Religion, Culture and Radical Politics in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

Endorsed by the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE)

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Gender and Sexuality; Gilded Age & Progressive Era; Religion


What is the relationship between cultural and political change? What role does religion, gender, and culture play in shaping and defining our pathways to democracy? While often portrayed as an era of “nadir,” “sexual anarchy,” “environmental catastrophe” and, ultimately, “no place of grace,” the Gilded Age and Progressive Era also witnessed a longing for alternatives: an occult revival that took the nation by storm; the “first sexual revolution,” in the words of one scholar; and massive anti-imperial, women’s rights, socialist, and anarchist movements. This panel argues that these movements for cultural, political and religious liberation were inextricably intertwined, and had important implications for the expression and aspirations of democracy in the twentieth century. Although these movements once galvanized tens of thousands of people across the United States into rethinking the boundaries of democratic politics, they have been largely left out of scholarship on the era. Only a handful of works have discussed the movements these three papers address, and most of them have dismissed their political effectiveness. Yet, as our papers will show, cultural radicalism, queer religion, and sexual radicalism had distinct impacts on and offered compelling alternatives to the pathways that U.S. democracy ultimately took. In exploring the relationship between cultural radicalism and political change, our panel will travel from thousands of everyday people writing to the Indian poet Ranbindranath Tagore, longing for acceptance of their “queer” sexuality, to the turn of the century anarchist movement’s far reaching sexual politics conveyed in their utopian fiction, and then to a largely forgotten sexual practice and theology that would shape a variety of leftist movements for years to come. These movements, from the anarchists in Koenig’s paper to the Tagore-acolytes in Kern’s and the sex radicals in Joslyn’s paper, were both “queer” and utopian, breaking many of the sexual and interpersonal categories customary of their time, while envisioning new personal, religious, and political identities and coalitions. These movements, moreover, speak to the manifold divergent pathways that have existed throughout American history, paths that many have sought to trod to realize their vision of democracy. Questions that our panel raise include: What is the role of poetry and fiction in social movements? How do individuals and cultural radicalism shape democratic politics? What is the place of gender, sexual ideals, and sexual practice in changing the nature of society? What are the limits on the rights of the body politic, and who gets to claim these rights? What is the relationship between natural rights philosophies and radical democratic politics?

Papers Presented

Karezza: God, Sex and Socialism, 1896–1920

Between the years of 1896 and around 1920, the sexual practice of Karezza became explosively popular within a transnational middle-class leftist world of socialists and “New Woman.” Emanating out of a book by the same name by the Chicago women’s rights reformer and sexologist Alice Bunker Stockham, Karezza appeared in almost every socialist journal, was advocated by the anglophone world’s leading women’s rights leaders, anarchists and socialists, and was touted as both a form of contraception as well as a theology. Karezza, in essence, required men and women to withold their orgasm during sex. Underlying this practice were a series of theological assertions about the spiritual equality of men and women, the ability for people to cultivate their “creative forces” through ecstatic sexual communion with God, and the need to radically reform sexual and material relations on earth. Filling both a spiritual and a practical void in leftist thought, the booklet gave such figures as the American birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger, the pioneering British socialist sexologist Havelock Ellis, the British socialist gay- and womens-rights advocate Edward Carpenter, the American anarchist advocate for “bisexuality” John William Lloyd, and the British New Woman Marie Charmichael Stopes and thousands of others a contraceptive practice and a language through which to see sex as a potentially spiritual and reformable practice. My paper will provide an overview of Karezza’s background, brief heyday in leftist politics, and eclipse as readers abandoned the practice and integrated its theology into their own teachings.

Presented By
Daniel Joslyn, New York University

Anarchism Envisioned: The Gender Politics of American Anarchist Utopias

In the minds of many Americans, anarchism remains a philosophy associated with destruction and violence. The image of the anarchist is equally as identifiable: a foreign man with shaggy hair, a beard, a crazed look in his eyes, and a bomb in his hands. There are a few points worth stressing about this image: it suggests destruction rather than construction; it frames anarchist radicalism as un-American; and it portrays the movement as decidedly male. This paper examines American anarchists’ own visions of their ideal, as reflected in the utopian novels they produced at the end of the nineteenth centuryworks that until now have been virtually ignored by historians and literary critics. What this fiction reveals is extraordinary. Through fantastic stories involving extraterrestrials, messiahs, and mothers, anarchists suggested a very different image of anarchism: one that was not only imaginative but constructive; one that articulated a regeneration of society in an American voice; and one that emphasized a sexual revolution based upon feminine roles and relationships in the realization of an anarchist society. This paper raises several issues, including the political implications of the literary form, radical visions of modernity, and the politicization of gender and sexuality. In fiction, radicals both engaged in and subverted dominant modes of discourse. American anarchists reimagined sexual roles and relationships in their utopian novels, and demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of the issues intertwined in the politics of gender: sexuality, social institutions, and the possibilities and responsibilities of freedom.

Presented By
Brigitte A. Koenig, Seton Hall University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Jackson Lears, Rutgers University–New Brunswick
Jackson Lears was educated at the University of Virginia, the University of North Carolina, and at Yale University, where he received the Ph.D. in American Studies in 1979. He has taught at Yale, the University of Missouri, and New York University. He is now Board of Governors Professor of History at Rutgers University and Editor in Chief of Raritan: a Quarterly Review. He is the author of No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920, which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1981 and Fables of Abundance: a Cultural History of Advertising in America, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Award for History in 1995. He has written on cultural hegemony in the American Historical Review, on modern art and advertising in American Quarterly, on memory and power in the Journal of American History, and on a variety of topics in cultural history in other scholarly journals. He has also co-edited two collections of essays, The Culture of Consumption and The Power of Culture. His Something for Nothing: Luck in America, was published by Viking Penguin in 2003 and—most recently-- his Rebirth of a Nation, the Making of Modern America, 1877-1920 was published by Harper Collins in June 2009. Lears has held fellowships from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Winterthur Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Shelby Cullom Davis Center at Princeton University. In 2003 he received the Public Humanities Award (for “making ideas current”) from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities. He has been a regular contributor to The New Republic, The Nation, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, among other publications. In April 2009 he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is currently completing a work on “Animal Spirits” in American history.

Presenter: Daniel Joslyn, New York University
Daniel Joslyn is a PhD candidate at New York University in U.S. History. His dissertation reconstructs a transnational network of mystical socialists at the turn of the twentieth century. Spanning from New York City to Sheffield to Berlin, these socialists developed an anarcho-socialist politics of everyday life, leading them to publishing widely popular poetry, popularizing alternative sexual practices, founding the Kindergarten movement, and opposing imperialism around the world. His work sits on the intersection between religious studies and the histories of culture, gender and politics. His writings on religion, popular culture and leftist politics have appeared in magazines including The Revealer, Religion and Politics, The Christian Century, and he is a regular contributor with Religion Dispatches. His work has been supported by fellowships from the Labadie Center at the University of Michigan, The Wisconsin Historical Society, Southern Illinois University, and the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia.

Presenter: Brigitte A. Koenig, Seton Hall University
Brigitte Koenig is a historian of American history. After completing her undergraduate studies at Occidental College, she earned her M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley, where she worked with Professor Lawrence W. Levine. Koenig served as an Assistant and then Associate Professor of History at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, where she also directed the Elizabeth Ann Seton Center for Women’s and Gender Studies. She continues to work for Seton Hall University as an instructor of U.S. history courses. Koenig’s research focuses on the cultural politics of the American anarchist movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She has presented her work at numerous conferences nationally and internationally. Selected publications include her scholarship in Labor History, Anarchism and Utopianism, and The Encyclopedia of the American Left. Koenig’s forthcoming monograph on American anarchism is under contract with Oxford University Press.