Eugenic Feminisms in Late Nineteenth-Century America

Posted in Articles, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2011-05-14 03:36Z by Steven

Eugenic Feminisms in Late Nineteenth-Century America

Genders: Presenting Innovative Work In the Arts, Ahumanities and Social Theories
Number 31 (2000)
98 paragraphs

Stephanie Athey, Associate Professor of English
Lasell College, Newton, Massachusetts

Reading Race in Victoria Woodhull, Frances Willard, Anna Julia Cooper and Ida B. Wells

 This essay examines the American intersections of eugenic discourse and organized feminism—black and white—in the 1890s. Reading work by Frances Willard, Victoria Woodhull, Anna Julia Cooper, and Ida B. Wells, I explore the emergence of female “sovereignty” or self-determination of the body as a racially charged concept at the base of feminist work.

A central tenet of twentieth-century feminisms, the concept of female sovereignty–women’s economic, political, sexual and reproductive autonomy–was first defined, debated and justified through eugenic and imperialist discourse at the turn of the last century. Black and white feminist discourse of the period made the politically enfranchised, legally protected body both the goal and token of full citizenship. However, within the frameworks white women elaborated, the economic, political, sexual, and reproductive autonomy of black and white women were set fundamentally at odds.

… Even when the organized societies of the American eugenics movement came to focus exclusively on “better breeding” as the only lasting means of race improvement, many black and white women’s organizations retained euthenic projects of regenerative reform well into the twentieth century, promoting the eugenic benefits of social hygiene, temperance reform, training in domestic science, and the like. The eugenic interests of both Frances Willard and Victoria Woodhull, for instance, combine race-driven reproductive agendas with other regenerative environmental reforms.

Black men and club women shared these interests as well. African American artists and intellectuals promoted black race purity as a means of conserving “our physical powers, our intellectual endowments, our spiritual ideals.” In the face of white racial theories, these race conservationists promoted the positive value of blackness. Black nationalists like DuBois, T. Thomas Fortune, Alexander Crummell, stressed different dangers related to race mixing, ranging from loss of black culture and consciousness to a biological “loss of vitality” or “vitiation of race characteristics and tendencies.” Other prominent African Americans supported a eugenics of race mixing or “amalgamation” as a means of genetic improvement. Proponents like Charles Chesnutt or Pauline Hopkins imagined a new American line that blended the strengths of a multiracial heritage but ultimately “conform[ed] closely to the white type.” All these groups reinforced color-based distinctions, and like white eugenists, these African Americans also measured racial fitness in terms of bourgeois class and gender conventions.

Kevin Gaines has argued that though the elite male voice of race conservation publicly defended elite black women against accusations of unchastity, they also frequently reinforced white racist slander, presuming lower-class and rural women’s complicity in systemic sexual abuse. Certainly, racist and sexist theories of black female degeneracy were powerfully resisted by black women’s groups. Yet white supremacist hereditarian and nativist premises were absorbed by black women’s organizations as well. For instance, leaders of the African American, Boston-based Women’s Era Club fought against lynching and racial segregation while maintaining elitist and nativist positions on working class culture and “foreigners,” and an attendant interest in “social hygiene.” As black women refashioned the white codes of bourgeois womanhood into black feminist resistance, their “politics of respectability” was fused to a civilizationist uplift ideology; this for some made it compatible with eugenic discourses of degeneracy. For instance, Nannie Burroughs weighs euthenic against eugenic strategies in her discussion of black poverty in Washington. While the “student of euthenics,” she says, “believes that the shortest cut to health is by creating a clean environment… to do a work that will abide we must first “get the alley’ out of the seventeen thousand Negroes.”…

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Passing For Horror: Race, Fear, and Elia Kazan’s “Pinky”

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2010-10-25 22:46Z by Steven

Passing For Horror: Race, Fear, and Elia Kazan’s “Pinky”

Genders: Presenting Innovative Work in the Arts, Humanities and Social Theories
Issue 40 (2004)

Miriam J. Petty, Assistant Professor of Visual and Performing Arts
Rutgers University, Newark

Film genres routinely mix and evolve over time in ways that change our expectations of them, and change the way that we as audiences read and receive them. At times, however, the mixing of genres can function to focus our attention on certain film texts, and certain critical moments within these texts. While work on genre by scholars such as Thomas Schatz, Charles Maland, and Steve Neale suggests that social problem films are “too various in their narratives and thematic characteristics to warrant the label ‘genre’” (Maland 307), John Hill, Peter Roffman, and Jim Purdy observe the way that social problem films typically employ “general conventions, especially those of narrative and realism” (Roffman, Purdy 222). In this essay, I use the 1949 Hollywood film Pinky to suggest the ways in which social problem films dealing with the phenomenon of racial “passing” (instances in which light-skinned black characters “pretend” to be whites) use themes and motifs commonly found in horror films.

A post-World War II offering from the Fox studio, Pinky represents part of what Christopher Jones calls the “culmination of the trend toward black realism in the American cinema of the forties” (110) in 1949. As Jones observes, this year saw the release of films like Lost Boundaries (also a cinematic account of a “black-as-white” passing story), Stanley Kramer’s post-war drama Home of the Brave, and the film adaptation of William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust. Pinky’s place as the most popular and critically acclaimed of these films dealing substantially with “blacks at home in the United States, enduring the problems of civilian life” (Jones 110-111) suggests the significance of examining the currents of fear and repression underlying its presentation of racial realities.

In his noted essay “Ideology, Genre, Auteur,” Robin Wood posits that “in the classical Hollywood cinema motifs cross repeatedly from genre to genre,” and continues by asserting that genres “represent different strategies for dealing with the same ideological tensions” (671). As one of Hollywood’s social problem films on the theme of race, Pinky indeed addresses the profound and lasting ideological tension created by the social construct of race, the taboo of interracial relationships and the children of such relations. Pinky also casts a white actress as a “mulatto” character light-skinned enough to “pass for white,” further complicating the film’s ideological function by making “white as black” passing acceptable, while simultaneously problematizing “black as white passing,” a paradox I will discuss more fully later.

Throughout this essay, I use the word “mulatto” or the phrase “mulatto figure” to reflect the function that such characters perform—one which disrupts the boundaries of traditional racial stratifications between blacks and whites. In fact, my analysis of Pinky frequently conflates the terms “black” and “mulatto” or “mixed-race,” identities and experiences that are not necessarily one in the same. Pinky itself conflates these terms in its storyline. What is more, historically, Hollywood films that feature the mulatto figure do not attend to such differences, but at once exploit the sensationalism in the issue of passing and use the mulatto as a generic cipher for “the race problem.” Pinky pays more attention to questions of intraracial color difference than most, but still limits Pinky’s experience to a series of problems of race that subside when she accedes to the status quo of segregation. The specificity of her ancestry only serves to give her story an unusual “angle.”…

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Picturizing Race: Hollywood’s Censorship of Miscegenation and Production of Racial Visibility through “Imitation of Life”

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Live Events, United States on 2010-10-25 22:20Z by Steven

Picturizing Race: Hollywood’s Censorship of Miscegenation and Production of Racial Visibility through “Imitation of Life”

Genders: Presenting Innovative Work in the Arts, Humanities and Social Theories
Issue 27 (1998)

Susan Courtney, Associate Professor of English and Film Studies
University of South Carolina

“A Case Very Near the Borderline”

Hollywood’s Production Code explicitly banned “miscegenation” from the American screen for nearly thirty years. The files of the Production Code Administration (PCA) which document the interpretation of that ban, however, demonstrate the PCA censors’ utter confusion as to the meaning of the miscegenation clause they were charged to enforce. That confusion is nowhere more apparent than in the PCA’s file on Imitation of Life (1934), a project the PCA originally rejected on the grounds that it “violate[d] the Code clause covering miscegenation, in spirit, if not in fact.” What is strikingly odd about the PCA’s original ruling in this case, however, is that while the clause of the Code that forbade miscegenation defined it as a “sex relationship between the white and black races,” no such “sex relationship” was “in fact” at issue in Imitation of Life. Indeed, like Fannie Hurst’s best-selling novel on which the script was based, the melodrama was far more concerned with relationships among black and white women than with any heterosexual relationships. Specifically, the film’s plot follows the rise to fortune of a white widow on the profits of her black maid’s pancake recipe, and is primarily centered around the relationships among these two single mothers, Bea Pullman and Delilah, and their respective daughters, Jessie and Peola. While the film shows us no heterosexual “sex relationship” between whites and blacks, the considerable extent to which Bea and Delilah function as a couple might invite us to read the relationship between these women as a “sex relationship” of its own. Delilah cooks, cleans and rears Bea’s child during the day and rubs her feet at night—the latter prompting Bea to sigh with pleasure while Delilah lectures her about the joys of passion Bea has yet to find with a man: “You need some loving honey child!” Yet as significant as Bea and Delilah’s relationship is to an understanding of the film, a reading of it as “miscegenation” seems to have been well beyond the sensibilities of the PCA censors who, in my experience, never considered “sex relationship” in anything but the most decidedly heterosexual of terms. Nevertheless, in a letter to Universal that supported (without clarifying) PCA Director Joe Breen’s nebulous interpretation of miscegenation, Will Hays, Breen’s boss, expressed the PCA’s “considerable worry” on the subject and urged the studio to drop the project, lest it “develop into a case very near the borderline.”…

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