Cover for BEHLING: The Masculine Woman in America, 1890-1935

The Masculine Woman in America, 1890-1935

How the popular press and literature translated the woman suffrage movement into a monstrous movement of unnatural masculinized women.

The Masculine Woman in America, 1890-1935 examines how the suffrage movement's efforts to secure social and political independence for women were translated by a fearful society into a movement of unnatural "masculinized" women and dangerous "female sexual inverts."

Scrutinizing depictions of the masculine woman in literature and the popular press, Laura L. Behling explicates the literary, artistic, and rhetorical strategies used to eliminate the "sexually inverted" woman: punishing her by imprisonment or death; "rescuing" her into heterosexuality; subverting her through parody; or removing her from society to some remote or mystical place. Behling also shows how fictional same-sex relationships in the writings of Henry James, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Gertrude Stein, and others conformed to and ultimately reaffirmed heterosexual models.

The Masculine Woman in America, 1890-1935 demonstrates that the women's suffrage movement did not so much suggest alternatives to women's gender and sexual behavior as it offered men and women afraid of perceived changes a tangible movement on which to blame their fears. A biting commentary on the insubstantial but powerful ghosts stirred up by the media, this study shows how, though legally enfranchised, the new woman was systematically disfranchised socially through scientific theory, popular press illustrations, and fictional predictions of impending sociobiological disaster.


"As Behling documents, between 1890 and 1935 popular images of women strongly suggested that in demanding the right to vote and to participate fully in social and political life in the US, women risked losing their female identities in both mind and body. The author focuses on popular fiction, especially that published in magazines, to show how both male and female authors expressed anxiety, suspicion, and dislike of women who crossed gender barriers. . . . She contends that the widespread anxiety expressed throughout US culture during the period found its way into almost all fiction and testifies to the marginalization, mistrust, and downright fear of women's determination to construct new individual and collective identities." -- Choice

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