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The Petticoat Inspectors: Women Boarding Inspectors and the Gendered Exercise of Federal Authority1

  • Jessica Pliley (a1)

In the early twentieth century, anti-white-slavery activists sought to construct a new position for women inspectors in the Immigration Bureau. These activists asserted that immigrant girls traveling without a family patriarch deserved the U.S. government's paternal protection, yet they argued that women would be best suited to provide this protection because of women's purported maternal abilities to perceive feminine distress. By wielding paternal government authority—marked by a badge, the ability to detain, and presumably the power to punish—these women could most effectively protect the nation's moral boundaries from immoral prostitutes while also protecting innocent immigrant girls from the dangers posed by solitary travel. In 1903 the Immigration Bureau launched an experiment of placing women among the boarding teams at the port of New York. The experiment, however, was short-lived, as opponents of the placement of women in such visible positions campaigned against them. This episode reminds us that the ability to represent and exercise federal authority in the early twentieth century was profoundly gendered; and women's increased participation in government positions during the Progressive Era was deeply contested.

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For their ongoing encouragement, I would like to thank Susan M. Hartmann, Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, Audra Jennings, and Michelle Wolfe. I also thank the two anonymous reviewers for the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Paula Baker , “The Domestication of Politics: Women and the American Political Society, 1720–1920,” American Historical Review 89 (June 1984): 620–47

Michael McGerr , “Political Style and Women's Power, 1830–1930,” Journal of American History 77 (Dec. 1990): 864–85

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Felicia A. Kornbluh , “The New Literature on Gender and the Welfare State: The U.S. Case,” Feminist Studies 22 (Spring 1996): 170–97

Judith R. Walkowitz , City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London (Chicago, 1992)

Paul Kramer , “The Darkness that Enters the Home: The Politics of Prostitution during the Philippine-American War” in Haunted by Empire: Geographies of Intimacy in North American History, ed. Ann Laura Stoler (Durham, 2006), 366404

Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham , “African-American Women and the The Metalanguage of Race,” Signs 17 (Winter1992): 251–74

Ruth Bloch , “Gendered Meanings of Virtue in Revolutionary America,” Signs 13 (Autumn 1987): 3758

Eileen Suárez Findlay , “Courtroom Tales of Sex and Honor: Rapto and Rape in Late-Nineteenth Century Puerto Rico” in Honor, Status, and Law in Modern Latin America, ed. Sueann Caulfield , Sarah C. Chambers , and Lara Putnam (Durham, 2005), 201–22

Evelyn Harrison , “The Working Woman: Barriers in Employment,” Public Administration Review 24 (June 1964): 7885

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The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era
  • ISSN: 1537-7814
  • EISSN: 1943-3557
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-the-gilded-age-and-progressive-era
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