Class condemnation through film: Traffic in Souls and White Prostitution Films in the early 1900s

by Emilie Egger

White slave films like Traffic in Souls (Universal 1913) were all the rage in the early traffic_in_soulsProgressive Era in the United States. White slavery (forced prostitution of immigrants) was a topic of great concern during this time and in the years before World War I, became the focus of both government and non-government moral panic. While legislators pushed laws condemning the forced prostitution of immigrant women, reform-minded groups used whatever means they could to reinforce traditional family structure, and what they considered to be “middle-class values.” Directors and theater owners also joined the hype by creating and featuring films (purportedly) designed to combat this societal ill from the cinematic front.

Nickelodeons and motion picture palaces had always attracted lower-class and immigrant audiences. The price of a Nickelodeon movie was cheap enough for an immigrant’s income and the length of the feature not so long that s/he would have to miss work. Although theaters’ incomes were largely supported by this working-class demographic, around the beginning of the twentieth century theaters began attempting to attract what they thought was a more “respectable” class, namely women who were part of wealthier families than the newly designated “blue-collar” workers.

Only upper and middle class women were considered a part of this suddenly-valuable “respectable” demographic; the lower-class women, even though they continued to frequent theaters, became the fodder for the productions rather than valued customers. In many ways, the new “respectable women” were the foils to the lower-class immigrant women portrayed in the white-slave films, who were forced into compromising positions due to their poverty and need to work.

traffic in souls 2In Traffic in Souls, working women were portrayed as being in harm’s way simply for leaving their homes. The continuation of this logic is that they should stay home instead of attending films. Lower-class women viewing Traffic in Souls and other white-slavery films saw people like them portrayed as passive victims in a cruel society. Their only hope for safety was to become more “respectable” like their wealthier counterparts.

As they endeavored to ‘clean up’ the theaters, filmmakers (and the theaters who featured their work) were focused on ‘educating’ and ‘enlightening’ those of the lower and immigrant class who came to see their work. Traffic in Souls was defended as a kind of ‘reform document,’ intended to warn immigrant women about the dangers inherent in working outside of the home, especially in an urban area. Later scholarship has been ambivalent about George Loane Tucker’s true intentions in making the film, many historians stating that his goals were more related to the huge box office numbers than actually producing an educational, moral document.

Whatever Tucker’s reason, Traffic in Souls was a sensational hit. 30,000 people saw it during its opening week in New York and white-slave films were soon being shown all over the city. As Shelley Stamp writes in Movie-Struck Girls, 15 New York theaters had “gone into slavery” by 1914, because they knew these types of films would be instant hits. They remained the hype for about a year. Even famed director Alice Guy Blache made a film as part of the white-slave hype.

Many white-slave films, including Traffic in Souls, came under intense scrutiny because oftraffic in souls 3 their subject matter. Even though Traffic in Souls was promoted as a reform document, it was considered indecent from its beginnings. On the day that it opened in New York, police raided the theater and stole the film. The police followed the film to new theaters, where they did much the same thing. While theaters that carried the film argued that, since they took a firm stand against white slavery, they were doing the ‘decent’ thing, censors said they were playing into social hysteria and promoting indecent content. Today, many scholars have decided that they exploited the sensationalism surrounding white slavery in order to make a profit.

Welcome to ART as a form of ACTIVISM Issue!

Dear Readers,

Welcome to our Art as a Form of Activism Issue!

Our November issue is dedicated to poets, filmmakers, writers, visual artists, and feminists who utilize art as a means to inspire and empower. From the classroom, to the streets, or behind a camera lens, words and themes of self- empowerment, feminism, and activism are being spread to individuals around the world.  We wanted to highlight those who are devoted activists and artists.

This month features:

  • A piece by Re/Visionist co-editor Tiffany Williams that looks at two black women independent filmmakers and how they allow black women subjects occupy space in film.
  • A poem titled ” Beauty Rest” by Alicia Cobb
  • A review of a recent poetry reading by Mary Oliver from co-editor Emilie Egger
  • A paper excerpt about themes of prostitution in early-1920s films by Emilie Egger
  • An analysis of Mary Magdalene in medieval art by women’s-history student Kaitlyn Kohr.
  • A review of a recent spoken word performance by Andrea Gibson from web-editor Carly Fox
  • A poem by Carly Fox titled ” When Will We Be Feminists?”

Sincerely,

Emilie Egger and Tiffany Williams, Re/Visionist co-editors

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Welcome to the THANK A FEMINIST Issue!

Dear Readers,

Welcome to our Thank a Feminist Issue!

We are happy to introduce a new editorial year of Re/Visionist! The editors wanted to begin the 2013-2014 academic year on a note of gratitude, so we decided to devote our entire Sept./Oct. issue to thanking the feminist inspirations in our lives.

The inspirational people/ideas/icons included in this issue are from both the past and present; some we know well, some we admire from afar. Some are self-identified feminists, others would not use that label. In a world hostile to feminism and queerness, what matters more than what our inspiration looks like is finding it in ways both expected and unexpected.

This month features:

  • Two pieces by Re/Visionist co-editor Tiffany Williams about 20th-century artist Millicent Fredericks and activist/partner, Kamau Nkosi
  • A letter from Re/Visionist web editor Carly Fox to her brother James about his feminism
  • A collage from contributor Kate Amunrud reflecting her gratitude to her feminist icon–her mother
  • A letter from contributor Jessica Lynne about her Grandma’s unknowing plight in feminism
  • A letter from contributor Nicole McCormick where she gives thanks to Bruce Lansky for allowing her to enter new imaginary spaces
  • A poem by Blake Williams about his feminist inspiration

Sincerely,

Emilie Egger and Tiffany Williams, Re/Visionist co-editors

gratitude

As always, we welcome your suggestions and contributions. eegger(at)gm(dot)slc(dot)edu/twilliams(at)gm(dot)slc(dot)edu. 

Chicago History: Elizabeth Catlett in They Seek a City

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Elizabeth Catlett’s Sharecropper (1952) on display as part of They Seek a City

by Emilie Egger

“Art is only important to the extent that it aids in the liberation of our people.”–Elizabeth Catlett

The Art Institute of Chicago’s They Seek a City: Chicago and the Art of Migration, 1910–1950 exhibit, currently on display, includes art created during and inspired by the era of the Great Migration in Chicago in the first half of the twentieth century. The exhibit prominently displays the lithographies of Mexican artist Elizabeth Catlett, known for her artistic work for social justice among issues of race, class, and sexism.

The works focus on African-American migration from the United-States South, the waves of immigration out of several European countries, as well as the thousands of immigrants who traveled from Mexico to the northern United States. The exhibit highlights the common experiences of these immigrants in urban Chicago. Reasons behind the migrations are varied; for some, religious persecution prompted their move, while for others, it was the hope of better working and living conditions in the industrial North.  Chicago became a community for all these immigrants, coming from different backgrounds with the common goal of overcoming the hardships of immigrant life.

The art of Elizabeth Catlett encompasses several of these themes. Catlett is best known for her painting, sculpture, and lithography that focused on the political issues of her time. Born in Washington D.C. Catlett was a graduate of Howard University and the University of Iowa’s fine-arts program, where she studied under renowned American Gothic painter Grant Wood. Her first connections to Chicago came when her sculpture, Mother and Child won first prize at the American Negro Exposition in Chicago in 1940. She later began a ceramics residency at the Art Institute of Chicago, where much of her work remains.

Mother and Child 1939

Elizabeth Catlett’s Mother and Child (1939) won the American Negro Exposition first prize for sculpture in Chicago in 1940.

Themes of migration, color, and class permeate Catlett’s work. Catlett was the granddaughter of American slaves and was known to portray famous black activists, such as Harriet Tubman, Ralph Ellison, and Malcolm X in her work. However, the majority of her oeuvre focuses on the lives of more-ordinary working people, especially women. It is these works that currently make up a large part of the current Great Migration exhibit, highlighting both her artistic prowess and her political consciousness.

Some of Catlett’s most-famous works include Sharecropper (1952), which features an anonymous black woman worker from the 1950s American South and her 1946 series of prints titled “The Negro Woman.” She did not shy away from the most-controversial issues of race, including lynchings and police beatings of blacks. Her award-winning Mother and Child became the inspiration for several other sculptures revolving around themes of motherhood.

Catlett spent much of her later life in Mexico, eventually becoming a professor of sculpture at Mexico City’s University of Mexico’s School of Fine Art, before retiring in Cuernavaca. Soon after relocating, Catlett began work with the People’s Graphic Arts workshop in Mexico that called themselves a political/social art group.Together, they created pamphlets, posters, and textbook illustrations that highlighted various working-class causes in Mexico.

Catlett soon became a well-known activist for Mexican working women. She left the United States for good and became a Mexican citizen after being labeled an ‘undesirable’ US citizen following her arrest during a railroad-strike in Mexico City in 1949. She would remain in Mexico until her death.

Until the end of her life, Catlett remained concerned with the social aspects of her work, once saying, “I have always wanted my art to service my people — to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential.” In many ways, her art is an extension of her activist identity. Catlett was a regular striker, picketer, who remained politically active well into her 90s.

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One of Catlett’s works on display as part of the Chicago Art Institute’s ‘They Seek a City’ exhibit

They Seek a City will remain on display at the Art Institute of Chicago until June 2, 2013.

You can see more of Catlett’s work here.

Recent tragedy highlights greater risks for new mothers

by Emilie Egger

After days of countless press outlets expressing pity for  “nice guy” Jovan Belcher, who suddenly “snapped” and committed a murder-suicide, and even the indirect blaming of Kasandra Perkins, his girlfriend whom he shot nine times and killed, certain media outlets are finally coming around to examining the actual victims in this case. Namely, Perkins and her now orphaned 3-month-old daughter. As analysis of this dark story spreads, we can at least be glad that it has sparked a resurgence of discussion around Domestic Violence in the United States.

However, even much of this ‘fairer’ news coverage is missing the larger point. The U.S. has serious qualms about taking seriously the safety of women, who are at a much greater risk for domestic violence than men, and a general refusal to acknowledge issues of race and class that put poor women of color at even greater risk for abuse. Women’s agency, and control of their own bodies, has always been a controversial subject in the U.S.

In one article that appeared in the Washington Post in the wake of the Belcher murder-suicide, Sharon Katz, the executive director of SafeHome, the domestic violence shelter in Kansas City where Belcher and Perkins lived, asserted that “[Domestic violence] isn’t a woman’s problem. It is a human problem.” While Katz’s words are true in the sense that both women and men are at risk for becoming victims of abuse, the implication that domestic violence affects men and women equally obfuscates the overwhelming prevalence of abuse toward women in our culture.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 85 percent of domestic violence victims are women and 1 in 4 women will be abused during her lifetime. The United States Department of Justice has found that most of these victims are abused by someone they know, often an intimate partner. Violence is a threat for new and expectant mothers. According to the Centers for Disease Control, between four and eight percent of American women are abused while pregnant, Furthermore, a 2005 CDC report found that this risk for abuse continues after pregnancy into the early months of motherhood.

For new and expectant mothers of color, like Perkins, the risk for abuse is even higher. Black mothers have a seven times increased risk over white mothers for death by homicide. For women of color under the age of 29, that number is eleven.

Abuse of pregnant women also extends beyond physical violence to verbal and emotional abuse. Women report their partners making them feel guilty about how they conduct themselves during their pregnancy or how they choose to mother their child once s/he is born. Beyond the adverse effects of these kinds of abuse on pregnant women, which include depression, anxiety, loss of appetite, etc., the stress associated with verbal, emotional abuse can have adverse effects on a fetus, changing the hormonal balance of the womb and leaving it more susceptible to anxiety, depression, and substance abuse as a child and adult.

Often, abuse surrounding women’s reproductive rights begins before pregnancy.  A 2009 study of young women in Boston found that many domestic partners manipulate birth control as another way of controlling their partner. This is especially prevalent among poor women, 26 percent of whom, in the Boston study, reported that their partners attempted to control their access to contraception.

These statistics and examples of abuse are indicative of a larger national anxiety over the rights of women to make decisions regarding their reproductive health and the lives of their children. The Guttmacher Institute reports that since 2010, 32 states have restricted abortion rights in some capacity. And the intense focus on birth control during the 2012 presidential campaign reminded women that seemingly basic rights could be at risk.

Some officials seem to be on the right track in addressing the true roots of this problem. In the same Washington Post article, Sharon Katz calls for a re-examination of healthy romantic and domestic relationships, including the need for positive role models for boys, many of whom have learned to associate masculinity with varying degrees of abusive control over their female partners. In this, Katz is calling for a critique of the power structures that exist between men and women, especially during the vulnerable state during pregnancy and the early postnatal months. However, it is a shame that she and others like her do not explicitly connect the dots between the inherent power differences for males and females under patriarchy and the disproportionate rates of violence women face.

On the legislative front, it is politics as usual, as members of Congress fail to pass laws with tangible protections for vulnerable individuals. It is in this arena that groups like LGBTQ folks, Native Americans, and immigrants face another hurdle in their fight for protection against domestic violence. Republicans continue to refuse reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which for the first time would include protections for these groups. The new version of the bill would provide provisions for Native American women, 40 percent of whom will be physically or sexually abused; LGBTQ individuals, as the new law would make discrimination at domestic-violence shelters illegal; and undocumented immigrant victims of abuse, who, under the 2012 VAWA, would be granted legal status while cooperating with authorities to confront their abusers.

Even though the bill has enough votes to get through the Senate, House Republicans refuse to pass it because of these very provisions.

Of course, legislation can only do so much. We must take seriously events like last week’s tragedy, examining what role everyday power dynamics take in such unthinkable events. Real progress will only come after people recognize the connections between cultural anxieties over women’s bodies and agency and the violence directed against them.

Emilie Egger is a student in Sarah’s Lawrence’s women’s history program. 

Cultural Imperialism and Body Image in Georgia

by Emilie Egger

Travels throughout other parts of the world have enlightened me to the fact that America’s body neuroses are spreading with our culture and economic exploitation.

After college, I spent several months teaching English in Georgia. Georgia is a country on the border of Asia and Europe, whose culture reflects influences from both; centuries of invasions and occupations have added layers to its history. Georgia is a poor country; the average monthly salary is about $250 US. Western culture rushed in with a bang with the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s with new television channels, radio stations, books, magazines, and increasingly, the Internet.

With the influence of television channels like MTV, VH1, and even the Disney Channel, Georgians have begun to aspire to various ‘American’ ideals. For men, there are the cars, the wealth, the swagger that comes with the assertion of one’s power. For women, the focus is on the body and its adornments. Women spend their scant salaries on the clothes and accessories they see on American television. The money spent on these items like designer clothes and purses (even more expensive in Georgia due to high tariffs) is money taken away from life’s essential items, including quite often, food budgets.

Indeed, the issue of food and body weight are huge in Georgia. There is first the question of what kind of food is socially acceptable in this evolving culture. Traditional Georgian food is eschewed for American food–even fast-food chains, a luxury in Georgia. But the most outstanding issue regarding food is making sure not to eat too much. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the ideal of rail-thin women’s bodies has become paramount. Hearing women talk about not eating all day was a part of my daily routine. Meanwhile, the same inundation of billboards and commercials seen in the developed world are slowing taking over Georgian-language advertising. Additionally, women long for plastic surgery to ‘correct’ their features which are no longer popular, notably ethnic features that mark them as Georgian.

Living in this place, I saw clearly the negative effects of my nation’s imposition of cultural imperialism in another country in such a short amount of time. Cultural imperialism is the expression of one nation’s dominance in areas of culture and is especially dangerous swhen that culture exists within a country that does not have the infrastructure to support spending habits like many Americans have. Instead, as western, American culture is forced on countries like Georgia with increased globalization, there is no real option but compliance, making poor people even poorer and halting the investment in their own country and culture.

I’ve included two videos that portray these contrasting sides of Georgian culture. One is an ad promoting Georgia as a sleek travel destination, the other a video of a traditional Georgian dance. Notice the difference in the bodies of the women portrayed in each of the videos and what exactly is used in the ad to attract wealthy travelers.

The reality is much different than what is portrayed in either of those videos, of course. Most Georgians continue to live in poverty. Still, even though the second video evokes a nostalgic ideal that cannot be replaced in today’s world, it can prompt discussion about what we’re exporting along with our culture.

Voter ID Laws target women, transgender persons

Emilie Egger

This November, several states will implement their new Voter Identification laws, many of which require the presentation of a valid photo ID at the time of casting the ballot. These laws were ostensibly designed to eliminate voter fraud at the polls; however, instead of actually preventing voter fraud (of which there appears to be very little, according to a Brennan Center for Justice Report), these laws will prevent up to 5 million registered voters from casting their ballots, through photo-ID, citizenship, and registration restrictions.These laws specifically target low-income, minority, women, and transgender voters.

The new voter ID laws are almost completely supported by Republicans. Why would the Republican party want to suppress female voter turnout? Because women are more likely than men to vote and are more likely to vote Democratic. Recent research from the Pew Hispanic Center showed that women outnumbered men at the polls during the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections. This is especially true of black women, who were the had the highest voter turnout of any demographic in 2008, with almost 69 percent. Black women overwhelmingly supported Obama in that election, and they have consistently been the Democratic Party’s most consistent voting bloc. Furthermore, Barack Obama leads in the latest polls among all women nationwide–in many states by 10 to 25 points.

Here’s how voter identification laws could keep women and transgender people from casting their votes:

The biggest risk for women being turned away from the polls is because of a recent name change. The Brennan Center reports that American women change their surnames in about 90 percent of marriages and divorces. These women often have to wait several weeks or months to receive a form of identification with their corresponding new last name. Previously, an older ID card would have sufficed at the polls, but now these women could find themselves unable to vote. Instead, they will be asked to fill out a separate ballot and provide a court-issued proof of their marriage or divorce, which takes time and money to obtain. According to the Brennan Center, only 48 percent of American women have a birth certificate with their current name. The American Prospect reports that only  66 percent of American women possess current legal identification with their current last name, so this could affect millions of voters.

Getting to the polls is already difficult enough for women, especially for those with children, work, and who do not drive. Requiring an extra trip to the courthouse to obtain a legal document, not to mention the new provisions outlawing same-day voter registration, could prevent many women from being able to complete the voting process.

Transgender voters, who are also more likely to vote for Democrats, face a difficult fight as well. The Williams Institute, an LGBT think tank at the University of California, Los Angeles law school, estimates that 25,000 transgender voters will be disenfranchised this year, as 41 percent do not have updated driver’s licenses and 74 percent do not have a passport. Although the burden of obtaining a state-issued ID is costly and time-consuming for all those affected by voter ID laws, transgender voters face even more obstacles; in some cases they will have to present proof of their gender change in order to receive a new ID card, which typically requires gender-reassignment surgeries costing between $40 and 50,000.The burden increases for transgender people of color; blacks and Native Americans are even less likely than white transgender people to have an updated gender on their driver’s licenses.

The states that have legislated these new rules have a total of 171 electoral votes. Voter-ID law proponents know that suppressing women and other minorities could drastically affect the election.

In fact, many Republicans are banking on it. On June 23, Pennsylvania State House Leader Mike Turzai expressed confidence in the laws at a Republican State Committee meeting.“Voter ID…is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania,” he said.

“Done.”

For complete voting-identification laws, visit the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Emilie Egger is a first-year student in Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College.