gender: feminism/activism

The décor in my childhood home was unusual. Interspersed with photographs of my sister and me were vintage political posters, inherited from my late grandparents. The most startling of these were the posters promoting women’s right to vote: as I grew up, I realized that the viewpoints they depicted contrasted starkly with the narrative of women’s suffrage that I had learned in my history classes.

This poster supports women’s right to vote not by asserting their equality with men, but by appealing to their ability to bear children:

By contrast, this poster actively highlights woman’s ability to contribute to society beyond stereotypically female roles: women were not only nurses and mothers, but doctors and mayors. Yet at the same time, the image disparages the mentally and physically ill by painting men with these conditions as inherently lesser.

Lastly, a picture that speaks for itself.  Women should have suffrage, says the poster, but they must always remember where they truly belong.

Although the right to vote politically empowered the women of Western society, many of the proponents of the women’s suffrage movement espoused ideologies that would not be considered feminist or politically correct today. My history classes dwelt only briefly on these unpalatable schools of rhetoric, but the images in my home allowed me to glimpse a debate that was just as complex and fragmented as the political disputes we face today.


Alison Marqusee is a high school senior from Massachusetts.  In addition to sociology, her interests include linguistics, psychology, and physics.  She looks forward to attending Haverford College.

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Coverage of the Egyptian protests this week disproportionately interviewed and photographed male protestors, occasionally using the terms “Egyptian men” and “protestors” interchangeably (excellent example here).  What images we did receive of women depicted them as separate from the demonstrations if not dependent on male guardianship.  The paucity of images or stories about women activists excludes them from the national uprising and silences their protests.

Outside of the mainstream media a widely circulated photo album, available to anyone with Facebook, collected over a hundred pictures of Egyptian women demonstrating. Curation of this album during the internet blackout, when nearly all images were filtered through the media, serves as a testament to the value of diaspora and transnational networks.  Additionally, placing these images side by side becomes a powerful counter to women’s media invisibility and highlights diversity of backgrounds, opinions, and forms of protest undertaken by Egyptian women.

It might be worth nothing that we’re seeing more stories about women since a You Tube video (below) of a woman calling for people to join her in protest on January 25th caught the attention of the media.  Namely this excellent NPR story and an AFP article.  Lastly, anyone interested in social media should visit this Facebook group.

April Crewson is completing her masters in Gender Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

A polished version of this post was published in Contexts. You can download it here.

Most of our readers are probably familiar  with the now-iconic “We Can Do It!” poster associated with Rosie the Riveter and the movement of women into the paid industrial workforce during World War II:

It is, by this point, so recognizable that it is often parodied or appropriated for a variety of uses (including selling household cleaners). The image is widely seen as a symbol of women’s empowerment and a sign of major gender transformations that occurred during the 1940s.

In their article, “Visual Rhetoric Representing Rosie the Riveter: Myth and Misconception in J. Howard Miller’s ‘We Can Do It!’ Poster,” James Kimble and Lester Olson argue that our current interpretations of the poster don’t necessarily align with how it was seen at the time.

While the poster is often described as a government recruiting item (Kimble and Olson give many examples in the article of inaccurate attributions from a variety of sources), it was, in fact, created by J. Howard Miller as part of a series of posters for the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company — the Westinghouse logo is clearly visible just under the woman’s arm, and the badge on her shirt collar is the badge employees wore on the plant floor, including an employee number. The War Production Co-ordinating Committee was an internal Westinghouse committee, similar to those created by many companies during the war, not a government entity.

The assumption of current viewers of the image is usually that it was meant to recruit women into the workforce, or to rally women in general — an early example of girl power marketing, if you will — and was widely displayed. But the audience was actually only Westinghouse employees. The company commissioned artists to create posters to be hung in Westinghouse plants for specific periods of time; this poster specifically says, “Post Feb. 15 to Feb. 28” [1943] in small font on the lower left. There’s no evidence that it was ever made available to the public more broadly. For that matter, the poster doesn’t identify her as “Rosie,” and it’s not clear that at the time she would have been immediately identifiable to viewers as “Rosie the Riveter”.

The image that was more widely seen, and is often conflated with the “We Can Do It!” poster, was Norman Rockwell’s May 29, 1943, cover for the Saturday Evening Post:

Here, the woman is clearly linked to the idea of Rosie the Riveter, through both the name on her lunchbox and the  equipment she’s holding. She is more muscular than the woman in Miller’s poster, she’s dirty, and her foot is standing on a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Rockwell’s image presents the woman as a vital part of the war effort; her work helps defeat the Nazis. The image also includes fewer details to make her look conventionally attractive than Miller’s, where the woman has emphasized eyelashes and visibly painted fingernail.

Most interestingly, Kimble and Olson question the female empowerment message presumed to be the point of the “We Can Do It!” poster. We see the poster on its own, through the lens of a narrative about World War II in which housewives left the kitchen in droves to work in factories. But Westinghouse workers would have seen it in a different context, as one of a series of posters displayed in the plant, with similar imagery and text. When seen as just one in a series, rather than a unique image, Kimble and Olson argue that the collective “we” in “We can do it!” wouldn’t have been women, but Westinghouse employees, who were used to seeing such statements posted in employee-access-only areas of the plant.

Of course, having a woman represent a default factory employee is noteworthy. But our reading of the poster as a feminist emblem partially rests on the idea that this female worker is calling out encouragement to other women. The authors, however, point out a much less empowering interpretation if you think of the poster not in terms of feminism, but in terms of social class and labor relations:

…Westinghouse used “We Can Do It!” and Miller’s other posters to encourage women’s cooperation with the company’s relatively conservative concerns and values at a time when both labor organizing and communism were becoming active controversies for many workers… (p. 537)

…by addressing workers as “we,” the pronoun obfuscated sharp controversies within labor over communism, red-baiting, discrimination, and other heartfelt sources of divisiveness. (p. 550)

One of the major functions of corporate war committees was to manage labor and discourage any type of labor disputes that might disrupt production. From this perspective, images of happy workers expressing support for the war effort and/or workers’ abilities served as propaganda that encouraged workers to identify with one another and management as a team; “patriotism could be invoked to circumvent strikes and characterize workers’ unrest as un-American” (p. 562).

And, as Kimble and Olson illustrate, most of Miller’s posters included no women at all, and when they did, emphasized conventional femininity and the domestic sphere (such as a heavily made-up woman waving to her husband as he left for work).

Of course, today the “We Can Do It!” poster is seen as a feminist icon, adorning coffee cups, t-shirts, calendars, and refrigerator magnets (I have one). Kimble and Olson don’t explain when and how this shift occurred — when the image went from an obscure piece of corporate war-time propaganda, similar to many others, to a widely-recognized pop cultural image of female empowerment. But they make a convincing argument that our current perceptions of the image involve a significant amount of historical myth-making that helps to obscure the discrimination and opposition many women faced in the paid workforce even during the height of the war effort.

[The article appears in Rhetoric & Public Affairs 9(4): 533-570, 2006.]

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

Lauren S. sent us a fun illustration of the social construction of chocolate. She writes:

Dove Promises, as it happens, contain a printed message beneath their individual foil wrappings—a message which, according to the cloying copy on the back of the package, “is filled with thoughts of joy and strength, along with positive reflections that will inspire you each day”. Fair enough. Mine was some tripe about rainbows. My boyfriend’s, on the other hand, was an amusing bit of gender assumption:

So in case the name “Dove Promises,” the cursive writing, and the heart shapes didn’t give it away, Dove brand chocolate is FOR GIRLS ONLY. Notice also that Dove is commandeering pseudo-feminist notions of girl power.

Lauren also observes the interesting marketing effort in the second phrase, “You deserve this!”

I immediately thought of Jean Kilbourne’s Can’t Buy My Love… and its emphasis upon the seductive marketing of indulgent food specifically to women… the “inspiring” message was a tired re-tread of that same old idea in which food advertisers so often seem to engage: these are “women’s” foods, and the “joy and strength” you’re missing in your life can be found right here in this bit of dark, rich chocolate, so go ahead, girl, indulge. You can always throw your money at the diet industry afterward.

Thanks Lauren!

For more on the social construction of chocolate: a gender-reversed vintage ad, a contemporary gender-“reversal” in Japan, cupcakes for men, and chocolates in the tampon aisle.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

On this day in 1911, suffragettes in California squeaked out a victory, making the state the sixth to give women the vote and doubling the number of female voters in the U.S.  See David Dismore’s great summary at Ms.

Campaign poster reproduction (c. 1896-1910, from David Dismore’s collection):

The New York Times reports:

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

The Daily Kos highlighted an ad for Summer’s Eve in this month’s Woman’s Day magazine.  Women’s magazines are peppered with douching advertisements, so why did this one prompt nine people — Tony S., Pharmacopaeia, Frank B., Jason W., Tom M., Jesse W., Sarah P., Ilysse W., and Philippa von Z. — to send it to us?  Take a look:

What makes this a remarkable instead of a regular douche ad is the suggestion that Summer’s Eve is interested in women’s empowerment.

This is odd because douching is well understood to be bad for healthy women’s bodies.  The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, for example, explains:

Most doctors and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommend that women don’t douche. Douching can change the delicate balance of vaginal flora (organisms that live in the vagina) and acidity in a healthy vagina. One way to look at it is in a healthy vagina there are both good and bad bacteria. The balance of the good and bad bacteria help maintain an acidic environment. Any changes can cause an over growth of bad bacteria which can lead to a yeast infection or bacterial vaginosis. Plus, if you have a vaginal infection, douching can push the bacteria causing the infection up into the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries.

Douching is bad for you, ladies.  So the fact that the C.B. Fleet Co., the company that owns Summer’s Eve, tries to convince all women that they need to regularly douche is not only manipulative, it’s harmful.  If it wants to maximize its profit, however, the company needs healthy women to feel that their vaginas are disgusting.  And so they tell us that it is over and over again.

You see, C.B. Fleet ‘n friends doesn’t give a shit about you.  They don’t care if you get that raise; and they certainly don’t care if their product is unnecessary and potentially harmful in most cases.  They just want to make money.  And if using a feminist-sounding you-go-girl ad will do that, then they’ll slap on a smile and laugh all the way to the bank.

In our more fledgling days we highlighted quite a few examples of marketing that co-opted feminist messages.  See our other examples of ads for bras, cleaning products and contraceptives (see here and here), botox (here and here), diamond rings, moisturizer, makeup, cars, cigarettes, and credit cards, Whirlpool, Philip Morris, Virginia Slims (here and here), and the new Disney princesses.  And none of this is new, see this example of a woman’s magazine marketing to suffragettes in 1910.

See also our collection of vintage douche ads.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Crossposted at Jezebel.

Robin E. sent us to a downright fascinating set of survey results.   Administered by a Christian website, the survey questions were submitted by “Christian girls” who wanted to know what “Christian guys” think is modest.  1,600 guys then answered the survey, offering both quantitative and qualitative answers.   Why would girls care what guys, as opposed to God, think?  Because Christian guys, their future husbands, are judging them on their modesty.  Ninety-five percent of them say that modesty is an important quality in their future wife (see the question in the upper left corner):

So, how do these “guys” define immodesty?  The most common theme was dressing to draw attention to the body instead of the heart or spirit.

Something that is immodest is something that is designed to arouse lust within me (male, age 24).

Something that is immodest is something that is unnaturally revealing (male, age 20).

Something immodest draws attention to a girl’s body (male, age 28).

Many of the guys stressed that they really wanted to interact with girls as people.  Borrowing language from feminism, they expressed a desire to think of a girl as a whole person, not just a hot body.

Something attractive draws you toward them. It makes you respect the person. Something immodest is usually unattractive. It makes you think less of that person, thinking of them as an object… (male, age 16).

My responsibility is to not treat women as objects for my satisfaction, even if they dress and act like it. It devalues them, and makes me a user of people… (male, age 26).

In a move that is in contrast to (most) feminist values, however, girls are supposed to help men treat them like people by not dressing like an object.  That is, by not dressing immodestly.

So what rules for girls did guys identify?

Well, first, guys largely agreed that revealing clothes were immodest (again, see the question in the upper left corner):

Halter tops and mini skirts, I suppose, are obvious candidates for immodesty.  There were lots more subtle rules, too, though with less agreement.

Forty-four percent of guys think that designs on the back pockets of jeans are immodest (19% aren’t sure):

A minority, 19 percent, think that shirts with pockets are immodest (25% aren’t sure):

Forty-eight percent think that purses should not be worn across the body (19% aren’t sure):

Thirty-nine percent oppose tights with designs (25% aren’t sure):

Forty-seven think that t-shirts with messages across the front improperly draw attention to breasts:

But being modest wasn’t simply a matter of clothes.  Guys defined immodesty, also, as an “attitude” or a “carelessness.”  Attaining modesty was also about how you use your body and the way you act, “sexually or otherwise.”

An immodest lady is loud, proud, and dresses in a way that communicates such an attitude (male, age 24).

Something becomes immodest when the person wearing it has an attitude of carelessness (male, age 17).

As one guy said:

If you are dressing to get attention from a guy, then anything you wear can be immodest (male, age 13; my emphasis).

Some examples of behavior the guys mostly agreed was immodest:

Immodesty, then, is not simply about being vigilant about your clothing (don’t wear a purse that falls diagonally across your body, don’t show your arms or your thighs), it’s a constant vigilance about how you display your body (don’t stretch, bend, or bounce).  “Clothing plays a part in modesty, but it is only a part,” an 18 year old male explains, “Any item of clothing can be immodest” (his emphasis).

In addition, these rules are potentially changing all the time.  A “technically modest” outfit, such as a school uniform, can suddenly have immodest connotations (so watch MTV, girls, to stay on top of these shifting meanings):

This is a great deal of self-monitoring for girls.  Not just when they shop, but when they get dressed, and all day as they move, and with constant re-evaluation of their clothes and how they fit.  But, the rationale is, they must be vigilant and obey these rules in order to protect guys from the power of all bodies (both their own sexiness, and men’s biological response to it).  Guys are burdened with lust, they insist.

A lot of the guys in this survey talked about temptation.  In some cases, the men would use very powerful words, such as this guy defining immodest:

Immodest:  Screams that her body is different than mine. Attempts to manipulate me. Forcefully offers to trade what I want (in the flesh) for what she wants: attention (male, age 30).

This language — suggesting that women’s bodies “scream” at him, attempt to control him, and “forcefully” tempt him — is reminiscent of Tim Beneke’s interviews with men about sexual violence in Men on Rape.  Michael Kimmel (summarizing Beneke in Guyland) discusses how lots of the terms used to describe a beautiful, sexy woman are metaphors for danger and violence: “ravishing,” “stunning,” bombshell,” “knockout,” “dressed to kill,” and  “femme fatale.”  “Women’s beauty,” Kimmel surmises, “is perceived as violence to men” (p. 229).

This is very much like the rationale for the burqa.  Women’s bodies incite men’s sexual desires, sometimes to violence; they must be kept hidden.

These Christian guys, however, did claim responsibility for their own thoughts, feelings, and actions.  When asked about their role in avoiding lust, many were adamant that it was their own responsibility.  Many felt that innocent, shameless, platonic interaction between men and women was a team effort:

Sisters in Christ, you really have no concept of the struggles that guys face on a daily basis. Please, please, please take a higher standard in the ways you dress. True, we men are responsible for our thoughts and actions before the Lord, but it is such a blessing when we know that we can spend time with our sisters in Christ, enjoying their fellowship without having to constantly be on guard against ungodly thoughts brought about by the inappropriate ways they sometimes dress. In 1 Corinthians 12 the apostle Paul presents believers as the members of one body – we have to work together. Every Christian has a special role to play in the body of Christ. That goal is to bring glory to the Savior through an obedient, unified body of believers – please don’t hurt that unity by dressing in ways that may tempt your brothers in Christ to stumble (male, age 24).

The asymmetry of this project, however, is striking.  The lust is men’s; the bodies are women’s.  It’s an asymmetry built right into the survey design. Modesty is something pertains to only girls and immodesty is something that guys get to define.  This may be even more pernicious than women’s constant self-monitoring.  It erases women’s own desires and the sex appeal of men’s bodies, leading women to spend all of their time thinking about what men want.  By the time they do have sex, and most of them will, they may be so alienated from their own sexual feelings that they won’t even be able to recognize them.

Beneke, Tim. 1982.  Men on Rape. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Kimmel, Michael. 2008. Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men.  New York: Harper Collins.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Anna M., Naomi B., Amanda C., Ben Z., and SpeZek sent in a new PETA ad campaign, the latest in a twisted story of objectification metaphor.

Feminists in the ’70s protested the objectification of women by metaphorically linking meat and female bodies (e.g., “we should not be treating women like pieces of meat”).  Meat is meat, so the argument went, but women are human beings and should be treated as such.

In mocking response, in 1978 Larry Flynt put a woman being chewed up by a meat grinder on the cover of Hustler magazine. We will treat women like meat if we want, was the message.  And we did, and we do, seemingly endlessly.

Forty years later, Pamela Anderson submits to being symbolically carved up for butchering by PETA in order to metaphorically link meat and female bodies again.  But this time, in an ironic reversal, it’s designed to condemn the way we treat animals, not the way we treat women.

And, forty years later, feminists are still saying “Please, can we not do the women/meat thing?”

So Canada denies PETA a permit for the launching of this new ad campaign.  An official explains: “…it goes against all principles public organizations are fighting for in the everlasting battle of equality between men and women” (source).  What a nice thing to say, feminists think.

But Anderson fights feminism with feminism:

How sad that a woman would be banned from using her own body in a political protest over the suffering of cows and chickens… In some parts of the world, women are forced to cover their whole bodies with burqas—is that next?

Yes, Pamela, I’m sure that’s next.

But I digress.

So PETA and Anderson must think that Canadians super-super-respect women like totally and never-never-objectify them to the degree that saying that animals are like women will suddenly inspire horror at the prospect of using animals for food?  Or is it that they think men will see the image and be like “oooh I’d really like to rub up against that rump” and then suddenly find cows too sexy to eat?  Or they don’t give a shit about women and are willing to use whatever attention-getting tactic they can to save animals from going under the knife (including using the body of a woman that has, um, gone under the knife)?

I submit this for discussion because I just don’t know.

More from PETA: women packaged like meat, and in cages, women who love animals get naked (men wear clothes), the banned superbowl ad, and a collection of various PETA advertising using (mostly women’s) nudity. See also my post on leftist balkanization, or the way that leftist social movements tend to undermine each other.

If you’re interested further, you may want to read Carol Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat and The Pornography of Meat.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.