It was the absurd question that lingered, for me, above the din of the leadership coup: whether Julia Gillard was a real female Prime Minister, or a leader who was female. That one should seek to make that distinction, and from within an ostensibly progressive, feminist frame, is baffling enough. But there is a weariness that sets in. To grasp the discomfiting essentialism that still dominates the discourse on gender gives one temporal vertigo. Where are we, or rather, when are we? Why does progress never seem to leave the station?
Last year at a book fair I picked up a number of issues of the feminist magazine Broasdsheet, and also a handful of the glossy monthly Woman and Home ('incorporating Everywoman'). The two collections dated roughly to the same years (late 1960s / early 1970s) and offer as stark a study in contrast as you might guess judging from the two sample covers reproduced above. A comparative reading of the two texts is a useful reminder that vastly different attitudes about issues such as the role of women in society can and do coexist; that their history is not linear. Of interest to today's proceedings is a pull-out career advice guide that Woman and Home offered to its readers in July of 1967, shown to me by a friend. As its authors stated
The choosing of a career is a particularly exciting decision to make these days as there have never been so many fascinating opportunities open to us.And what are these opportunities? In no particular order: teacher, school matron, survey interviewer, manicurist, traffic warden, guide lecturer, corsetiere, GPO telephonist, 'with the WRVS overseas', librarian, demonstrator, air stewardess, travel agent, working at sea, secretary, in the women's services, matron in an old people's home, auxiliary medical worker, radiographer, medical laboratory technician, nurse, physiotherapist, occupational therapist, speech therapist, fashion model, fashion buyer, dress designer, hairdresser, beautician, TV make-up artist – while the second and final instalment would deal with 'working with animals, on the land, in the hotel and catering industry, in social service, in broadcasting and journalism, and in the artistic world of art, music, drama and dancing.'
This was the spectrum, the gamut, that a magazine of a practical bent – one that sought to work within society as opposed to struggle against it – might feel inclined to tell its female readership about without incurring the risk of wasting their time.
It’s a list that might be best summarised as follows: be a nurse, not a doctor. It’s the narrowing of the prospects and experience of women that the writers of Broadsheet struggled against. Broadsheet had its practical streak, too, and ran a series on manual work (favourite instalment: 'plumbing demystified', November '74), correctly identifying how barring women from – or not teaching women about – even the most menial of the tasks traditionally regarded as the preserve of men was a form of oppression. But feminism in this period was also developing the vocabulary and the systematic tools for critiquing the representation of women in society. This work found one of its best expressions nationally in Judith Aitken's book A Woman's place?, an admirably accessible little handbook which includes suggestions on how to quantify sexism in texts such as schoolbooks according to criteria that are very reminiscent of the Bechdel test.
It is testament to the effectiveness of these consciousness-raising efforts, as much as to the success that women have had in making inroads into most professions, that a mainstream magazine nowadays would likely be unable to produce such a crassly limiting list of jobs for its female readers to take a crack at. Both the list and the criticism however remind us that the working woman is herself a social construct, as the propaganda that made and unmade Rosie the Riveter had already sharply underscored. As such, as always, we would expect it to find some of its most transparent expressions in children's books.
While different editions of Richard Scarry's works already exemplified this, there is a much more obscure book that has become an object of periodic debate on the web, ever since it was re-discovered and digitised by an American blogger in 2008. I've reproduced a selection of the pages below, but you'll find the whole set at her place.
These are wonderful little vignettes, I hope you'll agree. The first problem for the internet archaeologist is to place them in time. How old would you say this book is? If you guessed 1950s, you're in the good company of the writer who covered it for Feministing, although why she didn't check the date on page 3, I'm not sure. Had she done it, she would have discovered that the book was in fact published in 1970.
Problem number two then is to establish if it's for real, as it were. The fact that it was published as late as it was, and that its author had worked as a cartoonist for the New Yorker, have made many people conclude – in that blog's comments, later quoted as evidence by Slate – that the book must be a piece of satire. Personally, I have strong doubts. I see nothing in that date – after the Woman and Home career guide, of which it is the perfect companion; before Broadsheet, of which it is the perfect foil – that suggests that 1970 was too late to produce a sexist manual for children. In fact an acquaintance with popular culture of this period suggests it may have been a cartoonist's backlash to the women's liberation movement, which – like its anti-68 counterpart – was a rich genre. Too many of the vignettes are too benign for satire. Likewise the saccharine resolution militates strongly against the idea of a biting piece of social critique. There are also none of the metatextual clues that we might expect if the book was really aimed at adults. Down to its dedication to 'Bob and Hermine' – who sound suspiciously like they may be the children of the author – this appears in all respect like a straight children's book.
If it is, then it may elicit that paradoxical feeling of nostalgia for the forms that prejudice used to take, and that are offered as an overt object of aesthetic appreciation in Mad Men. There may be some comfort to be derived from the fact that it is no longer possible to put women in their place quite so crudely – if that's even true. But we are also the societies who debate if a politician was a real female Prime Minister. Not a feminist one. Not a progressive one. A female one. A 'real' female one. (With or without the scare quotes, which make not a blind bit of difference.) And so we might choose instead to study these documents, these artefacts from earlier eras of sexism, not for what has changed – the language, the code – but for what hasn't. For the things that are still so hard to assert: about equality, about the work of women, about the empire of the family. This may be a more useful measure of our progress.
Google Reader is going to shut down today, whether or not in time for any of my subscribers to be directed to this post I'm not entirely sure. If you're not going to switch to another RSS service but still have a mild interest in following this blog, may I politely direct you to my email list? It's an automated affair run by feedburner. It's been going for a while but I've never explicitly advertised it - seems a good opportunity to do so now.