Vegetarians, Gender, Sexuality and Song

With my standard apologies for a delay in posts...the dual time commitments of finishing a dissertation combined with venturing out on the academic job marketplace has made new posts unfortunately fall to the bottom of my priority list. However, I am happy to report that my dissertation was successfully defended and I am excitedly looking forward to the next step (whatever that may be) in my academic career.

For today's post, I wanted to highlight one of my favorite pieces of research that I came across though one that oddly enough did not find its way into my dissertation (perhaps in a future book manuscript? Fingers tightly crossed).

Vegetarianism's popularity found its way into popular culture by the mid-nineteenth century, including a mention by such prominent writers as Herman Melville whose novella Bartleby the Scrivener included a vegetarian character. The rise of vegetarianism in the era directly before the Civil War (best characterized by the founding of the American Vegetarian Society, the first national vegetarian organization) was noticed in many corners of American culture and society, celebrated by reformers and mocked by the mainstream press. The growing vegetarian movement even grabbed the attention of the American music industry.

Oh! Wasn't she fond of her greens!
was a musical composition first published in 1860 by the New York based firm H. De Marsan and subsequent compositions were published until at least 1869 (keep in mind that the music industry at this point relied upon the sale of sheet music rather than any actual recordings in a pre-phonograph era). The composition's lyrics (unfortunately I have not been able to track down any remaining sheet music in the historical record) are fascinating in its consideration of vegetarianism and its connections to gender roles.

The original composition is housed at the Library of Congress and can be found online.

The song relays a story of courtship, told from the perspective of the male courtier. The narrator seeks the affections of a young woman named Jane Bell who surpassed all other women in the courtier's eyes. Unfortunately, he also came to find out, she was a vegetarian. The song notes the peculiarity of the situation:
A vegetarian she's been, for some years;
No animals food would she eat;
How wonderful strange it appears
That she could exist without meat!

The song continues by noting the peculiarity of the couple's courtship, filled with picnics of garden sorrel (a green, leafy herb) and breakfasts of watercress. However, the last verse exposes the complex relationship between vegetarianism and gender as well as sexual norms and roles:

Now, we are married, and settled in life, The old gal behaves very kind;
And, when I go home of a night, There plenty of greens I can find.
Since marriage, she's taken to meat..How wonderful strange it seems!
And sometimes, by the way of a treat, She has a little fat meat with her greens.

The song is clear in its implications and double entendre. On one hand now that the woman has been tamed and settled, she no longer adheres to her vegetarian identity and diet, long associated with radical politics including women's rights and suffrage. Now a respectable married woman the "old gal behaves very kind" including disassociation from her political past. Further, there is of course the sexual implication of the married woman having "taken to meat" in marriage, and who "by the way of a treat. . .has a little fat meat with her greens." Having been corralled by the courtier, the wife--previously obstinate in her politics and presumably chastity (the courtier's amazement at the woman's ability to "exist without meat")--was now apt to enjoy meat in all of its various forms.

The sexual component may seem speculative, however, the cultural history of vegetarianism during this time period associated meat with male virility and sexuality. Conversely, male vegetarians often had their masculinity questioned, portrayed in the popular press as both sexually and socially impotent. The sexual component of the lyrics were undoubtedly apparent to fans of the song. As with everything else connected to the nineteenth century debate about vegetarianism, it was about far more than just greens.

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