Disorderly Conduct: Women’s Health and Women’s Rights (1883-1930)


  • Katherine deClaire University of Florida




conduct literature, feminism, gender roles, women’s suffrage, labor rights, Margaret Dreier Robins, National Women’s Trade Union League, eugenics


The Victorian Era (1837-1901) is stereotypically characterized by propriety and sexual repression. Yet, during this time conduct literature for girls containing information on sex education as well as care for one’s body was widely circulated and read in response to fears over the spread of promiscuity, STDs, and prostitution. The authors of this literature exhibit acknowledgement of the need for women’s education on sexual hygiene rather than previously-enforced ignorance, and they also defined aspects of femininity and motherhood in tandem with sexuality in an effort to guide girls on “proper” womanhood. These books reinforced and shaped thought on gender roles which appear to have had persisting influence on the movements for female suffrage and labor rights that continued into the twentieth century. I investigate this issue using two conduct books as well as material from the collection of labor activist Margaret Dreier Robins (1868-1945). This investigation exposed many common values between the former medium and Robins’s reform efforts as head of the National Women’s Trade Union League, such as the importance of a gender-defined society, the centrality of collectivism and motherhood to the definition of femininity, as well as the harmful endorsement of eugenics in the production of healthy and democratic future generations. By comparing this literature, this paper begins to gather evidence on how the messaging of this conduct literature internalized in childhood could have shaped the direction of the progressive women’s movement.


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