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Womanhood(s) in the United States: Cultural, Social, and Political Conflict in Achieving Equality since the 1920s

Sorbonne Nouvelle University, Paris, May 19 and 20, 2022
Laura Benoit

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1Anne Légier (Aix-Marseille University), Amélie Ribieras (Paris 2 – Panthéon Assas University) and Christen Bryson (Sorbonne Nouvelle University) organized on May 19th and 20th a symposium on womanhood(s) in the United States, that aimed at exploring the different ways in which feminine identities are built and experienced in the United States. The conference featured two keynote speeches that framed the event and shed light on highly debated issues surrounding womanhood: the Equal Rights Amendment and the history of women opposing the right to abortion. Throughout the event, panelists, keynote speakers and chairs discussed the construction of womanhood through discourses, practices and research. The diversity of presentations and perspectives that were expressed in the conference aimed at an exhaustive approach of the subject, and the number of presentations itself demonstrates the dynamism of women’s studies. The common element that came back in many of the presentations that were given was that these were subjects that had been dismissed or overlooked by historians, sociologists or critics. This specific aspect emphasizes the need for events like the one organized by Christen Bryson, Anne Légier and Amélie Ribieras to multiply and contribute to a consolidation of the research field in France.

2The first day of the conference opened with a short presentation by the three organizers, who then introduced Julie C. Suk (Professor of Law, Fordham University), who gave a keynote speech entitled “We the Women: The Unstoppable Mothers of the Equal Rights Amendment.” Professor Suk’s presentation allowed the spectators to grasp the complexity of the amendment proposal through a series of chronological steps, from its introduction in Congress in 1923 to the end of its deadline procedure in 2021. She shed light on the lability of the measure by underlining the evolution in its reception both by the political class, feminist activists and the American population. Julie C. Suk then reflected on the numerous women who were involved in the making and attempt at passing the ERA in the United States. Among them, she mentioned two very interesting figures: Dorothy Kenyon, lawyer for the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), who stated that the ERA “would operate like a blind man with a shotgun” and could be exploited and manipulated by progressives as well as by conversative politicians once established, and Barbara Jordan. Jordan, the first African American woman elected to the Texas Senate, campaigned for the abolition of the ERA deadline, underlining the inherent organic aspect of legal measures, and the need for these to evolve through time. This keynote presentation gave an insightful review of Bella Abzug’s, Florence Dwyer’s, Shirley Chisholm’s or Florence Kelley’s involvement in the debate around the Equal Rights Amendment and thus pointed out the necessity for researchers to pay greater attention to the way women have shaped the history of American legislation and politics, especially when they were directly concerned by ambitious measures such as the ERA.

3The first panel of the day revolved around female voices and the expression of womanhood(s). The first intervention, by Anaïs Le Fèvre-Berthelot (Rennes 2 University), explored the “Echoes of Womanhood” and was subtitled “Listening to Women’s Voices in WNYC’s Archives.” She successfully presented the technological bias that prevented women from being heard on the air in the 1920s and 1930s, at a time when radio programs flourished. Female voices were largely considered to be unsuitable for the technological equipment of radio stations, thus effectively silencing women, and undermining the legitimacy of their voices on certain subjects. Anaïs Le Fèvre-Berthelot’s main idea was that behind the physiological excuses that were found to prevent women from presenting shows or from talking on the air, there was an ideological rigidity surrounding the places and roles that were traditionally assigned to women, who were seen as potential entertainers, but not as legitimate presenters. By putting forward the few women who succeeded in being heard on radio stations throughout the twentieth century, Le Fèvre-Berthelot made a compelling case for gender trouble on the air.

4The second presentation of the panel was given by Professor Cécile Coquet-Mokoko (University of Versailles – Saint Quentin), and tackled “White Girl Tears, Black Girl Magic, The Politics of Emotions in Shaping Twenty-First Century American Womanhood.” Cécile Coquet-Mokoko presented her field work about the daily management of emotions and the constrictive tropes that are attached to black and white women’s emotions in the United States. She opened her presentation by effectively pointing out the power of white women’s emotions and specifically tears, in escaping guilt or responsibility, using the example of Amber Guyguer’s attitude and treatment during her trial in 2019. Professor Coquet-Mokoko then proceeded to present her field work, conducted with her former students in Alabama. She had the opportunity to discuss the display and management of emotions with black female students, specifically linking their daily experience to traditional tropes such as the angry black woman, or the strong black woman, thus shining a light on the expectations weighing on African American women, and their way of shaping the daily lives of young women.

5The second panel of the day was articulated around the power to frame, and more specifically around the discourses about motherhood and abortion in the United States. The first presentation of the panel was given by Méliné Kasparian-Le Fèvre (Bordeaux Montaigne University) and tackled “Ana Castillo’s Intersectional Reflections on Motherhood and Equality.” Through various examples taken from Castillo’s poems and prose, Méliné Kasparian-Le Fèvre shed light on the author’s denunciation of the patriarchal ideal of women as mothers. In order to challenge this patriarchal ideal, Ana Castillo redefines the figure of the Virgin Mary through the Virgen of Guadalupe. Méliné Kasparian-Le Fèvre spent time explaining Castillo’s vision of motherhood as a collective responsibility and insisted on her intersectional vision, especially through works such as “Recipes for a Welfare Mother.”

6Christen Bryson (Sorbonne Nouvelle University) then gave a compelling presentation entitled “Just a Housewife: Where Does Equality Figure into the Discourse and Attitudes toward Women’s Domestic Roles as Mothers and Wives?” Using the critique of the American housewife role in the 1960s, especially through seminal feminist texts such as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Christen Bryson asked the following question: if women devoting their lives to child-rearing and domestic work were seen as a threat to the feminist project, what status or space were they left with? Bryson aptly compared domestic work in the 1960s and in contemporary America and found that women still carry most of the mental load in heterosexual couples. She built a convincing demonstration around the idea that mothers and housewives in general are socially and economically beneficial to families and to society in general, and that their role cannot be undermined, nor overlooked.

7The final presentation in this panel was given by Michael Stambolis-Ruhstorfer (Bordeaux Montaigne University) who discussed “The Role of Experts in the Abortion Politics of Personhood in the United States.” This riveting presentation offered insight on the World Health Organization report about the safety of the process of abortion, and on its detractors, who, in vast majority, are not qualified doctors. Michael Stambolis-Ruhstorfer insisted on the idea that people who are looking for expert advice about abortion are often confronted with a co-production of knowledge on the matter, through the encounter of politicized science and morality politics. Stambolis-Ruhstorfer pointed out the relevance of debating the position, role and professional background of researchers or of the various actors who take part in the debate around abortion, and especially of discussing the ideological and material alliances between policymakers, activists, and knowledge producers who coordinate their fights, and shape the public opinion about abortion. He underlined the necessity of always identifying the political agenda beneath the medical or pseudo-medical opinion in order to avoid the medicalization of sensitive issues such as the ontological status of unborn children.

8The first day of the conference ended with a third panel about the possibility of navigating marginalization. Jeanette W. Cockroft (Schreiner University) gave a presentation on “The Early Senate Career of U.S Senator Margaret Chase Smith” and explored the impact of gender on the political career of the first successful female politicians elected in the post-suffrage era. She underlined the way Margaret Chase Smith tried to use gender to reveal the uniqueness of her candidacy during her Senate election, insisting on the way women can elevate the tone of the political debate. But Cockroft also pointed out the versatility of those arguments, some of which were used against Smith in order to discredit her. Jeanette Cockroft compellingly painted the portrait of Smith as a woman driven by first-wave ideas, i.e. by the moral superiority of women. The presentation underlined the gendered dimension of politics but also their time-related nature, highlighting Smith’s biggest victories as a politician as well as her struggle to embrace the evolution of feminist ideas in the second wave.

9Soukayna Mniaï (Paris Nanterre University) then gave a presentation on Title IX and “Fighting Sexual Violence on U.S. College Campuses by Reframing it as Sex Discrimination.” She aptly discussed the double vision of sexual violence as both a criminal issue to be addressed by the police and the justice system and as a civil rights issue to be tackled by institutions of higher education. Soukayna Mniaï retraced the chronological history of sexual violence in higher education through the examples of two lawsuits: Alexander v. Yale (1977) and Davis v. Monroa County Schools (1999). She presented the way Title IX has been leveraged to hold colleges accountable for instances of sexual violence, leading 300 institutions to be investigated by the OCR (Office for Civil Rights) in 2016. Mniaï ended her presentation by underlining the limitations of such procedures and the reluctance of colleges to punish teachers, thus doing the bare minimum to comply with Title IX and OCR requests.

10The first day of the conference ended with a presentation by Elizabeth Katz (Washington University in Saint Louis) on “The United States’ First Women Judges, 1870-1960.” Katz shed light on the way female suffrage changed public opinion on female office, quoting Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s idea that women must be equal companions to men and thus need to hold office. She stated that the careers of female judges have been overlooked in American history, sometimes reduced to articles in newspapers, but rarely recorded as a valuable historical subject, despite the various supporters of women’s inclusion in the judiciary, especially thanks to their proven success as probation officers.

11The second day of the conference was inaugurated with a keynote speech from Karissa Haugeberg (Tulane University) on “The Paradox of Violent Women in the U.S. Antiabortion Movement.” After the publication of her book on the female figures who helped create the modern antiabortion movement, a book that aimed at better theorizing the lives and opinions of conservative women in the U.S., Karissa Haugeberg spent time studying female violence within the movement. Her goal is to dispel the gender stereotypes attached to women, and especially the one that undermines women as not courageous or strong enough to be violent. In the antiabortion movement, there is a history of intense violence, especially on the part of women who benefitted from the coverture system and feared a diminished social status if motherhood became optional. In the early 1970s, it was indeed very common for conservative women to defend their status and to commit to the antiabortion movement, or sometimes to oppose desegregation. Karissa Haugeberg spent time describing the activities of antiabortion supporters such as The Rescue Movement or Joan Andrews, one of the most violent antiabortion activists. She finally highlighted the importance of working on violent women and on the enormous threat that antiabortion activists represented for abortion clinics and doctors in general.

12A first panel on disrupting gender norms and hierarchies opened with a presentation by Néfertiti Ngoupande-Nah (Paul Valéry – Montpellier 3 University) on “Annie Malone, Beauty Culture and the Struggle for Respectability.” Using the example of Annie Malone, the first African American woman to become a millionaire, Ngoupande-Nah explained that African American women in the 1920s and 1930s were a site of discussion through which the whole community of race could see its progress towards equality and the uplift of African Americans as a group. In order to fight the many stereotypes associated to black womanhood, such as the Jezebel, African American women strove to constantly prove their respectability, seen as a solution in the struggle for racial equality. Annie Malone, member of the Temperance Movement, created a line of haircare products specifically designed to fight hair loss among African American women. Her ambitions were first seen as superficial but, as Néfertiti Ngoupande-Nah proved, she developed specific strategies that were successful in promoting beauty care and work as a form of racial uplift service in the United States.

13The second presentation on the panel was given by Sarah Rowley (DePauw University) and tackled the subject of “Governing Bodies: Congresswomen and Crises of Gender in the 1970s.” Sarah Rowley started from the observation that, in the 1970s, elected women representatives reached a critical number, but were still excluded from some chambers and occupations. Rowley’s study revolved around bodies and spaces on Capitol Hill, enhancing the idea that spaces of power in the 1970s were most of the time gender-segregated spaces. Sarah Rowley’s sites of research, presented during the talk, include the military, and a subsequent reflection on the reasons—mainly biological—people had to oppose female enlistment in the 1970s, and Congress, with a specific focus on mothers in Congress. She concluded that the increasing physical presence of women in and around the Capitol increased talk about feminism and the female condition in general, and in turn led people to question the way politicians, especially men, socialize among themselves.

14The third talk was given by Paula Read (University of Bristol) and was entitled “Blinded by the Sunbonnet: The Long Shadow of the Pioneer Myth on American Womanhood.” The presentation explored white womanhood in the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and its impact on white feminists and activists. Paula Read presented the sunbonnet myth, the ideal pioneer woman on the frontier: a cheerful, civilized and civilizing woman, also known as the Madonna of the Prairies. Read insisted on the fact that in the United States the myth was created retroactively and passed on though cultural contents such as stories, novels or TV series, for example the famous Little House on the Prairie, that shaped childhood memories across the territory. She then underlined the necessity of de-centering the history of white women pioneers and of expanding the vantage points, something that still needs to be done.

15After the lunch, a panel centered on the process of becoming visible as a woman opened with Alice Morin’s (Phillips-Universität Marburg and Sorbonne Nouvelle University) insightful presentation on women’s magazines: “Playing with the Look: Mainstream Women’s Magazines as Sites for (De)Constructing Womanhood, from Producers to Readers to Researchers.” Using mainstream, iconic American magazines Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, Alice Morin explored the way femininity is conveyed and sometimes learnt through women’s magazines. She presented women’s magazines as a site for the articulation of various female voices, especially with the shift in the 1960s from a rigid, restrained ideal of femininity to a semantic field of change and revolution under the influence of second-wave feminism, with feminist icons such as Gloria Steinem appearing on covers. Women’s magazines were also identified as cultural and economic tools visibilizing ideals of white, young, thin femininity over other profiles. As an industry that has relied on advertising more than on sale for its revenues, the American magazine industry has been intent on pleasing audiences by staying fresh and trying to be relevant, but still lacks women in key power positions.

16Mohamed Lamine Mariko (Aix-Marseille University) then gave a presentation on “The Practice of Black Womanhood in Washington, D.C. in the 1920s” and presented work that is to be included in his doctoral dissertation, in which he explores the intellectual history of Anna Julia Cooper. Mohamed Lamine Mariko spent time defining the different challenges faced by African American women in the United States in the 1920s, often stuck between diverging definitions of womanhood, black womanhood and African American womanhood. Although some of the very active women of Washington tried to fight injustices, the ideological context of the 1920s forced them to seek balance between activism and respectability. The practice of black womanhood was built through shared political interests, for example with the National League of Colored Women, and was especially dynamic in Washington, described by Marion Bacher as “a thriving center for African Americans who were proverbially climbing the social ladder.” In order to become visible, some African American figures of the 1920s resorted to literacy, conversation and salons as ways of becoming visible, respectable, but also advertise their opinions.

17The last panel of the conference revolved around the theme of fragmented womanhood(s), and explored clashes, dissensions and conflicting ideas of activism and feminism in the United States. The panel opened with a presentation by Isobel Ashby (University of Wisconsin-Madison), who discussed “Recruiting Right-to-Lifers: Feminists for Life of America at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1991-2003.” Ashby started by stating that historians have long studied student movements on campuses, for example with the anti-Vietnam war movements in colleges but have sometimes overlooked other lesser-known movements such as Feminists for Life (FFL), a college-based movement that reunited mothers, students and professionals. Founded in 1972, the FFL movement sought to combat the accusation that it was anti-women and to recruit more members. Its relative success at UW-Madison came from its focus on women’s lives and living conditions more than on fetuses, which resonated with students. Through this presentation, Ashby shed light on the diversification of pro-life tactics since the 1990s, especially with FFL’s flagship publication The American Feminist and its support from famous actresses Hunter Tylo and Patricia Heaton. She then reminded the audience of the necessity of studying diverse student movements, that can sometimes hold very conservative views, such as Feminists for Life, who insist on the idea that abortion is erected as a choice that is liberating for women, but in fact might be the opposite.

18The second presentation was given by Laura Benoit (Aix-Marseille University) who presented her preliminary research on American miniseries Mrs. America (FX, 2020), starring Cate Blanchett as antifeminist activist Phyllis Schlafly. She pointed out the need for researchers to study TV series not as historical documents but as tools that can help us understand the context in which they have been produced, and thus here the creative team’s and more globally the industry’s point of view on a specific historical period. Focused on the fight for the ERA ratification in the 1970s, Mrs. America juxtaposes the lives of Phyllis Schlafly and other conservative activists with the fight carried out by feminist figures such as Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem or Bella Abzug. Laura Benoit underlined the similarities in the way these women are filmed, and the common narrative space that is opened thanks to editing in the series. Bridging the gap between feminists and antifeminists, Mrs. America attempts to build common spaces for women to cohabit in and reminds us of the relevance of the ERA in the light of its ratification by a series of new states since 2017.

19The final presentation of the day was given by Amy Achenbach (Baylor University, Texas) and focused on “Sororities and Conflicting Feminist Interpretations of Title IX, 1972-1974.” Achenbach looked back on the creation of sororities and on the Greek letter system that emerged as soon as the creation of some colleges, as is the case with Kappa Alpha, that was created in 1825 at Union College, New York. Insisting on the federating and structuring aspect of the Greek letter system on American campuses, Amy Achenbach explained that Title IX became a threat in 1974, when colleges announced that sororities would not be exempt from complying with sub-part D of the measure, effectively ensuring that no organization discriminates on the basis of sex. The decision to dismantle sororities triggered intense debate that generated a clash between different feminist ideologies and languages: were sororities a means to empower women or a rigid, discriminating space? Through the history of sororities and the fight in defense of the Greek system, especially in the Senate, Amy Achenbach helped us understand that sororities are places where femininity is built and that their very existence corresponds to a certain political paradigm.

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Laura Benoit, « Womanhood(s) in the United States: Cultural, Social, and Political Conflict in Achieving Equality since the 1920s »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2022, mis en ligne le 06 décembre 2022, consulté le 02 février 2023. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/19947 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/transatlantica.19947

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Laura Benoit

Aix-Marseille University

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