Professions of Intimacy

My current book project, Professions of Intimacy: Work, Reproduction, and the Professional Woman in the Progressive Era United States, examines the progressive potential women’s professionalism. Over the past four decades, feminist historiography has explored the entry of professional women into a range of expert fields, including medicine, law, and teaching, but as yet has not theorized the potential of women’s professionalism as a practice. Meanwhile, activists have grown increasingly uneasy about the perceived tension between grassroots social movements and the activities of women professionals operating within institutional contexts, figuring the latter as inescapably beholden to a capitalist hierarchy. My project rethinks the easy conflation of professionalism with narrow economic self-interest. It argues for an alternative and more optimistic view that challenges readers to reckon with the ideals and ethical investments of professional women historically. Specifically, the project analyzes a rich archive of published essays, expert monographs, institutional records, and professional correspondence within a broader context, particularly the spread of reform Darwinism, new liberalism, and progressivism. My approach reveals that the first cohorts of professional women were animated by an affirmative commitment to building a good society based squarely upon an ethic of reproduction. Early feminist professionals frequently brought their expertise to bear on debates concerning biological reproduction. At the same time, they contested competitive capitalist norms by arguing for the importance of social reproduction, envisioning—and seeking to create—communities and networks to sustain people’s physical and emotional well-being.