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Humanities Libertexts

18.5: Gender, Religion, and Culture

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Visitors to the Columbian Exposition of 1893 took in the view of the Court of Honor from the roof of the Manufacturers Building. Art Institute of Chicago, via Wikimedia

    In 1905, Standard Oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller donated $100,000 (about $2.5 million today) to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Rockefeller was the richest man in America but also one of the most hated and mistrusted. Even admirers conceded that he achieved his wealth through often illegal and usually immoral business practices. Journalist Ida Tarbell had made waves describing Standard Oil’s long-standing ruthlessness and predilections for political corruption. Clergymen, led by reformer Washington Gladden, fiercely protested the donation. A decade earlier, Gladden had asked of such donations, “Is this clean money? Can any man, can any institution, knowing its origin, touch it without being defiled?” Gladden said, “In the cool brutality with which properties are wrecked, securities destroyed, and people by the hundreds robbed of their little all to build up the fortunes of the multi-millionaires, we have an appalling revelation of the kind of monster that a human being may become.”18

    Despite widespread criticism, the board accepted Rockefeller’s donation. Board president Samuel Capen did not defend Rockefeller, arguing that the gift was charitable and the board could not assess the origin of every donation, but the dispute shook Capen. Was a corporate background incompatible with a religious organization? The “tainted money debate” reflected questions about the proper relationship between religion and capitalism. With rising income inequality, would religious groups be forced to support either the elite or the disempowered? What was moral in the new industrial United States? And what obligations did wealth bring? Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie popularized the idea of a “gospel of wealth” in an 1889 article, claiming that “the true antidote for the temporary unequal distribution of wealth” was the moral obligation of the rich to give to charity.19 Farmers and labor organizers, meanwhile, argued that God had blessed the weak and that new Gilded Age fortunes and corporate management were inherently immoral. As time passed, American churches increasingly adapted themselves to the new industrial order. Even Gladden came to accept donations from the so-called robber barons, such as the Baptist John D. Rockefeller, who increasingly touted the morality of business. Meanwhile, as many churches wondered about the compatibility of large fortunes with Christian values, others were concerned for the fate of traditional American masculinity.

    The economic and social changes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—including increased urbanization, immigration, advancements in science and technology, patterns of consumption and the new availability of goods, and new awareness of economic, racial, and gender inequalities—challenged traditional gender norms. At the same time, urban spaces and shifting cultural and social values presented new opportunities to challenge traditional gender and sexual norms. Many women, carrying on a campaign that stretched long into the past, vied for equal rights. They became activists: they targeted municipal reforms, launched labor rights campaigns, and, above all, bolstered the suffrage movement.

    Urbanization and immigration fueled anxieties that old social mores were being subverted and that old forms of social and moral policing were increasingly inadequate. The anonymity of urban spaces presented an opportunity in particular for female sexuality and for male and female sexual experimentation along a spectrum of orientations and gender identities. Anxiety over female sexuality reflected generational tensions and differences, as well as racial and class ones. As young women pushed back against social mores through premarital sexual exploration and expression, social welfare experts and moral reformers labeled such girls feeble-minded, believing even that such unfeminine behavior could be symptomatic of clinical insanity rather than free-willed expression. Generational differences exacerbated the social and familial tensions provoked by shifting gender norms. Youths challenged the norms of their parents’ generations by donning new fashions and enjoying the delights of the city. Women’s fashion loosed its physical constraints: corsets relaxed and hemlines rose. The newfound physical freedom enabled by looser dress was also mimicked in the pursuit of other freedoms.

    While many women worked to liberate themselves, many, sometimes simultaneously, worked to uplift others. Women’s work against alcohol propelled temperance into one of the foremost moral reforms of the period. Middle-class, typically Protestant women based their assault on alcohol on the basis of their feminine virtue, Christian sentiment, and their protective role in the family and home. Others, like Jane Addams and settlement house workers, sought to impart a middle-class education on immigrant and working-class women through the establishment of settlement homes. Other reformers touted a “scientific motherhood”: the new science of hygiene was deployed as a method of both social uplift and moralizing, particularly of working-class and immigrant women.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Taken a few years after the publication of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” this portrait photograph shows activist Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminine poise and respectability even as she sought massive change for women’s place in society. An outspoken supporter of women’s rights, Gilman’s works challenged the supposedly “natural” inferiority of women. Wikimedia.

    Women vocalized new discontents through literature. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” attacked the “naturalness” of feminine domesticity and critiqued Victorian psychological remedies administered to women, such as the “rest cure.” Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, set in the American South, likewise criticized the domestic and familial role ascribed to women by society and gave expression to feelings of malaise, desperation, and desire. Such literature directly challenged the status quo of the Victorian era’s constructions of femininity and feminine virtue, as well as established feminine roles.

    While many men worried about female activism, they worried too about their own masculinity. To anxious observers, industrial capitalism was withering American manhood. Rather than working on farms and in factories, where young men formed physical muscle and spiritual grit, new generations of workers labored behind desks, wore white collars, and, in the words of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, appeared “black-coated, stiff-jointed, soft-muscled, [and] paste-complexioned.”20 Neurologist George Beard even coined a medical term, neurasthenia, for a new emasculated condition that was marked by depression, indigestion, hypochondria, and extreme nervousness. The philosopher William James called it “Americanitis.” Academics increasingly warned that America had become a nation of emasculated men.

    Churches too worried about feminization. Women had always comprised a clear majority of church memberships in the United States, but now the theologian Washington Gladden said, “A preponderance of female influence in the Church or anywhere else in society is unnatural and injurious.” Many feared that the feminized church had feminized Christ himself. Rather than a rough-hewn carpenter, Jesus had been made “mushy” and “sweetly effeminate,” in the words of Walter Rauschenbusch. Advocates of a so-called muscular Christianity sought to stiffen young men’s backbones by putting them back in touch with their primal manliness. Pulling from contemporary developmental theory, they believed that young men ought to evolve as civilization evolved, advancing from primitive nature-dwelling to modern industrial enlightenment. To facilitate “primitive” encounters with nature, muscular Christians founded summer camps and outdoor boys’ clubs like the Woodcraft Indians, the Sons of Daniel Boone, and the Boy Brigades—all precursors of the Boy Scouts. Other champions of muscular Christianity, such as the newly formed Young Men’s Christian Association, built gymnasiums, often attached to churches, where youths could strengthen their bodies as well as their spirits. It was a Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) leader who coined the term bodybuilding, and others invented the sports of basketball and volleyball.21

    Muscular Christianity, though, was about even more than building strong bodies and minds. Many advocates also ardently championed Western imperialism, cheering on attempts to civilize non-Western peoples. Gilded Age men were encouraged to embrace a particular vision of masculinity connected intimately with the rising tides of nationalism, militarism, and imperialism. Contemporary ideals of American masculinity at the turn of the century developed in concert with the United States’ imperial and militaristic endeavors in the West and abroad. During the Spanish-American War in 1898, Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders embodied the idealized image of the tall, strong, virile, and fit American man that simultaneously epitomized the ideals of power that informed the United States’ imperial agenda. Roosevelt and others like him believed a reinvigorated masculinity would preserve the American race’s superiority against foreign foes and the effeminizing effects of overcivilization.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Amusement-hungry Americans flocked to new entertainments at the turn of the twentieth century. In this early-twentieth century photograph, visitors enjoy Luna Park, one of the original amusement parks on Brooklyn’s famous Coney Island. Visitors to Coney Island’s Luna Park, ca.1910-1915. Library of Congress (LC-B2- 2240-13).

    But while many fretted about traditional American life, others lost themselves in new forms of mass culture. Vaudeville signaled new cultural worlds. A unique variety of popular entertainments, these traveling circuit shows first appeared during the Civil War and peaked between 1880 and 1920. Vaudeville shows featured comedians, musicians, actors, jugglers, and other talents that could captivate an audience. Unlike earlier rowdy acts meant for a male audience that included alcohol, vaudeville was considered family-friendly, “polite” entertainment, though the acts involved offensive ethnic and racial caricatures of African Americans and recent immigrants. Vaudeville performances were often small and quirky, though venues such as the renowned Palace Theatre in New York City signaled true stardom for many performers. Popular entertainers such as silent film star Charlie Chaplin and magician Harry Houdini made names for themselves on the vaudeville circuit. But if live entertainment still captivated audiences, others looked to entirely new technologies.

    By the turn of the century, two technologies pioneered by Edison—the phonograph and motion pictures—stood ready to revolutionize leisure and help create the mass entertainment culture of the twentieth century. The phonograph was the first reliable device capable of recording and reproducing sound. But it was more than that. The phonograph could create multiple copies of recordings, sparking a great expansion of the market for popular music. Although the phonograph was a technical success, Edison at first had trouble developing commercial applications for it. He thought it might be used for dictation, recording audio letters, preserving speeches and dying words of great men, producing talking clocks, or teaching elocution. He did not anticipate that its greatest use would be in the field of mass entertainment, but Edison’s sales agents soon reported that many phonographs were being used for just that, especially in so-called phonograph parlors, where customers could pay a nickel to hear a piece of music. By the turn of the century, Americans were purchasing phonographs for home use. Entertainment became the phonograph’s major market.

    Inspired by the success of the phonograph as an entertainment device, Edison decided in 1888 to develop “an instrument which does for the Eye what the phonograph does for the Ear.” In 1888, he patented the concept of motion pictures. In 1889, he innovated the rolling of film. By 1891, he was exhibiting a motion-picture camera (a kinetograph) and a viewer (a kinetoscope). By 1894, the Edison Company had produced about seventy-five films suitable for sale and viewing. They could be viewed through a small eyepiece in an arcade or parlor. They were short, typically about three minutes long. Many of the early films depicted athletic feats and competitions. One 1894 film, for example, showed a six-round boxing match. The catalog description gave a sense of the appeal it had for male viewers: “Full of hard fighting, clever hits, punches, leads, dodges, body blows and some slugging.” Other early kinetoscope subjects included Indian dances, nature and outdoor scenes, re-creations of historical events, and humorous skits. By 1896, the Edison Vitascope could project film, shifting audiences away from arcades and pulling them into theaters. Edison’s film catalog meanwhile grew in sophistication. He sent filmmakers to distant and exotic locales like Japan and China. Long-form fictional films created a demand for “movie stars,” such as the glamorous Mary Pickford, the swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks, the acrobatic comedian Buster Keaton, who began to appear in the popular imagination beginning around 1910. Alongside professional boxing and baseball, the film industry was creating the modern culture of celebrity that would characterize twentieth-century mass entertainment.22

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