Sex Expression and American Women Writers, 1860-1940

By Dale M. Bauer

296 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 10 illus., notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-5906-3
    Published: May 2009
  • eBook ISBN: 978-0-8078-8769-1
    Published: June 2009

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American women novelists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries registered a call for a new sexual freedom, Dale Bauer contends. By creating a lexicon of "sex expression," many authors explored sexuality as part of a discourse about women's needs rather than confining it to the realm of sentiments, where it had been relegated (if broached at all) by earlier writers. This new rhetoric of sexuality enabled critical conversations about who had sex, when in life they had it, and how it signified.

Whether liberating or repressive, sexuality became a potential force for female agency in these women's novels, Bauer explains, insofar as these novelists seized the power of rhetoric to establish their intellectual authority. Thus, Bauer argues, they helped transform the traditional ideal of sexual purity into a new goal of sexual pleasure, defining in their fiction what intimacy between equals might become.

Analyzing the work of canonical as well as popular writers--including Edith Wharton, Anzia Yezierska, Julia Peterkin, and Fannie Hurst, among others--Bauer demonstrates that the new sexualization of American culture was both material and rhetorical.

About the Author

Dale M. Bauer is professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is author or editor of five books, including Edith Wharton's Brave New Politics and the Cambridge Companion to Nineteenth-Century American Women's Writing.
For more information about Dale M. Bauer, visit the Author Page.


"Demonstrates significant changes in attitudes toward women's sexuality in popular fiction."--Choice

"Bauer is immensely knowledgeable about the byways of American women writers, and she draws on a wide range of authors, some rarely discussed. . . . Fascinating . . . an intriguing account."--Journal of American Studies

“A useful and intellectually stimulating collection of essays. . . . A wonderful starting point for further explorations of Creolism in the Americas.”--Legacy

"Building her analysis on a foundation of recent historical studies that have argued for the 'sexualization' of American culture during this transitional era, Bauer allows us to see the deliberate strategies women writers brought to this broad cultural development. This is a fascinating study that explores major cultural debates and alerts us to quirky, illuminating texts."--Nancy Bentley, University of Pennsylvania

"Bauer's ambitious and immensely interesting work explores the ways in which women writers from the 1860s to the 1940s sought to shift articulations about female sexuality from debates about rights or consent to expressions of sex itself, and how those expressions were alternately, and sometimes simultaneously, both liberated and constrained by such considerations as 'age, appearance, health, and sexual literacy.'"--Elizabeth Barnes, College of William and Mary