Arts & Culture

Self discusses gender, feminism, privacy

4 min read

Privacy viewed from the vantage of cultural history

Brown University cultural historian Robert O. Self — a Radcliffe Fellow this year — made a name for himself with his book “American Babylon” (Princeton University Press, 2003). He was the first scholar to connect the civil rights struggle with postwar white flight to the suburbs, and the tax incentives that made suburbanization possible.

These days, Self has sex — or at least gender — on his mind. During his Radcliffe year, he’s been writing a new book on the politics of gender and sexuality during one period of wild tumult in American history.

He outlined some of his research last week (April 2) in a Radcliffe Fellows presentation at 34 Concord Ave., giving an audience of 50 a preliminary look at “A New Political Order: Gender and Sexuality from Watts to Reagan.”

The Watts riots of 1965 are on one side of Self’s churning era of cultural change. Around the same time came the controversial Moynihan Report (a lament over the deterioration of the black family structure), the first gay rights march, and — from 1967 on — an emerging second-wave feminist movement.

Privacy was at issue then too. A 1965 Supreme Court decision, Griswold v. Connecticut, struck down a state law prohibiting the use of contraceptives. It was the first time the court argued that the Constitution protected privacy.

At the other end of the critical decades in Self’s book was the Reagan era of the 1980s, and the ascendancy of the “moral majority.”

The period 1965 to 1986 was a time of quickening cultural struggle over a variety of liberation movements, said Self — for women, gays, and people of color. It was also a time when conservative backlash cracked back in anger.

One landmark along the way, he said, was the 1976 Hyde Amendment, which barred public funding for abortion — a salvo that echoes today in an ongoing battle over reproductive rights.

Signaling the period’s rise of the right wing, said Self, was Bowers v. Hardwick, a 1986 Supreme Court decision that upheld a Georgia statute criminalizing oral and anal sex between consenting adults, even in private. (The decision was overturned 17 years later, in Lawrence v. Texas.) Hardwick, said Self, ended a period of reform in sexuality law that had begun in 1955.

Privacy is something only fully parsed in legal journals, said Self. But his new book will look at privacy — “a new constitutional basis for citizenship in the United States” — from the vantage point of cultural history.

Beginning in the 19th century, even the putatively private sphere of the family was subject to “constant, aggressive scrutiny and surveillance” by legal authorities, argued Self. “The private sphere was always constructed through and constrained by the public sphere.”

Privacy figured in the debates over reproductive rights, set in motion in part by feminists, who embraced the idea that “women’s bodies are private spaces,” said Self.

But most feminists also acknowledged that sex has consequences that belong in the public sphere, including pregnancy, childbirth, and child rearing. “Women’s bodies,” he said, “are both individual and social at the same time.”

But for feminists, the issue of privacy — in the courts and in Congress, at least — “boomeranged,” becoming the main argument against federally subsidized child care. (A 1971 child care bill was vetoed by Nixon, who feared a state-sponsored invasion of the domestic sphere.)

Explicit privacy rights also failed to emerge from the welfare rights struggle of the 1960s and 1970s, said Self. A woman on welfare remained subject to governmental inspections — and through the 1980s was even vulnerable to “state coercion, including coercive birth control and sterilization,” he said.

Emerging gay and lesbian rights movements also got mixed results of “opportunity and dilemma in the privacy argument,” said Self. Starting in the 1960s, private sexual behaviors were increasingly not prosecuted. But “privacy laws would not stop police harassment, mass arrests, and the closing of bars,” said Self — much less arrests of homosexuals for certain behaviors in public, like kissing.

Then there were gender and racial divides among homosexuals. Lesbians were less concerned with invasions of privacy in the form of police harassment, said Self, quoting one lesbian activist, and more concerned with equal rights in “job security, career development, and family relationships.”

The “rights-bearing homosexual citizen” envisioned by some homophile groups during the Vietnam era was a construct largely for white males, said Self — and left out “the range of forces and disadvantages” that confronted both lesbians and homosexuals of color.

For white women and white gay men, he said, “privacy could be a route to a certain kind of equality [because they] already possessed the resources to enjoy that privacy.”

Today, he said, conservative forces continue to mobilize against perceived threats to the nation, like gay rights and feminism. Creating fear and concern around these issues, Self contended, “is their chief political rhetoric.”