Afropunk and Tamar-Kali Brown: The Issue of Universalizing the Riot Grrrl Experience

By Marian Phillips

The film The Punk Singer (2013), directed by Sini Anderson (a white woman), took the world by storm in the 21st century when it exposed the importance of punk music to women as a way to express feminist ideologies. Anderson’s documentary focuses on frontwoman Kathleen Hanna of the band Bikini Kill and noted founder of the “Riot Grrrl” movement. The trailer to the documentary introduces its potential viewer to the difficulties women had faced in finding a place in feminism, and achieving one through punk music and performance. Bikini Kill’s live concerts in the 1990s are featured throughout the trailer, showing women such as Hanna questioning patriarchal structures in society and performing partially nude as a political statement. The film ultimately emphasizes how women navigated the world of punk with a feminist lens, but its most notable aspect is the lack of representation of Black women that participated in punk and made statements of their own in the popular subculture. 

One would find, after a quick search of “Black women in punk music” on Google, that Tamar-Kali Brown, a Black woman, is a pioneer of feminist punk movements; so why does Anderson’s trailer not mention or feature Brown’s experience amongst Hanna’s in the 90s Riot Grrrl movement? Yes, the trailer makes it explicitly clear that the film is about Kathleen Hanna, but Anderson includes other feminist punk women such as Carrie Brownstein, Johanna Fateman, and Kim Gordon, therefore featuring Tamar-Kali Brown wouldn’t have detracted from its primary character. Brown is known for speaking publicly on the movement, as she is featured in the documentary Afropunk (2004) [1] about Black punk musicians and made nine years prior to The Punk Singer (2013). As the trailer does not include her, nor any mention of Black women or the Afropunk movement that was born out of frustrations towards white-centric punk, the difference in women’s experiences in the movement are ignored. 

(Tamar-Kali Brown, photo courtesy of https://www.tamar-kali.com/)

The Riot Grrrl punk movement contributed to the ability for feminism and feminist ideas to grow in a community that felt left out, using shock to prompt society to pay attention to the frustration women felt socially, culturally, and politically through music. What the trailer and interviewees speak to is a white punk feminist movement despite the assertion of providing voice to the voiceless. The white-centric approach of the trailer further silences the voices of Black women when differences in experience and representation are lacking.  

Historically, white men dominate the conversation of punk music. Anderson’s focus on women in the punk movement is justifiable in this regard, but the whitewashing of the feminist punk movement is unfounded when women such as Brown are present. Regarded as an Afropunk today, Brown founded the Sista Grrrl Riot movement during the 1990s when she found that Riot Grrrl was resistant to, and excluded women of color that participated in punk music in a similar fashion as white women. In Anderson’s trailer, Black women’s efforts to find a punk movement for themselves goes unnoticed, and constructs Riot Grrrl to be the only one that women participated in. Furthermore, it provides the viewer with an image of universal experiences within the movement. The women interviewed mention the sense of community and collective agreement on the issues they faced as riot grrrls but not every woman, especially not Black and Brown women, felt that they faced similar issues or sense of community.

(Afropunk Music Festival Attendees, photo courtesy of https://www.manrepeller.com/2018/08/afropunk-festival-street-style-2018.html)

Anderson’s trailer for the film does not mention the Afropunk movement let alone Sista Grrrl Riot. The Afropunk movement, while never given a specific date as to when it was initially created, was largely popularized when the documentary premiered in 2004; detailing the lives of Black punks, and prompting an annual festival of the same name to begin. One would assume that Anderson’s research on the histories of the punk movement of the 1990s would take note of this documentary that historicizes a subculture within it and features Black women . As The Punk Singer (2013) was released almost ten years after Afropunk (2004), it poses the question of Anderson choosing to ignore these histories, or if it felt of no use to her own work.  Anderson, consciously or unconsciously, produces a piece that aims at historicizing a woman led feminist punk movement, but excludes the differences Black women experienced in it. Black women, such as Tamar-Kali Brown, provide ample evidence of difference in the feminist punk movement of Riot Grrrl. Anderson does not project this in the film’s trailer, and ultimately creates an image of the movement as experienced and created by white women, and that white women’s experience in Riot Grrrl are universal to all women in it. 

If we are to continue to craft histories on groups of women in moments such as these, recognizing differences is intrinsic to understanding the social, cultural, and political landscape that persists in mapping them out. By not including intersections of identity in these conversations, historians risk creating and upholding an ahistorical framework that universalizes women and their experiences, such as Sini Anderson has conclusively done through the trailer of her documentary. Afropunk, Sista Grrrl Riot, and Tamar-Kali Brown speak to the importance of punk to Black women. When Riot Grrrl disregarded the intersections of race and punk, Black women created a movement of their own that resists the notion that all punk is white and male, and that all Riot Grrrls are white. 

Please find here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fanQHFAxXH0&t=2496s) a link to watch the Afropunk (2004) film in full for free. 

Notes

[1] Spooner, James, “AFROPUNK: The Movie – Trailer,” Youtube, Posted by James Spooner, January 30, 2013, Accessed November 13, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJQRJZU0Zhc.

[2]  Bess, Gabby, (2015), Alternatives to Alternatives: The Black Grrrls Riot Ignored. [online] Broadly, Available at: https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/9k99a7/alternatives-to-alternatives-the-black-grrrls-riot-ignored (Accessed 14 Nov. 2018).

Sources

Anderson, Sini, “The Punk Singer Official Trailer 1 (2013) – Documentary HD,” YouTube, Posted by Movieclips Indie, October 31, 2013, Accessed November 13, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zMbLzaVkn2s.

Bess, Gabby, (2015), Alternatives to Alternatives: The Black Grrrls Riot Ignored. [online] Broadly, Available at: https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/9k99a7/alternatives-to alternatives-the-black-grrrls-riot-ignored (Accessed 14 Nov. 2018).

Joan Scott, “Introduction” in Feminism and History, (Oxford, New York, Oxford University Press, 1996,) 1-13.  

Spooner, James, “AFROPUNK: The Movie – Trailer,” YouTube, Posted by James Spooner, January 30, 2013, Accessed November 13, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJQRJZU0Zhc.

Marian Phillips is a second year Master’s Candidate at Sarah Lawrence College studying Women’s and Gender History. Her research interests include LGBTQIA+ history, the history of punk movements/music, social movements, 1950s Cold War America, and Horror film studies.

A Radical Moment in Theater: “Slave Play,” Accessibility, and Discomfort on Broadway

By Rachael Nuckles

“At the MacGregor Plantation, nothing is as it seems, and yet everything is as it seems. It’s an antebellum fever-dream as three interracial couples converge to rip open history at the intersection of race, love, sex, and sexuality in 21st-century America.” (Slave Play Official Website)

(Promotional shot of actress Joaquina Kalukango. Photo courtesy of Slave Play Instagram account @slaveplaybway)

Theater has a long history of issues with accessibility, whether that means the exclusion of women actors, the physical separation of “high-brow” and “low-brow” [1] production on New York’s Broadway and Bowery, or the rising costs of a single ticket to a Broadway production. Black History Month is the perfect time to consider issues of accessibility, particularly through the lens of the recent Broadway production Slave Play written by Jeremy O. Harris. A recent graduate of the Yale School of Drama’s MFA in playwriting, Harris made history with his Broadway debut; at only 30, he became the youngest black, queer man produced on Broadway. [2] This isn’t the only history surrounding the play’s 17-week run. Directed by another black and queer man, Robert O’Hara, Slave Play “reimagines the possibilities of what theater can give us,” challenging accessibility norms and the topics represented onstage. [3] It marks a shift in what future Broadway productions could (and should) look like.

(Harris and O’Hara, playwright and director. Photo Courtesy of Ike Edeani for The New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/11/theater/slave-play-broadway-jeremy-harris.html)

For Harris, his passion for accessibility “was about Black work begetting Black work and Black audiences.” [4] He not only wanted Slave Play to attract black audiences, but he wanted the work to inspire additional black art. In a report by the Broadway League, for the 2018-2019 Broadway season, 75% of audiences were white and the average ticket price was $145.60 per ticket. [5] These numbers show an ongoing issue in Broadway demographics, limiting who can afford to view this type of theater and who can feel comfortable in audiences. At such a steep per-ticket price, only those with money (and leisure time) will be able to access these shows. If mostly white people make up these audiences, it can result in an exclusive environment and theatergoing experience. Harris worked with his producers to change this for the run of Slave Play. First, Harris hosted Blackout Nights in which audiences were 100% black. These events were often made possible by word-of-mouth and free tickets to students. Further, Harris and his producers made 10,000 tickets available at only $39 per ticket, a price much more affordable than the 2018-19 average. On top of these efforts, to achieve Harris’s goal to inspire additional black work, a portion of profits from Slave Play went to support other black theater artists specifically at the National Black Theater in Harlem. Founded in 1968, the National Black Theater’s mission is as follows:

1. To produce transformational theater that helps to shift the inaccuracy around African Americans’ cultural identity by telling authentic stories of Black lifestyle;

2. To use theater arts as a means to educate, enrich, entertain, empower & inform the national conscience around current social issues impacting our communities;

3. To provide a safe space for artists of color to articulate the complexity, beauty & artistic excellence intrinsic in how we experience the world in the domain of acting, directing, producing, designing, play writing and entrepreneurial autonomy.

(National Black Theater Official Site)

The play is not only challenging accessibility on the producing side, but also in its themes. Slave Play is dictating who gets to be in the room and who gets to have their voice heard onstage. It’s of note that this production came in the same year as the 1619 Project by the New York Times, both examining the long-lasting effects of slavery in America 400 years after the fact. Both provoked social media conversation and occasional outrage. As the playwright has suggested, part of the success of the play is in the mystery of not knowing exactly what it is about. The element of surprise makes the events of the play all the more powerful as the story unfolds. Therefore, without revealing exactly what goes on, I want to acknowledge that Slave Play specifically addresses the generational trauma present in black America by observing its effects in intimate relationships. At its core, this is a play about race and sexuality; eight different people, all involved in interracial relationships, who approach their lives and relationships based on their individual intersections. Each character lives passionately in their truth, sometimes needing to step back and acknowledge that other truths might exist.

This point has made itself clear both within the script itself and within reactions to the script. In a viral tweet by the playwright, an angry white woman dubbed “Talkback Tammy” is visibly upset, suggesting that the playwright is “racist against white people” and ignoring her own marginalization. This woman’s value of her own truth over the truths of others is exactly the point that a production like Slave Play is making. In the recording, Harris notes that his play is meant to serve as a metaphor, and that eight people cannot accurately represent the whole of a country. Perhaps before becoming offended or hostile towards art, we should listen to what that art is saying and consider why it is we are feeling that way. Through “Talkback Tammy” we can see not only the need for work such as the 1619 Project or Slave Play, but also the power of theater in sparking discussion. Because the video was taken from a talkback, a discussion held after a production to address questions and themes within the work, we can see the efforts of the production team to facilitate an environment productive to discussion. At the same time, because the video was published on social media site Twitter, we can also see the more informal ways that Slave Play has sparked conversation. Often, the goal of a play is not to entertain but to educate through the shared experience of live storytelling. It can provide relevant social and historical commentary; rather than providing an escape from reality, Slave Play forces the viewer to look it in the eyes.

(Photo Courtesy of Sara Krulwich, The New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/11/theater/slave-play-broadway-jeremy-harris.html)

(Jeremy O. Harris speaking on set during a Blackout Talkback. Image courtesy of https://www.americantheatre.org/2019/09/23/how-slave-play-got-800-black-people-to-the-theatre/ )

I had the privilege of seeing Slave Play in December, a seat at the back row of the mezzanine with a view of a stage like nothing I’d seen before. Early on in my academic theater career, a mentor always said that as artists and theater practitioners, our responsibility was to hold the mirror up to society. Walking into the Golden Theater, it was clear that this production would do just that. If it wasn’t abundantly clear by the conversations being sparked online and within the dozens of reviews, the set design seemed to make this point unignorable. A floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall mirror made it impossible for the audience not to see themselves among the action of the play. While watching the characters, you’re also watching the audience; the reactions of certain attendees to events of the play can be just as informative as the play itself. Why are they reacting in such a way? How can the play be interpreted differently based on identity? What is the effect of the mirror not only in the performances of the actors, but in those observing? All are questions I am still processing as I revisit the script and consider the various opinions surrounding its message.

Theater is not always comfortable. In a space dominated by white audiences, designed to prevent access to marginalized groups, these discussions are long overdue. For Slave Play to approach accessibility so unapologetically is a piece of revolutionary history, specifically within American performing arts culture. I am lucky to have experienced it firsthand. Though the production closed in January, the script is now available for purchase. I would recommend giving it a read whether you’re an avid theatergoer or interested in the ways race, gender, and sexuality are historicized through media. For the theater historian or independent researcher, a recording was taken for New York Public Library’s Theatre on Film and Tape Archive at Lincoln Center. In future theater histories, this play is a necessity to include, analyse, and process.

Notes

[1] Typically, “high-brow” refers to consumption of the upper classes while “low-brow” is associated with working-class or popular/mass culture. In the history of New York theater, these types of entertainment were physically separated by street, Broadway housing the “high-brow” and Bowery housing the “low-brow,” though the types of entertainment encompassed by each have varied with changing social norms.

[2] Gilchrist, Tracy E. “Out Playwright Jeremy O. Harris Makes Broadway History With Slave Play.” ADVOCATE. Advocate.com, July 11, 2019. https://www.advocate.com/theater/2019/7/11/out-playwright-jeremy-o-harris-makes-broadway-history-slave-play.

[3]  Morris, Wesley. “A Radical Moment in American Theater and Beyond.” The New York Times. The New York Times, April 25, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/25/theater/african-american-playwrights.html.

[4] Tran, Diep. “How ‘Slave Play’ Got 800 Black People to the Theatre.” AMERICAN THEATRE, September 24, 2019. https://www.americantheatre.org/2019/09/23/how-slave-play-got-800-black-people-to-the-theatre/.

[5]  The Broadway League. “The Demographics of the Broadway Audience NYC 2018-19.” New York, November 2019. https://www.broadwayleague.com/research/research-reports/

Recommended video link, “‘Slave Play’ is a performance filled with ‘intrigue and surprise’.”

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 participation in subcultures, activist media technologies, and performance studies.

Black History Month: Education and Identity

The interviewee of this piece has requested to remain anonymous. Out of respect for their wishes, I will refrain from any mention of their name, schools they attended, and any reference to inherently personal information. I find it incredibly important to thank my partner and recognize the time and intellectual labor that she dedicated to the interview as well as her willingness to review the writing process of this article until it reached her approval.

It’s Black History Month, and I find myself torn between what to write about. Audre Lorde? The epidemic of violence committed against Black trans women? The prison industrial system which stands as the continuation of slavery? While I love Audre Lorde, loathe the thirty-five-year-old life expectancy for trans women of color in the United States, and long to bring down the prison industrial system, I stand outside of it all. So, I decided to ask my partner if she would be comfortable with an interview about her own thoughts on Black history. It was important, as a white lesbian interviewing a Black, queer woman, to focus on questions which did not solicit emotional labor often asked of Black women when telling white people about their experiences. For brief context: her roots trace back to the Deep South where her great-grandparents lived before moving west. Raised mostly by her Black mother while her Black father served in the Navy in San Diego, California, she grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood. [1]

I started by asking her “What sort of Black history did you learn in school?” She recalled teachers talking about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. When slavery was taught in class, her white teacher would make direct eye concact with her and she remembered thinking “look anywhere else, please.” She learned about Black history that wasn’t written by white men from her older family members who were educated on Black history as their culture and not a chapter out of a textbook. My partner recalled how her aunt’s house had Black art and styles of paintings on the walls, which she didn’t see anywhere else. As a young child, she looked up to Martin Luther King Jr. with a particular appreciation for his pursuit of education, noting how she wanted to skip grades in high school like he did. What further caught her interest was that King collaborated with white people, something my partner could relate to, “because, you know, my best friend was white.” When speaking about the history of the Civil Rights movement, she said, “people forget that it happened,” she says, “but there’s so much more to Black history, like redlining which is just continued systemic discrimination against Black people by stopping them from living in certain areas.” [2] My partner noted how many Black people who became well-known in the Civil Rights movement or in academia were light or fair skinned. She spoke about how many women faced violent discrimation on city buses, especially in the Deep South, before Rosa Parks was finally selected to be the face of the bus boycott.

When I asked her, “What is Black history to you?” she replied, “I feel like Black history, just like other histories, should be celebrated every month. There’s a month for it now because a lot of our history was taken away due to slavery. Almost like it makes up for the suffering.” Learning and reading were early passions of hers; therefore, school inevitably became a part of her identity. As a Black, queer woman with college degrees in Biology and Religious Studies, she considers the Brown v. Board of Education ruling against desegregation in 1954 a huge “milestone” in Black history. At her commencement ceremony for the College of Biological Sciences at the university we attended, she recalled being “one of between five to ten Black students I saw walk across the stage, out of at least five hundred students”. In science classes, other students thought that she was in the wrong room or assumed that she was a student-athlete. She sarcastically quoted statements such as, “it’s 2019, we are way past discrimination,” from fellow students. The same week someone would see her in a lecture hall and find themselves confused, convinced they must have accidentally walked into a sociology class. Again, with pointed sarcasm, she said, “God forbid there are Black people in STEM classes at this university.” [3]

 The final question posed was, “What do you think the importance of teaching Black history is?” After a long pause, she responded, “Specifically in the states, it’s important to teach every part of history that the U.S. has had and Black history is a huge part of that.” After the genocide committed by Anglo colonizers against Native Americans, the land was abused by the United States and the “history in this country was built on the backs of slaves and immigrants.” It is not a Black person or the Black community’s responsibility to educate others (primarily white people) on their experiences and/or ways of moving through a white supremacist nation. Therefore, if you are not Black and if you have the means to do so, take the time to educate yourself on Black history this month and beyond. Books, movies, poems, artwork and more created by Black people are one place to start, but remember that Black history is infinitely larger than a single month out of the year and found in every aspect of American culture.

Below are some recommendations for reading and viewing.


Notes:

[1] San Diego, California, is roughly five percent Black by population. She was raised primarily in North Park.

[2] On redling, she recommends The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. Written by Richard Rothstein, published in 2017.

[3] STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and medicine.

Featured photo courtesy of, https://www.instagram.com/p/zte8Rcjf6x/


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.

Iron-Jawed Angels: Circus Suffragists and the Fight for the Vote

By Rebecca Hopman

On Sunday, March 31, 1912, a group of women gathered in the animal menagerie at Madison Square Garden to inaugurate a new group: Barnum & Bailey’s Circus Women’s Equal Rights Society. These circus suffragists – among them aerialists, equestriennes, strongwomen, and tightrope walkers – had joined the fight for the vote. At the meeting, well-known bareback rider Josephine DeMott Robinson reminded attendees, “You earn salaries. Some of you have property. You have a right to say what shall be done with it. You want to establish clearly in the mind of your husband that you are his equal. You are not above him, but his equal.” [1]

She and her fellow performers – most of whom were white – were uniquely positioned to spread the message of suffrage as they traveled throughout the United States engaging with audiences. [2] They joined petition drives, handed out suffrage literature, and Robinson was even known to ride her horse at rallies.

photograph of Josephine DeMott Robinson riding her horse

Josephine DeMott Robinson at her riding school, showing some of her pupils how to vault a horse while in motion. Source: Narratively (Thomas Y. Crowell Company Publishers)

Suffragists celebrated women circus performers. Movement leader Inez Milholland stated that they “exemplify one phase of the ability of women to earn their own living.” Elizabeth Cook agreed: “There is no class of women who show better that they have a right to vote than the circus women, who twice a day prove that they have the courage and endurance of men.” [3] But when it came to supporting the new society, Milholland was a little more hesitant. She had promised to attend the event, but did not show up. Instead, Beatrice Jones from the Woman’s Political Equality Union joined the group as they celebrated by christening a baby giraffe at the menagerie “Miss Suffrage.”

The press got wind of the event and were gleefully condescending in their coverage. Jones, according to a New York Times reporter, was surrounded by “women and girls, modishly and sedately gowned, so that you would never dream it was their daily lot to bound about, blithe and bespangled.” And Miss Suffrage? By the end of the evening, the giraffe – not “previously being consulted” about its new name – “couldn’t abide even the sight of a suffragette.” [4] The New York Tribune joked that the lions “moved uneasily about their cages” and the hyenas “grinned and grinned.” [5] A writer for the Sacramento Union reported that “Alexander Sebert, husband of Lillian Sebert, a bareback rider, projected himself into the meeting, took his wife and her sister, Jennie Byram, and hustled them out of the menagerie room … Sebert shouted that he didn’t intend to let his wife take part in such nonsense.” [6]

lithograph of women trapeze artists performing at circus

Female acrobats on trapezes at circus, 1890. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Library of Congress [Public domain])

But women circus performers were not daunted by this commentary. They were used to it: their profession put them in a radical position, and they had to strike a delicate balance between their roles as showwomen and the public’s demand for respectable entertainment. Although they wore leotards and demonstrated acts of strength and power in the ring, performers and promoters portrayed them as proper, domestic women, more concerned about cooking their husbands dinners than their acts. The fact that the majority of women circus performers were white (at least those under the big top) also helped to shape their image as respectable, middle-class citizens.

Rossa Matilda Richter, who performed as Zazel, the first human cannonball, was an expert at the tightrope, trapeze, and high dive. But off the stage, Richter spoke to reporters about her fellow showwomen and their commitment to traditional gender roles, “complete with tales of women commandeering the railroad dining car to bake a cake.” [7] Richter stated, “The domestic instinct is very strong among circus women, for the reason that they are deprived of home life a great part of every year.” [8] Circuses had strict rules for women performers and emphasized the presence of male family members, which helped assuage any suspicions of the public. However, writes historian Janet M. Davis, “they also unintentionally eclipsed the larger historical significance of the female big top performer as a durable champion of women’s rights.” [9] They hid their radical performances behind high-necked dresses and fresh-baked cookies.

Photograph of Zazel the human cannonball

Rossa Matilda Richter, also known as Zazel, the first human cannonball performer when she was 14, 1887. Source: Wikimedia Commons (London Stereoscopic Co. [Public domain])

While Richter put forward her domestic ideals, English acrobat Josephine Mathews advanced a different narrative. She performed as “Evetta, the Lady Clown” and embraced “all of the new woman’s fads,” including bicycling and swinging Indian clubs.” Mathews boldly stated, “I believe that a woman can do anything for a living that a man can do, and I do it just as well as a man.” [10] Both Richter and Mathews’ public personas were likely shaped by circus press agents, showing the contradictory ways women in the circus were depicted.

poster of Evetta lady clown

The Strobridge Lithographing Company Barnum & Bailey: Evetta the Only Lady Clown, 1895. Source: Circus Now

Katherine Brumbach, a strongwoman who performed under the name Katie Sandwina, was at Madison Square Garden as an inaugural member of the Barnum & Bailey’s Circus Women’s Equal Rights Society. At five feet nine inches tall and 210 pounds with a muscular frame, she did not fit the physical standards for feminine beauty at the time. But doctors declared her the “perfect female specimen” and others described her as “beautiful and feminine.” [11] She earned up to $1,500 a week, which amounts to roughly $40,000 in today’s money. As part of her routine, she regularly lifted her husband, Max Heymann, above her head. Brumbach’s appearance, abilities, and the fact that she earned a wage were at odds with the ideal woman.

photograph of circus strongwoman Katie Sandwina holding three men in the air

Katie Sandwina, “The Lady Hercules”. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Bain News Service [Public domain])

Reporter Marguerite Martyn emphasized Brumbach’s divergent qualities in a 1911 article for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, writing, “At the moment she was twirling her husband about in dizzy circles above her head … Carelessly, laughingly, she tosses her husband about as though he were not flesh and bone, but merely an effigy of inflated rubber. And he is no insignificant husband, either.” No “normal” woman would be able to lift and twirl her husband, especially with such ease. (Although some might like to, including the woman Martyn overheard exclaiming, “Gee! Wouldn’t I love to be able to bat a man around like that!”) [12]

In an accompanying illustration, Brumbach appears as large as a giant, holding the very properly-dressed and diminutive Martyn in one hand while preening for the crowd in a form-fitting leotard. In the next panel she has returned to more normal womanly activities, standing over a stove cooking dinner for her husband and son. “There are enough duties in her own home for any woman if she would make her family healthy and strong and wise,” Brumbach told Martyn. “I think I should be content to devote all my strength to my household.” [13]

black and white line drawing of Katie Sandwina

Imaginative sketch by Marguerite Martyn of strongwoman Katie Sandwina, 1911. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Marguerite Martyn [Public domain])

Whatever her feelings about housework and home life (or those she expressed as a part of her public persona), Brumbach was an eager participant in the fight for the vote. She became the vice president of the Barnum & Bailey’s Circus Women’s Equal Rights Society, joining Robinson, equestrienne May Wirth, wire-walker Victoria Codona, bareback rider Victoria Davenport, and many others in committing herself to the cause.

While it is unclear how long the society lasted or how much of an impact their actions had on the suffrage movement, Robinson, Brumbach, and their fellow performers arguably made their most convincing case under the big top. Their costumes, skills, and ability to outearn many male circus performers proved to those who watched their shows that women were capable of being more than just angels at home; they were iron-jawed Amazons worthy of the vote.


Resources


Notes

[1] “Enlist Suffragists for a Circus Holiday,” New York Times, April 1, 1912.
[2] Most women employed by circuses were white, with the exception of women in sideshow acts. This seems to extend to the membership of the Barnum & Bailey’s Circus Women’s Equal Rights Society, although there isn’t a full list of members included in accounts. One reporter mentions several Japanese women in the group, but all the performers mentioned by name were white.
[3] Kat Vecchio, “Barnum & Bailey’s Forgotten High-Flying Suffragists,” Narratively, December 27, 2017.
[4] “Enlist Suffragists for a Circus Holiday.”
[5] “Suffragettes in Circus,” New-York Tribune. April 1, 1912.
[6] Afton Woodward, “Suffragette Circus,” The Virtuoso, March 1, 2016.
[7] Janet M. Davis, “Ladies of the Ring,” Circus Now, January 6, 2015.
[8] Janet M. Davis, “Bearded Ladies, Dainty Amazons, Hindoo Fakers, and Lady Savages: Circus Representations of Gender and Race in Victorian America,” in Kristin Spangenberg and Deborah Walk, editors, The Amazing American Circus Poster: The Strobridge Lithographing Company (Cincinnati and Sarasota: Cincinnati Art Museum and the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, February 2011): 79.
[9] Davis, “Ladies of the Ring.”
[10] Ibid.
[11] Debbie Foulkes, “Katie Sandwina (1884 – 1952) Circus Strongwoman,” Forgotten Newsmakers, December 14, 2010.
[12] Marguerite Martyn, “The ‘Lady Hercules’ Tells Marguerite Martyn,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 4, 1911.
[13] Ibid.


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.

Roaring Lesbian Subcultures in New York City

New York City has long been known for its liberalism and borough-specific socioeconomic demographics; however, one community during the 1920s often overlooked by historians is the lesbian subculture in Greenwich Village. In this article, “lesbian” will be used very loosely to describe women-loving-women. Due to the term’s limited use until the mid-twentieth century, retroactively labeling women of the early 1900s as lesbians would not be accurate. However, there were a handful of known Greenwich Village women who lived openly lesbians lives and others who married gay men in order to preserve a heterosexual identity in public life. 

Frequently noted for bohemianism and the free love movement during the 1920s, Greenwich Village was home to many middle-class, white liberals who were seeking careers as artists, writers, and activists. Beneath the white liberal populous, gay and lesbian cultures flourished. Lesbianism began to gain visibility, bolstered by the free love movement and feminist collectives. One such example was The Heterodoxy Club, which was active in Greenwich Village from 1912 through the 1940s. This collective is a unique example of a feminist organization, due to the fact that they were generally more accepting of other women regardless of sexuality. While members were almost entirely white and most came from a middle-upper class, educated background, the sense of comradery they held for one another meant openly lesbian women, such as Katharine Anthony, were able to be active members in the feminist community. Aside from Judith Schwarz’s 1986 publication, Feminists of the Heterodoxy: Greenwich Village 1912-1940, very little information is available about The Heterodoxy Club. Nevertheless, this group of approximately one hundred women provides a small but important window through which through which it is possible to examine the emergence of lesbianism in the 1920s.

It is important to acknowledge that Greenwich Village was not the only community in New York City with an underground gay and lesbian culture coming to life during the early twentieth century. While the lesbian subculture in Greenwich Village was rooted in privileges such as whiteness, middle-class status, and a college education, Harlem’s working-class residents – mostly people of color – fostered a different world of queer culture. Due to Harlem’s socioeconomic status, underground gay and lesbian communities were often exploited by affluent white folks from other boroughs. Still, night scenes in both Harlem and Greenwich Village funcitoned as social spaces for lesbians to meet and became part of the foundation of homosexual subcultures.  

Establishments in Greenwich Village, like Polly Halliday’s restaurant on MacDougal Street where The Heterodoxy Club gathered, often served as meeting places for activists, gays, and lesbians. While lesbian subculture became an integral part of Greenwich Village’s reputation and the free love movement, they still faced discrimination and dangerous circumstances such as incarceration in women’s prisons. Establishing economic independence and stability as a lesbian during the 1920s was no easy feat and many were eventually forced to marry men due to societal and financial pressures. Economic independence was a common topic of discussion among straight and queer women of The Heterodoxy Club. For example, Katharine Anthony and Elisabeth Irwin, lesbian partners and members of The Heterodoxy Club, struggled to support themselves and their adopted daughters. Financial strife should not come as a surprise due to the prominence of misogyny and homophobia during the 1920s, which imposed intense experiences of oppression among lesbians. Although many lesbians in Greenwich Village during the 1920s were middle-upper class and white, they still experienced difficulty affording housing as well as job security. Such obstacles to sustainable and accessible living sometimes resulted in sham weddings to gay men which were safer than open partnerships with women.

Ultimately, lesbian and gay subcultures which took root during the early twentieth century grew into social revolutions decades later. During the 1920s, lesbianism began to emerge as a tangible and visible aspect of women’s sexuality and gender expression in New York City boroughs like Greenwich Village and Harlem. Today, we may look to icons from the mid-to-late 1900s, such as Audre Lorde, who made history as queer women. However, we cannot forget those who were blazing the raging lesbian trail during the roaring twenties.

Sources

Audre Lorde biographical information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Audre_Lorde

Elisabeth Irwin biographical information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elisabeth_Irwin

Katharine Anthony biographical information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katharine_Anthony

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.

“Articulating the Feeling is Hard”: Women and the Emo Revival

By Marian Phillips

During the 1980s, the first wave of emo music was born. An offshoot from Washington, D.C. hardcore bands, the musical genre introduced the world to traditional punk stylistic elements mixed with emotional vulnerability and poetic lyrics. Most notably, emo’s roots can be traced to Rites of Spring, making them the fathers of emo. In the beginning of the 1990s, the Midwest became the nation’s powerhouse for all things emo with bands such as Sunny Day Real Estate, Mineral, The Get Up Kids, and American Football. As the new millennium began, so did the third wave of the genre. At the same time, the lines of what qualified as emo blurred and gave way to elements of pop-punk, punk, and hip-hop to intertwine with it. Thus, Brand New, Taking Back Sunday, and Jimmy Eat World became the figureheads of the third wave. Then Myspace appeared. 

The social media website opened the door for emo to go mainstream with bands like My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy, Panic! At the Disco, and Paramore. As a result, “mall emo” [1] formed and gave the genre more negative attention than it had before. The term emo was never truly accepted by anyone in the scene or outside of it, no one truly knows what the definition of emo is, and whether or not it’s a fashion choice or a musical genre at all. Regardless of the complexities and confusion that comes with emo, 2008 witnessed the fourth wave, more commonly known as the “Emo Revival,” and it’s still going strong to this day. But this time there are critical differences. You may have noticed that almost every band listed above are fronted by men, that is not the case anymore. Today, we are seeing more women at the forefront of this revival than we have seen previously and the  amount of people welcoming the word emo into their lives is increasing. 

If you were to ask anyone about women in emo bands during the 2000s, more times than not, you’ll either hear Hayley Williams (Paramore) or an “I don’t know.” Today, the answers are entirely different. You might hear Zoë Allaire Reynold (Kississippi), Brianna Collins (Tigers Jaw), Alex Menne (Great Grandpa), Julia Steiner (Ratboys) or Rachel Lightner (Nervous Dater). Growing up during the third wave of emo in the early 2000s, I constantly sought bands that were led by women or even included a woman in their line-up. Pre-teen me would find Paramore, Hey Monday, and Eisley, but that was pretty much it. The third wave is marked as the most sexist years of the genre, so the lack of women and LGBTQIA+ individuals does not come as a surprise. 

For instance, lyrics of abusing women or adamently denying homosexuality swarmed the third wave. In 2005, Fall Out Boy wrote “Nobody Puts Baby in the Corner,” which included Patrick Stump singing “so wear me like a locket around your throat/I’ll weigh you down/I’ll watch you choke.” [2] The lyrics are caked in jealousy and anger towards an unknown woman that they are having an affair with. Furthermore, in 2017, Jesse Lacey – frontman for the popular third wave emo band Brand New – was accused of preying on underaged fans. Which comes as no surprise when you look at the lyrics Lacey wrote for the song “Me Vs. Maradona Vs. Elvis” from the 2003 album Deja Entendu: “I got desperate desires and unadmirable plans/My tongue will taste of gin and malicious intent/Bring you back to the bar/Get you out of the cold/My sober straight face gets you out of your clothes.” He sings “I almost feel sorry for what I’m gonna do,” [3] giving himself the image of predator and women as prey. [4]

As I reached the age of sixteen in 2012, bands like Pity Sex, Adventures, Bully, and Tigers Jaw entered my heavy rotation playlist. Today, we are witnessing such an impecable growth of women fronted punk, emo, pop-punk, and hardcore bands that make options almost endless. Considering that the image of emo historically looks very white, cisgender, heterosexual, and solely for men, we are also seeing more LGBTQIA+ individuals and women of color making space for themselves in the Emo Revival. For instance, the band She/Her/Hers calls out this image in their song “Kill the Boy Band,” “So you started a band?/Well, let me guess who’s in it/All-straight all-white able-bodied cis men/Say you don’t know many female musicians/Why the fuck would they want to be part of a scene with people like you in it?” [5] The women, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and women of color that participate in the Emo Revival reject the expected norm of what emo has historically looked like. 

Tigers Jaw (left to right: Brianna Collins, Ben Walsh, Teddy Roberts, and Logan Schwartz) at the Rex Theater in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania June 21, 2017. Photo courtesy of the author. 

The importance of emo bands have always been their ability to articulate to a group of people that they are not alone in what they are experiencing or feeling. The lack of women in the genre up until this point, in my experience, felt isolating. These women of the Emo Revival are making space for more diverse demographic to participate in the genre. For instance, while living in Lawrence, Kansas from 2014-2018, I had the opportunity to watch the DIT (Do it Together) community nurture the growth of women and LGBTQIA+ individuals in every genre of music. I watched eyes light up, and felt my own do the same, when someone I could identify with walked on stage and melted away the isolation I felt in my teenage years. We weren’t listening to a man whine about a girl not wanting him back or breaking his heart, we were hearing emotions such as frustration, anger, and resentment with an unjust system, patriarchy, and the mistreatment of women at large. 

It was at this point, during the 2010s, that another wave of Riot Grrrl punk bands emerged and began to merge with emo. In fact, most of the bands I have listed that are women led are, more often than not, considered punk bands. The two genres tend to meld together when a mixture of emotional vulnerability, a fast tempo, and sharp vocals with contrasting melodies are performed. Lyrically, they can sound the same, depending on the band and musician (for example, the Canadian band PUP is considered both emo and punk). Yet, emo often uses more abstract language to articulate a point, while punk may just get to the point in a forthright manner. Regardless of the differing stylistic elements between the genres, the Emo Revival includes bands that we would probably consider more punk than emo, but are also listed under that moniker. 

Cherry Glazerr’s Clementine Crevy at the Bowery Ballroom in Brooklyn, New York February 16, 2019. Photo courtesy of the author. 

I wrote this piece when I thought of all of the women fronted emo, punk, pop-punk, alternative, and indie bands that have gone under the radar in favor of the played out figurehead of a man who’s whining about a girl. These bands are just as deserving of the scene’s attention. Their presence in DIT bars and venues, clubs, concert halls, and basement shows impact communities in a larger way than we usually consider. Girls Rock Camps are popping up in almost every city, and women musicians are actively nurturing the growth of women and young girls in music, no matter the genre. In short, this piece isn’t simply about where emo was or what it is now, this is about where the future of music is going, and the increasing presence of women, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and women of color in every genre of music and their capability of fostering a supportive and welcoming community. 

2020 will see Paramore’s Hayley Williams do a solo project, Halsey’s Maniac on January 17th, Poppy’s I Disagree on January 10th, a new album from Soccer Mommy, and rumors of Tigers Jaw’s upcoming album coming in 2020 have recently surfaced. 


Notes

[1] Tom Connick, “The Beginner’s Guide to the Evolution of Emo: NME,” NME Music News, Reviews, Videos, Galleries, Tickets and Blogs | NME.COM, April 30, 2018, www.nme.com/blogs/nme-blogs/emo-wave-guide-evolution-2302802.

[2]  Fall Out Boy, Patrick Stump, “Nobody Puts Baby in the Corner,” From Under the Cork Tree, Island Records, 2005, track 5. Retrieved from https://open.spotify.com/album/5nkUSlIhtoJZMOUlB0sNCp?highlight=spotify:track:6HJzCcSMggn7Ultxs48dAe

[3]  Brand New, Jesse Lacey, “Me Vs. Maradona Vs. Elvis,” Deja Entendu, Triple Crown Records, 2003, track 8. Retrieved from https://open.spotify.com/album/6vDiMhyfSnTn18OY99BSQX

[4] Jenn Pelly, “Unraveling the Sexism of Emo’s Third Wave,” Pitchfork, Pitchfork, 17 Nov. 2017, pitchfork.com/thepitch/unraveling-the-sexism-of-emos-third-wave/.

[5] She/Her/Hers, Emma Grrrl, “Kill the Boy Band,” Grrrl Angst, 2018. Retrieved from https://open.spotify.com/album/1joEVEBQ4YuxikhoClLGBP


Marian Phillips is a second year Master’s Candidate at Sarah Lawrence College studying Women’s and Gender History. Her research interests include LGBTQIA+ history, the history of punk movements/music, social movements, 1950s Cold War America, and Horror film studies. She will present “‘Activists, Punks, Freaks, and Rebels’: Queercore’s Grassroots Activism from 1980 to the Present” at Sarah Lawrence College’s 22nd Annual Women’s History Conference on March 27-28, 2020.

How The Feminine Mystique Dismantled 1950s Domestic Life

By Rebecca Rranza

The quote “no woman gets an orgasm from shining the kitchen floor” comes from Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963. The Feminine Mystique was a widely read and influential work for middle-class white women of this time and it helped contribute to the Second Wave Feminist movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. Second Wave Feminism drew attention to many issues regarding cis gender women such as domestic violence, abortion rights, and pay equality. At this time, feminism in America was multifaceted and fought for on many different platforms such as consciousness raising groups and the Miss America Pageant protests of 1969. Betty Friedan cofounded the National Organization of Women (NOW), along with Shirley Chisholm, Muriel Fox, and others. NOW, which has a liberal feminist agenda with goals such as promoting equal rights, is still running from its founding in 1966. Friedan’s activism and writing were well known in the Second Wave Movement and her book was the culmination of research and testimonials of real women focusing on their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Friedan uses personal anecdote, social science, psychology, sexuality, etc. as different lenses that her work sees these women through. 

While The Feminine Mystique had a profound influence on how women thought about feminism during the 1960s and 1970s, it is critical to acknowledge its shortcomings in terms of intersectional analysis. Much of Friedan’s analysis focuses on elite white, cis, heterosexual women which excluded working class, trans and queer women of color. The limited scope of Friedan’s feminist perspective meant that the women her work reached were predominantly privileged. 

Prior to the publication of The Feminine Mystique in 1963, the 1950s ideal woman was a white, ablebodied, cisgender, heterosexual American housewife and mother. The “problem with no name,” coined by Friedan, describes the need for more than society and their families is offering them. These housewives want to exist for more than a household and their desperation grew from silence into anger. From the 1950s image of an American mother and housewife to the social movements of the 1960s, the lives of women who had the socioeconomic agency to be feminists began to change. The book starts off with this iconic quote from the first page,

The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—“Is this all?” [1]

Women read that passage and realized it didn’t have to be all. They realized they could be multifaceted people. The groups women had formed, like NOW or the more radical feminist groups, like the Redstockings, were spaces they could exist and speak freely. By examining Friedan’s text from a contemporary lens, one finds that despite necessary criticism to the text and to the movement, it is clear this text had an impact on society at the time and on the minds of women. Once they were more informed, they were ready to use their knowledge to impact change in their lives and other’s lives. It was significant to history even years later. Millions of women who read the book, or did not, heard its message of anger and discontent in many women’s lives and lasted through the Women’s Liberation Movement. The Feminine Mystique led to real change in the lives of people then and now. 


Notes

[1] Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Norton, 1963. 1.


Works Cited

Coontz, Stephanie. A Strange Stirring: “The Feminine Mystique” and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s. New York: Basic Books, 2012.

Fetters, Ashley. “4 Big Problems With ‘The Feminine Mystique’.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, January 10, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/02/4-big-problems-with-the-feminine-mystique/273069/.

 Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Norton, 1963.


Rebecca Rranza is a first-year student in the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College.