Tag Archives: gender: history

Presidents Evaluating Women’s Attractiveness: 1973 and 2013

Cross-posted at Speech Events.

Earlier this year President Obama described California attorney general Kamala Harris “the best-looking attorney general in the country.” Even though the crowd reportedly laughed at the comment, Obama was criticized for making sexist remarks and quickly apologized to Harris.

But some people claimed to be confused: why was Obama wrong to compliment a woman on her looks? From the Washington Times:

Please, give us a chance to learn the rules. Give us a minute to catch our breath

We were taught (most of us were) that girls and women were to be given flowers for their beauty of character and good looks.

Exactly what is wrong with this?

But one morning we were told that it is okay, even required, to tell a woman that she looks marvelous. Next morning, hey, we can go to jail for this!

This is not the first time a president has run into this sort of trouble. This picture of reporter Helen Thomas ran in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin on August 7, 1973.*

Helen Thomas Standing in Front of White House with Note Pad

The accompanying story was titled “Nixon Turns Fashion Critic, ‘Turn Around…’”  It included the following:

President Nixon, a gentleman of the old school, teased a newspaper woman yesterday about wearing slacks to the White House and made it clear that he prefers dresses on women.

After a bill-signing ceremony in the Oval Office, the President stood up from his desk and in a teasing voice said to UPI’s Helen Thomas: “Helen, are you still wearing slacks? Do you prefer them actually? Every time I see girls in slacks it reminds me of China.”

Nixon went on, asking Thomas to present her rear:

“This is not said in an uncomplimentary way, but slacks can do something for some people and some it can’t.” He hastened to add, “but I think you do very well. Turn around.”

As Nixon, Attorney General Elliott L. Richardson, FBI Director Clarence Kelley and other high-ranking law enforcement officials smiling [sic], Miss Thomas did a pirouette for the President. She was wearing white pants, a navy blue jersey shirt, long white beads and navy blue patent leather shoes with red trim.

There are several parallels between this incident and the Obama one: they took place at the tail end of an official event, when the president apparently thought he could take some time for harmless jokes. The women involved were highly acclaimed professional women. In both events, we see a powerful man verbally change a woman from a respected professional to an attractive female.

We know how the public responded to Obama’s comment. What about reception in 1973?

First of all, Helen Thomas herself wrote the article about this incident; according to anthropologist Michael Silverstein, “this is what we call ‘payback’ time.” At first glance, it seems like a neutral report of a conversation, but take a closer look. From the very beginning, Nixon is set up as the bad guy – a “gentleman of the old school” who “teased a newspaper woman.”

The mocking, faux fashion report tone continues from the headline into the description of Thomas’s outfit. What seems like a harmless personal interest story tacked onto a news article was actually a protest against this treatment – and it required damage control by the president. Within the next week, Thomas’s fellow reporters went on the record as saying that they were on her side, and wished she had not played along with the president. Even the First Lady weighed in, saying that there was no rule against women wearing pants in the White House.

The rules haven’t changed: there’s nothing new about presidents talking about professional women’s appearance, and even in 1973 it was recognized as inappropriate.

* The image is from here; the article on google is text only.

Miranda Weinberg is a graduate student in Educational Linguistics and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania studying multilingualism in schooling.

Father Care: The More Things Don’t Change, the More They Stay the Same

Cross-posted at Family Inequality.

The U.S. Census Bureau has released its new report on childcare, written by Lynda Laughlin. This provides a good followup treatment for the hyperventilation induced by fear of fathers taking over (or being relegated to) childcare.

First, the trend that fits my story of stalled gender progress. Among married fathers with employed wives, how many are providing the “primary care” for their children? That is, among the various childcare arrangements the children are in while their mother is at work, how many are in their fathers’ care more than in any other arrangement? Answer:  10%, which is virtually unchanged from a quarter-century ago:

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Not a lot of change for a quarter century in which we’re told everything has changed.

However, in fairness to the change-is-happening community, here is the trend for the percentage of fathers who say they are providing ANY care to their children while their mothers were at work.

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I don’t give this much weight since it might reflect greater sensitivity to the importance of saying fathers provide care, but there you have it: it’s higher, and it shows some increases up until the early 1990s, which is when gender equality in general stalled on many indicators. Since the mid-1990s: Nothing.

Please note these figures don’t show the total contribution of fathers, but only reflects those married with children, whose wives are employed.

One interesting source of father care is mothers’ shiftwork. As Harriet Presser reported two decades ago, the 24/7 economy stimulates some task sharing among couples. In the current report, Laughlin writes:

Preschoolers whose mothers worked nights or evenings were more likely to have their father as a child care provider than those with mothers who worked a day shift (42 percent and 23 percent, respectively)

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

What Was in the 1941 College Woman’s Closet?

Originally posted in 2010. Re-posted in honor of Women’s History Month.

The New York Public Library posted a page from the first issue (September 1941) of Design for Living: The Magazine for Young Moderns that I thought was sorta neat for bringing some perspective to the increase in the amount and variety of clothing we take as normal today–but also, to my relief, the acceptance of a more casual style of dress. The magazine conducted a poll of women at a number of colleges throughout the U.S. about how many of various articles of clothing they owned. Here’s a visual showing the school where women reported the highest and lowest averages (the top item is a dickey, not a shirt):

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Overall the women reported spending an average of $240.33 per year on clothing.

Hats for women were apparently well on their way out of fashion:

Can you imagine a magazine aimed at college women today implying that you might be able to get away with only three or four pairs of shoes, even if that’s what women reported?

At the end of the article they bring readers’ attention to the fact that they used a sample:

I can’t help but find it rather charming that a popular magazine would even bother to clarify anything about their polling methods. So…earnest!

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

The Dancing Hawaiian Girl, At Your Service

Originally posted in 2008. Re-posted in honor of Women’s History MonthCross-posted at Racialicious.

The marketing for beach-related vacation destinations often capitalizes on the association of foreign beaches with (partly) naked bathing beauties. This intersection of race, gender, and sexuality that positions the “ethnic” woman as particularly sexually accessible have deep roots in our colonial past in which foreign lands “open” to conquest by the Western world were conflated with foreign women “open” to conquest by Western men.

The “Hula Girl” is a case in point.

Hawaii was colonized by the U.S. and, when the islands became a tourism destination, Polynesian women were transformed into Hawaiian babes ready and waiting to please tourists from the mainland.

One transformation was the hula. Widely understood to be an “authentic” Polynesian tradition, the hula was actually originally mostly a man’s dance. It was religious. It involved chanting and no music. There were no hip movements, just gestures. Basically, it was story-telling.

Today, the men take a back seat to women, who are scantily clad in grass skirts (not authentic, by the way), and perform exaggerated hip movements to music. So the hula is an invention, designed by colonizers and capitalists, to highlight the appeal of “foreign” women.

Despite the constructed nature of the hula girl, she’s been used to market Hawaii for over 100 years.  Here is an image of hula girls sent back to the mainland way back in 1890:

And from the 1940s (from IslandArtCards):

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1965, via Jassy-50:

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This picture was snapped by my friend Jason at a Trader Vic’s restaurant in 2008:

A Google Image search for “Hawaii postcard” in 2013 reveals that about half include the figure of a woman:

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The phenomenon is a common one: women are treated as objects of beauty and aesthetic pleasure — exotified, in the case of “foreign” or darker-skinned women — and used to embellish a place or experience.  While lots of things have changed for women since the beginning of this particular example in the late 1800s, their role as decoration resists retirement.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Rise of the Flapper

Originally posted in 2009. Re-posted in honor of Women’s History Month; cross-posted at Mental Floss.

Several factors were in play in the 1920s for the emergence of what came to be known as flappers, teenagers and young women who flaunted convention and spent their time pursuing fun instead of settling down to raise children in the prime of their lives. Many entered college or the workforce and felt entitled to make their own decisions about how to live their lives.

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A lot of young men did not return home from World War I, which left an entire cohort of women without enough husbands to go around. The horror of the war (and the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918) also impressed young people with the knowledge that life is short and could end at any moment. Instead of staying home preparing to marry a man who might never come, young women wanted to spend what time they had enjoying all that life had to offer.

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Movies popularized the image of the fun-loving and free-thinking woman throughout the US and Europe. The 1920 movie The Flapper introduced the term in the United States. The title character, Ginger, was a wayward girl who flouted the rules of society. Played by Olive Thomas, a former Ziegfeld Girl (left), Ginger had so much fun that a generation of lonely young women wanted to be like her. Another role model was stage and screen actress Louise Brooks (right), who also modeled for artists and fashion designers. She was the inspiration for the flapper comic strip Dixie Dugan.

 

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Clara Bow wasn’t the first flapper on screen, but she was certainly a role model for young women of the era. She didn’t play by the rules, and was tabloid fodder for years for her sexual escapades with the biggest movie stars of the time. Bow’s first film was in 1922 and her career peaked in 1927 with the film It. “It” was defined as the sexual allure some girls have and others don’t. Bow’s fans wanted “it”, so they copied her look and behavior.

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The rise of the automobile was another factor in the rise of flapper culture. Cars meant a woman could come and go as she pleased, travel to speakeasys and other entertainment venues, and use the large vehicles of the day for heavy petting or even sex.

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These young women had plenty of opportunities for fun. Although Prohibition drove alcohol underground, that only added to its allure. Postwar prosperity allowed for leisure time and the means to spend that time drinking, dancing, and hanging out with free thinkers.

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Being a flapper wasn’t all about fashion. It was about rebellion. In this article from 1922, a would-be flapper (but still a “nice girl”) explains her lifestyle choices to her parents. Flappers did what society did not expect from young women. They danced to Jazz Age music, they smoked, they wore makeup, they spoke their own language, and they lived for the moment. Flapper fashion followed the lifestyle. Skirts became shorter to make dancing easier. Corsets were discarded in favor of brassieres that bound their breasts, again to make dancing easier. The straight shapeless dresses were easy to make and blurred the line between the rich and everyone else. The look became fashionable because of the lifestyle. The short hair? That was pure rebellion against the older generation’s veneration of long feminine locks.

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The party stopped when the economy crashed and the Great Depression curtailed the night life. Although the flapper lifestyle died along with the Roaring Twenties, the freedoms women tasted in that era weren’t easily given up. They may have gone back to marriage and long hours of toil for little pay, but hemlines stayed above the ankle, and the corset never went back to everyday status. And we’ve been driving cars ever since.

Miss Cellania is a newlywed mother of four, full-time blogger, former radio announcer, and worst of all, a Baby Boomer. In addition to mental_floss, she posts at Neatorama, YesButNoButYes, Geeks Are Sexy, and Miss Cellania. Miss C considers herself an expert on no particular subject at all.

1950s Beauty Pageant Judging Guidelines

Originally posted in 2009. Re-posted in honor of Women’s History Month.

Larry Harnisch, of the Los Angeles Times blog The Daily Mirror, sent in this image, published in The Mirror in 1959, that illustrated how women’s bodies were judged in the Miss Universe contest:

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Text:

ALL FIGURED OUT–This chart is used by judges as [a] guide in picking Miss Universe. First six show figure flaws, seventh is perfectly proportioned. (1) Shoulders too square. (2) Shoulders too sloping. (3) Hips too wide. (4) Shoulder bones too pronounced. (5) Shoulders and back hunched. (6) Legs irregular, with spaces at calves, knees, thighs. (7) The form divine, needs only a beautiful face.

(I had no idea that I have irregular legs until I saw figure 6. My self esteem is taking quite the hit. I can’t tell if there’s anything wrong with my shoulders, though–I’ll have to ask someone else for an opinion.)

Two points:

First, some people like to suggest that men are programmed by evolution to find a particular body shape attractive.  Clearly, if judging women’s bodies requires this much instruction, either (1) nature has left us incompetent or (2) cultural norms defining beauty overwhelm any biological predisposition to be attracted to specific body types.

Second, the chart reveals the level of scrutiny women faced in 1959 (and I’d argue it’s not so different today).   It made me think of my years in 4-H. I was a farm kid and I showed steers for several years and also took part in livestock and meat judging competitions. I was good at it, just so you know. Anyway, what the beauty pageant image brought to mind was the handouts we’d look at to learn how to judge livestock. Here are some examples, from Kansas State University’s 4-H judging guide (pdf here):

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This poor pig has a low-set tail–how dreadful:

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It’s almost as if, like superior livestock, beautiful women are a desired cultural product in which we should all invest and be invested. You might compare these to some of the images in our post about sexualizing food that come from Carol Adams’s website.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Hysteria, the Wandering Uterus, and Vaginal Massage

Originally posted in 2010. Re-posted in honor of Women’s History Month.

When I teach gender I always talk about the ways in which societies actively construct ideas that men and women have very different bodies, capable of different things. In the U.S., our gender ideology includes the belief that female bodies are weaker than male ones, more fragile. Particularly in the Victorian Era, this belief led doctors to discourage physical activity by women. Among a range of other concerns, doctors argued that physical exertion in women might cause their organs (particularly the reproductive organs) to become dislodged and wander around the body, causing all types of problems. I know I’d certainly be distressed if my uterus migrated and I ended up pregnant and carrying a fetus in, say, my elbow.

A result of this, of course, is that (White) women were discouraged from being physically active and taking part in sports. This, combined with heavy clothing and corsets that actually did shove organs around, led to the condition that the medical community claimed already existed: women’s bodies were less capable of physical exertion than men’s and they were more likely to faint (corsets often making it difficult to breathe adequately). It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you believe women’s bodies are weaker than men’s and thus discourage or even prohibit women from being physically active, you create differences in physical capability and fitness that you can then claim prove you were right all along.

James T. found this awesome ad for a product that, among other amazing things, ends “misplaced organs” and will even move them back where they belong (from Modern Mechanix). The ad (from 1934) says that satisfied users include both men and women, but concerns about misplaced organs were a concern applied predominantly to women:

Medical practitioners weren’t just worried about physical exertion. They believed mental activity could be harmful to women as well; perhaps all that thinking meant the brain would take blood away from the reproductive organs and lead to infertility. A common diagnosis for women was “hysteria,” a general term that could be applied to almost any woman. A common “cure” for hysteria was bed rest, preventing both physical and mental activity. The diagnosis of hysteria served as a justification for severely limiting women’s activities, drawing on the ideology of the fragile female body. Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote the classic short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” after her own experience of being forced to stay in bed with no mental stimulation, not even books.

Hysteria was also often associated with sexual problems, including a lack of interest in sex. The cure for this was “vaginal massage,” which was exactly what you think it was. This was done manually in doctors’ offices, but eventually mechanical vibrators became widely available, allowing women to treat their hysteria more cheaply and at home, and reducing the time it took to produce a “paroxysm”:

“Very useful and satisfactory for home service.” Uh huh. I bet women did indeed appreciate them.

I find it fascinating that the construction of (middle/upper class White) women as “hysterical” and often sexually repressed and frigid made it acceptable for them to purchase a product that allowed them to sexually satisfy themselves at a time when masturbation was still widely vilified, and excuse it on the grounds that it was medically prescribed.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Nipples And The Presentation Of Femininity

Originally posted in 2009. Re-posted in honor of Women’s History Month.

I still remember when the female characters on the sitcom Friends started the trend of visible nipples:

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As long as I’d been alive and paying attention, hard nipples were embarrassing. Then, suddenly, they weren’t. I even remember hearing that women could get the all-hard-all-the-time look by buying those tiny rubber bands (that I only associate with the plastic bags aquarium fish come in) and fitting them tightly around your nipples. Nipples are still big, if measured by mannequins (Wicked Anomie noticed too).

It turns out this comes in fits and starts.  This vintage ad (no date on the source), for example, features a bra with built-in hard nipples! (Apparently it had been a trend before I’d been alive and paying attention.)

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In the comments, Dmitriy T.C. added a link to the patent for this device. I can’t resist adding this particular paragraph explaining why a bra with fake nipples is important:

…simulated nipples for a brassiere would offer an acceptable compromise for ladies who do not wish to go without a brassiere and a welcome release from the subconscious effects of the suppression brought on by wearing brassieres of the types variously available, which obliterate the nipple.

LOL.

Anyhow, Tracey at Unapologetically Female wondered about wearing such a bra:

Didn’t anyone ever start to wonder why these women’s nipples were ALWAYS hard? And what if their real nipples (realistically probably located somewhere a bit lower than the bra’s) ever poked through, creating a quadruple effect?! Horrifying.

I find this whole thing especially funny, since, while shopping recently, Katie and I were making fun of these bras with built-in “modesty panels” that provide extra padding so that the nipple will never make an appearance. Times sure have changed.

Except times haven’t changed in the sense that women’s bodies still aren’t allowed to just be. Their nipples either must show, or must not show, or they should show in some contexts, or are allowed to show, but in other contexts they better not show.  (Remember the outcry over Hilary Clinton’s “cleavage”?  Can you imagine if she’d shown some nip!?)

So apparently we’re supposed to have nipple bras, bras with “modesty panels,” and a couple rubber bands in our pockets just in case. The one thing that is clearly less than ideal in all this: actual nipples doing what they do.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.