Riotous Flesh

Riotous Flesh: Women, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice in Nineteenth-Century America

Over the past few weeks, we’ve spent some time discussing the concept of power and how that informs our understanding of gender, women’s studies, and ideas of masculinity. I remember during one of the seminar discussions that we talked about the “civic death” and the situation by which women had little “control” over their lives; men being dominate public figures in society. This makes you think of the various private moments that women held in their lives; not just in the home, but in moments away from men who were traditionally thought as the bearers of sexual gratification which “signified a women’s maturity” (1). 

As we learned last week, we notice that there is a difference in what “public” really means; not just a geographical space but a void in which ideals and expectations are controlled and bolstered through the lens of gender. This week is no different than the others. This book is more than an investigation into masturbation during the nineteenth century U.S. north, but broadly an examination of the politics of sex, gender, power, and how personal gratification mixes.

“Public space,” in the context of April R. Haynes’s Riotous Flesh: Women, Physiology, and the Solitary Vice in Nineteenth Century America, shows us that men attempted to control women’s behaviors and sexual ideas through gendered power and control. Sexual thoughts, reciprocated through masturbation, were often not only discouraged but looked down on by civil society. The power dynamics between men and women related to the superiority of men: such interpretation suggests “why would women need to self-please themselves when they have men to do that job?” As seen on page 8, Haynes suggests that “patriarchs and libertines considered male sexuality essentially active (either questing or controlled) and female sexuality passive (either receptive or obedient).” Power dynamics, concerning sex, pleasure, and the politics which surrounded that topic, heavily swayed towards men during the period or at least those who argued against the uncivil act of the female “solitary vice.”

One of the essential parts of this book is the process by which women seek political rights through the discussions of sexual independence. Though, during the Antebellum period, female reforms sought to prohibit masturbation. These women did so as “they sought to challenge the sexual relations that structures patriarchy in their own time and envision what sexual autonomy for women might look like in practice” (3). One of the other significant points of conversation in this book is how African American women interacted with discussions centered on morality and female sexual autonomy (55, 162).

 Some of the big questions I hope we can discuss during our class is how does power play a role in this book, and to what extent did women’s agency demonstrate a way to contest that power?  How did women reinforce or protest debates on sexuality, in particular the private moments of masturbation? How does “public space” interact with Haynes’s work? How does race play a role in this study of gender and power? And, in comparison to Revolutionary Backlash, do we see any similarities or differences in looking at women using politics to push change?

Abraham in Arms – Discussion Post and Questions

John Legg
Iris Swaney

Discussion Post

This week’s discussion centers Ann Little’s Abraham in Arms: War and Gender in Colonial America into our collective understanding of gender history this semester. After a cursory survey of book reviews on the monograph, Little’s book came out after many considered colonial military history to have faded away. yet, it fits into a conversation with many works by historians like Jill Lepore, Jenny Hale Pulsipher, James D. Drake, Guy Chey, Evan Haefeli, and Kevin Sweeney, all of which focus on military and warfare in New England before the Revolution.[1]


Our discussion will begin with some contextual information on gender in Colonial American by Iris, then we will complete THOMAS, and then ask questions related to this week’s readings.



What are the big questions that Little asks in Abraham in Arms?



  • How does religion and gender come together in this story?
  • How are captives, both male and female, both European and Indigenous, discussed in Little’s book?
  • How does Little’s book talk about agency within both Indigenous communities and European (English and French) frontier settlements? How does this relate to Perdue’s Cherokee Women?


Masculinity + Gender

  • ARTICLE: How does Toby L. Ditz talk about masculinity? Why is important to the field of gender studies? Why is there a “New Men’s History,” and what does this look like as a field? Why does men’s history assist in the “displacement of the narrative of men’s gendered power?” (2)
  • Compared to last week’s articles which talked about womanhood, Ann Little’s book spends a lot of time unpacking the term “manhood.” What does this mean to her story and more broadly in the study of gender history? How is manhood defined and why is it defined in that way?
  • How is the image of the body used to reinforce power and superiority in Colonial New England—think of interactions or encounters with Indigenous and European captives.
  • In Cherokee Women, tasks and labor were a big part in seeing differences in gender. How does Abraham in Arms talk about tasks—both male and female—in Colonial New England?
  • On top of tasks, how does Little discuss land ownership and perception of who can own land?
  • How does cross dressing play into Little’s book. Do we see any connections with the article we read last week on Hall?



  • Why is warfare gendered? Think of page 207.
  • How does warfare/violence interact with gendered assumptions of family roles?
  • How does Little bring nuance to past assumption that violence in Colonial America was based on unique and intricate differences?




  • Words seem to be important parts of Little’s analysis, and the use of words are used in different ways to reinforce gender differences or culture differences (a separation between “us” and “them”) How do words or terminology, based on gendered assumptions, change between Indigenous and European cultures in the book?
  • How does sovereignty play a role into Little’s book?



Final thoughts

  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the book? Is Little successful in her analysis?

[1] Kyle F. Zelner, “Reviewed Works: Abraham in Arms: War and Gender in Colonial New England by Ann M. Little,” The New England Quarterly, Vol. 81, No. 4 (2008): 719.

Out of the Shadows: Gender in Colonial and Native America

This week’s readings, while varied and expansive, examine multiple historiographical gaps and misunderstandings of women during the Colonial, Early Republic, and Jacksonian periods of American history. All three scholars, Theda Perdue, Michelle LeMaster, and Kathleen Brown provide impeccable evidence for new modes of historical inquiry into the American past. If one could determine a common thread that runs throughout their articles/book, it would suggest that gender history during this period is more complicated than the previously understood binary of male/female or paternal/maternal. Communities resisted and adapted different gender roles, even when other forces or expectations tried to uproot those systems.

 When we examine the colonial period, court records provide fruitful evidence through which we get a clearer understanding of that period’s legal and social expectations. Women played a unique role in Colonial America. For example, when we think of gender in Colonial America, Carol Karlsen’s work, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, provides a prime example to show how gender plays a monumental role in colonial New England, and within patriarchal societies, in the process by which women’s bodies are examined and publicly humiliated at court proceedings. While reading Kathleen Brown’s article, “Changed…into the Fashion of Man,” we see a similar approach with the communal expectations and punishment in Colonial America based on sex or gender debates. Brown examines an important question—one we may bring up during class discussion—about what constitutes “womanhood” or the role that women played in “examining” bodies during the colonial period. Her article parallels a similar approach in Karlsen’s work when women are accused as witches often had their bodies examined for the mark of the devil. It seems that during Colonial America, officials used mythic understandings of the human body as a means to dictate gender or assumptions about gender. 

The articles on Indigenous peoples in America highlight trends of historiographical change, but also trace the importance of gender in the American Southeast. That region was a violent place, steeped in conflict between Indigenous peoples and Europeans – both Spanish and English. While their articles examine (in brief) the role that violence, or hunting, play in Native society in the Southeast—whether it be Cherokee or Muskogee-Creek societies—gender is their primary focus. While much different than Brown’s article on Thomas Hall, both Michelle LeMaster (“Pocahontas Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”) and Theda Perdue (Cherokee Women) provide a thought-provoking analysis of Native women in the Southeast. These women were powerful; they held status in the respective communities and persisted over time. I believe there could be a discussion on agency within these two pieces, as they both acknowledge the fact that women played a monumental role in communal politics—primarily as Native communities viewed women as “more traditional” than the men as they defended land rights, had a closer relationship to the agrarian lifestyle that the Five Civilized Tribes are known for, and did not change through colonization. Simply put: gender has been an essential topic of historical inquiry, but also an essential empirical understanding when it comes to Southeastern Native communities.

I believe that agency—the process by which one person chooses their destiny and has control of their situation—can be seen in how Native women in the Southeast persisted over time and overcame Eurocentric expectations on gender. In particular, Perdue’s work is instrumental in thinking about how Cherokee society (and many other Native communities) were matriarchal in organization and matrilineal in family lineage. This enriches the agency idea as Perdue talks about the entire collective identity and organization of Native communities that worked, but differed from Western culture and were deemed as inferior for those reasons. Native peoples demonstrated agency in standing up to that supposed inferiority and persisted through change.