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Against Obscenity

Reform and the Politics of Womanhood in America, 1873–1935

Radio "shock jocks," Super Bowl entertainment, music videos, and internet spam—all of these topics inspire passionate disagreements about whether and how to regulate sexually explicit material. But even in the midst of heated debate, most people agree that children should be shielded from exposure to pornographic images. Why are children the focal point of debates over sexually explicit material? And how did a culture rooted in Puritanism and Victorianism become saturated with sex?

In Against Obscenity, Leigh Ann Wheeler offers new answers to these questions through a study of women's anti-obscenity activism from 1873 to 1935. This period saw the emergence of an increasingly sexualized popular culture comprised of burlesque shows, risqué vaudeville acts, and indecent motion pictures. It also witnessed the enfranchisement of women. These momentous cultural and political developments come together in a story about middle- and upper-class women who mobilized against lewd public amusements and, simultaneously, challenged the men whose work as activists, jurors, and even law enforcement officials, had defined and regulated obscenity for several decades.

By the 1920s, women who led the anti-obscenity movement enjoyed the support of millions of American women and the attention of presidents, congressmen, and Hollywood moguls. Today we live in a world profoundly shaped by their work but largely ignorant of their influence. Using primary sources as intimate as private correspondence and as formal as meeting minutes, Against Obscenity tells the story of these all but forgotten women, exploring their passionate disagreements over whether to ban a touring stage show, close a local burlesque theater, disseminate explicit sex education pamphlets, or create a federal agency to regulate Hollywood films. It shows that the rise and fall of women's anti-obscenity leadership shaped American attitudes toward and regulation of sexually explicit material even as it charted a new era in women's politics. In the end, the book argues that essentialist identity politics divided and ultimately disarmed women's anti-obscenity reform, helping us understand the curiously muted impact of woman suffrage. It also cautions against framing debates over sexual material narrowly in terms of harm to children while highlighting the dangers of surrendering discourse about sexuality to the commercial realm.

About the Author

Leigh Ann Wheeler is an associate professor of history and American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University.


"What constitutes obscenity is a contentious issue, and Wheeler makes it clear that historically, it has been dangerous ground for feminists... Her analysis is convincing. "

- Choice

"Wheeler’s account of the anti-obscenity campaign illuminates the importance of gender to that history; she seamlessly explores the movement as it shifted from the local to the national level; and she meticulously recounts the day-to-day struggles women faced. Along the way, she draws on an impressive list of archival sources to reconstruct women’s involvement in the campaign, provides a detailed account of the victories and hardships women experienced as they attempted to shape the... anti-obscenity movement, and offers a thoughtful and well-argued addition to a growing number of studies about women activists and how their concerns for mothers and children shaped public policy."

- American Historical Review

"Tells the complicated and compelling story of women's meteoric rise to prominence in competing branches of the anti-obscenity movement prior to and immediately following passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, and their arguably more rapid exit from the scene during the late 1920s and early 1930s... A superbly written book."

- Heather Lee Miller - Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600–2000

"A welcome addition to the growing historiography of obscenity and censorship. In its solid research, Wheeler’s book is [also] an important addition to the historiography of grassroots struggles over free speech and other rights in twentieth-century America."

- Journal of American History

"In this important book, Leigh Ann Wheeler examines a little-discussed corner of popular culture, women’s campaigns to regulate ‘obscenity’ in the late 1800[s] and early 1900s. Those interested in issues of obscenity and the development of the concept of free speech in the United States will find Wheeler’s work compelling."

- Lisa K. Boehm - Journal of Popular Culture

"Wheeler has uncovered a fascinating chapter in the story of women’s perennial attempts to protect children and vulnerable young women from the dangers of commercial vice. Her study considers several of these dangers, such as prostitution and burlesque shows, but focuses above all on the new medium of film. "

- Cynthia Eagle Russett - H-Net Book Review/H-SHGAPE

"Deftly illuminates the 'possibilities in our past' while addressing the complex struggles of women and citizens in more recent times."

- Hiroshi Kitamura - American Quarterly

"The study gives a very good sense of the anti-obscenity reform activity and concern in the period under study."

- Encarna Trinidad - Journal of American Studies

"This is a very good book about an important topic."

- Rebecca J. Mead - Journal of Social History

"Wheeler's impressively researched study is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of anti-obscenity reform and women's activism in general."

- Christine Erickson - American Studies


"A provocative study of debates about obscenity on the local level. Wheeler's book provides much-needed perspective on the late feminist 'porn wars,' and, finally, gives women activists on both sides of the debate their due."

- Andrea Friedman, Washington University

"Beautifully written and beautifully crafted. It makes a strikingly original argument: that in redefining the meaning of obscenity, women reformers legitimized sexual education. Rather than portraying early twentieth-century debates over obscenity as a part of a continuous battle between the forces of 'repression' and 'enlightenment,' Leigh Ann Wheeler identifies key moments in these early sex wars, skillfully elucidating the changing significance of gender. Placing her subject in the broadest possible context, she analyzes its legacy for the sex wars of the 1980s and beyond. In short, Against Obscenity achieves a rare balance: it manages to be scholarly, accessible—and relevant."

- Wendy Gamber, Indiana University

"Against Obscenity is a significant study of women's anti-obscenity activism in America in the Progressive and New Deal years, offering an important look at female political engagement as it crossed the 1920 suffrage divide. Because regional leaders connected with national movements and moved onto a wider stage, the book is more than a study of a local crusade. With its lively writing and fresh material about anti-obscenity campaigns focused on movies, burlesque, and vaudeville, Against Obscenity will engage those interested in First Amendment issues, women, and sexuality."

- Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Smith College

"An excellent book. Wheeler's nuanced and persuasive argument represents a major contribution to the history of sexuality and women's history. Carefully researched and well written, Against Obscenity avoids gender essentialism and balances women's individual and organizational campaigns with the contexts of national politics. Wheeler has a keen eye for important historical questions and she knows how to tell a good story."

- Estelle B. Freedman, Stanford University

"Makes a definite contribution to an understudied aspect of American political history, namely the impact of woman suffrage on important issues in American political and social life. It makes clear not only why female anti-obscenity reformers failed but also how male politicians used divisions among post-suffrage women to limit women’s power. An excellent piece of research and conceptualization."

- Elisabeth Israels Perry, St. Louis University
Johns Hopkins University Press
Reconfiguring American Political History
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