American History · women's history

city of (white) women


When many of us think of the idea of “race,” blackness comes to mind. This week, graduate students enrolled in my “Gender, Race and Urban Space” class will be pushed to think about whiteness and moreover, the way in which we find meaning in the tensions between whiteness and womanhood.


Our readings are Carla Kaplan’s study of white women in Harlem circa 1920s and Christine Stansell’s exploration of the changing roles of women during the early national and colonial period in New York City. In both cases, anxiety exists when people constructed as women inhabit their surroundings in ways others did not expect. The wealthy and powerful, among them men, were anxious whenever such women tried to enhance the quality of their lives owing to a desire to fulfill a personal choice or to escape desperate circumstances as was the case of many women when New York City was transformed into a leading port filled with poverty. Reformers would address numerous social issues affecting white and black city dwellers between the 19th century and opening decades of the twentieth century. That did not necessarily result in happiness for those under surveillance –  even ones who had never been poor. As Kaplan relays, one white woman who frequented Harlem during the so-called roaring 20s married an African American man. She encountered hostile attitudes and ended up committing suicide. She had evidently crossed a critical line. No matter the horrors they themselves faced – indeed, there were reports in New York of working class white men beating their wives to death for simply inquiring about household matters – white women was supposed to represent virtue. If such a characteristic existed in them and “white” people, it was tainted when such women entered into interracial unions.

Feeling despair did not stop some women – white or otherwise – from engaging in behavior that resulted in judgment from many. One could see the same sex relationships found in other interwar communities, including Detroit, as described by Victoria Wolcott in an earlier reading. The turn of the century Afro-Puerto Rican women we also studied should figure into our analysis as we sort through it all.

Nancy Cunard and beau circa 1928

How much has changed and stayed the same since the early national period when open contempt for dependent women, children and the poor was rampant?

Stansell describes the rape of one washerwoman’s daughter by a wealthy man. That young woman’s unfortunate pain, as did the kind experienced by the woman who committed suicide a century later, permits us this week to see how expectation hovers around women, white ones in particular. Such attitudes manifested as cities reflected growing contact between people of varying backgrounds in an industrializing world.

That said, societal attitudes have loosened. The arrival of “flappers,” or young women who discarded the corsets associated with the Victorian period, raised their hems, lowered their waistlines and danced in unbuckled, or flapping, shoes in the 1920s, serve as one example.


While completing this week’s readings, I found my thoughts turning to more recent moments. I thought about the experiences of the late R & B vocalist and musician Teena Marie, who died in 2010, and the late rock star Janis Joplin, who died from an overdose three years after I was born.

Rock singer Janis Joplin


In both cases, it is possible to see how music served as a refuge from expectation for two white women raised in middle class homes (Marie grew up in California; Joplin in Texas).

Marie’s romance and friendship with her mentor Rick James, a talented musician-singer, is especially noteworthy.

Marie was embraced by black audiences unlike the “Miss Anne’s” of earlier eras who were looked down upon by African Americans and whites alike for have relations across the color line. She was not a crossover artist, but that may have been a result of her “black” sound.

There might be more to it that is still unspoken though. No matter. She was as bold as, say, Nancy Cunard, the British heiress-activist-writer who spent a lot of time in Harlem and dated black men.

Nancy Cunard
British heiress Nancy Cunard

Their experiences and those of the “laboring” women Stansell describes, and above all, laboring white women, push our thinking about what happens when women leave the private sphere of the home for public spaces.

How do they help or harm themselves and others?

To what do they turn to survive so much as they attempt to draw attention to many social issues that include their own pain?

The experiences of  Helen Tamiris, the Jewish choreographer, who created a suite of dances to “Negro” spirituals beginning in 1928, come to mind.

What sort of judgment did she faced as she made dances that brought to mind the oppression of the enslaved?

There is also Patricia O’Day (Alice Faye), the imagined tavern hostess-boarding house proprietor in early national New York as revealed in the 1940 motion picture Little Old New York. She was Irish, a group considered to be among the lowliest in many nineteenth century cities.

Miley Cyrus, Tennessee native, has raised eyebrows as a singer and songwriter.

Miley Cyrus and Madonna come to mind, too. How do they come in and out of recent conversations about what’s proper and what’s not?

Who judges them and are the judgments similar or different depending on the audience?

How do cities, or that which might be described as “urban” (including songs), permit certain women to get away with more than they might elsewhere?

Lastly, how does the flaneuse about which Lauren Elkin writes figure into what should be a rich discussion this Thursday?

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