Welcome to Feminist Foremothers, a mama.film podcast. I’m your host Emily Christensen.
You’re listening to a series about the cultural legacies of three very complicated women: Carry Nation, Hattie McDaniel, and Rosie the Riveter. Each made history — and they still exert influence today.
In this episode we’re going to cover factory workers, A League of Their Own, and that one poster you see absolutely everywhere. This is
Episode Three: Rosie the Riveter, American Goddess
I’m recording this in May of 2021, and we’re in the middle of recovering from a pandemic that has exposed the tenuous position of American women at work. Over the past year, Women have left the workforce in far greater numbers than men. And women with racialized identities have been impacted the most.
We Can Do It! — the sentiment attributed to Rosie the Riveter — rings a bit hollow in light of this recent news.
Even so, Rosie the Riveter is the most iconic image of American womanhood. One full of contradictions. For one, she didn’t start as an image at all. So how did we come to worship at Rosie’s altar?
Before we get started, I want to tell you a little bit about mama.film. In 2019, Lela Meadow-Conner brought independent movies by and about women to her microcinema in Wichita, Kansas. Since then, she has collaborated on projects such as the rePRO Film Festival and the Mothership Screenwriters Lab.
This podcast was launched as part of mama.film’s 2021 partnership with the Sundance Film Festival. To learn more about mama.film and purchase tickets to upcoming shows, visit mama dot film.
Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb are the men responsible for introducing Rosie the Riveter to the world.
All the day long whether rain or shine
She’s a part of the assembly line
She’s making history, working for victory
Rosie the Riveter
Keeps a sharp lookout for sabotage,
Sitting up there on the fuselage.
That little frail can do,
More than a male can do,
Rosie (brrr) the riveter.
Rosie’s got a boyfriend, Charlie.
Charlie, he’s a Marine.
Rosie is protecting Charlie,
Working overtime, on the riveting machine.
When they gave her a production “E,”
She was as proud as a girl could be.
There’s something true, about red, white and blue
About Rosie (brrr) the Riveter. About Rosie (brrr) the Riveter.
Evans’ and Loeb’s hit song and epic earworm was released by the Four Vagabonds in early 1943. It doesn’t mention anything about coveralls or a kerchief or bulging muscles or even beauty. It doesn’t mention Rosie’s appearance at all. In a later verse from the original song, we do learn that while she’s not frivolous, Rosie still manages to be popular and fun to be around. But mostly she’s committed to the war effort. The entire last stanza is about the hefty number of war bonds she purchases.
After the United States entered World War II, women stepped into all kinds of jobs once held by men. My grandmother, Margaret Elizabeth Price Koehler, took on her brother’s rural mail route after he left for military service. On occasion, her old Ford would slide into a ditch and she’d have to be rescued by someone passing by.
Leona Morgan worked as a press brake operator in Boeing’s Wichita factory. She was also raising two daughters and helping her mother. She carpooled 68 miles a day to her job, then after work, she canned food and cared for more than 100 chickens.
Katherine Abraham went to work at Boeing when she was in her early 40s. She took a factory shift opposite her husband and oldest daughter, and that’s how they managed childcare for the younger children. Every day before leaving for the night shift, Abraham made dinner for her family.
The surge in women in the workforce was most dramatic in aviation, where women had made up 1% of workers before the war. In 1943, they held 65% of all aviation jobs. More than 310,000 women worked in the aircraft industry. Quite a few of them worked in factories in Wichita, where Boeing, Cessna, and Beechcraft all built planes for the military.
Of course, you’re not surprised to hear that many folks were bothered about the idea of women taking jobs traditionally held by men. And there were all kinds of fretting about its implications, both moral and practical. Would the children of America suffer? And were women even capable of doing sheet metal work at all?
What is surprising — and kind of hilarious — is how clueless government and industry leadership was. For example. Initially, women were subject to height and weight restrictions. They couldn’t be taller than five feet, two inches or weigh more than 135 pounds. That does not make sense, and the rule didn’t last.
Boeing officials publicly expressed skepticism that women were capable of factory work, even as they were hiring women to build their planes, which would include the B-29 bomber. At one point, the company organized physical fitness classes for the women working in their factories. These were short-lived. I guess women were already successfully doing these jobs and they thought it was a waste of time.
In 1942, the War Manpower Commission announced plans for a National Defense Training School in Wichita. It was located on Waco Avenue and prepared both men and women for factory work. The following year, the commission reported an acute labor shortage. City officials organized a sheet-metal class for girls attending Wichita East High School. That allowed them to start factory work immediately after graduation.
Most women held entry-level positions and were supervised by men who didn’t qualify for military service. Doris Massey Buchner was an exception. In high school, she convinced the principal to let her take drafting and wood shop classes. She was eventually promoted to the role of inspector at Boeing, although she said her male colleagues largely ignored her. A woman she worked with suggested Doris wear her hair on top of her head in order to give her a bit more height — and presumably an air of authority.
Factory wages were quite a bit higher than typical women’s jobs, such as working in laundries, shops, or in homes as domestic workers. Still, they were paid far less than men. The wage gap varied, but in aircraft women earned about half what men did. There was racial discrimination, too: most Black factory workers, men and women, held lower-paying custodial jobs. There were a small number of Black line workers in Wichita, though. Connie Palacioz was Chicana riveter for Boeing who worked in tandem with Jerri Warden, a Black woman. Connie remembered that some of the other women didn’t want to work so closely with Jerri. Julia Scott Nelson was another Black member of the factory line who often paired up with her sister.
Women factory workers in Wichita came from all walks of life. They grew up nearby, or were farm girls from Kansas and Oklahoma. Others moved to the growing factory town because of the demand for workers. They were married and single, mothers and childless. Many were married to or dating men in the military.
In my research into women’s experiences working in Wichita aircraft factories, I was struck by how many talked about the different kinds of people they met. For some, it was the first time they realized that other women’s lives looked quite a bit different than their own.
This makes sense. As a woman in the 40s, you probably didn’t have a car, didn’t travel, didn’t go to college. You’d probably live with your parents until you got married. Many millions of Americans migrated, usually due to poverty or racism or both. But far more stuck close to home, growing old in the same communities where they were born. It’s no wonder that you could make it to adulthood without much sense of regional and cultural differences.
For the hundreds of thousands of women whom Rosie the Riveter represents, the second world war changed that for good.
The 1992 movie A League of Their Own is about another type of Rosie: the kind who run bases instead of assembly lines.
The first feature-length interpretation of the Rosie the Riveter narrative is the largely forgettable 1944 romantic comedy of the same name. But A League of Their Own is the greatest of all the Rosie stories. Allow me to explain.
The movie is a fictionalized account of the Rockford Peaches, a real women’s professional baseball team. They played in the All-American Girls Baseball League, organized while many Major League Baseball players were serving in World War II. Despite heavy skepticism, the women prove they’re more than capable of doing a man’s job. Sound familiar?
The All-American Girls succeed despite the odds. But just as they’ve turned doubters into fans, the war looks as though it might be coming to a close. At this moment, the league’s founder, Walter Harvey, attends a game with the general manager, Ira Lowenstein. Harvey is loosely based on Philip K. Wrigley, the Cubs owner who founded the League. He’s played by Garry Marshall and Lowenstein by David Straithern.
HARVEY: Look at this crowd, this is great! They’re jumping, they’re hopping, they’re cheering, and they paid to get in here. You did a fabulous job, Ira. I won’t forget that.
LOWENSTEIN: Oh thank you, Mr. Harvey, thank you very much. I appreciate it, coming from you. But to be perfectly honest, the girls deserve most of the credit.
HARVEY: Oh, they’re great! Unfortunately, we won’t need them anymore. Do you want a peanut?
LOWENSTEIN: No. What do you mean?
HARVEY: What do you mean, what do I mean? We’re winning the war! Our situation changed. I mean, Roosevelt himself said men’s baseball won’t be shut down. So we won’t need the girls next year.
ANNOUNCER: Bases loaded, bottom of the ninth, Rockford up six to two, two men out. No balls, two strikes.
UMPIRE: Striiiike three!
ANNOUNCER: That is the ballgame, and Rockford is in the playoffs.
HARVEY: I love these girls. I don’t need ‘em, but I love ‘em. Look at that! C’mon, let’s go.
LOWENSTEIN: This is what it’s going to be like in the factories, too, I suppose, isn’t it? “The men are back, Rosie, turn in your rivets.” We told them it was their patriotic duty to get out of the kitchen and go to work; and now, when the men come back, we’ll send them back to the kitchen.
HARVEY: What should we do, send the boys returning from war back to the kitchen? C’mon.
Harvey’s attitude reflects the prevailing sentiment in the 1940s. Technically, it was illegal for a company to replace a woman with a returning soldier. But staying with the factory didn’t feel like an option to most women, who felt pressured to give up their jobs.
A League of Their Own is also full of visual references to Rosie. In one scene, we see a wartime recruitment poster hanging in the broadcast booth: “‘I’ve found the job where I fit best!’ Find your war job in Industry — Agriculture — Business.”
Ace Rockford Peaches pitcher Dottie Hinson — played by Geena Davis — lands on the cover of Life magazine, invoking the many photos of women war workers that ran in weeklies such as Life and the Saturday Evening Post.
Even Rosie’s iconic headgear makes an appearance. In the scene where Dottie and her sister Kit have a knock-down, drag-out fight, Dottie sports a kerchief tied just like Rosie’s, with curls peeking out from underneath.
Perhaps most Rosie part of the film is the theme of gender anxiety. Beauty lessons are part of the Peaches’ training, and skirts are part of their uniform. They had to live up to a male standard of athletic achievement, but still look cute at all times. The implication — that was the price women had to pay if they wanted to play ball.
In January 1943, the Wichita Eagle published a cartoon about women’s new job opportunities. A gigantic woman towers over a house. She’s wearing overalls, and her hair is tucked into a cap. A lunch box in one hand, a mallet in the other. Her pockets bulge with more tools and a packet labeled, “Her own man-size pay envelope.” At her feet is a tiny man holding a skillet and a broom, calling out, “But remember, you gotta come back as soon as the war is over!” The giantess replies, “Oh yeah?”
The cartoon is captioned, “Letting the Genie Out of the Bottle.”
It’s not a coincidence that the cartoon woman looks like she might crush the tiny man beneath her enormous shoe. People were genuinely worried about the horrific consequences of women’s work. Some of the loudest voices were women, including officers of the Women’s Auxiliary of the American Legion.
In a League of Their Own, this intense anxiety is voiced by a deliciously cartoonish radio personality.
ANNOUNCER: And now from Chicago, The Mutual Presents another social commentary by Miss Maida Gillespie.
GILLESPIE: Careers and higher education are leading to the masculinization of women, with enormously dangerous consequences to the home, the children and our country. When our boys come home from war, what kind of girls will they be coming home to? And now, the most disgusting example of this sexual confusion: Mr. Walter Harvey of Harvey Bars is presenting us with women’s baseball. Right here in Chicago, young girls plucked from their families are competing to see which one of them can be the most masculine. Mr. Harvey: Like your candy bars, you’re completely nuts.
A League of Their Own is framed by a 90s era reunion of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball
League. In the opening scenes, Dottie’s adult daughter is trying to get her out the door.OLDER DOTTIE: Honey, I—I’m not comfortable about this. It was never that important to me. It was just something I did, that’s all.
MARGARET: Mom, when are you going to realize how special it was? How much it all meant?
The final scenes of the film take place at the reunion, and we watch Dottie’s slow realization that her baseball career was part of something much bigger than herself. Yes, I cry every time. But as schmaltzy as these scenes are, Dottie’s ownership of her own experience rings true. It’s reflected in the interviews with countless women who held factory jobs during the war. They didn’t change everything, and many went on to lead fairly conventional lives. but they moved the needle a bit, and their daughters and grand-daughters took it further. And we’re still working on it. Almost 80 years after the U.S. entered World War II, we’re still trying to figure out how to close the wage gap and support mothers who work a double shift inside and outside their home.
A League of Their Own says pretty much everything about Rosie the Riveter. The women who embodied her spirit came from different backgrounds and took on new roles for various reasons, some of them intensely personal. A number of them managed to be both fierce and ultra femme, while others chafed under traditional gender expectations. Ultimately, the ladies cast in Rosie’s image were simply regular women. And like a lot of regular women, it took some time for them to be acknowledged, to understand their own impact.
We’ve been telling the Rosie story for decades now. You’d think it would be wearing thin. But as long as we’re still wrestling with Rosie’s contradictions, there’s plenty of juice there.
Here’s a rundown from the past year: The short documentary The Girl with the Rivet Gun was on the festival circuit. It uses stop-motion animation to illustrate the stories of three Rosies.
Karen Cinnore superimposed the Rosie the Riveter aesthetic on the Greek myth of the sirens for her film Mayday, a 2021 Sundance selection. The heroine is trapped in a fantastical world wherein beautiful women in coveralls lure men to their deaths. (Talk about gender anxiety.) And then last year brought this exciting news from The Hollywood Reporter:
Amazon has handed out a series order for its reboot of A League of Their Own, months after wrapping production on the pilot. Broad City’s Abbi Jacobsen and Will Graham created the hour-long series, which is described as a reinterpretation of the original, nearly 30-year-old feature film about the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.
Jacobsen will star in the series, alongside a terrific lineup that includes D’Arcy Carden and Roberta Colindrez. I’m looking forward to the new generation of the Rockford Peaches.
Norman Rockwell, the popular painter of American everyday life, gave Rosie the Riveter physical form. His painting appeared on the cover of the Saturday evening Post in May of 1943. It depicts a muscular young woman pausing to eat a sandwich, a riveting gun resting in her lap, her safety goggles and hood pushed up to her temples. The image is hyper-patriotic: An American flag floods the background, the woman wears a victory pin on her overalls, and her foot rests on a copy of Mein Kampf, Hiler’s manifesto. The lettering on her lunch pail identifies her as Rosie. She doesn’t look entirely unlike the giantess in the newspaper cartoon.
But of course, this isn’t the image we think about when we think about when we think about Rosie the Riveter.
We’re more than 20 minutes into this podcast, and I’ve barely talked about what Rosie the Riveter looks like, because I don’t have to. You know exactly what I’m talking about: A ethnically ambiguous white woman wearing a red-and-white polka-dot kerchief over perfectly coiffed hair. Her left arm is raised in a gesture somewhere between a bodybuilder’s bicep pose and a friendly “up yours.” The conversation bubble above her reads, “We Can Do It!” — Exclamation point for emphasis.
In 2019, Saturday Night Live sketched out an origin story for the iconic poster.
NEWSCASTER: While the men fight in Germany, America’s women head to the factories to do their part.
FACTORY SUPERVISOR: I am honored that you chose our factory to find the face of your new campaign.
MILITARY GUY: The “We Can Do It!” poster needs a gal who can embody the can-do spirit of America’s women.
SUPERVISOR: Well, these gals have that in spades. This is Rosie, a riveter.
ROSIE: Pleased to meet you, sir.
M.G: Hm, Rosie the Riveter. Say, that’s got a nice ring to it.
The exchange aligns with what we think we know about how Rosie came to be. But the We Can Do It! poster wasn’t a piece of government propaganda or even a workforce recruiting ad. It was just meant to encourage factory employees of the Westinghouse Corporation. One of at least 42 posters that freelance artist J. Howard Miller produced for the company, the one we think of as Rosie the Riveter hung in Westinghouse factories for just 13 days in February of 1943. Perhaps fewer than 1,000 “We Can Do It” posters were printed and hung on Westinghouse factory floors. Very few people actually saw this iconic poster in the 1940s.
And yet, somehow it’s everywhere. In 1999, the image appeared on a U.S. postage stamp. It’s a staple of T-shirts, greeting cards and gift shops, especially those with a connection to science, technology, or aviation. For example, a corner of the Kansas Aviation Museum gift shop is devoted to Rosie paraphernalia.
Over the years, many celebrities have adopted the image.
In 2010, photographer Derek Blanks captured Kelly Rowland as Rosie for his “Alter-Ego” series.
Pink performs Rosie drag in the music video for her hit single “Raise Your Glass,” also released in 2010.
Rowland’s former Destiny’s Child bandmate Beyonce (maybe you’re heard of her) struck a Rosie pose in a 2014 Instagram post.
When she hosted Saturday Night Live in 2016, Ronda Rousey appeared as Rosie in a promotional image.
Also in 2016, Kendall Jenner dressed as Rosie in her capacity as a spokesperson for Rock the Vote. Not to be outdone, Keeping Up with the Kardashians matriarch Kris Jenner added her own Rosie picture to Instagram.
Countless other public figures have been “Rosie-fied” — my term for having your likeness grafted onto the Rosie persona. Just in the past few months, I’ve encountered Rosie-fied versions of Stacy Abrams, Kamala Harris, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
So, you might be wondering. If the World War II-era audience for J. Howard Miller’s iconic poster was limited to Westinghouse employees, how did it become one of the United States’ most important pieces of visual culture? And how did it become associated with Rosie the Riveter?
15 years ago, a couple of academics traced the origin and reappearance of the We Can Do It! poster. James J. Kimble and Lester C. Olson call the woman on the poster a modern-day myth. They challenged the assumption that the woman on the poster is Rosie the Riveter. After all, while Westinghouse had war contracts, the company didn’t even employ riveters.
So, yeah. How did this poster become synonymous with both Rosie and women’s contributions to the war effort?
Well, friends. This is where we reveal the real superheroes: librarians. J. Howard Miller’s poster wasn’t widely circulated before the 1980s, but it was preserved in the National Archives. The first published reference to the poster may have been in a 1982 Washington Post story about souvenir posters that were then available from the Archives. It popped up again three years later, and eventually the image just … snowballed. People made assumptions about its origins, assumptions that often made their way into magazine articles or blog posts. The Ad Council even claimed it was their work.
In their paper about the We Can Do It! poster, Kimble and Olson do an admirable job of disambiguation. But while J. Howard Miller may not have set out to make a portrait of Rosie the Riveter exactly, but he employed visual references commonly used in illustrations of women war workers. A poster labeled “It’s Our Fight Too!” issued by the Douglas Aircraft Company around the same time, depicts a be-kerchiefed woman holding a rivet gun. Many cartoons from the 40s portray female factory workers wearing overalls or boiler suits, their hair secured with a handkerchief.
The woman on the We Can Do It! poster may not be Rosie the Riveter exactly, but the song, along with the various posters, the Norman Rockwell painting, and the cartoons all circle the same archetype. It’s so clear and well-defined that we can spot it in a movie about a baseball team. In her illustration for this podcast, artist Hannah Scott constructed a portrait of Rosie using elements of her identity. She wears green overalls over a mustard-brown shirt, and a coordinating green kerchief holds back her hair. She holds a riveting gun in her hands, and her expression falls somewhere between confidence and uncertainty.
Ultimately, the Westinghouse We Can Do It! poster is a paradox. It had little impact when it was produced, yet it’s one of the most powerful images in American history. The sheer popularity of this one image likely inspired a renewed interest in women’s civilian service during World War II. It’s almost certainly responsible for much of the research conducted since the ‘90s.
Similarly, A League of Their Own inspired curiosity about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League and the more than 600 women who were pioneers of women’s pro sports. Surviving members of the league give credit to director Penny Marshall for securing their place in history.
We may have imposed a false narrative onto J. Howard Miller’s We Can Do It! poster. But if we hadn’t, we’d know so much less about the women it came to represent.
World War II “Rosies” exposed a critical weakness in our nation’s infrastructure: child care. Because they had to pull double-duty as primary caregivers to children and elderly adults, women were absent from work more often than men. In a 1943 newspaper cartoon, a factory inspector gags at the sight of two little boys tucked into bomb casings. A Rosie type says: “It’s either this or days off until we can get a nursery organized. A poster on the wall reads, “Absenteeism Aids Adolf — keep on the job!” and another: “Beat the quota!”
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt advocated the passage of a law that created the first federally funded childcare centers. By 1943, there were four of these facilities located near the aircraft factories in south Wichita.
The pandemic affirmed that many women can’t effectively participate in the workforce without adequate assistance with childcare and paid family leave, two aspects of the social safety net where the U.S. lags far behind much of the rest of the world. As sociologist Jessica Calarco has said, “other countries have a social safety net. The U.S. has women.”
This lack of resources has devastating effects on the careers of individual women, of course, especially single mothers and Black, Indigenous and women of color. But it also drains the American workforce of an enormous pool of talent. Research indicates that companies that employ more women in senior roles perform better. Arguably, just like manufacturers during the second world war, industry can’t afford to ignore women’s needs.
For the past year, management consulting firm McKinsey has been conducting research into this issue, in collaboration with Lean In. They’ve come up with a few suggestions.
One is to adjust childcare policies to provide more support. Companies should also take an intersectional approach that acknowledges the challenges faced by single mothers and women with marginalized identities. Finally, McKinsey suggests resetting norms around flexibility to give women more tools to balance their varied responsibilities.
The sad truth is that workplace progress for women often comes when there’s no other choice. women worked in factories during World War II because of a severe labor shortage. The United States needed aircraft companies to build bombers for the war effort, and that was going to happen even if it had to be women who riveted and ran presses.
In an increasingly competitive global economy, is the prospect of better performance enough to change norms and laws to ensure more equity for women? It’s a far more abstract challenge than defeating Hitler and the Axis powers. Hopefully, the pandemic made the crisis a bit more clear to everyone.
In each episode of our three-part mini-season, we’ve asked ourselves how each foremother would present on social media. Prohibitionist Carry Nation, who dropped catch phrases like they were going out of style, would clearly gravitate to Twitter. Actress Hattie McDaniel would be a natural on TikTok. And obviously Rosie the Riveter’s rightful place is on Instagram. Those Beyonce and Kardashian Rosie posts are excellent Stories content, for one thing. She could save them to a Story highlights category called “Imitation.” I’d definitely follow that.
We call each of our foremothers complicated, but as an archetype-slash-icon, Rosie is especially complicated. I want to follow her in order to hear more stories about the women she represented. And then there are the days I need that badass, Amy-Cuddy-power-pose energy. There’s also the many ways in which Rosie’s persona is intriguingly queer coded.
However, there are definitely reasons to take a break from this particular feminist influencer. The belief that “we can do it” all — full stop — ignores the larger picture, including the value of women’s unpaid labor. No one loves a martyr, Rosie. She also kind of reminds me of people who are intensely focused on their personal brand. I mean, give it a rest sometimes.
There is an alternative to unfollowing Rosie, though: simply look at her from a different angle, and catch a glimpse of another woman entirely.
Thanks for listening to Feminist Foremothers, a mama.film podcast. Feminist Foremothers is written and hosted by Emily Christensen, produced by Emily Christensen and Lela Meadow-Connor, and edited by Kylie Brown. Hannah Scott made portraits of each foremother for this podcast.
You can find me on Twitter @SchmemilyEmily. (Schmemily is spelled S-C-H-M-E-M-I-L-Y.) Find a complete transcript and check out our show notes at mama.film. The show notes include links to the books, movies, and articles discussed in this episode. These include three sources I relied on heavily for this podcast:
Beyond Rosie the Riveter: Women of World War II in American Popular Graphic Art by Donna B. Knaff contains most of the visual references to Rosie that I describe in this podcast.
“Visual Rhetoric Representing Rosie the Riveter: Myth and Misconception in J. Howard Miller’s ‘We Can Do It!’ Poster” by James J. Kimble and Lester C. Olson traces the weird history of the We Can Do It! poster.
Thanks to the Kansas Historical Society, you can download a PDF of Judith R. Johnson’s article “Uncle Sam Wanted Them Too!” Women Aircraft Workers in Wichita During World War II.” Johnson conducted interviews in the early 90s with more than a dozen Wichita “Rosies.”
Not only did Connie Palascioz help build the B-29 bomber, she was involved in the restoration of “Doc,” one of the planes she worked on. Nancy Carver Singleton tells her story in the Active Age.
The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter is a 1980 documentary streaming free on YouTube.
If you’re curious about Rosie the Riveter, the 1944 musical company, the blog Comet over Broadway provides an excellent synopsis. You can also rent the film online. And check out this list from the British Film Institute for more movies about women at war.
If you can’t wait for the new A League of Their Own series, Bomb Girls is a bingeable Canadian take on the Rosie narrative. (Also an answer to the question, “Whatever happened to 90s it-girl Meg Tilly?) All 19 episodes are streaming on Amazon.
More recent “Rosie” offerings include the 2021 feature film Mayday (“Karen Cinorre Knew Her Film ‘Mayday’ Had to Be a War of the Sexes”) and the 2020 animated documentary short, The Girl with the Rivet Gun.
I couldn’t fit it into the podcast, but I love artist Jen Schachter’s project “We the Rosies.”
James J. Kimble and Lester C. Olson’s article that kinda destroyed everything we thought we knew about the We Can Do It! was published in an academic journal, so it’s not available for free online, but you can read a summary on the blog Sociological Images.
Over the past decade, many women have critiqued the use of Rosie imagery as a symbol for feminism. Rebecca Winson’s commentary for the Guardian is one example.
If you’re interested in Rosie the Riveter as a piece of American visual culture, Donna B. Knaff’s book Beyond Rosie the Riveter: Women of World War II in American Popular Graphic Art is worth a read. Knaff pulls together a ton of great images that demonstrate the social expectations placed on and cultural anxiety provoked by “Rosies.”
Read McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2020 study, or this commentary by two of the consultants who worked on it: “COVID-19 has driven millions of women out of the workforce. Here’s how to help them come back.”
Welcome to Feminist Foremothers, a mama.film podcast. I’m your host Emily Christensen.
You’re listening to a series about the cultural legacies of three very complicated women: Carry Nation, Hattie McDaniel, and Rosie the Riveter. Each made history — and they still exert influence today. Join us as we touch on Black American migration, Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood, the 1991 film Daughters of the Dust, and (of course) Gone with the Wind. This is
Episode Two: Hattie McDaniel, Hollywood Icon
She may have died almost seventy years ago, but Hattie McDaniel has had a lot going on lately. Of course, she was an icon, and icons enjoy an eventful afterlife right here on earth.
Before we get started, I want to tell you a little bit about mama.film. In 2019, Lela Meadow-Conner brought independent movies by and about women to her microcinema in Wichita, Kansas. Since then, she has collaborated on projects such as the rePRO Film Festival and the Mothership Screenwriters Lab.
This podcast was launched as part of mama.film’s 2021 partnership with the Sundance Film Festival. To learn more about mama.film and purchase tickets to upcoming shows, visit mama dot film.
Hattie’s eventful 2020 began in May, with the release of Ryan Murphy’s Netflix miniseries Hollywood. It presents an alternate history of the film industry in the late 1940s. In Murphy’s invented past, a ragtag group of outsiders changes the movie business — and America — forever. Queen Latifah guest stars as Hattie McDaniel, who is pleased to see a young Black actor break new ground of her own.
Not long after, WarnerMedia launched HBO Max, a streaming service that includes content from its various subsidiaries, not just HBO. For example, you can watch Turner Classic Movies on the new platform. And the TCM catalog includes the highest grossing film of all time: Gone with the Wind, starring Hattie McDaniel.
HBO Max was in its early days when the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed by writer, director and fellow Oscar winner John Ridley, He won in 2014 for his adaptation of the memoir 12 Years a Slave. Ridley called on WarnerMedia to pull Gone with the Wind.
He argued that the film “glorifies the antebellum south,” and “[perpetuates] … painful stereotypes of people of color.” But at the same time, Ridley wasn’t advocating for the film be — quote — “relegated to a vault in Burbank.” Instead, he proposed that WarnerMedia present the movie with a little bit more context.
Ridley pretty much got what he asked for. The day after his LA Times piece, WarnerMedia removed Gone with the Wind from HBO Max. It returned about two weeks later with a short introduction from historian and TCM host Jacqueline Stewart.
Hattie was born in Wichita, so around here she’s in the news on an occasional basis. In September of 2019, I heard a story about her on my local public radio station. In the segment, Karla Burns discusses Hattie’s legacy with Carla Eckels, KMUW’s director of diversity, news and engagement.
CARLA: Karla, where are we at right now?
KARLA: We are at the site of Hattie McDaniel’s home. It’s not here anymore, but this is the site of her birthplace, 925 North Wichita.
Like Hattie, Burns was born in Wichita, about ten blocks from the McDaniels’ old address. Both women began performing in church, and both played the role of Queenie in the musical Show Boat. Burns was nominated for a Tony and took home a Drama Desk award for her performance in the early eighties Broadway revival.
In 1982, Burns appeared in an hour-long Show Boat television special hosted by Merv Griffin.
GRIFFIN: This role of Queenie is not unfamiliar to my next guest. She has — it’s tailor-made for her — she’s been playing this role for something like ten years. She’s almost made a career out of the role of Queenie, and she is good. Here singing “Hey Feller” is Karla Burns. Karla?
[Applause and cheers]
BURNS [singing]: When you yen/ For a gent,/ Give him en-/ Couragement,/ Only den/ Will he come to stay./ You must declare yourself,/ Or you’ll be/ On the shelf;/ If you wait too long/He’ll get away….
You can find the whole thing on YouTube. It includes a brief interview with Burns, whom Griffin is clearly charmed by. We’ll also drop a link to the video in our show notes.
In the nineties, Burns won a Laurence Olivier award, again for playing Queenie — this time in London. The Olivier is Britain’s most prestigious theater award, and Karla Burns was the first Black person to receive one.
The connection between the two Wichita-born has been stronger than ever since Burns first began performing Hi-Hat Hattie. Larry Parr based his one-woman show on the life of the Oscar-winning icon. The musical includes one memorable scene in which Burns sings both parts of the Showboat duet “Ah Still Suits Me.”
The role has deepened Burns’s appreciation for Hattie. Here’s another clip from her K-M-U-W interview:
“She really paved the way, I mean she was a singer, actor, dancer. She was everything I knew that I wanted to be heading into my education. She was the one that I wanted to fashion my life after.”
Unlike Hattie, Karla Burns grew up in Wichita. She attended West High School and graduated from Wichita State. The McDaniels moved a few years after their youngest daughter was born. There’s no real evidence that Hattie’s time in Wichita directly influenced her entertainment career. But her family did play an important role in the history of Kansas.
Hattie’s father Henry McDaniel was born into slavery in Virginia. He never knew his parents, so he didn’t know the exact year of his birth. He began performing forced labor at the age of five. When he was nine, Henry and two of his siblings were sold to another enslaver, and they wound up in Tennessee.
That’s where Henry was when the Civil War began. He was in his early twenties, and as soon as they were able, he and his brother joined the Second Colored Regiment of the United States Army. Henry was hospitalized for severe frostbite during his service. During the Battle of Nashville, an explosion shattered his jaw. He never received medical attention for his injuries, which left him at least partially disabled for the rest of his life.
Life in Tennessee became increasingly difficult for freedpeople after the federal government abandoned Reconstruction. After the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and the establishment of Jim Crow laws, the American South was a dangerous and difficult place for Black citizens. Henry and his wife Ssusan Henry were living in Nashville in the late 1870s when they began hearing promising rumors. Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, who worked as an undertaker in Nashville, was promoting Kansas as a sort of new promised land for Black Americans.
As the birthplace of John Brown, Kansas was a powerful symbol for formerly enslaved people. The radical abolitionist led Free-Staters into battle against pro-slavery forces in the 1850s. This violent period is known as Bleeding Kansas, and Brown and his allies ensured that Kansas entered the union as a free state.
In 1879, about six thousand freedpeople made their way from the lower Mississippi Delta to Kansas. The first mass migration of Black Americans was called the Great Exodus, and the migrants earned the name Exodusters. They saw themselves as modern-day Israelites whose long period of wandering would be rewarded.
Some freedpeople found success in Kansas, but it wasn’t the paradise that Exodusters like the McDaniels were hoping for. Although the state passed an anti-discrimination law in the 1870s, many White residents were not pleased by the influx of migrants. Land was either unaffordable or inhospitable, and jobs were hard to come by. The McDaniels lived in Manhattan for a time, then in Baxter Springs, where “Pap” Singleton failed to create an all-Black community. Exodusters did establish some communities in Kansas, however. The best known is Nicodemus, which holds two distinctions: as the first Black settlement west of the Mississippi and the only remaining western town founded by Black Americans during Reconstruction.
The McDaniels moved to Wichita seven years after they first set foot in Kansas. They settled in the small but bustling Black enclave centered around Water and Main Streets, just north of the courthouse. In the 1920s, years after the McDaniels had moved on, Black Wichitans began moving northeast. By the beginning of World War II, the heart of the community was the intersection of Ninth and Cleveland.
The Kansas African American Museum is the steward of Wichita’s Black history. It’s located on Water Street in the former Calvary Baptist Church building, once the center of the old neighborhood. Museum visitors can view works from its collection of Black and African art and learn about the Black experience in Kansas. You can even take a self-guided walking tour of the area around the museum, which was once home to numerous Black businesses, churches and social clubs.
While the McDaniels lived on Wichita Street, Henry worked for a contractor hauling bricks. His coworkers remembered him as a hard worker, but his war injuries soon made it impossible to keep a consistent work schedule.
Shortly after the McDaniels arrived in Wichita, Henry hired a White lawyer to help him file for a disability pension, which he qualified for because of his military service and related injuries. His application should have been a slam dunk, but the government pushed back. Henry was never treated for his shattered jaw, so there were no records of his battle injuries. This was a sticking point, despite sworn testimony from those who could corroborate Henry’s war injuries. It took eighteen years and numerous appeals until Henry was granted the measly sum of six dollars a month.
By then, the McDaniels had established themselves in Colorado. Many of their fellow Exodusters moved on, too. Denver had its own problems, and the McDaniels continued to struggle financially. But they joined a large and thriving Black community. This is where many of the McDaniel children first established themselves as entertainers.
Their place in Kansas history remains. Exodusters were the first large group of freedpeople to challenge their circumstances by changing their geography. They were not the last. From 1915 to 1970, nearly six million Black Americans left the South in a movement known as the Great Migration.
Isabel Wilkerson chronicles this period of our history in her book The Warmth of Other Suns. In the following passage, she describes the calculations Black families had to make:
“From the early years of the twentieth century to well past its middle age, nearly every black family in the American South, which meant nearly every Black family in America, had a decision to make. There were sharecroppers losing at settlement. Typists wanting to work in an office. Yard boys scared that a single gesture near the planter’s wife could leave them hanging from an oak tree. They were all stuck in a caste system as hard and unyielding as the red Georgia clay, and they each had a decision before them. In this, they were not unlike anyone who ever longed to cross the Atlantic or the Rio Grande.”
While working on this podcast, I took a break to read a recent novel: Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, which made the Booker Prize shortlist last year. The main character is Wallace, a Black, queer PhD student at a Midwestern research university. Wallace is an outsider in all kinds of ways. He grew up in poverty, he’s the first person in his family to graduate from college, and he’s the only Black student in his program.
I surely wouldn’t have connected Taylor’s novel to Hattie McDaniel’s story if I hadn’t been engaged with both at the same time. But Real Life is partly about negotiating an existence in mostly White spaces, so I couldn’t help but think of Hattie.
In one scene, Wallace shares his childhood trauma with a new lover. And in a passage about moving on, I heard an echo of the Black migrant experience. I didn’t think I could do it justice, so here’s my friend Julius:
“When I left it behind me, when I got the money to go to school and get away, I sealed it all behind me, because when you go to another place you don’t have to carry the past with you. You can lay it down. You can leave it for the ants. There comes a time when you have to stop being who you were, when you have to let the past stay where it is, frozen and impossible. You have to let it go if you’re going to keep moving, if you’re going to survive, because the past doesn’t need a future. It has no use for what comes next. The past is greedy, always swallowing you up, always taking. If you don’t hold it back, if you don’t dam it up, it will spread and take and drown. The past is not a receding horizon. Rather, it advances one moment at a time, marching steadily forward until it has claimed everything and we become again who we were; we become ghosts when the past catches us. I can’t live as long as my past does. It’s one or the other.
In The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson quotes the academic John Dollard, who studied the South in the late 1930s. He wrote, “Oftentimes just to go away is one of the most aggressive things that another person can do.”
He said leaving can be a form of resistance.
What is remarkable is that some of the McDaniel children nurtured the same spirit of resistance alive. They kept moving to pursue new opportunities until they finally got to their version of the promised land: Hollywood.
Consider yourself warned: This section contains spoilers for the Netflix miniseries Hollywood.
In 1931, Hattie moved to Tinsel Town. She was thirty-six, and her resume already included two decades of professional experience. When she was still in high school, she began performing in her brother Otis’s Black minstrel troupe. Later, she launched her own, all-women minstrel group. She performed in nightclubs, and recorded blues tracks.
Three of Hattie’s older siblings were already trying to establish Hollywood careers. Sam McDaniel had a gig on a radio show called The Optimistic Do-Nut Hour, and Hattie joined the cast as the character “Hi-Hat Hattie,” a bossy maid. During her first years in California, she worked as a maid in between film and radio jobs, almost all of which called on her to play the role of a domestic worker. Even after her Oscar, she continued to play similar roles. Over the course of her career, she played a maid more than seventy times.
Hattie McDaniel is first mentioned in the second episode of Ryan Murphy’s miniseries Hollywood. The story begins in the late 1940s, a few years after Hattie’s historic Oscar win.
Young studio actress Camille Washington, played by Laura Harrier, is studying elocution alongside other Hollywood hopefuls when she gets her first speaking role in the fictional Ace Studios’ newest picture. Except she wasn’t chosen for her talent. Camille is Black, and her so-called “big break” is playing a maid.
The actress delivers her first line in the “Mid-Atlantic” accent she’s been studying — but that’s not what the director is looking for.
DIRECTOR: Cut! Let’s do a pickup. I just wanna do one more. Can we do the line a little more funny?
CAMILLE: Is it a joke?
DIRECTOR: Just think, what would Hattie McDaniel do?
In the second take, Camille affects a servile posture and delivers the line in a broad, sing-song Southern accent. Her “adjustment” is met with approval.
Camille Washington is fictional, like most of the main characters in the series. Dozens of real 1940s directors, producers and stars appear as minor characters. And a handful fall somewhere in between fact and fiction. These include actors Rock Hudson, Anna May Wong, and Hattie McDaniel. Each was a real person, but their storylines revolve around fabricated plotlines.
Murphy gives Hudson an emotionally satisfying life as an out gay man, which includes a loving relationship with a talented screenwriter. Wong gets the part — and the plaudits — she deserves.
Hattie’s rewrite isn’t quite so dramatic. She has to settle for being Camille’s mentor. As viewers, we are to understand ssing the younger woman become a huge star is enough of a happy ending for Hattie.
HATTIE: Hi, is this Camille Washington?
HATTIE: You don’t know me, but my name is Hattie McDaniel.
CAMILLE [whispering to XXX, her boyfriend]: It’s Hattie McDaniel!
[speaking into the receiver] Yes, of course I know who you are, Ms. McDaniel.
HATTIE: Well look, I’ve been reading about you in the trades, and my heart just about jumped out of my chest. I never thought we’d make the leap in this country, but here we are. Now, am I to understand that you are playing the lead role in a studio picture?
CAMILLE: That is correct.
HATTIE: So she’s the romantic lead, not a fuckin’ maid?
CAMILLE: No ma’am, it’s the lead role.
HATTIE: Well. Motherfucker, praise be! I am so proud of you. But you should know, it’s going to be rough. I’ve been through it: Hollywood. So if you need anything, darling, just ask me. All right?
Ryan Murphy said he wanted to create a happy ending for these real people who surely deserved better from Hollywood. I understand the impulse, although I’m certain that Hattie would have written herself a different kind of happily-ever-after. After all, she was still working during this period, and she was disappointed by the mostly crummy parts she was offered after her Oscar win.
When Gone with the Wind was in the news last year, Anthony Breznican rehashed an interview he conducted with Olivia de Havilland in 2004. That year, Warner Home Video released a four-disc commemorative DVD of the film. de Havilland played Scarlett’s sister-in-law, Melanie Wilkes. She was also nominated for an Oscar in the same category as Hattie.
Ultimately, producer David O. Selznick campaigned for McDaniel, not de Havilland. I’ve wondered about that. Was he trying to prove something, or was this an act of penance? It’s not as though his blockbuster movie just recently fell out of favor. Black Americans registered their objections well before the movie began shooting. Some community leaders appealed to Selznick directly, and the producer was well aware of the outcry in the Black press. At the same time, Hattie received positive reviews. Several Black journalists encouraged their readers to write Selznick directly to ask that she be considered for the industry’s highest honor.
According to the 2004 interview with de Havilland, both she and Selznick knew the results before the awards ceremony. In those days, an accounting firm didn’t safeguard the names of the winners. De Havilland said Selznick had a spy, but actually the Los Angeles Times leaked the news. The obvious question is, did Hattie know in advance?
No, de Havilland says. She was already at the hotel where the ceremony would take place. Whereas de Havilland, Selznick, Vivian Lee and Clark Gable would arrive fashionably late. They were pre-gaming the ceremony at Selznick’s house. The cast didn’t sit together that night, either. The Ambassador Hotel was whites-only. The management agreed to sit Hattie and her escort at their own table at the periphery.
I’ve heard Hattie’s acceptance speech before, but not the introduction by Fay Bainter, who presented the award. Let’s listen to both.
FAY BINTER: I’m really especially happy that I’ve been chosen to present this particular plaque. To me, it seems more than just a plaque of gold. It opens the doors of this room, moves back the walls, and enables us to embrace the whole of America. An America we love. An America that, almost alone in the world today, recognizes and pays tribute to those who have given their best, regardless of creed, race, or color. It is with the knowledge that this entire nation will stand and salute the presentation of this plaque that I present the academy award for the best performance of an actress in a supporting role during 1939 to Hattie McDaniel.
HATTIE MCDANIEL: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry, and honored guests: This is one of the happiest moments of my life, and I want to thank each one of you who had a part in selecting me for one of the awards for your kindness. It has made me feel very, very humble and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel. And may I say thank you and God bless you.
Like Hollywood-the-miniseries, Bainter’s speech creates a convenient, progressive-sounding fiction.
And like Fay Bainter, the series is practically bursting with its own self-importance. It centers around the fictional movie Meg, which depicts an interacial romance between two struggling actors. Not only does the picture get made, it’s released across the country, becomes an enormous hit and nets a ton of Oscars, including a best actress win for Camille. The miniseries even hints that the film’s success may have solved racism.
I do understand why Ryan Murphy wanted to give Hattie a rewrite. Let’s go back to that Anthony Breznican interview with Olivia de Haviland. As recently as last summer this guy framed it as full of fun, behind-the-scenes tidbits about a historic Hollywood moment. But my takeaway is that on the most important night of her life, Hattie’s coworkers excluded her. And during her moment of triumph, Hollywood couldn’t resist the opportunity to pat itself on the back.
Then I think about other indignities she suffered. Hattie didn’t attend the premiere of Gone with the Wind in Atlanta because the theater wouldn’t seat Black people. Before her death, this groundbreaking actress asked to be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery. Her wishes were not honored, because in the early fifties the cemetery was Whites-only. Although Hattie counted many of her White colleagues as friends, only the actor James Cagney attended her funeral. So yeah.
Hattie McDaniel made history when she won her Oscar, and nothing and no one can ever take that away from her. But the award didn’t represent a career breakthrough for Hattie, who ended her career playing yet another maid in the TV series Beulah. And it wasn’t an immediate harbinger of change for the film industry, either. It would be more than 50 years until another Black woman won an academy award for acting.
Who wouldn’t want to rewrite the heck out of all that.
Ultimately, the movie industry failed Hattie while she was alive. It’s simply too late to give her a happy ending, as appealing as that idea sounds. Perhaps at this point it’s better to think about how best to honor her.
Here’s one very small way: Queue up a classic film about the Black migrant experience.
Thirty years ago, Julie Dash’s first full-length film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. Like Hattie, Dash broke new ground: Daughters of the Dust was the first feature film directed by a Black woman to obtain wide release in the U.S.
It follows the Peazant family through a day and a half in 1902, as they prepare to leave a Gullah community on one of Georgia’s barrier islands. Like Henry and Susan McDaniel a quarter-century before, the Peazants plan to leave the South in search of a freer and more prosperous life. All except Nana Peazant, the family matriarch, played by Cora Lee Day. In one scene, she begs her grandson Eli, played by Adisa Anderson, to remember his heritage and keep the family together in their new home:
NANA PEAZANT: Eli, I’m trying to teach you how to touch your own spirit. I’m fighting for my life, Eli, and I’m fighting for yours. Look in my face! I’m trying to give you something to take north with you, along with all your great big dreams. Call on those old Africans, Eli. They’ll come to you when you least expect them. They’ll hug you up quick and soft like the warm sweet wind. Let those old souls come into your heart, Eli. Let them touch you with the hands of time. Let them feed you with wisdom that ain’t from this time. Because when you leave this island, Eli Peazant, you ain’t going to no land of milk and honey.
Gullah communities have successfully passed down their dialect and foodways, both of which are central elements in Daughters of the Dust. Dash’s own ancestors inspired the film, which she also wrote and co-produced on a budget of less than a million dollars. Like the Peazants, her father’s family migrated north in the early twentieth century.
Nana spent the first part of her life in slavery, and the film alludes to plenty of horrors, including sexual assault and the ever-present threat of lynching. One of the stories woven through the nonlinerar narrative is the legend of the Ibo Landing Mass Suicide.
At the same time, Daughters of the Dust is suffused in beauty. Artist Kerry James Marshall, now considered one of the most important painters of his generation, served as the production designer. Another artist, Arthur JAY-fa, won the Excellence in Cinematography Award at Sundance for his work on the film. Beyonce’s visual album Lemonade is partly inspired by their work. Not long after the album dropped, Daughters of the Dust returned to theaters. It is widely considered one of the most important movies of the twentieth century, and it’s included in the National Film Registry.
Hattie McDaniel and Julie Dash are often mentioned together in stories about groundbreaking figures in the history of Black film. As far as I know, Dash wasn’t thinking of Hattie when she created her masterwork. But in telling an original story about Black migration that is entirely devoid of cliche, Daughters of the Dust honors Hattie, as well as the millions of Black Americans for whom migration is a crucial part of their family history.
Every episode, we ask: how would this particular foremother conduct herself on social media? Would Hattie McDaniel be an automatic follow, or no?
For me — I mean, of course. Of our three initial foremothers, Hattie’s the one I’d be most excited to see on social media. The first episode covered the prohibitionist Carry Nation. I stand by my conviction that she would be great on Twitter. But Carry would simply be tranlating her combative communication style for a new context. She founded two magazines, wrote an autobiography, and delivered numerous speeches. We have a pretty good sense of her whole deal.
Hattie, on the other hand, had to walk a very fine line when she spoke publicly. She was careful not to jeopardize her position in Hollywood, but she also deeply cared about her standing in the Black community. When she was criticized for portraying racial stereotypes, she famously shot back, “I’d rather play a maid than be a maid.”
Hattie had the ability to gracefully shut people all the way down in a way that reminds me a little of the comedian Ziwe. But clearly TikTok would be her ideal platform.
In her new introduction to Gone with the Wind, Jacqueline Stewart says that watching the movie “can be uncomfortable, even painful.”
Boy, is she right about that. The movie announces its racist, revisionist intentions from the beginning. Right after the opening credits, this text crawls across the screen, over an instrumental arrangement of “Dixie:”
“There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind…”
Ugh. Later, in a scene famous for its cinematography, Scarlett searches for Dr. Meade in Atlanta. The crane shot slowly withdraws, revealing the bodies of hundreds of dead and injured soldiers lying in the street. Then the camera lovingly pans over a waving Confederate battle flag — the same one some of my fellow Americans still fly.
Gone with the Wind presents its Black characters, including Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy, as singularly motivated to serve their enslavers. Mammy is a formidable woman, yet her entire identity is wrapped up in service of Tara and its White residents. We don’t learn her backstory. We don’t even know her real name.
I hadn’t seen Gone with the Wind in thirty years, and I barely remembered it. I thought it was a silly, pretty romance that conveniently skips over all the bad parts of the Confederacy. Well, I could not have been more wrong. The film adaptation doesn’t include some of the worst parts of the novel, such as its portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan as a necessary peacekeeping force. But the movie commits at least as many sins as it ignores.
Author Margaret Mitchell was born in 1900, well after the end of the Civil War. Her grandfather was a Confederate soldier, and she grew up hearing glorified war stories. Supposedly, she was shocked when she finally learned, at the age of ten, that the successionst South had actually lost.
By the turn of the century, the Confederacy had gone through what we might now refer to as a rebranding. It was called the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. The Lost Cause was predicated on a series of falsehoods about the antebellum South. It holds that the Civil War was about preserving a way of life. Adherents of the Lost Cause want you to know that the war wasn’t really about slavery much at all. They would even have you believe that slavery was an institution that benefitted the enslaved as well as enslavers.
The efforts of ex-Confederates were vindicated when the United States Army named its new southern bases after Confederate generals. Ten Army bases still retain those names. During his presidency Donald Trump insisted they must remain that way, as the generals are quote- “part of a Great American heritage.”
In some quarters, the Lost Cause is alive and well, and Margaret Mitchell’s novel is one of its central texts.
Having rewatched Gone with the Wind, I’m ashamed to say that I was kind of obsessed with it when I was in eighth grade. I lugged the novel around in my backpack, the mass market paperback edition with Rhett and Scarlett passionately embracing on the cover. It seemed like the longest book that was ever written, and finishing felt like a major intellectual achievement.
I can’t believe I missed all the red flags. I certainly wasn’t taught that Confederates were tragic-yet-admirable, or that slavery wasn’t really that bad. The more I thought about it, though, the more I recalled hearing bits and pieces of the Lost Cause: for example, that General Robert E. Lee was a patriot, despite the fact that he led an army against his fellow citizens.
I found another clue: a young adult book I read in middle school called Gone with the Witch. The Scholastic paperback is Number Three in the Teen Witch series by Megan Barnes. The book’s protagonist, Sarah, is a thirteen-year-old witch-in training living in southern California. She becomes obsessed with the movie version of Gone with the Wind, and accidentally transports herself (and her best friend Micki) to a pre-Civil-War Georgia plantation. I suspect this stupid book is what turned me onto Gone with the Wind in the first place.
Like me, Sarah was particularly interested in the clothes. Barnes writes, “She wished she’d been around then to wear beautiful gowns with wide hoop skirts. She could have rivalled Scarlett O’Hara in high spirits and excellent taste, she was sure. And the men back then! Boys no older than [her boyfriend] David, wearing those impressive gray uniforms with boots.” Once Sarah travels back to 1860, she is tempted to stay because of the gowns and the balls and a young Confederate soldier who catches her eye.
The enslaved people who work this Georgia plantation barely rate a mention. When they do, Sarah justifies herself with the thought that they would soon be freedpeople.
Sarah’s only real critiques of Civil-War-era Southern culture are about gender norms. She’s more concerned with the limitations on her own freedoms than the fact that her new lifestyle is predicated on the labor of enslaved people. Ironically, Teen Witch Number Three was published in 1989, the very same year Kimberly Crenshaw first used the term intersectionality.
Gone with the Witch isn’t the first young adult book to reference Gone with the Wind. In S.E. Hinton’s 1964 Y-A classic The Outsiders, Johnny and Ponyboy read the novel together while they’re hiding out. I found two other young adult novels that use Michell’s book as a plot device. Decades after the publication of Gone with the Wind, they repackaged the Lost Cause for a young, uncritical audience.
In an essay for the online literary magazine Electric Literature, Meg Elison writes about Gone with the Wind’s “mythology of whiteness.” Like me, Elison first read it as a child, but she continued to reread the book throughout her adolescence and early adulthood. Every time she revisited it, more of the novel’s text and subtext revealed itself. Elison advocates for another kind of revision:
It takes literacy and critical thinking and listening to people of color to realize that not only is Gone with the Wind fiction, but most of what you know is fiction. Your family history is fiction. Your elementary school textbooks are fiction. Your construction of yourself is fiction. We all have to read ourselves more than once. We have to proofread and edit ourselves. We have to rewrite ourselves every day. We have to learn to separate truth from fiction from fake news. This is a monumental task, and most of us will fail.
I shouldn’t end this podcast without mentioning something else about Gone with the Wind: Hattie McDaniel is great in it. You might be thinking, “Duh, Emily, she won an Oscar.” To which I would say, plenty of Oscar winners turned in not-so-great work.
But Hattie’s performance is grounded, even modern. Vivian Leigh and Clark Gable do a perfectly fine job of chewing the scenery, at least by the rather theatrical standards of the era. But there’s a timelessness to Hattie McDaniel’s acting. She said she felt connected to this character, and that’s easy to believe when you watch her move through the film, doing incredible work with what she was given.
When I think of how best to honor Hattie’s legacy, I keep going back to Meg Elison’s rewriting metaphor. This is not the rewriting of the miniseries Hollywood, which merely obscures the past. This kind of rewriting, making things right, can only happen in the present.
That might look like contending with the legacy of Gone with the Wind, as Elison did in her Electric Literature essay. As Spike Lee did in his 2018 film BlacKkKlansman. That movie opens on the famous street scene with the waving Confederate battle flag. Rewriting might look like watching and reading and listening to the work of Black artists and creators, or learning about the history of the Black community where you live.
It could also look like honoring Hattie McDaniel in the city where she was born.
That 2019 story on my local public radio station was about Hattie’s lack of recognition in Wichita. The Kansas African American Museum has been raising funds for a new historical marker at the location of the McDaniels’ Wichita home. According to Denise Sherman, the museum’s executive director, they plan to go forward with installation in March. The date hasn’t been set yet, but you can find updates on the museum’s Facebook page and website. There you can also contribute to a special fund that will be used to cover the costs of the marker.
Meanwhile, you can see another tribute to Hattie on the side of the Historic Dunbar Theatre, near the intersection of Ninth and Cleveland. Priscella Brown’s Horizontes Project mural includes a portrait of Hattie, alongside fellow comedy legends Moms Mabley and Richard Pryor.
I hope that Wichita will continue to find ways to honor Hattie McDaniel and her family. Because Otis and Sam and Etta McDaniel were brave and ambitious and talented performers. And of course, because Hattie was an icon.
It seems only fitting to give Karla Burns the last word. Here’s one final clip from her 2019 interview with Carla Eckels on KMUW:
“I talk about Hatttie McDaniel in every single lecture that I do, everywhere that I go, because she’s an important Wichitan, she’s an important Kansan, she’s an important icon, she’s a legend in the world of performing. The first African American person to be nominated for and win an Academy Award. How special is that? There will never be another first. It was Hattie McDaniel from Wichita, Kansas.
Thanks for listening to Feminist Foremothers, a mama.film podcast. Feminist Foremothers is written and hosted by Emily Christensen, produced by Emily Christensen and Lela Meadow-Connor, and edited by Kylie Brown. The illustrations are by artist Hannah Scott, who made portraits of each foremother for this podcast. Sharp observers will catch our own minor rewriting of history: In Hannah’s version, Hattie holds the traditional Oscar statue. In real life, winners in the supporting categories received smaller plaques. I guess we couldn’t resist giving Hattie a little something extra.
Big thanks to Julius Thomas the Third — the other Broadway performer you heard in this episode. He lent his voice to the passage from Brandon Taylor’s novel Real Life. And shout-out to my radio role model Carla Eckels for her insight and encouragement.
You can find me on Twitter @SchmemilyEmily. (Schmemily is spelled S-C-H-M-E-M-I-L-Y.) Find a complete transcript and check out our show notes at mama.film. The show notes include links to the books, movies, and articles discussed in this episode, plus further reading about Hattie McDaniel and some of the subjects we touched on.
If you enjoyed this podcast, please spread the word, and I hope you’ll join us for our last episode. (At least, our last episode for now.) Look for it at the end of March.
First Black Oscar Winner Hattie McDaniel Lacks Recognition In Her Hometown Of Wichita, KMUW: Lela and I were inspired to choose Hattie McDaniel as a subject in part because of this story by Carla Eckels.
The story inspired me to learn more about Karla Burns, a Wichita-born performer who has always seen Hattie McDaniel as a role model. Both actresses played Queenie in the musical Show Boat more than once. Here’s the Show Boat TV special from 1982 that we pulled a clip from. The Karla Burns segment starts at 42:10.
If you’re interested in the history of Wichita’s Black community, The Kansas African American Museum is a must visit. The staff and volunteers are friendly and knowledgeable, and the museum hosts original history and art rotating exhibitions, plus a permanent exhibition of African art and artifacts.
In 2020, TKAAM published African Americans of Wichita, available locally in the museum store or from Watermark Books. Take a self-guided tour around Wichita’s original Black community with an app called Bike Walk Wichita: Tours and Routes. Download it from Google Play or the App Store.
Hattie McDaniel has been celebrated in Wichita in a few different ways over recently. I mentioned Priscella Brown’s Horiztontes Project’s Dunbar Theatre mural in the episode. In the fall of 2020, Sarah Joy Harmon created a portrait of Hattie for Depth of Field: A Wichita Photo Album, a temporary installation in downtown Wichita organized by Wichita Festivals, Inc. And AIGA Wichita recently released We’re Here and Still Standing, a postcard set “celebrating the black leaders and artists who helped shape Wichita, Kansas.” Of course, one of the cards is a portrait of Hattie, based on artwork by Kynnedy Moore. You can buy it at Vortex Souvenir.
Nell Irvin Painter’s Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction is the seminal work on the Great Exodus. It’s available from the Wichita Public Library.
Isabel Wilkerson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book is The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. Shonda Rhimes optioned the book Netflix; playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith is adapting the text for the streamer.
For a quick summary, watch this brief video about Black migration from Black History in Two Minutes (which includes an appearance by Painter).
I wound up talking very little about Hattie McDaniel’s acting career in this episode. In part, that’s because her connection to Kansas has more to do with her family’s Exoduster experience. It’s also because Karina Longworth has already covered this territory on her terrific Hollywood history podcast You Must Remember This. Her episode about Hattie McDaniel is part of a six-episode series called Six Degrees of Song of the South.
If you want an in-depth look at Hattie’s life, check out Jill Watts’s Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood. I relied heavily on Watts’s account of the McDaniel family history. Also worth a read, a shorter piece: “What Hattie McDaniel Said About Her Oscar-Winning Career Playing Racial Stereotypes,” from Smithsonian Magazine.
Ryan Murphy’s Netflix miniseries Hollywood inspired a lot of interesting criticism. A small sampling:
- New Loop, America: Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris discuss the series on their New York Times podcast Still Processing.
- “Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood Is an Insult to the Real-Life Trailblazers It Overwrites,” Sam Adams in Slate
- This conversation in Autostraddle does a good job of covering what works and doesn’t work about Ryan Murphy’s series. I found it because Drew Gregory mentions the similarities between Hollywood and another work by Julie Dash: her 1982 short film Illusions, also a fictionalized version of Hollywood in the 1940s.
In her Vanity Fair article “How Beyoncé’s Lemonade Helped Bring a Groundbreaking Film Back to Theaters,” Yohana Desta explains — well, I suppose the headline says it all. The restoration and rerelease of the film brought new critical attention to Daughters of the Dust. (“The year’s best and most original movie was made in 1991,” wrote Richard Brody in the New Yorker.) Here are a few of my favorites:
- “Daughters of the Dust: Julie Dash’s lush drama remains a vital portrait of black life,” Carvell Wallace, the Guardian
- “The Uses of Beauty: On “Daughters of the Dust” and Diasporic Inheritance,” Carina del Valle Schorske, the Los Angeles Review of Books
- “From the Collection: Julie Dash’s 1991 Sundance Award-Winning ‘Daughters of the Dust,” an interview with Dash published by the Sundance Institute
- More recently, A.O. Scott interviewed paid homage to Daughters of the Dust and its creators for the New York Times style magazine’s 2020 culture issue.
Op-Ed: Hey, HBO, ‘Gone With the Wind’ romanticizes the horrors of slavery. Take it off your platform for now: John Ridley’s opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times prompted HBO Max to temporarily pull Gone with the Wind from its platform.
A few days later, Pamela K. Johnson responded in the pages of the same paper: “Op-Ed: I don’t like ‘Gone With the Wind,’ but I hate to see Hattie McDaniel canceled”
The film is accessible again, but now it begins with an introduction by TCM host and film historian Jacqueline Stewart. She wrote about the reasons to preserve the movie in an opinion piece for CNN: “Why we can’t turn away from ‘Gone with the Wind.”
In “The Lost Cause’s Long Legacy,” Michel Paradis explains how U.S. Army bases came to be named for Confederate generals (The Atlantic). q
Here’s proof that Gone with the Witch is real. I’m linking to its Amazon listing, because it includes a review from School Library Journal by Elaine E. Knight of Lincoln Elementary Schools, Illinois, who drags the book much the same reasons I do (albeit she does so less colorfully): “Bewitched, no. Bothered and bewildered, yes.”
“How Spike Lee’s ‘BlacKkKlansman’ expertly uses ‘Gone With the Wind,’ ‘Shaft’ cameos,” Bill Keveney, USA Today: I had to sneak in a reference to the opening scene in BlacKkKlansman, since the second Kansas-born Oscar winner is Kevin Willmott, who won for co-writing the screen adaptation.
Finally, “Part Four: Lost Cause” ends with the thoughtful essay “How I Bought Into Gone with the Wind’s Mythology of Whiteness,” by Meg Elison.
Welcome to Feminist Foremothers, a mama.film podcast. I’m your host Emily Christensen.
You’re listening to a series about the cultural legacies of three very complicated women: Carry Nation, Hattie McDaniel, and Rosie the Riveter. Each belong to history — but they still exert influence in surprising ways.
Episode one: The notorious Carry Nation
If you’re not from Kansas, you probably haven’t heard of her. But at the dawn of the twentieth century, Carry Nation was one of the most famous women in the world, both celebrated and reviled for smashing up bars with her trusty hatchet.
Before we get started, I want to tell you a little bit about mama.film. In 2019, Lela Meadow-Conner brought independent movies by and about women to her microcinema in Wichita, Kansas. Since then, she has collaborated on initiatives such as the rePRO Film Festival and the Mothership Screenwriters Lab.
Now, mama.film is an official Satellite Screen for the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. From January 28–February 2, you can catch screenings of 11 official Sundance selections at Wichita’s Starlite Drive-In. P art of this collaboration includes original Beyond Film content, including the podcast you’re listening to right now. Learn more and purchase tickets at mama-dot-film.
I’ve lived in Wichita, Kansas, for more than twenty years. I don’t remember the first time I heard about Carry Nation, but it couldn’t have been long after I arrived. Carry never lived here, but Wichita was most definitely the birthplace of her notoriety. On December, 27, 1900, she paid a visit to the bar in the Carey Hotel, one of the city’s fanciest drinking establishments. Here’s what happened, according to an account in a prohibitionist newspaper:
On the day before her attack, she visited nine joints and warned them that she would smash things on the following day if they did not quit their unlawful business. The day arriving, she visited the saloon in the Hotel Carey, threw a stone through the glass covering a life-sized picture of a nude woman, knocked the decanter from the bar and smashed a large plate-glass mirror.
Carry accomplished $3,000 worth of damage before she moved on to target another saloon. In today’s dollars, that’s more than ninety grand. Eventually, she was arrested and charged with destruction of property.
The building where Carry conducted her raid still stands. A few years after her ambush, the name changed to the Eaton hotel. Allen Ginsberg was a guest there in 1966, and he referenced both the hotel and Carry Nation in his poem “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” The poem connects Carry’s
quote-“vortex of hatred,” to the violence of the Vietnam War. Like so many men before him, Ginsberg didn’t understand Carry at all, nor did bother to try.
Around the turn of the 21st century, a developer converted the hotel rooms to apartments, and for a couple of years in my mid-twenties, I lived in a one-bedroom on the fifth floor. The building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, occupies a full city block on Douglas Avenue. It’s just a few steps from Old Town, a bar and entertainment district.
In Kansas, Carry’s influence endures. Her cultural inheritance includes Wichita-based band Carrie Nation and the Speakeasy, which borrowed her name. Artist Wayne White created a ten-foot-tall Carry puppet that stomped around downtown as part of the 2015 Wichita River Festival Sundown Parade. And a few years ago, Babs Mellor’s bronze, life-sized statue of Carry was installed on Douglas, right outside the Eaton.
In her contemporary biography of Carry Nation, Fran Grace writes that no one really wants to claim Carry. As a holy roller who campaigned for a lost cause, she holds minimal appeal for contemporary feminists. As a woman who forced herself into male-dominated spaces, she isn’t a great fit for religious conservatives, either.
When I began researching Carry for this podcast, I only knew the outline of her story: the caricature, the sly reference, a statue. My investigation took me places I didn’t expect, including Chrissy Teigen’s Instagram feed, the women’s suffrage movement, sobriety memoirs, and Mad Max: Fury Road.
I guess the result of all of this is that I’m prepared to claim Carry. And not just because of her colorful story or local connection. Carry Nation was as weird and brash, as warm and windswept, as the place I’ve learned to call home.
To paraphrase Walt Whitman: She is vast. She contains multitudes.
Part One: Chrissy Teigen quit drinking
In late December, celebrity cookbook author and American treasure Chrissy Teigen posted a goofy Instagram video of herself singing and dancing. One of her thirty-three-point-seven million Instagram followers commented: “I need whatever drugs you’re on!”
Teigen replied with four words and four emoji: “4 weeks sober, double heart, prayer hands, double heart, prayer hands.”
Later, Teigen revealed she had quit drinking after reading the book Quit Like a Woman, Holly Whitaker’s feminist recovery memoir-slash-guide.
On an Insta story, Teigen wrote, “I was done with making an ass of myself in front of people (I’m still embarrassed), tired of day drinking and feeling like shit by 6, not being able to sleep.”
Teigen had been thinking about the toll alcohol was taking on her life for at least a few years. In 2017, she told fashion magazine Marie Claire that she was working to moderate her intake. She said she just felt better when she didn’t drink.
Teigen wasn’t the kind of person you’d consider a “problem drinker.” But according to researchers, a lot of us drink too much — about 18 percent of Americans, according to the CDC. Kansas is just under the national average; about one in six of us are excessive drinkers. In modern life, conversation about alcohol’s negative consequences has centered around addiction — and for good reason: alcohol has devastating effects on the lives of addicts and the people around them. But all excessive drinkers put themselves at risk of a range of negative health outcomes, from cancer and chronic illness to becoming the victim of a crime. About 90% of excessive drinkers are not addicted to alcohol. Holly Whitaker and many others argue that we need to talk more about this much larger group.
More of us are heavier drinkers than we probably realize; the Dietary Guidelines for Americans define moderate alcohol consumption as up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men. And if you’re anything like me, a drink may be a lot smaller than you think. The USDA says it’s equivalent to twelve fluid ounces of regular beer, five fluid ounces of wine, or one-and-a-half fluid ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits. The higher alcohol content in a stout or double IPA might rate it as one and a half or even two servings. Five ounces of wine is approximately two-thirds of a cup, one ounce shy of a typical restaurant pour. It turns out that the only way to “Rosé all day” in moderation is to have a single shot of wine at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Anyway, back to Chrissy Teigan, whose enormous celebrity can trigger an avalanche of entertainment news items with a single social media post. Her Instagram book review created an immediate demand for Quit Like a Woman. Just four days after she mentioned it, the book hit the Amazon Charts as the #4 bestselling book for the week of January 3. A couple weeks later, it made the New York Times bestseller list for the first time.
Quit Like a Woman is a little difficult to describe. It’s part memoir, part dire warning, part social commentary, part recovery guide — all with a healthy dose of feminism. Here’s a typical passage: “Drinking has become so ingrained in the female code, we don’t even recognize the nearly endless ways it’s pierced our every experience, or even stop to think about the cost of that infiltration. Wine and spirits and beer are a celebrated, quintessential accessory to having made it as a woman.”
Whitaker isn’t the first feminist to criticize alcohol and the role it plays in women’s lives. In 1979, media critic Jean Kilbourne released her first documentary, Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women. She went on to collaborate on several more lecture-style documentaries, all of which critique the role of advertising in American life. My introduction to Kilbroune’s work was her 1999 book Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel. Parts
of it feel a bit dated now, but the book still stands up as an important work of media criticism. In a chapter titled “Forget the Rules! Enjoy the Wine,” Kilbourne writes about how the alcohol industry targets women with the “theme of liberation,” a tactic it has deployed for decades. She uses a Chivas Royal ad from the mid-nineteen-seventies as an example. The copy reads, “Now
that you’re bringing home the bacon, don’t forget the Chivas.” The image is a beautiful, beringed hand plucking a bottle of scotch off the liquor store shelf. Liberated women in alcohol advertising are also attractive and successful, of course. They have it all, in part because they have a drink in their hand.
Kilbourne also points out that the alcohol industry profits from binge drinkers and heavy users:
“If every adult American drank at the ‘safe’ level according to federal guidelines … alcohol industry sales would be cut by 80 percent. As one researcher said, ‘Though problem-free drinking does exist for great numbers of people, it is at such picayune levels that it would sustain only a fraction of the present alcoholic beverage industry.’”
This might not be such a big deal if excessive drinking did not have enormous public health consequences. Research shows consumption
increases risky behaviors and violent crime. Alcohol is a factor in more than half of reported sexual assaults and incidents of domestic violence, crimes that disproportionately victimize women.
Like Kilbourne, Caroline Knapp discusses the relationship between drinking and sexual assault in her 1996 memoir Drinking: A Love Story. The book is an account of her recovery, but also an exploration of why she became an addict in the first place. Among the many reasons is what she calls the “discomfort of being female:” the constant ogling, cat-calls, and small violations of her body.
Twenty years after Knapp’s memoir, Kristi Coulter authored a viral Medium post about her own reasons for drinking — and then not drinking. She wrote: “There’s no easy way to be a woman, because there’s no acceptable way to be a woman. And if there’s no acceptable way to be the thing that you are, maybe you drink a little. Or a lot.”
The essay is included in Couler’s 2018 essay collection Nothing Good Can Come of This. The book is part of a publishing boomlet of recovery literature authored by women. Many of these books echo the same theme: drinking isn’t a means of liberation for women — and it may be just
the opposite. Coulter wrote, “Booze is the oil in our motors, the thing that keeps us purring when we should be making other noise.”
Many, decades ago, another group of ladies surveyed the landscape and decided that alcohol wasn’t great for women. They were called prohibitionists, but they were also proto-feminists. It’s just the methods that have changed. Modern-day temperance feminists rage against alcohol using media criticism, memoir and recovery. Prohibitionists used political organizing and sometimes destruction of property. That brings us back to Carry Nation.
Carry arrived in Kansas in 1889, having yet again followed her husband to a new town where he hoped to find success. She was a 28-year-old widow with a young child when she met and married David Nation in 1874. He was nearly fifty. It’s very likely that Carry viewed her second marriage as a means of survival — not exactly rom-com material.
David was a newspaperman-slash-lawyer-slash-minister, but he often struggled to make a living. A few years into their marriage, the Nations moved from Missouri to south Texas to become cotton farmers. They didn’t have enough money, and they didn’t really know what they were doing. So David moved to town to work as a lawyer, and eventually Carry began running a hotel.
Carry’s only vocational experience was in the classroom; in Missouri, she’d worked as a teacher after her first husband died. Operating a public business wasn’t exactly a respectable vocation for a woman, but Carry didn’t really have a choice — she and David were on the brink of total financial ruin. In addition to her business pursuits, Carry became active in the town’s churches, teaching Sunday school and organizing charity groups. She was doing well when David decided they needed to move again.
This established a pattern that continued throughout their marriage: Against all odds, Carry finds success. After a while, David insists they move. The Nations start over, and Carry becomes a pillar of their new community … eventually, David wants to pull up stakes again. Rinse, lather, repeat. It was almost as though David couldn’t stand the fact that his wife was a better money-maker, a better leader, and even a better preacher than he. But if David was in search of a community that would appreciate him more than Carry, he doesn’t seem to have found it.
In Texas, Carry experienced a religious awakening. She felt that God spoke to her directly, and that she had the authority to interpret the Bible herself. After the local churches booted her from their Sunday-school classrooms, Carry organized her own version of church at her hotel. After her awakening, she became even more devoted to helping her neighbors, regardless of their station in life. Later on, Carry became friends with Topeka minister Charles Sheldon, who coined a phrase that will sound very familiar if you attended a church youth group in the nineties: WWJD — “What would Jesus do?” Sheldon admired Carry’s boldness, but her disregard for Victorian propriety ticked off many of her fellow Christians, including her husband. In the divorce papers David Nation filed many years later, he complained that she gave away his property to the poor.
Classroom experience, business success, church leadership, and a spiritual awakening all combined to make Carry Nation an unusually confident woman when she arrived in Medicine Lodge, Kansas. She joined the local Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, an organization that advocated for the prohibition of alcohol, the right for women to vote, and other social reforms. Thanks to the WCTU and the Kansas Equal Suffrage Association, Kansas women earned municipal suffrage in 1887. In the first election where women could vote, Susanna Salter became the mayor of Argonia, Kansas. She was the first woman in the country to hold this position. Around the same time, the WCTU successfully lobbied to raise the age of consent to eighteen from the age of ten. Ten.
When the Nations arrived in Kansas, the state was still a hotbed of progressivism. Its citizens believed they lived in a new promised land, a shining example for the rest of the country. Carry felt she herself had been called by God to do his work in the world, so Kansas suited her perfectly.
In 1880, Kansas was the first state to ban liquor, and its citizens considered this measure its gift to the nation. However, the law was barely enforced. Saloons stayed in business, often thanks to a bribery system that lined the pockets of judges and lawmen.
Behind the saloon door, men did business, cut political deals, and gambled their money away. Often they returned home to terrorize their families. Drinking represented women’s lack of power, both in public life and in their own homes. It’s no wonder that women fought for prohibition. They did so largely through political activism, and the most influential prohibitionist organization was the WCTU. When she arrived in Kansas, Carry was already a formidable leader, but the WCTU taught her how to be an activist.
Carry Nation had personal reasons to join the prohibitionists: Her first husband, Charles Gloyd, literally drank himself to death less than two years after their wedding. Before the WCTU, she blamed Charlie’s death on his weak character. Now she understood her private tragedy was part of a larger systemic problem. After a while, she wasn’t satisfied with confronting saloonkeepers and singing hymns outside liquor joints. She and a few of her WCTU pals smashed a barrel of whiskey in the middle of the street, but even that felt like a half measure. No one else bothered to uphold the law, so Carry decided to take matters into her own hands.
Wichita wasn’t the first destination on Carry’s bar-smashing tour. She had a trial run on a smaller stage: the town of Kiowa. Carry felt led there by God, and she went alone. She brought a bag pull of rocks that she wrapped in paper, so they looked like packages. Her Kiowa saloon raid caused a local stir. By the time Carry smashed up three bars and made the return trip to Medicine Lodge, telegrams had notified the locals about what she was up to.
National papers didn’t pick up the story until after Carry’s Wichita raid. Eastern cartoonists and newspapermen couldn’t resist this kooky midwestern character. Some speculated that her crusade had its origins in her sexual repression, or perhaps menopause. Yep, back in 1900, men were already blaming women’s transgressive behavior on their reproductive systems.
To the delight of journalists around the world, Carry didn’t quit after her raid on the bar at the Hotel Carey. She smashed up a couple more Wichita bars after her release from the Sedgwick County jail. She left a trail of destruction behind her in Enterprise, Kansas. Then she took her crusade to the capital city of Kansas. Before, Carry operated without much in the way of backup. In Topeka, she assembled an army.
Carry arrived in Topeka just in time for the state temperance conference. Before an adoring crowd, she uttered these words: “I tell you ladies, you don’t know how much joy you will have until you begin to smash, smash, smash, it is wonderful.”
Thousands of women — and men — answered Carry’s call to “agitate and chop,” an activity she called hachetation. They called themselves the Home Defenders Army and they were ultra serious: they formed units and practiced drills. Carry’s followers saw her as a modern-day John Brown, the Kansas abolitionist. He was hanged for treason after his pre-Civil-War attempt to lead an insurrection of enslaved people. By the time she arrived in Topeka, Carry had escaped two lynch mobs; she and her followers were keenly aware of the risks when they led a weeks-long campaign of destruction against the liquor merchants of Topeka. The Home Defenders felt they were within their rights to enforce the law, especially when women were still mostly shut out of the political process. Later, in an address to the Kansas state legislature, Carry said, “You refused me the vote, so I had to use a rock.”
Carry quickly amassed followers because she was different from how she was portrayed in the media. She was forceful for sure, but also warm and charismatic. She disarmed saloon-keepers and their patrons by appealing to them in a direct yet grandmotherly way: “Boys, boys … If you get into trouble, all you have to do is tell Mother Nation and she’ll be around.”
In Topeka, Carry’s natural affinity for marketing created a thriving souvenir trade. She contracted with a Rhode Island company to make Carry-Nation-branded hatchet pins to sell at rallies and on street corners. The pins were so popular that Carry and her supporters expanded into a whole line of merchandise, from signed photos to “home defender” buttons to water bottles. She was so notorious that everyone wanted a memento, even if they disagreed with Carry’s cause (or her tactics).
When I was first learning about Carry, I didn’t quite grasp her timeline. Her first Wichita smash-up happened at the end of December. By February, she’d assembled an army of thousands, addressed the Kansas legislature, and hit the lecture circuit. Not long after, she released the first issue of the Smasher’s Mail, which published both her prohibitionist rhetoric and her hate mail. As always, Carry Nation demonstrated an almost superhuman ability to get
things done, as well as an excellent sense of timing. She went on to found another magazine (The Hatchet), write a surprisingly readable autobiography, and open a home for women and children of alcoholics — a kind of early domestic violence shelter. She traveled the world and toured with vaudeville shows. A play based on her story launched the Broadway career of actor Jimmy Stewart. She was also arrested 30 times.
Carry achieved some of her goals, too: in response to her raids, the Kansas legislature strengthened prohibition laws. Carry died several years before the country saw both prohibition and women’s suffrage, though she undoubtedly contributed to both. Supposedly, her last words were, “I did what I could.”
The more I read about Carry, the more I grew to like her. I wanted to do her justice when telling her story. This task proved to be a bit stressful, because there’s so much misinformation out there. Some of it is based in misogynist critiques of Carry during her time. One example is a short silent film released by Thomas Edison’s production company 1901. It portrays David Nation, left at home to care for a child and driven to drink by his domineering wife. It reflected the anxiety that liberated women would abandon their household responsibilities and emasculate their husbands.
It took me some time to figure out how to spell her first name, even. They sound exactly the same, but on legal documents throughout the first part of her life, she was Carrie Amelia, C-A-R-R-I-E. After she became a temperance reformer, she legally changed her name to Carry A. Nation, C-A-R-R-Y because she was determined to “carry a nation” into sobriety. Nevertheless, it’s common to see Carry’s name with the more traditional “-ie” spelling. In my opinion, when a grown person goes to the trouble of changing their name, legally or otherwise, we should respect that. So it’s Carry, C-A-R-R-Y.
Thank goodness for Fran Grace, a religious studied professor at the University of Redlands. This podcast relies heavily on her 2001 biography of the Kansas activist. I bought my copy at the Stockade Museum in Medicine Lodge. The museum’s grounds include the Carry Nation Home, where Carry and David lived together before their divorce. The recently established gift shop also sells postcard reproductions of the massive portrait that hangs in Carry’s home, as well as reproduction Home Defender buttons. The museum attendant who checked me out was a young woman wearing a T-shirt that said “Strong Female Lead.”
Throughout history, men have wielded battle -axes, but they can’t be them. Without exception, battle-axes are women. This archetype may have originated with the Celtic queen Boudica, whose name I am probably mispronouncing. In the early days of the common era, she led an uprising against the Roman Empire. The term evolved to mean a “usually older woman who is sharp-tongued, domineering, or combative,” according to Merriam-Webster. The hatchet-wielding Carry Nation embodied this archetype.
So are actors who have portrayed some of the most memorable female characters in the history of film. Although, Hollywood being what it is and has always been, on-screen battle-axes are rarely older women.
● Think of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in the 1979 sci-fi/horror flick Alien.
● Susan Sarandon’s Louise in the 1991 road movie Thelma and Louise
● Uma Thurman’s Bride in 2003’s Kill Bill.
- But for my money, the ultimate movie battle-ax is Charlise Theron’s Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road., which hit theaters in 2015.
- Fury Road is the fourth installment of the Max Max series, which is set in a dystopian, Australian wasteland. The protagonist of all four movies is Max Rockatansky, an ex-cop and current road warrior. But Imperator Furiosa is the character at the center of Fury Road.
- Kidnapped as a child, Furisosa is now the chief commander of Immortan Joe’s war squad. She is, in fact, his only female warrior. Most of the other women under Joe’s dictatorial rule are essentially cattle, kept around only to pump breast milk.
- At the beginning of Max Mad: Fury Road, Furiosa is headed out in her war rig with a tanker of “Mother’s Milk” to trade for other provisions. Instead, she changes course. We soon learn her real mission: to ferry Immortan Joe’s five wives far away, to someplace safe and outside of his grasp. Not unlike upper-class White women in the Victorian era, the five wives live in luxurious captivity in exchange for the performance of their social role: bearing children — and most importantly, sons.
- Like Carry Nation, Furiosa is able to rally both men and women to her cause. Unlike Carry, she’s a woman of few words.
- IMPERATOR FURIOSA: You wanna get through this? Do as I say. Now pick up what you can and run.
- Nevertheless, Furiosa is motivated to protect these women. Her determination to do so is what most reminds me of Carry Nation. Like Carry, she attracts an interesting crew: a defector from the War Boys, a quartet of older women warriors, and Max himself.
- You could almost call them the Home Defenders Army.
- Though I love a strong female character, Mad Max: Fury Road is not really my kind of movie. In what will surely be a blow to my tough-lady image, I have to admit that I can’t stand watching on-screen violence of any kind, even when it’s only implied.
- Watching Fury Road (albeit partially with my hands covering my eyes) convinced me that I’m missing out. There’s something profoundly affecting in watching a woman fully occupy a traditionally masculine role.
Charlize Theron has explored this territory over and over, including in the movie Old Guard, in which she swings a literal battle-ax. For its July 2020 heroes issue, Entertainment Weekly included an interview with Theron about her attraction to fierce characters. She said that as a child, she was drawn to heroic TV figures such as McGuyver and Knight Rider — all men, of course. Alien was released when she was four years old, but she didn’t see Sigourney Weaver’s performance until her early twenties. Theron said, “once I saw her be Ripley, it was like the world opened up, and it just felt limitless.”
Not only are battle-axes like Ripley heroic, they’re complicated and imperfect. In this way, they are far more human than most of the women we see on screen.
Theron goes on to say, “[W]hat we think a female warrior or female hero or female action star should look like is not necessarily the truth. There is something to celebrate in the complexities of our faults and our flaws and all of the things that make us interesting … We can fight and save the world and make a mess … We can just live and breathe and be.”
When I read this, I thought of Carry. There’s something to celebrate in the complexities of her faults and all her flaws, and all of the things that make her interesting. She fought to save the world, and she often made a mess.
At the end of Fury Road, Furiosa takes her fight to Immortan Joe himself. In this decisive scene, she delivers a line I can imagine Carry Nation hurling at a saloon-keeper who ignored her warnings:
IMPERATOR FURIOSA: Remember me?
I can’t stop thinking about whether or not Carry Nation would be good on social media, and (if so), whether she would be worth a follow.
To the first question: Well, obviously. As a formidable crafter of catch phrases, Carry would be a compelling Twitter user and/or memelord. The quick-witted activist used to greet bartenders by saying, “Good morning, destroyer of men’s souls.” She once called a judge who opposed her “your dishonor,” which is a quality burn.
She also had a unique personal style, which artist Hannah Scott captured in her illustration for this podcast. Carry rejected corsets, feathers and fine fabrics in favor of a more severe, almost androgynous lewk. I can almost visualize her fashion TikTok videos: “Sunday style tip: Wear your purse around your waist to keep your hands free to swing a hatchet or throw a rock.”
But is Carry worth a theoretical follow? At this point, it won’t be any surprise to you that I would be engaged with her across all platforms. We do part ways on many issues, but I love a good iconoclast.
Carry was intensely committed to women’s rights. She believed women should have bodily autonomy at time — and in a place — where that idea was shocking. You’ve gotta love that.
Plus, “hatchetations” would make for extremely compelling live video.
But I can think of at least five reasons you might want to unfollow Carry, or maybe just pause or mute for a while:
● For starters, she had all the worst White feminist flaws. Sure, she didn’t have the same rights as White men, but she was also far more privileged than Black and Indigenous Americans. She managed to escape death at the hands of bar owners, lynch mobs, and the law partly through her enormous charisma. But being a middle-class, respectable White lady made her activism possible in the first place.
● Along the same lines, Carry was kinda the judgiest. She was quick to offer help to those in need, but sometimes that came with a heaping dose of I-know-what’s-good-for-you. Reading about Carry’s good works reminded me a little of a line by writer Anne Lamott: “Sometimes help is the sunny side of control.”
● She was a big on self-denial, too. In contrast, many contemporary activists embrace the pleasure as central to liberation. For an introduction to this concept, see adrienne maree brown’s 2019 book Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good.
● Carry was also a big-time street preacher, so if you’re the kind of person who desperately tries to avoid eye contact with the guy giving out free Bibles, then you’re probably not going to have a great experience with Carry Nation’s very long Facebook sermons.
● Lastly, her big issue was Prohibition. All the problems with that approach could easily fill an entire podcast series.
Some might actually be justified in blocking Carry entirely. Cause when you think about it, she would undoubtedly engage in an online harassment campaign against everyone from bartenders to brewery owners.
On the other hand, her feed might be a good source of inspo for the newly (or temporarily) sober.
More and more Americans are trying to stop drinking. Others simply practice sobriety during the first month of the calendar year, a trend called “Dry January.”
Of course, when a consumer door closes, the invisible hand of the market opens a window, right? I’m recording this episode shortly after the new year, when you can find oodles of newly published reviews of booze-free beer, wine and even distilled spirits.
Drinks can carry the nonalcoholic label as long as they contain less than one half of one percent of alcohol by volume. Athletic Brewing Company holds the biggest share of the NA craft beer market. Their sales increased by five hundred percent in 2020. I was more than a little bit skeptical when I ordered a sampler pack. I have to say, Athletic’s “extra dark” and Mexican-style “copper” are shockingly good. Other than the lack of alcohol, they taste exactly like a good craft brew.
Even Wichita-based Koch Industries is in the game. Last year, one of their subsidiaries launched a new business to help reduce the amount of alcohol in nonalcoholic products. According to a story in the Wichita Business Journal, the “technology can guarantee below point zero two percent.”
Many bars and restaurants have expanded their cocktail menus to accommodate sober customers. Two of Wichita’s best cocktail bars serve liquor-free libations, which is how they’re listed on the menu at Cane-a Wine & Cocktails. There, you can sink into a velvet-upholstered sofa and order a “Faux-loma,” Cana’s version of a Paloma mixed without tequila. At Dockum Speakeasy, which occupies an old bank vault in the basement of the Ambassador Hotel, “zero proof” drinks are listed on the menu under the label “preventatives.” These drink recipes skip the booze, but they use other craft cocktail ingredients, such as egg whites and house-made bitters or syrups.
Local bars are beginning to offer substitutes for liquor, too. Nondrinkers can sip Apollo Fermentations kombucha at Central Standard Brewing. The locally produced, fermented drink is even on tap at my favorite dive bar, the legendary Kirby’s Beer Store. I spent large parts of my twenties and thirties at Kirby’s, playing dominoes and euchre and the jukebox, listening to live music and drinking vodka sodas or boxed wine or tap beer.
It was only after reading Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story a few years ago that I realized how immoderate my own drinking habits were. That’s when I learned a single serving of alcohol is so very small. I decided to take a more moderate approach, but never quite succeeded. (This is perhaps the one thing Chrissy Teigen and I have in common.) Alcohol was always around, and like a Swiss army knife, it had so many different functions. I’ve used it to celebrate, reward myself, dance in public, blow off steam, numb my anxiety, and feel a sense of belonging. Here’s how Caroline Knapp puts it:
“I loved the way drink made me feel, and I loved its special power of deflection, its ability to shift my focus away from my own awareness of self and onto something else, something less painful than my own feelings. I loved the sounds of drink: the slide of a cork as it eased out of a wine bottle, the distinct glug-glug of booze pouring into a glass, the clatter of ice cubes in a tumbler. I loved the rituals, the camaraderie of drinking with others, the warming, melting feelings of ease and courage it gave me.”
I downloaded the audiobook of Quit Like a Woman mostly because I was researching a prohibitionist. I thought this would be a perfect way to connect Carry’s story to contemporary feminist critiques of alcohol.
Like Carry Nation before her, Whitaker believes any amount of alcohol is destructive. She does make a good case, one increasingly supported by scientists and government health authorities. A panel of scientists published a report last summer that recommended dropping the maximum number of drinks per day for men to the same level as women: just one. In its recent update, the USDA declined to make this change. But they did clarify something; They mean one or two drinks per day, not seven or fourteen per week, which is how many have interpreted the guidelines. In other words, you’re not supposed to “bank” your daily allotment so you can have two or three of four drinks at a time.
If that’s not depressing enough, already this year scientists have published a couple of studies that warn of the risks of even moderate drinking. Increasingly, researchers believe the best way to balance the risks against the benefits of alcohol is to qualify as a “light drinker” — that’s one to three servings a week. And if you don’t drink already, the consensus is that you shouldn’t start for any reason.
I don’t agree with all of Holly Whitaker’s conclusions, some of which are fairly controversial.. But having said that, I began listening to Quit Like a Woman on January fifth, and I haven’t had a drink since. When I told a friend this, she said,
“I’ve never thought of you as someone with an alcohol problem.” Like the vast majority of heavy drinkers, I don’t meet the clinical criteria for alcohol addiction. But by any standard, I’ve been drinking too much. And Holly Whitaker reminded me of the consequences of that.
It feels premature to declare that I’ve quit drinking for good. I am fond of the Oscar Wilde quip, “moderation in all things, including moderation.” Except (remember) I haven’t been so great at that. I’ll leave it at this: for the first time, quitting entirely seems like something I could do if I want to. And for the first time, it feels like that might not be the worst thing in the world.
A few days after my last drink, I downloaded Sober Time from the Google Play store. The app allows you to upload your own background image to its home screen, where it lists the number of years, months, days, hours, and even seconds of sobriety.
I scrolled through my recent photos and selected the one I thought was most appropriate in this context. That’s why My Sober Time background is an image I captured on my visit to Medicine Lodge: a portrait of foremother Carry A. Nation.
Thanks for listening to Feminist Foremothers, a mama.film podcast. Feminist Foremothers is written and hosted by Emily Christensen, produced by Emily Christensen and Lela Meadow-Connor, and edited by Kylie Brown.
You can find me on Twitter @SchmemilyEmily. Schmemily is spelled S-C-H-M-E-M-I-L-Y. Find additional Feminist Foremothers content and read our show notes on mama.film’s website,
mama-dot-film. If you enjoyed this podcast, please tell your friends, and I hope you’ll join us for our next two episodes. Thanks for listening, and have a smashing day!
More to read, watch and engage with from Feminist Foremothers: Carry Nation
If you aren’t already following Chrissy Teigen on Instagram, you should probably start now. She’s great on Twitter, too. (Even @POTUS is a follower.)
Quit Like a Woman, Holly Whitaker
Alcoholics Anonymous didn’t do it for Holly Whitaker, and in her 2019 book, she suggests the most popular addiction recovery in the world might not be the best fit for women and marginalized people. Whitaker draws from a multitude of existing sources, but the way she puts it together is all her own. Check it out and decide for yourself, or take a shortcut and read “Stop talking about ‘wine o’clock’: Holly Whitaker on how women can stop drinking – and get happy” from Ann Lee in the Guardian.
Killing Us Softlly: Advertising’s Image of Women, Jean Kilbourne
THE original feminist advertising documentary, which Kilbourne revised and re-released several times. See also: her 1999 book Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel.
Drinking: A Love Story, Caroline Knapp
Knapp’s 1996 memoir is one of the classics of recovery literature.
“Enjoli,” Kristi Coulter
This Medium essay about the challenge of being newly sober in a world saturated with alcohol went viral back in 2016.
Carry Nation: Retelling the Life, Fran Grace
Grace’s 2001 biography of the Temperance activist is a comprehensive (and feminist) account of Carry’s life. You can borrow it from the Wichita Public Library.
Retropolis: Attacking saloons with a hatchet, Carry Nation helped get America into rehab 100 years ago, Petula Dvorak
This Washington Post feature was published on the 100th anniversary of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It’s probably the best short account of Carry’s life, though a couple small details are wrong.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Now that you know a bit more about Carry’s life, see if you agree that Imperator Furiosa embodies her fierce spirit.
Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good by adrienne maree brown. Brown’s 2019 book is the perfect antidote to Carry’s severity.
Culture Shift: What’s behind a decline in drinking worldwide, Sara Miller Llana and Courtney Traub. The Christian Science Monitor, October 3, 2018
“Celebrity Backers Are Making Nonalcoholic Beer a Hot Investment,” Kate Krader Bloomberg, January 13, 2021
“Study finds one small alcoholic drink a day raises risk of irregular heartbeat,” Ian Sample The Guardian, January 13, 2021
“Forget Dry January. We need better nonalcoholic cocktails every month of the year.” M. Carrie Allan, The Washington Post, January 3, 2019
Download the Sober Time app from Google Play or the App Store.
And if Carry Nation (or Holly Whitaker) has convinced you of the evils of alcohol, you can join the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, which still exists(!). There are even lots of state-level chapters — but not in Kansas. Members must sign a pledge, which reads: “I hereby solemnly promise, God helping me, to abstain from all distilled, fermented and malt liquors, including wine beer and hard cider, and to employ all proper means to discourage the use of and traffic in the same.”
As for me, I think I’ll stick to Caroline Knapp and other temperance feminists. —Emily