An Uprising of the Uterus: Pussy Riot, Politics, and Performance

By Rachael Nuckles

Performance art or protest collective? Punk rockers or political activists? However you label them, Pussy Riot has become a well known name outside of their home city of Moscow in Russia. Based on their wide range of performances and media appearances, it’s hard to define this group under one neat label. Right now, I like international punk scholar Kevin Dunn’s choice to use the translation “an uprising in my uterus.” Pussy Riot’s English-language name is not fully translatable into Russian, so this phrase represents an admirable attempt. First gaining international notoriety with their “Punk Prayer” protest in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Pussy Riot has remained a global phenomenon due to their guerrilla-style performance activism and brightly-colored-balaclava brand. Their displays have resulted in many arrests, including the 2011 charges of “hooliganism” for their Punk Prayer performance. On-site demonstrations are central to Pussy Riot’s activist brand; from the Sochi Olympics in 2014 to the World Cup Final in 2018, they rely on media coverage and social media-savvy citizens to spread their imagery and messages. They utilize music to reach a broad audience in a renewal of Riot Grrrl era punk ideology about the gendered body and political space. Most recently, they released “Hangerz,” released December 6, 2019 tackles abortion rights and women’s bodily autonomy.

The Punk Prayer can be read in a variety of ways, but the role domesticity in this performance have not been acknowledged at length. At its core, this protest dismantled Russian gender tradition in a physical, visual way. To understand how radical this protest actually was, it must be contextualized in terms of cultural domesticity. There are a couple of ways we can accomplish this. First, the role of Putin-era (beginning in 2000-present day) politics on gendered ideology and expectations must be considered. Second, the Russian Orthodox Christian church’s views on “morality” have also helped to construct the landscape in which Pussy Riot is operating. 

Part of the reason Pussy Riot is such a threatening force in Russia is due to the ways they challenge traditional gender expectations. Brian Rourke and Andrew Wiget note that in the post-communist state of Russia, “gendered citizenship…was entirely determined by the state.” Women’s roles in the Stalin-era (approximately 1922-1953) were guided by motherhood and work only if it helped to stabilize the patriarchal social structure. Therefore, this work was mostly domestic and located in the private sphere. This mode of understanding gender privileges cisgendered and heterosexual experience. Queer identities are outliers according to this ideology, and therefore have significantly less visibility in Russian culture. Also of note is the role of the Orthodox Church in constructing widely-held beliefs about gender roles and morality. A conservative organization, the Orthodox Church in Russia privileges the traditional heterosexual family unit alongside the Russian Family Code which holds the family accountable for a child’s “moral upbringing.” Currently, the Orthodox Church is concerned with designating acceptable standards of appearance for “true” Christians. The Cathedral now has dress requirements, with “security officers…ready to check the appropriateness of the attire of those entering.” 

Political Science scholar Janet Elise Johnson and Psychology researcher Aino Saarinen suggest that Vladmir Putin brought “a more restrictive regime” which limited both women’s freedoms and ability to participate in feminist activism. In post-communist Russia, some feminist scholars conclude that Putin’s rule ushered in a “neotraditional gender ideology in which women were reassigned to the private sphere and men to the newly empowered public.” Motherhood and domesticity have become central to women’s social role under Putin’s reforms. This neotraditional gender ideology makes sexist policies and institutions possible. Sexist language is normalized by Putin, who brings private male “locker room talk” into the public sphere and, to some, make it a legitimate expression of Russian masculine identity. Derogatory language about women, paired with masculine empowerment, forces Russian women further into the domestic, private sphere which limits their ability to be public activists.

Though public activism isn’t always achievable, women activists working within countries ruled by authoritarian governments tend to use domestic traditions in their protesting. Using cultural norms and appearances helps women to “avoid being seen as political and threatening.” Thus, utilizing the traditions associated with motherly domesticity, such as appearance, can be a significant tool for remaining invisible while organizing. In the case of Pussy Riot, utilizing the acceptable clothing of the Orthodox Church helped them to gain access to the Cathedral for their Punk Prayer performance:

Appropriate attire allowed them to smuggle in both their brightly colored costumes and a guitar unnoticed. Because they achieved this invisibility, their performance was arguably even more shocking to churchgoers. In this way, Pussy Riot “made visible the Church’s nested frames of exclusion by violating them.” Performing such bold dancing in attire deemed too revealing for the church was doubly problematic for “tradition.” While not all members of Pussy Riot are cisgendered and heterosexual, (membership is often fluid and anonymous) the women involved in the Punk Prayer were. So, these participants were working from their privilege to call attention to flaws within Russia’s strict systems of understanding. Their protest challenges the cultural belief that women’s place is at home, in the domestic sphere only as mothers, and the Church’s belief about feminine modesty and self-discipline which directly opposed feminist thought.

Interestingly, two of the members of Pussy Riot arrested for the Cathedral performance are also mothers. This further complicates their critique of roles and spaces available to women in Russia. Being a mother and feminist activist simply does not align within the close-knit social structures of Putin’s rule and Orthodox Christianity. A woman’s “function” is to be a mother in Russian society, and her motherhood should be inspired by the Virgin Mary herself. How could one be a “good” mother under the patriarchal system if she does not submit to the domestic sphere as expected? How could women so brash and outspoken also be mothers? Why would a mother choose such bright, attention-seeking clothing? How could these women be connected in any way to the ideals embodied by the Virgin Mary?

Because Pussy Riot challenges deeply-held beliefs regarding women’s social position, they are no longer able to be read as non-threatening domestic beings. Ultimately, this disconnect between gender, motherhood, and the public sphere seems to be the major motivation for arresting the group on charges of “hooliganism.” By infiltrating an infamous location to critique both the church and state, Pussy Riot dismantled two of the most prominent institutions enforcing traditional domesticity in Russian culture. In the west, we might laugh at such a charge as “hooliganism.” Though, when considering it through the lens of domesticity, it makes a bit more sense. To control gender expression, imprisoning outliers might help to keep them silent. In the case of Pussy Riot, it seems to have only sparked international attention and discussion regarding topics such as gender inequality, separation of church and state, and corruption in government institutions. As the collective has proven, even imprisonment cannot silence the oppressed. 


Bibliography

Dunn, Kevin C. “Pussy Rioting.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 16, no. 2 (2014): 317-34. doi:10.1080/14616742.2014.919103.

Isupova, O. G. “The Social Meaning of Motherhood in Russia Today “Only You Need Your Child”.” Russian Education and Society 44 (2002): 61-80.

Johnson, Janet Elise, and Aino Saarinen. “Twenty-First-Century Feminisms under Repression: Gender Regime Change and the Women’s Crisis Center Movement in Russia.” Signs 38, no. 3 (2013): 543-67. 

Rourke, Brian, and Andrew Wiget. “Pussy Riot, Putin and the Politics of Embodiment.” Cultural Studies 30, no. 2 (2016): 234-60. doi:10.1080/09502386.2014.974644.

Link to “Hangerz”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HNZymIIAUJk

Link to Punk Prayer Performance:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=grEBLskpDWQ


Rachael is a first year graduate student in the Women’s History program at Sarah Lawrence College. Her current research interests include girls’ cultural production and “bedroom culture,” technology-based activism, and performance studies.

Stepping into the Spotlight: Women Itinerant Glassworkers

By Rebecca Hopman

The orphans from the Home of the Friendless filed into the Metropolitan Rink in orderly rows, staring at the wonders displayed before them. Glass sparkled from every surface, shaped like ships and birds and little men and women. A steam engine made of colorful glass spun and whirred next to a model of a derrick bobbing for non-existent oil. In the center of it all stood Madam Nora and her troupe of itinerant glassworkers, spinning, twisting, and blowing glass into all sorts of marvelous shapes. They were there to show the children all the wonderful things that could be made from glass, and to give each child a toy to treasure long after the show was over. To thank the glassworkers for their gifts, the orphans sang them a song. It was the perfect end to the troupe’s two-week stay in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in March 1887. More importantly, it garnered Nora and her troupe a slew of free publicity and praise, as well as an open invitation to come back again. It paid to be a marketing-savvy woman in show business. [1]

sepia photograph of two itinerant glassworkers behind a table of their goods

Mrs. and Mr. Frank. A. Owen. Glass exhibition featuring spinning wheel and glass steam engine, 1904? Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, NY, CMGL 131372.

Itinerant glassworkers were lampworkers who toured cities and towns entertaining and educating audiences from the 17th century through 20th century. [2] They demonstrated glassmaking, blowing glass bubbles, spinning glass thread, and shaping flowers, baskets, and figurines. They created intricate models like skeletons and steam engines and covered tables with trinkets for sale. The trade was dominated by men, but there were quite a few women who performed too, including some of the most prominent and popular itinerant glassworkers of the 19th and early 20th century.

By stepping outside the home and entering the public sphere, these women transgressed the standards set for women. They traveled across countries and continents, demonstrating glassmaking for royalty, government officials, and members of the public. They made their own living, and some of them counted their male family members as employees. Women like Madam Nora and Madam J. Reith ran their own troupes and became popular performers. Details about their private lives are few and far between, but as public figures they were breaking down ideas of what women could and should be at that time.

The earliest-known woman itinerant glassworker was a Mrs. Johnston or Johnson, who was active in the mid-18th century. In December 1740, she performed at the Robin Hood tavern in Dublin, Ireland, making “curiosities such as, men, women, birds, beasts, swords, scabbards, and ships” out of glass. She also used a wheel to spin glass thread, as much as “ten thousand yards of glass in half an hour.” [3] A few years later she had traveled north to demonstrate in Edinburgh, Scotland. Here she won herself an admirer who was so impressed by her performance they composed a poem in her honor. [4]

More women followed in Johnston’s footsteps, often performing alongside their spouses or families. Signora Murch demonstrated with her husband in Devonport, England, in 1825. The two demonstrated their lampworking skills, “Modelling, Blowing, and Spinning Glass, of various colours.” They offered to make the “Likeness of any favorite DOG” in glass and teach women the “Art of Flower Making.” The Murches made many items for sale, including “Glass Feathers, Pens, Baskets . . . and other Curiosities too numerous to mention.” [5]

portrait of a young Madam Nora

Detail Madame Nora’s original troupe of glassblowers, 1876?Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, NY, CMGL 132079.

Nora Allen (a.k.a. Madam Nora), the performer whose troupe put on a show for the orphans of the Home of the Friendless, was one of the most popular American itinerant glassworkers of the 19th century. Her troupe – Madam Nora’s Original Troupe of Glass Blowers, Workers, and Spinners – included her second husband, her son, and her daughter-in-law, Adalorra Allen. They toured the East Coast and the Midwest in the 1870s-1890s, spending most of their time in New York and Pennsylvania. Her name was listed at the head of every advertisement, and her portrait was featured on broadsides and a newspaper published by the troupe.

By demonstrating for the orphans, Nora was performing “respectable” womanhood. Many women performers of the late 19th and early 20th century did the same, or were marketed by their managers as respectable women. They dressed conservatively, spoke about how much they loved to cook dinner for their husbands, and showed their interest in traditionally feminine pursuits like knitting and sewing. They did so to avoid public censure and to continue making a living as performers. Because their profession put them in the public eye, they could easily be labeled as disreputable and their acts as inappropriate for women and children to attend. So, while Nora may have truly wanted to give the orphans a fun day out, her actions also helped prove to locals that hers was a reputable show proper for all audiences to attend.

During the first half of the 20th century, there were several well-known families of lampworkers, including the Howell family. All of the women in the family demonstrated glassmaking: matriarch Ethel Maude Howell, daughters Grace Howell and Nona Deakin, and daughters-in-law Marie Howell and Verna Howell. Grace in particular found success demonstrating at festivals, for scouting troops, and making appearances on TV variety shows. She was perhaps best known for dressing up as Mrs. Santa Claus each December and demonstrating lampworking at the Manhattan Savings Bank during the 1960s. [6]

black and white photograph of the Howell family of itinerant glassworkers

Nona, Ethel, and Grace Howell are pictured here alongside their male relatives. Howell family of Chelmsford, 1937-1945. Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, NY, CMGL 151522.

These are only a few of the many women itinerant glassworkers who performed for crowds. They, alongside circus performers, actresses, lecturers, singers, vaudeville stars, and other women working in the public eye proved that women had a right to be in that space. Each time they appeared in front of an audience they broke the boundaries, putting themselves in the spotlight instead of staying at home.


Resources


Notes

[1]  “Workers in Glass,” The Wilkes-Barre Record (Wilkes-Barre, PA), March 16, 1887; “Entertaining the Children,” The Wilkes-Barre Record (Wilkes-Barre, PA), March 24, 1887. I’ve taken a little poetic license with this description, but it’s based on newspaper accounts of Nora Allen’s show in Wilkes-Barre and elsewhere.
[2] Lampworking (now often referred to as flameworking or torch working), is a technique used to make objects from rods and tubes of glass that have been softened in a flame. Most itinerant glassworkers would have used a lamp fueled by oil or paraffin together with foot-powered bellows to create the flame in which to work the glass.
[3] Mary and Peter Francis Boydell, “Eighteenth Century Curiosities,” Glass Secrets of Ireland no. 4 (1994): 9.
[4] Paul Engle, “Mrs Johnston, 18th Century Fancy Glassblower,” Conciatore, November 8, 2019.
[5] Rebecca Hopman, “Glass blowing and working in miniature,” Notable Acquisitions 2017, ed. Richard Price (Corning, NY: Corning Museum of Glass, 2018), 21.
[6] Rebecca Hopman, “‘Only Mrs. during the month of December’: Grace Howell’s holiday glass gig,” Gathering a Crowd, December 9, 2019.


Rebecca Hopman is a first-year student in the Women’s History graduate program at Sarah Lawrence College. She is the Project Archivist at the Sarah Lawrence College Archives and works as an editor for the Re/Visionist. Her research interests include the history of itinerant performers, gender dynamics in artistic communities, women’s life writing, and women’s collegiate experiences.

Breaking Down Domestic Labor: Gender, Race, Class, and Sexuality

By Sidney Wegener

You may have heard the claim “women belong in the kitchen.” Many who believe in traditional patriarchal domesticity agree. Feminists of the twenty-first century often detest such a sexist notion. However, there is an underlying issue that both misogynists and feminists are not necessarily addressing. Why is it that traditional domesticity proponents uphold an oppressive gender hierarchy wherein housework and childcare are less valued than professional or public occupations? Why is it that people who believe in gender equality think that the way to get there is simply assimilating women into the public labor force?  At the core of feminism is the belief that women have the right to make our own choices in life, including the form of labor that we engage in whether it be domestic, productive, or both.

Hidden beneath the battle for women’s equal labor opportunities and rights is the conceptualization of domestic work as less important than public labor, which results in monetary gain. The idea that doing laundry or making lunch for children is not productive labor diminishes its value a social necessity. This is one way capitalism influences misogyny and reinforces the gendered separation of domestic labor and public, or productive, labor. While public labor refers to what are socio-economically productive occupations (those which make money), domestic labor is privatized. The idea that domestic labor is degrading to women depends on a capitalist understanding of the value of labor which is based on productivity. Not only that, but women who work in both the private domestic and public productive labor spheres take on the “double burden.” Often these women are placed under the strain of balancing work outside of their home with the traditionally-gendered demand for house maintenance and parenting. Rarely are domestic responsibilities equally distributed between a heterosexual couple; yet the need for home keeping and child care does not disappear. 

It is critical to acknowledge that women with the most access to employment in public and/or professional labor spheres are cisgendered, heterosexual (or in heterosexual partnerships), come from a middle-upper class background, able-bodied/neurotypical, and white. Many women who become successful in the public labor sphere and are able to obtain substantial income end up hiring working-class women of color as domestic laborers. However, when women who have careers manage their double burden by employing working-class women of color, a gendered and racialized capitalist hierarchy is reproduced and reinforced. For example, according to the National Domestic Workers Alliance, over 80% of Black women are the main source of income for their households. Therefore, they work in the public labor sphere to provide for their families, but most also care for their homes, children, and elder relatives. Due to white supremacist racial hierarchies in the United States, women of color frequently fall into the working-class bracket. Although all women are subject to wage discrimination, pay gaps vary according to race. The National Partnership for Women and Families reports these statistics for 2019: 

  • Latina women are paid about 54 cents per every dollar a white [cis] man makes 
  • Native American women are paid about 58 cents per every dollar a white [cis] man makes
  • Black women are paid about 62 cents per every dollar a [cis] white man makes
  • White women are paid about 79 cents per every dollar a [cis] white man makes
  • Asian American women are paid about 90 cents per every dollar a [cis] white man makes

In order to support themselves and their families, women of color consistently shoulder the double burden of committing themselves to domestic and productive labor. Most women of color also find themselves facing sexism and racial discrimination in the United States’ capitalist economy, earning between 25 and 17 cents less per dollar than white women.

In addition, women who are non-cisgender and/or in non-heterosexual partnerships do not have access to the same opportunites and rights which may afford them public occupations and income. Lesbian partnerships are positioned at a disadvantage as women are faced with discrimination in public workspaces and sexist, racist wage gaps continue to pose a threat to financial stability. Non-cisgender women also face adverse circumstances as they are often excluded from the traditional sphere of domesticity designated as a cis-woman’s place in society; yet transgender women experience intense workplace discrimination in the public labor sphere. One recent example of such discrimination that non-heterosexual and transgender women face when entering into public sphere is an argument over whether or not memebers of the LGBT+ community can legally be fired for gender identity and/or sexual orientation. Currently this issue is being decided by the Supreme Court, which heard arguments on October 8, 2019. This case will determine whether or not members of the LGBT+ community can legally be fired for gender identity and/or sexual orientation (CNN). In the end, it is a very particular demographic of women who have the agency and the resources to gain financial stability, maintain steady monetary income, and meet domestic labor demands.

Among the many women who are barred from entering the domestic and/or public labor spheres are those who are considered to be disabled. While many of these women receive public support from state services, there are still a vast number of challenges that come attached to living in a body which is disabled either mentally or physically. Often, state services are not enough as people with disabilities account for 24% of the homeless population in the United States (United States Interagency Council on Homelessness). Everyday tasks or ways of moving through life, such as getting on a bus to go to work or verbally communicating with employers, are obstacles which able-bodied and/or neurotypical women rarely encounter. Women who are identified as disabled are also often considered incompetent parents and unfit for home maintence. There are a vast number of women with disabilities who often find themselves excluded from domestic and productive labor due to public assumptions of incapability or lack of sufficient familial and/or public support.

To quote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “women belong in all places where decisions are being made.” This includes both the domestic labor and public labor spheres. The feminist response to “women belong in the kitchen” should be to call out the oppressive systems which deem domestic labor as lesser than productive labor. Key to progress in equal labor opportunities and rights will be de-gendering and de-racializing the nature of home making, maintenance, and child care. We must take the time to break down what domestic labor means to a cishetero-patriarchal society that is dependent on a capitalist economy wherein productive labor is more highly valued. Finally, it is critical to acknowledge the intersections of racial, trans or non-binary gender, and sexuality oppression which are at play.


Resources


Sidney is a first year Master’s Candidate studying Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College. Their academic interests include lesbianism and lesbian history in American from the 1920s to the 1930s. They are currently pursuing many different avenues for research in U.S. history pertaining to women’s and queer studies and looking forward to working on a thesis related to the linguistic and social evolution of female sexuality.