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Abstract

Fin de siècle Vienna is often remembered as a place saturated with sex, calling to mind the eroticism of Gustav Klimt’s paintings, Sigmund Freud’s discovery of the sexual unconscious, and Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s sexology. According to contemporaries, Vienna was in the throes of a “sexual crisis.” Historical scholarship has retained this language of sexual crisis, examining the milieu from the perspective of the male cultural and intellectual elite. Yet, as social historians have observed, the majority of Viennese residents were not familiar with Klimt’s paintings, nor were they patients of Freud. Turning away from the perspective of the male cultural and intellectual elite, we might wonder if there was any correlation between the constant talk about “sexual crisis” and everyday life. "Bodies That Shimmer: An Embodied History of Vienna’s New Women, 1893-1931" attempts to answer this question. Drawing on methodologies from cultural and social history, as well as feminist theory, it examines how ordinary Viennese women, the objects of sexual knowledge, experienced this sexually vibrant milieu. "Bodies That Shimmer" argues that the “sexual crisis” corresponded to real changes in gender and sexuality, as embodied by the city’s new women: urban working-class and bourgeois women who subverted gender norms and sexual conventions by articulating a new kind of femininity. Women articulated this new femininity not only through their changing roles in society, family, and politics, but also through their bodies. Whether they were walking more expansively on city streets, emulating the emotional expressiveness of the silent film actor, or learning to inspect their bodies as medical objects, new women began using and experiencing their bodies in radically new ways. At its core, then, "Bodies That Shimmer" reveals that femininity is neither a stable nor a unified category, but one that changes over time. Ultimately, this dissertation argues that new Viennese womanhood was not necessarily emancipatory, but rather, complex and contradictory. Despite casting aside their corsets and cutting off their hair—acts that have come to be viewed as incontrovertibly liberating—Vienna’s new women were engaging in a new script of femininity. That is to say, the very performance of new womanhood was just that: a performance that could be learned and reproduced.

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