CLARE A. LYONS. Sex Among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender and Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1730-1830. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. Pp. x, 432. $32.50. Paperback. ISBN: 978-0-8078-5675-8.

How does the historian of early America study something that was rarely meant to be recorded? The readings for this week address that question in the context of the entangled relationship between social power and sexual practice. Put another way, this week’s scholars have either taken specific early American societies—like Massachusetts, Philadelphia, North Carolina, or New Orleans—as their case studies, or they have surveyed sexual coercion across all the original thirteen colonies. Regardless, each of them have looked at the intersection of sex and power. Yet, as Jennifer M. Spear acknowledges in her contribution Race, Sex, and Social Order in Early New Orleans, that task has not been easy one. Indeed, Spear seems to speak for each of this week’s authors when she laments, “Writing about sex in early America is difficult.” Historians of sexuality have, to phrase it mildly, needed to get creative with their sources and methods. Notwithstanding these difficulties, studying sexuality has been a fruitful endeavor. Since, as Sharon Block writes, “sexual power was inextricable from social power,” studies of sexuality have revealed the extent to which unequal power dynamics are coded by practices characterized as either deviant or normative.[1]

The principle book under review this week is Clare A. Lyons Sex Among the Rabble. Lyons describes her work as a “study of sexuality” in Philadelphia, the “most diverse community of colonial British North America and the early national United States.” In this work, Lyons traces ideas of sex and gender in this city from approximately 1730 to 1830, a timeframe designed to shed light on a repressive transition from the colonial era to the early republic. In terms of structure, the work is divided into three parts that neatly survey the sexual culture of the city before, during, and after the founding of the nation. The first part establishes the contested and unstable “sexual terrain” of colonial and revolutionary Philadelphia; the second part carries that analysis through the “Age of Democratic Revolutions,” emphasizing how Enlightenment ideals threw into question pre-existing structures of power like coverture and slavery. The third part explores the reconstitution of societal power in the early nineteenth century, nothing short of an “Assault on Nonmarital Sexuality.”[2]

Speaking generally, Lyons’ Sex Among the Rabble argues that conceptions of sex and gender underwent “profound transformations” during the revolutionary and new national periods. The result was that Philadelphia, and presumably much of the United States, adopted a unique “gender-system” in the early decades of the nineteenth century that was the inverse of that of the eighteenth. As Lyons claims, understanding the creation of this new system is vital because it still exists today; it is, she writes, the “modern American sexual system.” Crucially, and like all other authors referenced in this week’s review, Lyons is focused on much more than just the study of sexuality for its own sake. Instead, she uses sexuality as a lens of analysis to explore the “reconstitution of social hierarchies” around ideas of gender, race, and class after the American Revolution.[3]

Like Spear, Lyons grapples with the “particular difficulties” that are associated with studying sexuality and sexual practice in early America. She encapsulates these obstacles in the following dilemma: “Few people wrote about their sexual experiences. Yet intimacy was nearly universal and often reflected the tenor of a relationship, whether affection, appreciation, and respect, or control and domination.” To overcome this central obstacle, Lyons joins techniques from social and cultural history, and consults a wide range of primary source materials, including “documentation of sexual behavior” and “popular print materials.” Whether measuring rates of self-divorce, formal divorce, or commitments for child support through records of bonds posted and advertisements printed in newspapers, or gauging shifting attitudes regarding sexual practice through surveys of popular literature—including jestbooks of cuck old jokes, crime stories, broadsides, lyrics, plays, poems, almanac ditties, calendars, works of popular fiction, and much more—the study of sexuality has compelled Lyons to take what Block describes as an “expansive approach.”[4]

Of all the works considered, perhaps no author demonstrates the need to take an “expansive approach” in the face of “particular difficulties” more than historian Wendy Warren. In her prize-winning article “The Cause of Her Grief,” Warren uses both her imagination and indirect source materials to speculate about the biography of an African enslaved woman “whose sole appearance in historical documentation occurs in one paragraph of a seventeenth-century colonial travelogue” written by a white man. Warren’s article is nothing short of a methodological exercise designed to test the boundaries of the historical discipline. She deliberately takes one of the briefest mentions she can find: that of the rape of “Mr Mavericks Negro woman” in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1638. She then contextualizes this short anecdote by reading it “against the grain” and scouring the public record for any extant supplemental materials. The driving conviction behind her project is that this black woman’s experiences have been intentionally silenced in multiple ways. She was silenced as a woman who was raped—indeed, even the chronicler could hardly record the violence that had occurred; his language merely implied it—and as an enslaved African whose biography was deemed not worthy of writing down. To Warren, these unequal conditions are what make the woman’s story worth uncovering. “This woman’s life deserves to be reconstructed,” says Warren, “because too many factors have conspired to make that reconstruction nearly impossible.”[5]

Warren’s article provides a context to Lyons’ claim about the tension between the universality of intimacy and the absence of sexual activity in the traditional source material. On the one hand, historians like Block have shown that sexual violence of the kind Warren interrogates was a common, if not universal, experience in Early America. They have also shown that such instances of sexual coercion ran deeper along fault lines of race and class. For this reason, Block writes that enslaved women were “especially vulnerable to attacks by their masters, who might think themselves able to rightfully claim sexual access to the women they owned.” However, on the other hand, when historians turn to their traditional source materials, they are faced with a dual absence. Not only are they faced with an extreme lack of recorded instances of sexual violence, but they are faced with “the [very] absence of [a] recorded categorization” for acknowledging such cases. As Block observes, the absence of a reliable structure for identifying acts of rape belied the claim that these crimes were heinous and upheld unequal systems of power. In this way, Block demonstrates that untold cases of sexual violence were lost to posterity because they were not conceptualized as unnaturally violent by those in power. Some of these instances can still be glimpsed. Others, like the rate by which enslaved men sexually assaulted their own daughters, went entirely unnoted.[6]

When faced with these “particular difficulties,” taking an “expansive approach” is a necessity. Regardless, what are the benefits of applying this approach to the study of sexuality and sexual practice? Citing an example will help us to contextualize those benefits. In her survey of about 900 instances of societal power and sexual violence in Early America, Block writes about the fact that the literary convention/archetype of the “convincing male witness to [an act of] rape” was “so rare in courtrooms.” In fact, in Early America, prevailing notions of modesty meant that women served as witnesses in rape cases more often than men, and they did so through such institutions as “matron juries.” Yet, strangely, rape publications featured the ubiquitous presence of “patriarchal figures.” In reconciling this discrepancy between actual legal procedures and stock characters of popular literature, Block concludes that the literature was not attempting to reflect a courtroom reality. Rather, it was engaged in the process of reconstructing gender roles by surmounting the perceived problem of a “woman’s credibility.” In this example, Block arrived at a conclusion about the social functions of popular literature only by comparing both social and cultural source materials.[7]

For Lyons, this combination of social and cultural sources and methods is vital to her study. Such a combination not only serves to overcome the absence of sexual practice in more traditional documentation, but it also “illuminates the interplay between sexual behavior and the cultural construction of early American understandings of sexuality and how print culture participated in the contents over power, authority, and sex in the City of Brotherly Love.” By the 1760s, Philadelphians created a bawdy, brazen, and boisterous culture of sexual pleasure that was “nonmarital.” Evidence for this sexual terrain comes from social and cultural history sources. The former includes bastardy and desertion cases that reveal the high rate of children born out of wedlock. The latter includes highly eroticized images and stories that appeared in an expanding print culture. Almanac stories like the “Maids of Philadelphia’s Petition” featured anecdotes of sexually-active, lusty widows called “jades” who used their experience to teach naïve, young single men about sex. And this is only one example of the diverse kinds of “humorous sex play” that appeared frequently in social and cultural sources of the 1760s. Other examples range from prostitution to elopement.[8]

To Lyons, the pre-Revolutionary era represents something of a Golden Age for sexual culture. This is one area where the intersection of power and sexual practice becomes apparent. Participating in a bawdy, contested, erotic, and boisterous sexual culture signified that women had a greater ability to navigate legal structures and restrain the abuses of men, especially, but not limited to, their husbands. Lyons observes that sources like newspaper ads detailing elopements or appeals to relief bodies like Overseers of the Poor were, in fact, records of power exchanges between men and women in colonial and revolutionary society. These sources show not only that “many women took the initiative to leave their marriages” but that other “wives took a more active and open role in defining acceptable and unacceptable marital situations and husbands’ conduct.” Like the examples featured in the preceding paragraph, these news ads were one source among many Lyons uses to show that “notions of gender” were a “fluid continuum” in mid-century Philadelphia. [9]

In Wendy Warren’s article, and in many of the cases featured in Block’s monograph, power and sexual violence take the form of a one-on-one encounter. However, Lyons reminds her readers that sexual power acts upon society writ large in the form of gender roles. Here we must ask, “What happened to sexuality after the American Revolution, per Lyons?” Initially, Philadelphian society became characterized by a rise of flexible possibilities; however, by the year 1810, these options were closing off as a series of new laws ushered in a “rigid morality and punitive sexual discipline.” During this period, the social and cultural sources reveal that a two-tiered social system was forming, one with ascribed stereotypical roles for both men and women. In the first social group, women were supposed to act “virtuously” and have a sexuality confined within the boundaries of marriage, while men were labeled as virile beings who exercised their intelligence through reason. Described differently, the first tier of this society was the marriage unit with discrete public and private roles for the male and the female. The second tier was a catchall for those who still engaged in the bawdy behaviors of the pre-Revolutionary period. These behaviors were now recast as deviant, and their practitioners became lumped into the “lusty, uncontrollable sexuality of the rabble.”[10]

Just as popular rape publications did not directly narrate courtroom realities, the transition explained in the above paragraph was not a direct reflection of a change in sexual practices. Rather, it was a complete rearranging of power structures, one that fundamentally justified women’s subordination to men. As Thomas Foster wrote in his study of masculinity in eighteenth-century Massachusetts, these characterizations of “deviant figures” served “primarily to underscore normative desires and behaviors, defining normative male sexuality by contrast.” For Lyons, the early-eighteenth century changes served similar functions. New print and performance media combined with reforms—like the Poor Laws—and increased policing of behaviors now considered improper, like prostitution. These sources show a post-Revolutionary culture engaged in reassigning licentiousness to racial minorities and the poor; shifting the responsibility of sexual behavior from men who should be ashamed to women who should exercise restraint; and casting women in the guise of the what Lyons has called “inert female sexuality.” Moreover, as this sex stereotype was embraced by many middle-class women, it became a means of reinforcing class and race privilege.[11]

In leveling critiques against Lyons and some of the other scholars mentioned here, historians are likely to debate the precise moment of change. For instance, critics will question the centrality of the post-Revolutionary generation in reconstituting gender roles to the detriment of lower class and minority women. They will suggest, instead, that such a transition in fact happened earlier or later. And, as with other cultural histories, especially Foster’s which relies mainly on newspaper archives, critics will struggle with a lingering issue of causality. To what degree are popular sources creating these changes in gender or merely observing them? It is enough for historians to prove that these changes occurred, or must they convince their readers exactly where the agency lies? But putting these kinds of broad and categorical critiques aside, there are two bases on which the authors reviewed here should be praised. The first is the way in which they have reminded us of those “particular difficulties” associated with studying sexuality in Early America; and the second is their observation that the alliance between power and sexual practice runs deep in American society, leaving its prints at all scenes. Whether glimpsed through a poem that lambasts freemasons by implicating them with sodomy, or a magazine story that reduces the sexual spectrum to the false counter poles of faithful marriage and prostitution, the basic idea remains the same. Far from being something natural, gender is a social “system used to organize and regulate power.”[12]


[1] Jennifer M. Spear, Race, Sex, and Social Order in Early New Orleans (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2009), 315; Sharon Block, Rape and Sexual Power in Early America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 241.

[2] Clare A. Lyons, Sex Among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender and Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1730-1830 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), table of contents, 309, 366.

[3] Lyons, Sex Among the Rabble, 1, 3-4, 6.

[4] Ibid. 7-8; Block, Rape and Sexual Power in Early America, 9.

[5] Wendy Anne Warren, “The Cause of Her Grief”: The Rape of a Slave in Early New England,” The Journal of American History Vol. 93, No. 4 (March, 2007): 1031, 1033.

[6] Block, Rape and Sexual Power in Early America, 65, 78, 84.

[7] Ibid. 8, 237, 249, 274.

[8] Lyons, Sex Among the Rabble, 8-9, 117, 121, 159.

[9] Ibid. 21, 393.

[10] Ibid. 310, 391.

[11] Thomas Foster, Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Man: Massachusetts and the History of Sexuality in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006), 175; Lyons, Sex Among the Rabble, 3, 289.

[12] Foster, Sex and the Eighteenth-Century Man, 96; Lyons, Sex Among the Rabble, 3, 312.