In this post from the A to Z compendium of The Feminine Icon. We are at the letter G today. I decided to look at the way we have associated whole groups of women with a single term that captures some element of what has changed for women in a specific time period.
Most things remain the same, but difference is what is noted and categorized as capsulizing an entire generation.
Also it only takes only a few generations until you can have a totally mythic ancestor or icon, with god like properties; usually it is stated as 6 generations. So the icons covered here are only going back to late 1800s. People still living today remember people who were born in the late 19th Century.
From the Past
The idealized common woman, young and beautiful of course, of the 1890s and early 1990s was an image popularized by artist Charles Dana Gibson. The public domain image below is typical of how the girls, as they were called, were depicted. This one happens to be a beach scene.
The differences inherent to this idealized image are masculine aspects of the clothing. Not the tie and aspects of military uniforms. Corseting is still essential for anyone emulating this look, but the overall appearance is a curvy softness with hair loosely coiffed. Bare arms or neck are often featured, but usually not both. The Gibson Girl is confident and coy.
The next icon overlapped with the previous one. The suffragist at the turn of the 19th to 20th Century in the U.S. was seen as something quite different from any known societal element. This graphic, called the awakening, emphasized the novel west to east migration of votes for women. The classic Greek representational elements depict democracy on the move and women in the east reaching out to hurry an embrace of liberty.
But the truth is the Gibsonesque girl was a Suffragist and so was the Flapper. Both were around before women received the vote in the U.S.
In fact, this image from a Studebaker advertisement in 1920 shows aspects of all three early 20th Century types of women.
The two images I’ve chosen to represent the Flapper shows the vast width of territory the icon covers, the fictionalized and symbolic one to the left and the reality to the right.
The artistic rendering of the Flapper in a Butterfly costume shows the new freedoms and celebratory decadence associated with the dancing and illicitly drinking woman of prohibition. Just as real as prohibition was the celebration of life that occurs after WWI.
The office workers in the Shorpy image shows more of the reality of women working so as to support the independence for which previous generations and older sisters had fought.
But then everything changed.
Dust Bowl Dorothy
Then there was this thing called the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.
Dorothea Lange, above left, the photographer who took the pic of Florence Owens Thompson, center, created some of the best known photos which came to epitomize the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. The fictionalized image of depression-era dustbowl female is Dorothy Gale as played by Judy Garland.
Independence, toughness, and something closer to reality – working photographer, mother struggling to feed her family, and orphan learning to appreciate what really matters in life – captures the iconic elements of living through the pre-WWII Great Depression.
No one during the time of the U.S. involvement in WWII called anyone who joined to workforce to do traditional males jobs in support of the war effort a Rosie. But that is how we have come to know them.
The real factory-women working during WWII was far more diverse than the icon we have come to know.
Then by 1946 and the end of the war women were to revert to classic roles as though the men had never left and women had not grown accustomed to a lifestyle predicated on working outside the home.
The perfectly coiffed, home-making, mother of many, who can bring a whole community together and have a casserole baking in the oven was exemplified by Donna Reed’s role in the 1946 Capra film, It’s a Wonderful Life.
The only problem with this image is that the idealized family of the post WWII era and the 1950s homemaker with the suburban barbeque that this image morphed into never really existed. These were Hollywood and advertiser s creation. That did not stop them from becoming iconic.
Then everything changed again… but not really.
Beatniks & Hippie-Chicks
The antithesis of the 1950s homemaker, the beatnik, a chick, had an outer appearance completely different from what had come before. Jazz infused, black turtleneck and skin tight black pant clad, with an existential bent, open relationship inclined, and at best a sidekick to the male cool-cats who ruled same as men before but without the cultural constraints that layered over traditional society.
This duality in rebellion continued on into the 1960s and on to the next icon of the hippie chick.
Women were still not thought of as independent agents in the world, but some of them began to act the part.
As we go through time more and more references are available to confound singular images as icons. But the elements of the Generation of hippie chicks may be best contained in Joni Mitchell or Carole King. Carole King married early at age 17, the same age when she wrote, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow. By 1968 she was divorced and in 1971 her album tapestry Tapestry hit the top of the charts and stayed there for 15 weeks then stayed on the charts for 6 years. These women dominated the 60s and 70s as respected, intelligent, and immensely talented forces shaping and reflecting the times.
It is tempting for most non-Boomers to think of these iconic women musicians as Boomer icons, because they were of the same age as the hippies, but actually, they were born before the post WWII baby boom began in 1943.
Similarly the next phase of proto goth punky women, who were first represented by Patti Smith were older than the first Punks and were actually Boomers. Patti was born during the first year after WWI, in 1946.
Jumbled up Sorta Now
Proto -punk Patti Smith opened the floodgates into a Goth amalgam still presenting itself into the 21st Century. These Late-Boomer and Gen-X characters, and the real women who emulated and inspired them bridged and obscured the iconic Goth iconography that included some of male Beat ethos into their own fin-de-siècle self-expression.
The iconic goth image played opposite the gray-suited working woman. But a suit does not really have enough depth to be an icon in and of itself.
Please note that nearly all of these icons mentioned above are white. Maybe we haven’t evolved much.
Shortly after the 80s something happened. The 90s. At this point in the generational discussion I feel as though I should bow out as my millennial daughter is born.
But even I noticed that something was well… something began to happen in the 90s… the new women rising were in control in ways previous generations were not. Perhaps this video will remind you of what was happening.
Then the new century and millennium brought us fully into the age of the female warrior and protestor.
Needless to say perhaps but we have pride in those who serve and in those who stand up for what they believe. The making of icons is not an easy path.
Into the Future
Still being in the moment, almost, it is difficult to say what might become iconic. We rarely have control over our own cultural encoding, but we have far more than we used to.
I think there will be many strong iconic women who become the icons of new generations.
(2011) Intersectionality and mediated cultural production in a globalized post-colonial world, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 35:5, 834-849,