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The Silent March That Shook American Race Relations 100 Years Ago

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Silent protest parade in New York [City] against the East St. Louis riots, 1917
Underwood & Underwood, Copyright Claimant. [Silent protest parade in New York City against the East St. Louis riots, 1917]. New York, ca. 1917. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/95517074/.

Amidst the patriotic fervor whipped up by President Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of war against Germany was the continuing racial violence and racism against African Americans. At the beginning of July, a bloody riot in East St. Louis, Illinois left an entire black neighborhood decimated and countless residents murdered, maimed, and left homeless. In response to the lack of justice for this incident (as well as others in Memphis, TN and Waco, TX) the NAACP organized a silent march down Fifth Avenue.

NAACP directives for 1917 Silent March

10,000 African Americans gathered on July 28, 1917, dressed in white and carrying banners of protest or American flags, and marched down New York’s most famous thoroughfare.

See more rare photographs from Yale’s Beinecke Library, which staged an exhibit on the march to mark its 100th anniversary.

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Screw upon a Screw: Sex Education in the Gilded Age

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As you might imagine, this post is sexually explicit. You have been warned.

Gilded Age sexuality for Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
Featured photograph is a close up of a Fallopian tube and ovarian ligaments in Henry Morris’s Human Anatomy: A Complete Systematic Treatise by English and American Authors, 5th edition, 1914, p. 1270.

When I started writing historical romance set in the Gilded Age, I needed to know what level of sexual ignorance I was dealing with.

  • Did doctors of the day believe in “virginity tests”?
  • Did they understand a woman’s body and how to bring it pleasure?
  • Did they think that sex should be pleasurable for women in the first place?
  • Finally, how did they feel about masturbation, or self-pleasure?

In my unscientific, random sampling of (cishet) primary sources, the Gilded Age scored 2.5 out of 4, which was a little better than I anticipated. Let’s investigate:

“VIRGINITY TESTS”:

Gilded Age sexuality for Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

The hymen does not start whole—a perforation is needed to allow menstrual fluid to escape, after all—but a woman can easily tear and rub away the rest through an active lifestyle. Horseback riding, yes. Sneezing? Eh, probably not. But it was nice that Dr. Foote erred in her favor. It is also nice that he acknowledged that the hymen test was “cruel and unusual.”

However, it is depressing to also note that, due to “popular prejudice,” even the best physicians concealed the whole hymen truth. This led some fearful young women to try to “tighten” their vagina with alum, something I found discussed in a magazine of 1880 erotica (written by and for men). The alum suggestion wasn’t new—women had been encouraged to try this since medieval times—but it didn’t work then, and it still doesn’t. It just dries you out. There is no virginity test other than asking a person.

A WOMAN’S BODY:

Gilded Age sexuality for Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

This may be the Gilded Age quote that surprised me the most. I had thought for sure that today’s popular culture would be more knowledgeable than 150 years ago, especially regarding the clitoris, but no! In fact, did you know that even in the eighteenth century, the most widely printed medical book in Europe and America informed men about the clitoris? Yay, cliteracy!

Fortunately, my heroine Allegra will have a Gilded Age anatomy book to guide her explorations. Every virgin should have one! Her hero, Ben, will appreciate her sharing her new knowledge with him, too. This is why I love writing romance, a genre that prioritizes the needs, strengths, and happiness of women. Real romance doesn’t ignore the clitoris! I’m going to cross-stitch that on a pillow someday.

A WOMAN’S PLEASURE:

Gilded Age sexuality for Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

Pleasure and procreation may coincide, but one is not required for the other—for women. Herein lies a problem with how we teach (or don’t teach) women about their bodies. Even today, students may be taught reproductive biology, but that curriculum illustrates a prudish bias: a woman’s anatomy is described like plumbing, with pipes only used for pumping out children. In this narrative, only the male’s sexual pleasure is required for procreation, leaving the impression that men are the only ones who experience desire (or who should experience it).1

How sex-positive were Gilded Age experts? Did they think women should receive pleasure from the act? Dr. Foote, author of the above quote about the clitoris, believed that all aspects of sexual interaction—from friendly conversation to full, pleasurable intercourse—were absolutely necessary for good health: “I place sexual starvation among the principal causes of derangements of the nervous and vascular systems,” he said.

Now let’s check in with a woman, “sexual outlaw” Ida Craddock, who was sent to jail for sending “obscene” sexual education materials through the mail (to subscribers).2 Craddock’s description of a woman taking an active part in intercourse, even to the point of describing specific motions, is refreshing. She also claims that these motions will improve a woman’s sexual passion, which is encouraging. But—and this is a big BUT—Craddock believes the woman’s passion is irrelevant. A fortunate by-product, yes, but unnecessary. Bummer.

In fact, Craddock believed so strongly that sex was for procreation that her vision of contraception was coitus without orgasm—for both partners—for the entire duration of pregnancy and two years following. She thought this sexual brinksmanship would make both partners stronger. Three years of deliberate sexual arousal without release? No wonder Anthony Comstock, self-appointed male protector of American postal virtue, had her thrown her in jail.3

Overall, I’ll give the Gilded Age half a point here, and that’s being generous.

SELF-PLEASURE:

Gilded Age sexuality for Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

Your own pleasure starts with you:

Rosa did not have a lot of experience—none very good, at least—but neither did Jonas, it seemed. And Rosa knew something he did not. She knew what she liked.

“Look,” she said. She parted her lower lips to reveal the ridge that gave her the most pleasure when she was alone.

Or was this too much? To admit such a dirty secret, especially to a man—had she not learned her lesson? When she had tried to show Archie, he had lectured her about sin and a woman’s shame. Now she risked her husband’s disapproval, too.

Jonas looked up. “Show me what you want,” he said.

— Tempting Hymn

If Rosa could do it, so could anyone in the Gilded Age, right? Well, maybe not. Masturbation has long been considered a sin in the Judeo-Christian tradition, ever since Onan spilled his seed on the ground (rather than give his brother’s widow an heir) and God smote him (Genesis 38:9-10). In many traditional sources, the act is called Onanism. Thus, we are back to the idea that sex is only for procreation, a mission that made sense for the small, struggling band of Hebrews trying to survive the rough-and-tumble world of the ancient Near East.

more recent concern by the Catholic Church about masturbation is the idea that it draws away from the sexual relationship—a withholding of yourself from what should be the most intimate aspect of marriage. It is considered “radically self-centered.” While, yes, an addiction to masturbation may be unhealthy, the knowledge of one’s own body cannot help but lead to a better shared experience. A shocking idea, I know.

And it was shocking in the Gilded Age. Edwardian prophets took the above warnings and turned them into near paranoia. The same level-headed, seemingly enlightened Dr. Foote who criticized the hymen test, described the importance of the clitoris, and said sex was healthy—well, he had only dire warnings about masturbation in 1887: “Many a promising young man has lost his mind and wrecked his hopes by self-induced pleasures.” Another author agreed: “That solitary vice is one of the most common causes of insanity, is a fact too well established to need demonstration here.” (That logic is convenient: it’s so true that I don’t need to prove it. Hmm…)

Dr. Jeffries (1985) listed more terrible symptoms of this vice: a slimy discharge from the urethra, a “wasting away” of the testicles, ringing in the ears, heat flashes, large spots under the eyes, nervous headache, giddiness, solitariness, gloominess, and the inability to look the doctor in the eye. Others added cancer (!), acne (yep, that old hogwash), and a craving for salt, pepper, spices, cinnamon, cloves, vinegar, mustard, and horseradish. That last one is a head-scratcher. So if you wanted to eat anything with flavor at all, that was a giveaway? I’m in trouble.

Gilded Age sexuality for Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.
Dr. Jeffries’s unexplained (and unverified) diagram of what happens to semen after masturbation. Are you wondering how he obtained the first sample without masturbation? Me, too.

Speaking of food, did you know that Corn Flakes were invented in 1898 to keep you from masturbating? For real.4

Gilded Age sexuality for Sugar Sun steamy historical romance series by author Jennifer Hallock. Serious history. Serious sex. Happily ever after.

The John Harvey Kellogg quoted above is the Kellogg of breakfast cereal fame. His obsession with sexual purity was so extreme that he never consummated his own marriage. He and his wife slept in separate bedrooms and adopted their children. By the way, who did Kellogg believe were the worst masturbatory offenders? Foreigners, of course. Russians especially. Add eye roll here.

The cure? Clean living! Rising early in the morning, eating the recommended bland breakfast, abstaining from smoke and drink, keeping busy, avoiding solitude, and circumcisionThis is why the procedure became routine in American hospitals in the twentieth century and still predominates today. It is not good medicine but good morals. Or so they said.

There is still a bit of taboo in talking about masturbation today—well, maybe more than a bit. In 1994 President Bill Clinton forced his Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders to resign because she said that masturbation should be taught in schools as a preventative for teenage pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases. Still, I think we are a far cry from saying it causes cancer. And we’ve sweetened breakfast cereals beyond recognition, so there, John Harvey Kellogg! More and more parents are questioning routine circumcision for non-religious reasons, though the procedure has traction because it is what people in the US are used to.

All this brings me to an interesting realization: if you asked me which parts of my books would have most shocked real Gilded Age readers, it would have been the openness most of my characters have toward masturbation. And, guess what? I’m not going to stop writing it, historical accuracy be damned. Long live romance!

Footnotes:

1. What follows is a whole domino chain of bad decisions, including a teenage “hook up” culture that emphasizes sexual trophy hunting (most often by boys), rather than two people finding mutual pleasure in a mature relationship built on respect and trust.

2. The law against this distribution of “obscene” materials, the Comstock Law, is still on the books in a modified form. It no longer covers sexual education or contraception, the latter of which became a legally protected right—to married couples, originally—under the 1965 Supreme Court decision Griswold v Connecticut, also known as the Birth Control Revolution. Good thing, too, because this post would have gotten me jailed.

3. And she was not the only sexual rights crusader to have disturbing ideas. Marie Stopes believed in eugenics and forcible sterilization for those “unfit” to carry on their genes. She even “disinherit[ed] her son when he married a woman who had poor eyesight.” Yikes. And Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger dabbled in eugenics, too, by the way. We need to question everything from this period because racism, classism, and ableism were pervasive.

4. The original purity food was the graham cracker, which was nothing like your s’mores building block of today. It was made of unrefined flour with no sugars or spices—deliberately bland. Because that contained sexual desire, didn’t you know?

The Edwardian Torture Memory Hole: The Water Cure

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Cartoon shows Uncle Sam sinking into the quagmire of the Philippine-American War as Filipino leader Emilio Aguinaldo resists his American "rescue."
Cartoon by William Carson, which was printed in the Saturday Globe (Utica, New York) on 8 April 1899. It shows Uncle Sam sinking into the quagmire of the Philippine-American War as Filipino leader Emilio Aguinaldo resists his American “rescue.” The caption says, “A bigger job than he thought for.” Uncle Sam says: “Behave, you fool! Darn me, if I ain’t most sorry I undertook to rescue you.”

The administration of President Donald J. Trump has recently declared its intention to hide a 2014 report describing the CIA’s harsh detention and interrogation programs. By returning the document to Congress, this shields the report from ever being accessible to the American public through the Freedom of Information Act. Throwing this 6700-page report down the memory hole has more of a precedent than we would like to think. We’ve forgotten before.

The Water Cure

In 1902, almost seventy years before Vietnam and one hundred years before Iraq, there was a national conversation about how America should exercise its authority abroad, including how we should treat prisoners of war. It all began in America’s first overseas colony, the Philippines. At the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, the US purchased these islands from Spain for twenty million dollars, but America would spend twenty times that fighting the Filipinos, who did not want to simply exchange one colonial power for another. Occupation is ugly. The Senate Committee on the Philippines launched a detailed investigation into actions that “covered with a foul blot the flag which we all love and honor.” What were these actions?

35th US Volunteer Infantry illustrating the water cure in the Philippine-American War
The 35th US Volunteer Infantry Regiment in what is thought to be a staged photo of the water cure. The fact that this group of men did stage it reveals a lot about how normalized the practice was to them.

It was called the “water cure.” Soldiers laid a prisoner on his back, stood a man on each hand and foot, and forced a hollow tube into the victim’s throat. Through the tube they poured an entire pail of saltwater, dished up with a little sand to inflict a more severe punishment. When the prisoner did not give up, they poured in another pailful. Once the unlucky victim’s belly was “distended to the point of bursting,” a soldier would “tap” it with the butt of his gun. If the water did not spout high enough, they would jump up and down on his stomach. In the words of A. F. Miller of the 32nd Volunteer Infantry Regiment: “They swell[ed] up like toads. I’ll tell you it [was] a terrible torture.”

The Ends against the Means

Americans had not come to the Philippines to teach its soldiers enhanced interrogation techniques. Far from it. Americans claimed to have seized the islands to bring “the blessings of good and stable government,” in the words of President William McKinley:

…we come not as invaders or conquerors, but as friends, to protect the natives in their homes, in their employments, and in their personal and religious rights….[The American military must] win the confidence, respect and affection of the inhabitants of the Philippines…by proving to them that the mission of the United States is one of benevolent assimilation, substituting the mild sway of justice and right for arbitrary rule.

Novelist and prominent anti-imperialist Mark Twain pointed out the hypocrisy of Americans fighting a war to “civilize” another country and then succumbing to the very barbarism they sought to expunge. His essay “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” is one of his best and most biting pieces of satire:

The Person Sitting in Darkness is almost sure to say: “There is something curious about this — curious and unaccountable. There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land.” …And as for a flag for the Philippine Province, it is easily managed. We can have a special one — our States do it: we can have just our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones.

Mark Twain redesigned Old Glory with skull crossbones and black stripes reprinted in Vietnam anti-war protests
The Twain version of Old Glory, as republished in 1968 on the cover of Ramparts magazine.
The End of a Conversation

The Senate hearings and national conversation did not come to any hard conclusions about what had happened in the Philippines, and who—if anyone—was to blame. (The Supreme Court did determine that Filipinos did not have all the legal rights of Americans because the Constitution did not quite follow the flag.)

Controversy was quelled by a conveniently timed declaration of “peace” in the Philippine islands on July 4, 1902. (It was not peace, though: fighting would continue until 1913, including other, bigger atrocities, like the hundreds of civilian dead at Bud Dajo.) But the American public was thrilled that the US military handed power over to a civil government under Governor William Howard Taft. Americans at home believed their problems were solved. However, because America did not finish the conversation, the public was forced to have it all over again in 1969 (when the My Lai massacre story broke) and in 2004 (when the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse scandal broke). Now, with the threat to hide the 2014 torture report, we should be asking these questions all over again.

  • Does the end justify the means?
  • Do the means even work? (Does torture provide actionable information?)
  • What happens when the use of torture is exposed, giving ammunition to our enemies and undermining the end goal of peace?

Unfortunately, Americans may be tiring of these questions before they can come to a consensus about the answers.

Read more about the history and use of the water cure in the Philippines and related issues at my author website.

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