Odem's book recalls efforts to control young women's sexuality

Contemporary campaigns to save the traditional family, to reform television programming or to revive religious values must certainly be recognized for their effects on American culture and society. Indeed, future historians might look back at our age to recount the influence of such movements. But historian Mary Odem reveals in her new book, Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920, that such movements are not new to American history, nor do they often achieve the goals they might claim. Odem, assistant professor of history and women's studies, has written a detailed exploration of the moral reform and social purity campaigns of the late 19th and early 20th century that sought to control the emerging female sexuality of the younger generations.

While Odem's research explores these campaigns from a national perspective, she provides a detailed analysis of court records from 1910-1920 in Alameda and Los Angeles counties in California. The analysis reveals that the middle class reformers who were mainly white women often achieved contradictory results from their reform efforts. From an examination of the campaign to raise the age of consent in statutory rape laws and the campaign to create more official positions for women in the juvenile justice system, Odem presents the paradoxes of the reform movements--measures that espoused protection for working class girls most often resulted in harsh and discriminatory treatment against the girls.

The book, while still in manuscript form, received the President's Book Award from the Social Science History Association for a meritorious work by a beginning scholar. Daughters is grounded in Odem's thorough reading of court records, often offering an intimate look at working class women whose lives traditionally have been difficult to document. Odem explained the difficulty of tracking the lives of working class women who typically didn't leave many personal records, unlike upper and middle class women, who often documented their lives in letters and diaries. Through the court records, Odem feels that she found an important resource for understanding the lives of these women. "I can hear their voices," she said.

Odem analyzes statutory rape prosecutions in Alameda County Superior Court for the decade 1910-1920 (112 cases); and prosecutions for statutory rape in the Los Angeles Juvenile Court for the years 1910 (eight cases) and 1920 (23 cases). These records include a summary of the legal proceedings of each case and verbatim trial transcripts from the preliminary hearings in the lower courts. Odem also looked at the case files of delinquent girls from the Los Angeles County Juvenile Court for the years 1910 (96 cases) and 1920 (220 cases) and a sampling of case files on delinquent boys.

Historians traditionally have explored medical literature, medical journals and diaries when seeking out notes on sexual behavior and attitudes about sexuality. Odem pointed out the difference of reading legal case records compared to reading a personal diary. "These girls were entering a system of authority and, in several cases, of domination. You have to keep those relations of power in mind when reading them."

The campaigns of the late 19th and 20th century are often read by historians as reactionary and repressive, Odem noted. But this reading is too simplistic, she believes. "White middle class women were the primary movers in this movement, reacting to and challenging women's subordination." Through the campaign to raise the age of consent, the reformers were trying to change moral double standards and to challenge male sexual dominance. But the campaigns did not accomplish that end in many cases because the reformers did not have access to the judicial system, and the male police officers, probation officers and court officials often treated the women not as victims but as sexual outlaws, while men received more lenient treatment.

Another element of the campaign efforts that emerges in Odem's research is the issue of race. Reformers defined the sexual exploitation and domination as "white slavery," because the movement particularly focused on white working class girls. "The implication was that African American women didn't deserve the same attention," Odem said.

At the turn of the century, the Los Angeles and Oakland areas were rapidly changing urban centers, and many immigrant families were encountering a very different social life than they had known. Daughters who previously worked on the family farm were now in department stores, factories and offices, and had access for the first time to men their families didn't know. There were also new forms of social life and entertainment appearing in the major American cities. Heterosocial mixing was new for these families and made many working class parents nervous. All of these new cultural phenomena were upsetting the traditional roles of young women, and this new autonomy for the daughters threatened traditional parental control.

In fact, this "generational conflict" caused many parents to use the legal system and the laws that came out of the moral reform movement on their own daughters. Odem reports that almost half of the cases of female delinquency were initiated by parents or family members. She points out the cultural conflict that played a part in this family upset. "Many of the non-native families who turned to the courts--a group that included Mexican, Italian, German, Russian-Jewish, Irish and Canadian immigrants--came from peasant or artisanal societies in which families expected to exercise control over their daughters' labor power, social lives and courtship activities," she writes.

Although Odem comments that "historians are very reluctant to talk about universalities," she admits that the moral reform movement in her book clearly speaks to present-day concerns as it addresses issues of class, gender and sex at a significant moment in American history. She warns that it would be inadequate to "assess that time period with the social mores and values of our specific time." And yet, Odem's record of the struggles of the moral reformers for more equitable judicial systems, the young working class women for personal integrity, and the parents for family tradition, and how they all achieved mixed results, reminds us just how ambivalent social change can be.

--Matt Montgomery

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