My dissertation takes the child as its focus to understand both liberation politics and social conservative movements in the postwar United States. I reveal that, even as leftist social movements viewed children as possessing "sexuality" and argued for the liberation of children's sexual expression, they simultaneously invoked the child as a vulnerable figure who must be protected from sexual abuse and violence in a dangerous postwar culture. Ultimately, the protectionist rhetoric about children's sexuality proved more powerful and influential than the libratory rhetoric, in large part because it shared features with the burgeoning rhetoric of the religious right, who found political power in a broad call to "save the children." My analysis of these competing rhetorical frameworks reveals the ways in which the child came to structure late-20th-century political discourse by marking the limits of liberation. Using children's sexuality as a point of entry into postwar political activism, my dissertation sheds light on the evolution of political identities. Ultimately, my work highlights the shrinking of progressive political possibilities and the emergence of a consolidated conservative political discourse.
This dissertation argues that 1970s social movement groups' attention to and use of the figure of the child, particularly children's sexuality, was central to their efforts to advance libratory frameworks. I trace the ways that three Boston groups--the Boston Women's Health Collective, the Elizabeth Stone House, and the North American Man/Boy Love Association--organized around issues of children's sexuality. Each adopted seemingly altruistic child-focused agendas that were used to benefit the groups' adult members. In advancing these agendas, group members participated in the creation of a symbolic child-victim whose invocation would become a means of foreclosing political debate and establishing a cultural consensus of protection in the 1980s. In the end, the figure of the child that was so central to libratory movements of the 1970s was the very thing that limited their vocabularies and contained their agendas by the 1980s. Rather than focusing on a single movement, this project demonstrates that the child repeatedly emerged as a political tool in leftist activism and argues that this figure shaped the boundaries of liberation and the content of radicalism.
University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. August 2010. Major: History. Advisors: Regina Kunzel and Kevin P. Murphy. 1 computer file (PDF); v, 183 pages.
Patters, N’Jai-An Elizabeth.
Deviants and dissidents: children's sexuality and the limits of liberation..
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