Radical Roles in Herstory
THERE WAS NO DOUBT: The girl had “It.”
You could tell by just looking at her: the painted rosebud lips, the bobbed hair and short dress, the sparkle in her eye. Standing behind the counter in the lingerie department of the fancy department store in the 1927 silent film It, Clara Bow exuded sex appeal. This was a girl who had fun, a girl who did what she wanted and didn’t care what anyone thought, a girl who wasn’t bound to the traditional notion that a woman’s place was in the home. She worked for a living, thank you very much, and she would continue to work. That is, until she met the “right” man.
“Clara Bow is absolutely the perfect embodiment of the flapper,” instructor Katherine Hijar tells the students gathered for her summer course, Women in Society. “She is like a surrogate for working women. She represents the audience’s aspirations, their dreams of becoming a star. Girls would ask themselves “What can I do to have ‘it?’”
The students—all women—listen intently. They smile as they try to wrap their heads around the idea that Bow’s “sexy saleslady” was a radical in the same way as suffragettes, whom they’ve just finished studying, or feminists in the Women’s Rights movement, whom they’ll get to later in the course.
“Clara Bow’s character seemed a lot more modern than the women we have been studying,” observes Katie Brownell, a student at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C. who is taking the three-credit history class. “She is living a life and displaying a personality that is the product of the hard work that the women before her have done,” she says. “She never could have been so bold and gotten away with it only a few decades earlier.”
However, some eight decades later, when reviewed by students with cascading earrings and mid-thigh miniskirts, Bow’s character, Betty Lou, seems so tame. She had a job, not a career. Success to her meant a husband and a home. And her “scandalous” dresses were shapeless and not really that short. What was the big deal? “I was just generally surprised at the extreme outrage regarding youth culture,” Brownell confesses, referring to the numerous newspaper and magazine stories that decried the appearance of these modern girls who didn’t wear corsets and bobbed their hair. “I know that older generations tend to react against youth, but the reaction in the ’20s really seemed over the top.”
In addition to readings, students in the class complete a short paper, a five-page take-home midterm, and a final assignment that includes a five- to eight-page paper based on an in-depth interview with a woman born in 1955 or earlier.
The class covers the history of women’s place in society. Students read biographical and autobiographical works about women who went beyond the norms of feminine behavior and put them in context within larger changes in American social, cultural, political, and economic history. It’s not all Susan B. Anthony and Gloria Steinem. They read the words of escaped slaves, factory workers, criminals, and prostitutes, too. Combined with the lectures, says Hijar, the readings are meant to give the students a close look at women’s experiences throughout history as a way of understanding the richness of the American past. And the richness of the present, too.
“What I want them to understand most is the world they live in today,” says Hijar, a graduate student in history. “I hope I’m giving them the analytical tools to understand the process of social change and to understand how what’s radical becomes normal.”