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Maxwell School
Maxwell / Department of History
Isenberg, Elissa M.

Elissa M.  Isenberg  ABD  

Field of Study

Modern American History

Advisor

Andrew W. Cohen

Dissertation Title

“A Deadly Menace to All Young Womankind”: Seduction and Protective Legislation in America, 1850-1923

Dissertation Description

My dissertation looks at sexual harassment before it was an actionable offense.  Although female domestic servants have endured unwanted sexual attention for most of American history, the entry of women into wage labor in factories and offices during the late nineteenth century dramatically increased the number of girls and women that were subjected to what we today call harassment.  Careful examination of American newspaper archives, court briefs, and various activists’ personal papers have uncovered cases of unsolicited sexual advances toward women, and have demonstrated that sexual harassment was considered a serious issue of the time long before it became legally recognized in the 1970s.  I contend that awareness of this problem helped provoke special protective legislation for women.  If lawmakers seemed to ignore the sexual and emotional dangers of women in the workplace, it is because they couched their concerns about unrestricted female labor in the language of protecting women’s maternal obligations to society.  Despite implications that women’s reproductive health and their ability to work were the primary reasons for protective legislation, much of Progressive-era labor law actually alluded to sexual predation.