Skip to main content
Digital History at Ursinus

Sex, Gender, Marriage, and The New Woman

Shadow and Light

Shadow and Light

Autobiography of Maurice Sterne 

Reclining Woman

"Reclining Woman" By Maurice Sterne 

Female Nude Seated

"Female Nude Seated" Maurice Sterne 

Determined to be Dominant, Dodge Falls in Love Despite “Black Widow” Plans

 Dodge’s brief and dramatic relationship with Maurice Sterne illustrates how Dodge continued to search for ways a woman could take control in a heterosexual relationship. The relationship also conveys the frustration Dodge felt trying to find love and maintain independence. Dodge had lived through becoming possessed by a man in her relationship with John Reed. Reed was controlling of her and Dodge was equally eager to please in an attempt to maintain his attention. Ultimately, Reed and Dodge split, leaving Dodge in a state of grief for some time. On the other side of that, Dodge was determined to make her next relationship one where she could have control. Dodge no longer strived for equality but was aiming for dominance. Dodge still firmly believed in the idea that relationships should be equal, but after having been so “under the spell” of the young John Reed, Dodge sought complete control.  Rudnick explains, “Mabel would fight, not for equality, but for control. She [Dodge] would make a man and an artist of Maurice in accordance with her image of both” (2574). Dodge didn’t want to be some man’s muse: Dodge wanted to make a muse of a man. Sterne just happened to be in the right place at the right time (or wrong place at the wrong time depending on the day). In fact, Sterne would call his relationship with Dodge, “It is a five-year long ring fight… And many more than fifteen rounds. Both back in their respective corners, breathing messages of renewed affection and desire, as they regain their wind” (89). He was just as interested in sexual liberation though was much less invested in his lovers. Dodge’s turbulent relationship with Sterne carries over until she leaves New York City for Taos, New Mexico, and Sterne signals Dodge’s transition from the radical city life to her own creation of an artist colony.

 Dodge described Sterne as “enveloped in a cloud of secrecy and caution. The man might have been in a jungle, so watchful he was, so studied every glance and motio” (Lunden 342). Clearly, Dodge was attracted to him, though she made it her goal to make use of him. Unlike her relationship with Reed, Dodge didn’t want to work collaboratively with Sterne. Dodge wanted to effectively seduce Sterne and control him. Rudnick writes that Dodge “Used sex as a means of power over him” (2574). Equally Sterne was not the type to be quickly controlled by a partner. In his autobiography, Sterne writes, “I was skillful and ruthless in my pursuit of physical pleasure and not particularly concerned with the feelings of others” (56). Two strong individuals vying for control was likely what caused their brief love and marriage to be so dramatic. Sterne calls the relationship one of “most incongruous, incompatible and tempestuous adventures in the annals of love” (89).

 Instead of withholding sex like she did with Reed, Dodge uses sex and seduction to control Sterne. This practice illustrates how Dodge was exploring all of her sources of power in an attempt to assert control in a romantic relationship. Dodge turning to sex also conveys the restraints of women at the time. Dodge wanted to be valued for her skill and intellect. Yet, still, Dodge reverts to using seduction and sexuality because of the value society places on women’s physical bodies (in Dodge’s time and still in the present). Though Dodge was fighting to establish control, Dodge would never be able to find that independence in a relationship where she was using her body as the tool of negotiation. Dodge quickly became more and more aware that her plans for being a “Black Widow” were not quite realistic as both she and Sterne fell in love. In the early days of her relationship with Sterne, Dodge believed she “was immune” to his male charms. Dodge says, “I thought, what need had I for men, I who so far outran them, and their limited understanding, and capacity for life? I was inflated and I felt very superior” (Rudnick 2577). Sterne would make Dodge the subject of his seductive and sexual portraits. Sterne was heavily interested in exploring the female figure and did so by creating art after sexual experiences. His main subject would naturally become Dodge by the time they entered into their brief marriage in 1917.

 Despite being tumultuous, this relationship can still be seen to be less detrimental to Dodge than her relationship with Reed. In her relationship with Reed, Dodge ceded all independence. Sterne was at many times just as manipulative as Reed had been, but Dodge had grown since her days of allowing romance and men to dominate her. Dodge and Sterne argued so much because Dodge had grown to a point where she did not accept control and domination. Sterne used Dodge’s money to establish himself as an artist, and yet Dodge completely succeeded in winning Sterne over until he did actually propose to her. Dodge accepted, but their marriage was brief at best.

 Dodge’s escapades with Sterne represent Dodge reaching a cross roads in her life as she determines her destiny to be outside of New York City. Only shortly after they married, Dodge was taken by her new quest and parted with Sterne almost as quickly as it had started. Jacobs writes how Dodge “regretted her hasty marriage and packed Maurice off to the Southwest on a solitary honeymoon…While Maurice honeymooned alone in Santa Fe, Mabel visited a medium in New York City who envisioned her 'surrounded by many people... dark people... dark faces--they are Indians'” (29). Dodge would part with Sterne as a part of her departure from the culture of the city. Sterne was merely a piece of a larger personal transformation. Dodge reflects, “Maurice seemed old and spent and tragic, while Tony was whole and young in the cells of his body, with his power unbroken and hard like the carved granite rock, yet older than the Germanic Russian whom the modern world had destroyed” (29). In her relationship with Sterne, Dodge came to fully understand that women could only find real power and autonomy to be through intellect and spiritual connections with their partners. Dodge was dissatisfied by her attempts at dominance and resolved to search for greater fulfillment in herself.

 

Jacobs, Margaret D. "The Eastmans and the Luhans: interracial marriage between white women and Native American men, 1875-1935." A Journal of Women's Studies 23.3 (2002): 29-30. Print. 

Lunden, Rolf. "Men in Love? Male Friendship in Gertrude Stein's Early Portrait." 
     Modernism/Modernity 18.2 (2011): 336-50. Print. 

Sterne, Maurice. Shadow and Light. Ed. Charlotte Leon. New York: Harcourt, 1965. 
     Print. 

Rudnick, Lois. Mabel Dodge Luhan: New Woman, New Worlds (Kindle Location 2560-2596). University of New Mexico Press. Kindle Edition.

 

 

 

Sex, Gender, Marriage, and The New Woman