In her now-venerable book, City of Women, first published in 1986, Christine Stansell writes about the emergence of an ebullient young workingwomen’s culture in 1840s New York. This young womanly culture was expressed most vibrantly in the figure of the Bowery Gal, she tells us (otherwise known as the Bowery g’hal). This Gal was easily distinguished by her in-your-face sartorial dash and brash ways, and by her tendency to hang out in the cheap theatres, dance halls and on the pavements of the Bowery after-hours. ‘George Foster, the would-be Dickens of the New York scene, noted how such young women emerged in a crowd at the end of the workday, streaming towards the east side’, Stansell writes, ‘”all forming a continuous procession which… loses itself gradually in the innumerable side-streets leading thence into the unknown regions of Proletaireism”‘.
In Cheap Amusements, another now-venerable work, Kathy Peiss looks at what happened next. Writing a kind of turn-of-the-century version of Sex and the City (but without all the fawning over designer labels, thank God), she explores young workingwomen’s visits to dance halls, nickleodeons and cheap vaudeville between 1880 and 1920. Young single working-women used these places of leisure to express themselves at the turn of the century, she says. They paved the way for the changes which would take place in American youth culture more generally in the 1920s and beyond. Some of the more audacious girls danced ‘tough dances’ in low halls, shimmying up against the bodies of their partners in a way that we would well recognise now. Some, too, became known as ‘charity girls’, so-called because they picked up men prepared to treat them to a good time in exchange for sex. And then there were the girls drawn to rides at Coney Island which sent their skirts flying or their bodies falling crazily across those of men nearby.
City of Women and Cheap Amusements are each fascinating studies of past women’s lives, full of fine-grained and evocative detail (such a relief after reading abstract analyses of gender discourse, with their endless genuflections to Joan Scott!). I’ve just read a perceptive critique of Stansell’s work in particular, however, which notes that her discussion of Bowery Gals is very unclear about how they related to New York workingwomen’s culture at large. When Stansell wrote about the girls with their mischievous gait and ostentatious hats on the Bowery, she was really talking about a particular sub-culture of young New York workingwomen, and she needed to be more explicit about this fact. Stansell was also unclear about how much the phenomenon she was describing was specific to New York. Was there an equivalent of the Bowery Gal in Chicago, for example, or Philadelphia – or, indeed, one might well ask, in Johannesburg, or Sydney, or Auckland?
From my research thus far into Australian larrikin girls, it seems that there certainly was an Antipodean equivalent to the Bowery Gal: if not in the 1840s, then certainly by the 1880-90s. Accounts of smart-mouthed ‘rough’ girls hanging out with ruffians, dressed in violently-coloured cheap finery, were part of the social concern voiced about larrikinism in Australian colonial cities at the end of the century. These women were very much a subculture unto themselves, however, and for this reason I am planning to start reading into the work on subcultures first developed by British cultural studies scholars in the 1970-80s: the work Stansell would have benefitted from reading when she wrote City of Women. So many titles scrawl across on the screen as soon as one starts searching for them, however: Beyond Subculture, After Subculture, The Graffiti Subculture, Inside Subculture, Subculture: The Meaning of Style and Resistance Through Rituals… Am feeling both a sense of exhaustion and of possibility just thinking about tackling the field.
Faye E Dudden, Review of Christine Stansell’s City of Women, American journal of Sociology, vol. 93, no. 4 (Jan 1988), pp.1010-1011.
Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (Temple University Press, 1987).
Christine Stansell, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860 (University of Illinois Press, 1986).