gender: history

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):

1

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.

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):

1

1965, via Jassy-50:

1

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:

1

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, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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.

4502flappers

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.

450thomasbrooks

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.

 

450clarabow

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.

450twentiescar

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.

450flappertoon

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.

425flapperfashion

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.

450loneflapper

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.

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:

-1

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):

Picture 1

Picture 2

Picture 3

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

Picture 4

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.

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”.

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.

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:

680f6_celebrity-pictures-jennifer-anniston-nipples-friends

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.)

0_2806c_528ae45_l

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, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Screenshot_1In this charming minute-and-a-half, Walter Cronkite demos the home office of 2001, as envisioned in 1967.  Amazingly, reality seems to have far outpaced their imagination!

I love the first line, by the way: “This is where a man might spend most of his time in the home of the 21st century.”  Apparently professional futurists in 1967 couldn’t imagine women working!

Via Cyborgology.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Cross-posted at The Huffington Post.

Why do women wear high heels?  Because men did.

Men were the first sex to don the shoe. They were adopted by the European aristocracy of the 1600s as a signal of status.  The logic was: only someone who didn’t have to work could possibly go around in such impractical footwear.  (Interestingly, this was the same logic that encouraged footbinding in China.)

Women started wearing heels as a way of trying to appropriate masculine power.  In the BBC article on the topic, Elizabeth Semmelhack, who curates a shoe museum, explains:

In the 1630s you had women cutting their hair, adding epaulettes to their outfits…

They would smoke pipes, they would wear hats that were very masculine. And this is why women adopted the heel — it was in an effort to masculinise their outfits.

The lower classes also began to wear high heels, as fashions typically filter down from elite.

How did the elite respond to imitation from “lesser” people: women and workers?  First, the heels worn by the elite became increasingly high in order to maintain upper class distinction.  And, second, heels were differentiated into two types: fat and skinny. Fat heels were for men, skinny for women.

This is a beautiful illustration of Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of class distinction.  Bourdieu argued that aesthetic choices function as markers of class difference.  Accordingly, the elite will take action to present themselves differently than non-elites, choosing different clothing, food, decor, etc.  Expensive prices help keep certain things the province of elites, allowing them to signify their power; but imitation is inevitable.  Once something no longer effectively differentiates the rich from the rest, the rich will drop it.  This, I argue elsewhere, is why some people care about counterfeit purses (because it’s not about the quality, it’s about the distinction).

Eventually men quit wearing heels because their association with women tainted their power as a status symbol for men.  (This, by the way, is exactly what happened with cheerleading, originally exclusively for men).  With the Enlightenment, which emphasized rationality (i.e., practical footwear), everyone quit wearing high heels.

What brought heels back for women? Pornography.  Mid-nineteenth century pornographers began posing female nudes in high heels, and the rest is history.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.