Unquestioningly, people assume that intimate relationships among the sexes in Revolutionary America were what we commonly refer to today as puritanical. Well that might have been the reality at one time in early colonial Massachusetts but it was a far cry in the late 18th century America. Clare Lyons in her book, “Sex among the Rabble” debunks this misconception with detailed and quantitative analyses of gender relationships in Revolutionary Philadelphia. She portrays a society more in tune with the 1960’s than the repressed and constraining images associated with the Puritans.
Lyons tracks intercourse outside of marriage through court, birth, church, newspaper and charity records. Her book is chocked full of data, charts and appendicies which support her conclusions. One of her most interesting informations sources is records from the Overseers (Guardians) of the Poor. This charity group provided support to needy mothers including ensuring marital and child support as well as providing shelter, food and supplies. Like the government today, the Overseers enforced the responsibility of fathers to support children born out of wedlock.
In additional to casual, consensual intercourse, a flourishing sex trade existed in Philadelphia. One of Lyon’s most interesting analyses are maps of the bawdy houses during various times during this hundred year period. Commonly and openly accepted, one could find a place of prostitution on almost every street corner.
Another interesting facet of gender relations is the concept of self divorce. A man or a woman wanting to divorce simply took out an advertisement in a newspaper to announce the divorce. Practically, it made complete sense to let the public know that one party would not be responsible for the debts of the other. For example a sailor took out a divorce advertisement so not to be thrown in debtors prison upon returning from a voyage based upon debts runup by a former spouse. Women also placed ads to protect themselves from prolificate, estranged men.
After the Revolution , Lyons describes a society in which bastardy comes under increasing attack and prostitution becomes less accepted. She also presages race relations issues as intercourse beteeen blacks and whites becomes socially less acceptable in the early 19th Century.
Readers come away from Lyon’s book with a sense that 18th century Philadelphians faced many of the same marriage, gender and sexual issues which exist in today’s society. I guess that this should not be all that surprising as we are all human with the same nature and feelings.
Lyons, Clare A., Sex among the Rabble, An Intimate History of Gender & Power on the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1730-1830 (Chapel Hill, NC., North Carolina Press, 2006).
Well done article.