Revolution were less constrained by the male presence in their lives and a new sense and development of sexuality began to emerge; nevertheless, towards the end of the revolution women are seen, once again as reproductive machines. During the American Revolution a new sexually identify formulated from women. The Revolution and the wars were freeing women from societal constraints pertaining to sex and marriage. This new freedom allowed women to begin to explore their sexuality more freely without repercussions or consequences from the law. Young women began to take charge of their marital lives and became more individualistic in sexuality. The devaluing of religion, presence of many women around war camps, and the invention of the “last night “ syndrome led to the largest amount of premarital sex since the free love movement in the 1960s. War became a scapegoat for sex without constraints and an exploration of sexuality. The average family size declined minutely from the Colonial era to about 7 children a mother. This slight decrease in childbearing exemplifies the emergence of sexual identity. Women were active members within Revolution and therefore became seen as more than tools for ensuring patriarchal lineage. Women began to join in the cause as well by boycotting and even accompanying soldiers. While those women who liked to tarry with the soldiers were often considered prostitutes some were wives, nurses, and had many skills and talents. Sarah Osborn had married Aaron Osborn and after he enlisted she accompanied him to West Point and then resumed activist duties within the Army (Kerber 115). Women were needed to aid in the revolution and if pregnant, there was very little a woman was considered capable of assisting in. While the freedom of sexuality and development of sexual identity were being cultivated during the American Revolution, after gaining independence from England it slowly deteriorated. Despite a new America, “the men who modeled the new American republic after the war remodeled it in their own image,” and women were not given the appreciation and recognition they earned (Kerber 121). Now when too much of something occurs, society has the tendency to monopolize and stifle it. This occurred with sex during this time. As means of limiting the exploration of sexual identity and placing women into yet another role of producing children society altered the meaning of being a mother. Women, as active participants in the Revolution were given new rights and privileges. Women were now allowed to pursue an education. It was vital for a mother to have an education as to become a political agent to her sons. She was to have children and to raise her children to be politically aware and knowledgeable as means of creating sons who obtained such notions of virtue, the good of the people, and patriotism. A woman’s job was to have sex, produce a son, and spread the ideals of society to the sons. There was no inquiry of sexually identity any longer. All that was important was the survival of knowledge and having sons who would become patriots for the United States with the common good engraved into their being. Unlike the colonial period and the beginning of the American Revolution where the concept of motherhood was low, motherhood was now elevated. The importance was placed on what a woman created not her sexual desires, pleasures, and identity. Despite the transition into yet another suppressed female sexual identity society, the flame of exploration and development of sexual identity was kindling beneath the bars of society.
Women in Victorian America were repressed sexually. In response to sexual frustration and sexual identity there is a search and need for sexual self-control. During the Victorian period a search for individualized sexual control occurs. There is a drastic drop in the birth rate from 7 children to 3. Women are beginning to explore the essence and meanings of sex, relationships, and being. Women embark on an exploration of self-consciousness where they can make sexual decisions for their own. Sex is now seen as a choice and there is a new separation of sexuality. Although women are still, ultimately forced to marry for survival, marriage becomes infused with romantic quests. Marriage and sex is no longer as much as a business transaction as it is and emotional and spiritual union. Sexuality should be contained within marriage but not enforced by the community but by women. It was now the woman’s role to be the sexual object of desire for the man. With such new societal means came new societal standards that once again shackled women and their investigation of sexual identity. The invention of the double standard in Victorian society dictated that men are naturally passionate creatures and women are not therefore it is acceptable for me to have several partners and women not. Despite the sexual progression by men within Victorian society women were still denied any means of personal sexual pleasure, identity, and desire. Women were to be less sexually interested and female pleasure was suspect. Any female sexual activity or interest that was too immense for society needed to be controlled. Masturbation was forbidden, any type of sexuality before marriage must be avoided, and women had to avoid things that might arouse them. Once married, then a man would raise a woman’s lust and passion. The woman in marriage then becomes a willing partner. This shift is sexuality and relationships prompted a rebellion of shackled sex and led to the development of a large amount of free love sexual experimentation in some communities. Communities began to be established around the ideas of sex. This development gave encouragement to the search and development of women’s own struggle for sexual identity. Same sex relations surfaced within the female community. Society defined sex as penetration, so as means of encountering sexual pleasures, desires, and discovering sexual identity women would have sexual relations with other women and would not be outcast by society. Sex crimes punishable by law were anal sex and bestiality which all involved the presence of a penis. This notion allowed women to be more expressive with their sexuality and explore their sexual identity as a woman. With this development came the development of individualized sex toys. The vibrator was a manual stimulator for women first a tool used by doctors to treat hysteria. By the early 1900s vibrators were sold in abundance and were available to all women. In the Victorian age there is this emergence of female sexual identity and with that emerged the true business of sex, prostitution. With prostitution and the increasing amount of sexual intercourse among couples birth control was in high demand. The ability to explore one’s sexuality and the freedom to have sexual intercourse gave way to new developments within society that promoted sexuality and sexual behavior without reproductive repercussions. Condoms and abortion were prevalent in society at this point in time. There was liberation within the sexual environment. With the great decline in birth rates, there was a high rate in sexual identity and sexual activity. As the investigation into sexuality grew in popularity once again like the Revolution period, women were forced back into the shackles of society when the Comstock Laws were created. The Comstock Laws were put in place by a variety of social forces that wanted to outlaw contraception and abortion therefore outlawing the experience of sexuality, identity, and pleasure. These laws argued that it was a crime to sell products, info, or talk about birth control. Sexuality was scorned and reprimanded. An iron curtain had been drawn on sex with no accessible information about birth control or sex. It became harder and more difficult to access any information especially for women. Then, Margret Sanger appeared as an advocate for sex and birth control. She expressed that sex is acceptable and sexuality as a positive. Margaret Sanger wrote in her book, Family Limitations, “women must learn to know their own bodies” (Sanger 5). The importance of identity within the female community is excessively relevant. While she did advocate that birth control is more about family control than merely sex, she and Emma Goldman truly helped rekindle the smoldering flame of sexual identity within the female populace.
Women in the First Women’s Movement had really searched, discovered, developed, and cultivated a new sense of sexual identity. No doubt women were still oppressed sexually, there was yet a freedom to sexuality which was not present before. This sense of freedom and power within one’s sexuality led to inquiring for other options of power and equality. In the Suffrage Movement, women played upon the gender roles implemented by society in order to obtain the right to vote. Women of the Suffrage Movement based their concern and need to vote by advocating that society was dirty and unregulated, and needed a “housekeeper” to keep things clean. Men made a mess of society and politics and women must now clean it up. This reasoning for allowing women to vote was regressive; nevertheless, in 1920 the right for women to vote was ratified. The movement is important, not only because it altered the shift in power and rights for women but is directly related and correlates to the new found sexuality of women. Women of this movement were self-aware and self-conscious now of the roles that were set in place for them as a woman sexually, physically, mentally, and socially. These women of the Suffrage Movement played to those roles in order to obtain a greater amount of equality.
Within the history of American women there is much more of an exploration and discovery of female sexual identity. The 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s are all pivotal moments in the history of American women where female sexual identity is defined and embraced. Women in today’s society, although there is still sexual repression, have the capability and ability to explore their sexual identity, desire, and pleasure without being punished by the law or society. There no longer exists such an immense stigma to female sexuality. Sexual identity is considered important and even encouraged in some communities today. The developments throughout all these time periods have led to the development of an intricate and valued sexual identity within the female community today. With every transition of time there have been improvements to the female sexual identity. Without such, there would be quite a regressive American society even today. Susan B. Anthony gave a speech after her arrest for casting a vote illegally for the presidential election in which she said
“For any state to make sex a qualification that must ever result in the disfranchisement of one entire half of the people, is to pass a bill of attainder, or, an ex post facto law, and is therefore a violation of the supreme law of the land. By it the blessings of liberty are forever withheld from women and their female posterity”
Women have been oppressed in many aspects of their lives and when the oppressor is the government or society change must occur. The oppression of female sexual identity and struggle to identify sexually with one’s self within the Colonial era, Revolution period, Victorian Age, and the First Woman’s Movement is the most significant development for American women for it evoked change. It has given way to obtaining a sense of female sexual identity that was not in existence before such.