Mary P. Ryan


On her book Mysteries of Sex: Tracing Women and Men Through American History

Cover Interview of July 29, 2009

The wide angle

I wrote my first book, Womanhood in America, almost 40 years ago.  It was an audacious enterprise, an attempt to write the history of half the population at a time when no more than a handful of monographs on the subject were in print.  Since then scholarship about women’s past has exploded in volume, spun off into related specialties like the History of Sexuality and Studies of Masculinity, and been re-framed as Gender History.

At the simplest level, it would seem that a revised editions of that original jejune book was in order.  After decades of struggling to keep my classes on Women’s History up to date, my lecture notes had become something of a mess.  At the very least I needed to take the time to incorporate mounds of newly discovered facts into a coherent, remodeled historical narrative.

This did not prove to be a simple task.  Certainly it would be possible to condense mounds of monographs and articles, on every possible historical event, period and demographic group, into a textbook.  But I was not the patient and meticulous scholar to perform that task.  Theoretical advances in the field suggested another obvious strategy, to transform Womanhood in America into “Gender in America” by adding men and reciting the new orthodoxy that women and men were culturally constructed categories not extensions of biology.  But that seemed too pat, like closing down prematurely on all the historical puzzles that remained.  Accounting for the inequities, conflicts and unrealized possibilities of pleasure that have separated men and women called for more historical imagination.

It was in this context that Mysteries of Sex slowly took shape.  Up until the minute before the book went into print, I hesitated about the title.  I was fearful that “mysteries” might mislead prospective readers into expecting a titillating story.  Those provocative words remain on the cover to the book for two reasons.  First writing “sex” rather than “gender” expresses my belief that the distinctions all societies draw between male and female are not just any order of social or cultural category.  Their meaning and power accrue from their association with fundamental matters of the body, sexuality, desire and procreation.

The second term in the title, “mystery,” is meant to rob sex of any illusion of rigid and absolute dualism.  For all its historical force and persistence, the practice of differentiating things male from things female is a testimony to the endless and mystifying inventiveness of human cultures.

Mysteries of Sex offers readers some practical guidelines through this maze of historical possibilities.  It tracks sex through history by identifying three axes of gender differentiation that I term asymmetry, the relations of the sexes and hierarchy, that is how sex divides, or, in other words, the ways that Americans have divided, related and ranked men and women.

The book’s table of contents offers readers seven mysteries to choose from.  Each purports attempt to solve a major historical quandary.

“Where Have the Corn Mothers Gone” asks why, after at least two centuries of struggle, a European gender culture triumphed over Indian ways of defining male and female.  The next chapter turns to New England family history, and travels from the colonial period to the Victorian age looking for an answer to “Who Baked the Apple Pie,” or how did American middle class culture come to venerate domestic femininity so highly.

Chapter Three addresses the troubled relationship between race and gender.  Situated in the American South, the chapter investigates the critical role gender and sexuality played in the institutionalization of slavery, the coming of the Civil War and the failure of Reconstruction.  The next chapter focuses on nineteenth century politics.  It examines how the American political tradition was built upon a treacherous gender divide and discovers how women were able to achieve political power, even when they were denied the vote and public office.

The last three chapters take the story into the twentieth century looking for clues that will explain a remarkable alteration of the meanings of male and female.  This investigation proceeds through the collective biographies of several generations, starting with those “new women” who conquered the paid labor forces and streamlined their domestic roles during the first decades of the last century and moving on to their daughters and granddaughters who, in their everyday life as well as collective action, undermined the divide between male and female, home and work that had endured more than a century.

In the last chapter, I review the twentieth century transformation of gender through the lens of immigration, as seen in two waves, one before 1920 and the second after 1965.  The millions of immigrants who converged on these shores from all around the world raised a dizzying array of different gender possibilities, lending both mystery and hope to the future of gender in America.