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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #103c Sears 2015 - Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco (Ch 2)

Full citation: 

Sears, Clare. 2015. Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco. Durham: Duke University Press. ISBN 978-0-8223-5758-2

Publication summary: 

A study of the intersections of gender and race.

Chapter 2: Against Good Morals

There is a horrified fascination in being reminded of themes in U.S. social politics that have remained stable across the last couple of centuries (and more): the demonization and erasure of non-white populations, the boundaries of acceptable behavior that shift and morph according to the convenience and desires of men in power, the ways in which women are pressured into stratified identity-categories and then pitted against each other in support of those male political goals, "think of the [women and] children!", and the focus on appearances and the "out of sight, out of mind" spatial segregation of "problem bodies".

Sears' book stabs straight at the heart of any romanticized image of the Old West as a lassaiz-faire hotbed of individualism. Yes, there are many fascinating and inspiring individual stories to be found here, but also a clear and unblinking picture of the forces that kept them "individual" rather than reflecting societal openness.

* * *

In 1857, a woman arrested for cross-dressing successfully challenged the charge on the basis that there was no law against what she had done. Six years later, that legal absence was altered. The anti-cross-dressing law was the result of three stages of logic: that cross-dressing, prostitution, and a variety of other activities constituted indecency; that indecency was a social problem that needed to be addressed; and that local laws were an appropriate solution to that problem.

The 1863 law against a person appearing in a public place “in a dress not belonging to his or her sex” is only one of the indecent behaviors being attacked, also including nudity, indecent dress, and lewd play. The connection with prostitution was direct (although certainly not the only context for cross-dressing) as prostitutes used male dress as a signifier of their trade, alongside more traditional markers such as overly sumptuous dress. Many of the institutions and behaviors targeted under the “decency laws” had been openly condoned during Gold Rush times, such as prostitution (though only condoned when the prostitutes were white).

Behaviors with sexual implications were not the only ones under attack under these new laws. There was a wide range of “public nuisance” issues, including intoxication, profanity, gambling, opium, women’s presence in bars after dark, even inappropriate bathing attire. (The laws would expand to include other offences to the enjoyment of public space, such as the presence of crippled or disfigured persons and non-white persons in general.)

Initially, the increasing presence of (white) women in San Francisco was celebrated as supporting the re-construction of “appropriately” gendered hetero-normative society (in contrast to all-male society), regardless of the respectability of the women involved. White female prostitutes went a long ways toward allowing for more traditional modes of performing masculinity. But this construction of normativity required adjustment and definition of categories, particularly as the normative model for femininity shifted to the "lady", with its associations of respectability and domesticity. Non-white women were increasingly framed as prostitutes (i.e., not "ladies") regardless of whether the specific individuals were, in fact, sex workers. And non-white prostitutes were the first targets for indecency charges. Arrest records for prostitution were wildly skewed towards non-white women in contradiction to the actual balance within the occupation.

With the end of the initial Gold Rush, the men who stayed in San Francisco began bringing their families out west (or sent east for brides to begin a family). By 1860 women had increased to 39% of the population and “respectable” middle-class women were beginning to outnumber other groups. These women were seen as a civilizing influence and the white middle-class family was framed as an ideal to promote, preserve, and elevate, and thus to normalize. This new ideal offered a different set of opportunities for socialization between and among the sexes and new models for how to perform masculinity. In order to elevate the image of “ladies”, the category of “lady” must be purged of transgressors. At the same time that social categories were undergoing reorganization and stratification, a spatial reorganization occurred along class and economic lines, with wealthier families who had better transportation options moving away from the city center (yet still utilizing that center for civic and social purposes). This spatial segregation framed public nuisances as a problem of “visibility”--of bodies that were problematic because, and only as long as, they were present in public space. Thus the nuisance laws generally only targeted problem behaviors (or problem bodies) when observable and not on an existential basis.

While the timing of the rise of nuisance/decency laws was spurred by demographic changes, it also coincided with specific political triggers. The transfer of California from Mexican to U.S. control left something of a political void. The governmental systems that carried over from Mexican control aligned Catholic and Democratic and were dominated by men closely tied to social institutions and figures from the gold era. They were challenged by vigilante organizations (in the original technical sense of “citizens’ groups”) that aligned Protestant and anti-Democratic and were deeply suspicious of the influence of money from what they considered corrupt institutions. In 1856, the Vigilence Committee seized control of San Francisco government in what could only be considered a coup. In this context, the desires and goals of “the ladies” (i.e., “respectable” women) were used as a rallying flag against the old guard of wealthy madams and their friends in government. The political struggle was framed as a culture war in which single men--even when white and otherwise respectable--were considered suspect.

Time period: 

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