“Immoral America: The Struggle to Define Sexual Morality During the American Progressive Era”

Jacqueline Shelton ‘11
Hometown:
Maryville, Tenn.
Major: History
Advisor:
Dr. Aaron Astor


Thesis Abstract

Sometimes a good book is all it takes to spark an idea.

When Jacqueline Shelton finished the assigned reading in Dr. Aaron Astor’s 19th century history class during her sophomore year, it got her thinking.

The book, Karen Abbott’s Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul (New York: Random House, 2007), looks at prostitution and white slavery in turn-of-the-century Chicago.

“I started thinking about that and how interesting taboo topics are, especially in the 19th century, when there was this kind of cognitive dissonance going on in the Victorian Era with these really strict moral codes,” Shelton said. “But then there are people doing all of these temptation-type things that they probably shouldn’t have been doing, according to the moral code.”

The history major approached Astor with the idea as a topic for her Senior Study. Astor said he was “flabbergasted.”

“I was honored and thrilled that she had taken such ownership over this concept from this book,” Astor said. “I knew Jackie as a student in several classes, and I knew that if anybody could handle this topic, it was Jackie. It’s a complex topic, it’s a controversial topic, it’s a fascinating topic, and it was really going to take someone who was going to be passionate about it and someone who could really get the cultural nuances, the political nuances and even the literary nuances.”

During mid- to late-nineteenth century America, social and economic changes and the struggle with the changing definitions of family, motherhood, sexuality and ethnicity caused Americans to interpret the changes as the harbingers of the destruction of the “Yankee stock” and the creation of an immoral America, Shelton wrote in her thesis.

“The blame for this was placed squarely on ‘evil’ immigrants with their ‘barbaric’ ways, and Progressive reformers pledged to retain America’s morals through political force,” Shelton wrote.

In her Senior Study, Shelton analyzed “panic-stricken America” from three different “anxiety-inducing” aspects: the first chapter focuses on immigration and the mood of America during the 1890s immigration wave; chapter two looks at prostitution and the growing fear of “white slavery” in America; and the final chapter is about the debate surrounding birth control and immoral and obscene materials.

Ultimately, Shelton was motivated to understand why America panicked over the moral issues and why moral issues entered the political realm and remain there today.

Shelton said the most challenging aspect of her Senior Study was finding primary sources that addressed the topic. Many publications were banned because of the Comstock Act, which was enacted in 1873 and made it illegal to distribute any “obscene, lewd or lascivious” materials, including contraceptive devices and information. As a result, Shelton said finding sources from that time period was difficult.

“There were some doctors who published things at the time that they weren’t supposed to publish, but they did it anyway,” Shelton said. “There were also some letters and journals that were kept by people who were working with prostitutes.”

Another challenge – for both Shelton and Astor – was figuring out how to weave the different topics together and make them connect.

“The hard part is that there are so many fascinating subtopics in here: immigration, white slavery, the legal issue, the disease issue, prostitution, birth control, and the issue of gender and sexuality,” Astor said. “I myself didn’t know how to weave all of those together. I knew how parts of it worked but not how the whole thing came together. I was genuinely learning in this process.”

Through her research, Shelton found that the mixing of morals and politics that was present in the 19th century continues even today.

“I was trying to look at the connection between this question of race and immigration in America during the 19th century and the changing shape of the American culture at the time – and how that was affecting their views on vice,” Shelton said. “It was interesting to see how that really reflected on how we are today. There is a lot of similar rhetoric today, especially in immigration, when there is talk about immigrants being barbaric and bringing these ill morals into America, and there are conservative individuals who still discuss anti-abortion and anti-prostitution (issues) and support a really strict moral code.”

Astor said he recommended Shelton’s Senior Study for the library’s permanent collection because the 109-page paper was very well-written, well-researched and contained a very sophisticated analysis.

He said the paper has a level of sophistication that a master’s-level student is capable of producing, and he said the project is a “great rehearsal” for graduate school.

“This is the kind of thing that could easily have gone through master’s and even dissertation level to book level,” Astor said. “This is the germination of a much bigger project that could really make waves. That’s why I felt that it is something that not only was high-quality, but it was really pushing a very relevant topic in a very interesting way.”

Shelton said she plans to attend graduate school in the fall to pursue a master’s degree in history, and she hopes to eventually work for a museum, where she can work with historical artifacts.

While in graduate school, Shelton said she would like to continue similar research, studying the 19th century and the Progressive Era. She thinks her Senior Study has prepared her well.

“I think it’s really helped me understand how to research better, how to write well and how to stick with something once you start it,” she said.