Elevate Difference

Sex Expression and American Women Writers, 1860-1940

The intriguing title of this book, Sex Expression and American Women Writers, may lead many to wonder what exactly the author means by “sex expression”? Luckily, Dale Bauer makes this clear in the introductory chapter to her study, and I will enlighten those of you who might not be able to immediately get the book.

Sex expression is a clever way of defining the act of writing (or not) about questions relating to sexuality, a term not coined by Bauer. This phrase is especially important because of the topic of Bauer’s study, and even more significant because of what this book brings to light. There are only few ways of finding information about women and sexuality, especially in the interlude specified: 1860-1940. The period Bauer describes is one during which women were gaining a greater freedom of expression in their writing, leading up to the excesses of the roaring twenties and full “sexual democratization.” In fact, women writers have an especially important role to play in describing society during that epoch, and have a gaze that is distinct from that which their male counterparts might express. One of the principal tasks of feminist analysis is an uncovering of these women’s views, and Bauer’s study is indeed an important piece in the construction of herstory, however archaic that term may now seem.

For those of us versed in woman’s writing, it might be surprising that as early as mid-nineteenth century, women writers were writing about sex. One of the details Bauer explains from the outset is the fact that sex expression does not necessarily mean description of the sexual act; it can be simply the way a woman carries herself, conscious of her innate femininity, or the way she chooses to dress. Bauer shows a plethora of these possibilities throughout her analysis. She focuses in on various categories for the writers and novels she explores that seem most significant for revealing sex expression in the period she focuses on: “ugliness, middle age, sex power, inarticulate sexuality, and therapeutic intimacy.” Bauer’s investigation of the changing association of sexuality with ugliness (and later on to beauty) is thought-provoking and her look at sex expression in middle age is timely. Although sometimes dense, this well written study, is quite comprehensive. Even authors that Bauer does not choose to focus on in her six chapters are mentioned, especially if they are relevant to her argumentation. Bauer is careful to include writers of varying ethnicities (e.g., Jewish and African American) and sexualities, and thus consciously diversifies her analysis. Highlights of the text include her chapters on authors Fannie Hurst (for its encompassing reach) and Edith Wharton, an author Bauer has previously written about. This book provides an important synopsis of both seminal and more obscure authors, particularly for those unfamiliar with the women’s literary canon of the time period (as I was).

Written by: Sophie M. Lavoie, July 26th 2009