Beauty as a Pathway to Democracy

Friday, April 16, 2021, 1:30 PM - 2:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Gender and Sexuality; Race


This panel will explore how women intervened in debates over the political relevance of beauty to create new "pathways to democracy.” At first glance, beauty might seem irrelevant to democracy, an aesthetic judgement contained within the realm of visual culture or a prompt to sexual desires that should be repressed in the public sphere. Yet, women seeking to participate in democratic politics have found expectations about beauty blocking their way. As presenters will explain, white women who ventured into public life in the nineteenth century immediately met objections that they were rendering themselves ugly. Women of color faced additional hurdles as white Americans, both women and men, invested in notions of racial hierarchy premised on aesthetic judgement. For black women in particular, white people's refusal to recognize black beauty became a necessary barrier to breach for club women in the nineteenth century as it was for black power activists in the twentieth. For this panel, participants will explore some of the ways in which women took up and contested beauty standards in order to open new paths to democratic citizenship and political power. In the mid-nineteenth century, as Rachel Walker will demonstrate, beauty was a science. Physiognomists and phrenologists alleged that black women's supposedly retreating foreheads or white women's delicate brows proved beyond a doubt their incapacity for civic life. Abolitionists and women's rights activists revised these scientific standards, arguing that intelligence beamed from the faces of prominent women. Corinne Field will follow these activists into the 1890s when veteran public speakers highlighted age-linked beauty standards as a mechanism by which white men retained political power. For a brief moment, black and white suffragists fought to separate beauty from girlishness and redefine middle age as the moment when women could achieve a charismatic attractiveness that would demonstrate their capacity for national leadership. By the 1920s, youth culture offered the best path to citizenship for young black women migrating to urban areas, as Einav Rabinovitch-Fox will argue. By adopting modern fashions and hairstyles, "black flappers" placed themselves at the forefront of racial progress and demanded full inclusion in modern, urban forms of citizenship. These debates over beauty, race, and freedom continued to shape African American public culture after World War II, as Breanna Wynn Greer will detail through an analysis of readers' letters-to-the editor of Ebony magazine. By debating who and what counted as beautiful, black women and men in the post-war United States defined consumption and modernity as tickets to first-class citizenship. Tiffany Gill will bring her expertise on African American beauty and leisure to the position of chair and commentator. She will encourage discussion from the audience so as to generate new insights about how beauty functions as a path to democracy in other arenas not addressed in the presentations. By raising questions about the intersections of beauty, race, and age, participants on this panel redraw the boundaries between public and private forms of power, suggesting how sexual desire and consumer culture shape democratic politics.

Papers Presented

Female Beauty, Popular Science, and the Politics of Women’s Citizenship in Nineteenth-Century America

In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, hundreds of American women joined the abolitionist movement, advocated for married women’s property laws, and fought for female suffrage. When they did so, they faced virulent criticism from those who sought to maintain existing hierarchies. Historians have long recognized this fact, analyzing the various techniques that gender conservatives used to undermine female reformers. But my paper examines this conflict through a new lens: the history of popular science. In particular, it focuses on physiognomy and phrenology. These disciplines were predicated on the notion that people’s heads and faces revealed their intelligence, personality, and character. By showing how antebellum Americans used physiognomy and phrenology to denigrate the minds of women and people of color, this paper reveals how people used science to justify an exclusive vision of U.S. citizenship. It argues, for instance, that physicians and popular writers used phrenology to claim that white women’s “narrow” brows and black women’s supposedly “retreating” foreheads signaled their intellectual deficiencies (and, by extension, their inability to be full members of the body politic). Yet this paper also shows how female reformers fought back against these discourses and used popular sciences to craft alternative beauty standards. Rather than rejecting physiognomy and phrenology, women adopted and coopted these disciplines to defend their mental capacities. By emphasizing their “high brows” and “intelligent countenances,” female reformers used science to advocate for the intellectual equality of the sexes, undermine racial sciences, and craft more inclusive visions of American citizenship.

Presented By
Rachel Walker, University of Hartford

Fashioning the Black Flapper: The Politics of Race, Beauty, and Power during the First Great Migration

During the 1920s, debates over black women’s bodies, clothing, hair, and general appearance stood at the center of public attention and political discourse over gender and race equality. In particular, the image of the “black flapper,” with her short hair, skirts, and overt sexuality, symbolized the new reality of urbanization and social upheaval that defined the period of the Great Migration. Middle-class reformers, young black migrants, as well as new role models such as female performers and blues singers, all used the flapper’s fashions to redefine notions of beauty, respectability, and freedom on their own terms. For these women, fashion became intertwined with questions of racial progress and inclusion in American society, offering a way to make claims for equal citizenship that moved beyond individual expressions and preferences. Fashion offered an accessible route to challenge white racist stereotypes regarding black femininity and beauty. Yet, it was also a useful tool to claim new freedoms and achieve economic mobility, challenging intra-racial notions of respectability and gender roles. This paper highlights the place of fashion as a critical political realm for African Americans women who were often barred from access to formal routes of power in the era of Jim Crow. Shifting the perspective beyond official forms of civil rights activism, it argues that fashion enabled black women to carve new positions of power from which they could actively participate in gender and racial politics, demanding their equal place in American society.

Presented By
Einav Rabinovitch-Fox, Case Western Reserve University

“What’s wrong with a decent picture of a Negro girl?”: Ebony Magazine, Beauty, and Black Citizenship

In 1945, John H. Johnson founded Ebony, a large-format, photo-magazine, which he characterized as the black counterpart to LIFE magazine. An immediate bestseller, Ebony contained articles, editorials, photo-essays and advertisements targeted to the interests, demands, and aspirations of postwar consumer markets of African Americans who were enriched by the war and who were “going places they had never been before and doing things they had never done before” and “wanted to see that.” From the beginning, the magazine’s content, sales, and reception revealed a preoccupation among African Americans concerning the politics of beauty. Johnson relied on sexualized images of black women to market Ebony, and a great deal of the magazine’s articles, editorials, photo-essays, and advertising were devoted to promoting black women’s beauty. Responding to this content, Ebony consumers consistently articulated – and hotly debated – who and what was beautiful and why it mattered. In this paper, I approach Ebony as visual culture and a consumer product that greatly influenced and was influenced by black America’s beauty standards. Central to my examination are Ebony consumers’ letters-to-the-editor, which I contextualize in relation to the magazine’s broader content and function(s) as well as trends that defined postwar U.S. culture and politics. Ebony, I argue, constituted a black “public sphere” in which the magazine’s producers and consumers forged associations between beauty and African Americans’ social advancement in the postwar United States that elevated modernity and consumerism as fundamentals of first-class citizenship in ways that significantly informed postwar civil rights politics and performances.

Presented By
Brenna Wynn Greer, Wellesley College

Middle-Aged Beauty, the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, and Black Women's Political Leadership in the 1890s

When African American women founded the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs (NACW) in 1896, they created a new platform for black women to claim authority as political leaders. Questions about age-linked standards of beauty quickly emerged as a topic for debate as club women protested the ways in which white and black men sexualized young black girls and then marginalized or denigrated older black women. The middle-aged activists who filled leadership positions in the NACW argued that mature black women embodied a charismatic form of beauty that combined physical attractiveness with experienced judgement, beauty that deserved respect and signified authority. Some of these women reached out to white suffragists who were challenging the ridicule heaped upon old maids and old women in white public culture. As prominent black club women aged in public during the 1890s, they fought to redefine black women's midlife as a path to political power. Through deliberate self-fashioning, interventions in visual culture, and political theory, black women's rights activists innovated new strategies for convincing Americans that mature women belonged in public life. These ideas and strategies receded in the twentieth century, as black suffragists embraced the spirit of youth and presented young women as the face of new negro womanhood. By tracking these shifting strategies, I will focus on age as a vector of power and explain how attention to age opens new angles from which to understand the history of social movements.

Presented By
Corinne T. Field, University of Virginia

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Tiffany Melissa Gill, University of Delaware
Dr. Tiffany M. Gill is the John and Patricia Cochran Scholar and Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History at the University of Delaware. She is the author of Beauty Shop Politics: African American Women's Activism in the Beauty Industry (University of Illinois Press, 2010)which was awarded the 2010 Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Book Prize by the Association of Black Women Historians. Dr. Gill’s research has been supported by the American Association of University Women and the National Endowment of the Humanities. Professor Gill is an OAH Distinguished Lecturer and is currently at work on a book manuscript chronicling the promise and peril of African American international leisure travel since World War One. You can find her on social media @SableVictorian.

Presenter: Corinne T. Field, University of Virginia
Corinne Field is an Associate Professor of Women, Gender & Sexuality at the University of Virginia. She is currently completing a monograph entitled Grand Old Women and Modern Girls: Age, Race, and Power in the US Women's Rights Movement, 1870 to 1920 and co-editing with LaKisha Simmons an interdisciplinary anthology on the global history of black girlhood. She is the author of The Struggle for Equal Adulthood: Gender, Race, Age, and the Fight for Citizenship in Antebellum America (University of North Carolina Press, 2014) and co-editor with Nicholas Syrett of Age in America: Colonial Era to the Present (New York University Press, 2015). Field is the co-founder of the History of Black Girlhood Network, an informal collaboration of scholars working to promote research into the historical experience of black girls, and she was the co-organizer of the Global History of Black Girlhood Conference held at the University of Virginia, April 17-18, 2017. During the 2018-2019 academic year she was the Mellon-Schlesinger Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.

Presenter: Brenna Wynn Greer, Wellesley College
Brenna Wynn Greer is an Associate Professor of History at Wellesley College. She is a historian of race, gender, and culture in the twentieth century United States, who explores historical connections between capitalism, social movements and visual culture. Her first book, Represented: The Black Imagemakers Who Reimagined African American Citizenship (University of Pennsylvania Press), examines the historical circumstances that made the media representation of black citizenship good business in the post-World War II era. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, Nation, Daily Mail, Enterprise & Society, and Columbia Journalism Review. She is currently at work on her second book, which examines the postwar development of black commercial publishing and its significance within U.S. culture and black life.

Presenter: Einav Rabinovitch-Fox, Case Western Reserve University
Einav Rabinovitch-Fox is a Visiting Assistant Professor in History at Case Western Reserve University. She holds a PhD in History from New York University (2014) in modern U.S history, with a particular focus on women's and gender history. Her research examines the connections between fashion, politics, and modernity, and she is particularly interested in the ways in which visual and material culture has shaped and reflected class, gender, and racial identities. Her forthcoming book, Dressed for Freedom: The Fashionable Politics of American Feminism, explores women’s political uses of clothing and appearance to promote feminist agendas during the long 20th century. In addition, Einav has published extensively on fashion, femininity, advertising, and feminism in both scholarly publications and popular media. Her most recent article appeared in the International Journal of Fashion Studies in 2019.

Presenter: Rachel Walker, University of Hartford
Rachel Walker is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Hartford, where she teaches courses on the history of race, gender, and sexuality. She is currently working on her first book project, Beauty and the Brain: The Science of the Mind in Early America, which reveals how people used popular sciences to debate, contest, and enforce social hierarchies. Her dissertation was a finalist for the SHEAR Dissertation Prize in 2019, and her research has been supported by various archives and institutions, including the Smithsonian Museum, the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and the American Antiquarian Society.