Posted in gender studies, imperialism, material culture, photographs, racism, reformers

Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U. S. Imperialism

Wexler, Laura. Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U.S. Imperialism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Laura Wexler, author of Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U. S. Imperialism, is a professor of Women’s Gender & Sexuality Studies and American Studies at Yale University.  In this book, Wexler “reads whiteness” through her analysis of the photographic work of six American “New Women” photographers: Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952), Gertrude Kasebier (1852-1934), Alice Austen (1866-1952), Emme (1872-1946) and Mamie Gerhard (1876-1955), and Jessie Tarbox Beals (1870-1942).[1]  Specifically, Wexler focuses on Johnston’s photographs of sailors aboard Admiral George Dewey’s Olympia during the Spanish-American War and her work at Virginia’s Hampton Institute. Wexler juxtaposes Kasebier’s images of upper-class white motherhood against costumed Native Americans. In addition, she looks at Austen’s groundbreaking portfolio “Street Types of New York” from 1896 and Beals’ photojournalism at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.

Wexler explores how the photographic work of these women contributed to America’s ongoing racial and gender inequality while the country pursued its imperial interests.  The book’s title was inspired by Samuel Chapman Armstrong, a Union general who founded the Hampton Institute, whose phrase reflected the “chief ideological achievements of antebellum domestic culture,” which he used to describe how to educate ex-slaves and Native Americans.[2]  Wexler asserts that the seemingly neutral eye of the camera acted as a deceiving lens in these women’s capable hands as they used “the innocent eye” of white domestic sentiment to translate the brutality and hostility of war into peaceful images.[3]  Images of war captured by these white middle-class women acted to reinforce exiting racism and classism.

Through these photographs, Wexler reveals the interconnectedness of the imperial nation and the domestic sphere that conceals its own construction. Wexler explains,

It is not only what the women portrayed, therefore, but how they traded on their gender privilege not to portray that gave–and still gives–their photography its particular evidentiary value. In their work we can see that the constitutive sentimental functions of the innocent eye masked and distorted what otherwise must have been more apparent: hatred, fear, collusion resistance and mimicry on the part of the subaltern; compulsion, presumption, confusion, brutality and soul murder on the part of the colonial agent.[4]

Wexler’s cultural and theoretical influences, such as Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, Alan Trachtenberg, are signposted throughout the book.  Her primary resources included photographs and manuscripts, while her secondary resources included books and articles that focused on philosophy, photography, social science, racism, and gender inequality. male counterparts or even other women photographers of their day.

[1] Laura Wexler, Tender Violence: Domestic Visions in an Age of U.S. Imperialism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 6-7.

[2] Ibid., 52-53.  The Hampton University’s website states, “Brigadier General Samuel Armstrong was appointed in 1866 to Superintendent of the Freedmen’s Bureau of the Ninth District of Virginia.”

[3] Ibid., 6.

[4] Ibid., 7.

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