The best books about power, gender politics, and gender stereotypes in America

Marian E. Lindberg Author Of Scandal on Plum Island: A Commander Becomes the Accused
By Marian E. Lindberg

Who am I?

Based on my experiences as a single parent and worker in traditionally male fields (journalism and law, back when newsrooms and law firms resembled men's clubs), I believe that each person contains both “feminine” and “masculine” behaviors and feelings. Yet socially constructed gender norms discourage people from exhibiting this full range of being. Ben Koehler’s troubling and tragic story presented a way to explore the origins of 20th-century American gender norms while trying to solve the mystery of Ben’s guilt or innocence. A bonus was the opportunity to write about Plum Island, an environmental treasure with a fascinating history that many people, including myself, are seeking to preserve and open to the public.

I wrote...

Scandal on Plum Island: A Commander Becomes the Accused

By Marian E. Lindberg,

Book cover of Scandal on Plum Island: A Commander Becomes the Accused

What is my book about?

Sophia and Ben Koehler expected an adventure when they moved to remote Plum Island, NY, but not the adventure they got. Ben took charge of 700 men at the Army’s Fort Terry, and his sister came along to help her unmarried brother with social duties. All seemed to be going well until a junior officer began portraying Ben as a “homosexualist,” a new worry of the federal government in 1913. Scandal on Plum Island is both a true account of a sensational case that reads like a legal thriller and a thought-provoking examination of gender politics in America.

The books I picked & why

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Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny

By Kate Manne,

Book cover of Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny

Why this book?

This is not angry feminism, though philosopher Kate Manne’s compelling prose may move you to anger. With surgical precision, Manne cuts through the layers of patriarchy, showing how vilification, mockery, and shaming of women function as “law enforcement” measures in a sexist system. A woman seeking “masculine-coded perks and privileges” may even deserve to be punished according to the “logic” of misogyny. I was fascinated by Manne’s explanations of why so many women voted against Hilary Clinton in 2016. Her analysis applies to racial and LGBTQ+ discrimination as well. When I was researching my book, Manne’s book helped me understand how a white male Army commander lost his “power” to be believed after other men accused him of being gay, i.e., unmanly and womanly (in the world of 1913).

Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars

By Kristin L. Hoganson,

Book cover of Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars

Why this book?

This look at the Spanish-American War is a far cry from the way Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders were glorified in my grade school education. Historian Kristin Hoganson demonstrates that gender politics was a driving force pushing the U.S. into war with Spain in 1898. Whereas elder statesmen believed that “restraint and sober judgment” were the essence of manhood, they lost out to hawkish leaders such as Roosevelt, who claimed that American men had grown too weak for their own and the nation’s good and needed a war to regain their strength. The quick trouncing of Spain in Cuba and the Philippines “did all its backers hoped it would do,” writes Hoganson, allowing American men to claim they were the best fighters in the world. Toxic masculinity took center stage.

Brutes in Suits: Male Sensibility in America, 1890-1920

By John Pettegrew,

Book cover of Brutes in Suits: Male Sensibility in America, 1890-1920

Why this book?

Pettegrew, a historian, also portrays Roosevelt as brute-in-chief at the turn of the 20th century, but he zooms out and describes other social forces in the United States that contributed to the emergence of the militaristic definition of manhood. These include the mythologizing of the Civil War as a noble display of male honor, divorcing the war from its roots in slavery and mistreatment of Blacks. He shows how the advocates for stronger men—and dependent women—“self-consciously used Darwinian biology to classify brutishness as an essential and natural male trait.” The book provides a fascinating and comprehensive look at the complicated ways in which gender stereotypes have been created and perpetuated in America.

The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America

By Margot Canaday,

Book cover of The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America

Why this book?

Men, did you know that too little body hair or too much talkativeness could keep you from being admitted to the United States in the early 1900s? The Straight State will have readers shaking their heads at the outrageous presumptions that immigration inspectors applied to keep “degenerates” out of the country. This was the first time that federal officials had both the interest and power to create policies against homosexuality, and they were crassly influenced by the eugenics movement and hostility to the poor. Canaday also shows how early welfare policies perpetuated gender stereotypes and discrimination against sexual “deviants,” favoring the married over the single. I learned so much! 

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