The adjacent picture is one among many images depicting the iconic Rosie the Riveter of WWII fame. The image packs a whole story, especially today, about gender and society. It’s a timely statement. They say pictures are worth a thousand words? This one is worth more. It tells tells several stories.
The portrait represents a woman who is not about traditional feminine business, at least as we’ve known it historically, being agreeable and deferential. She’s in what we think of as a man’s world and appears to belong there unapologetically. She wears the blue denim shirt like the one I wore when as a young man I worked in shipyards. She’s a skilled laborer. Rosie was showcased as the kind of woman who, needing only the chance, was up to doing any man’s job as well if not better.
The woman’s facial expression is serene and confident, almost regal. It’s not the facial expression we’d expect from somebody who was feeling angry and defiant. The way her arms are configured, as I read it, is indeed a protest, but her expression suggests to me she is confident in her defiance, that she’s not just being reactive. She’s affirming who she is, a competent no-nonsense woman not about to be patronized.
Her right hand is placed over her left bicep, her left arm bent with fist held high in the air.
She might be just rolling up her sleeve but as I see it, she is multitasking. This is unmistakably the universal gesture of defiance normally associated with angry men, frequently low-lifes or tough guys. The French, always nuanced in delicate matters, call this gesture the ‘bras de’honneur;’ the Italians who are more proprietary say it’s the ‘Italian salute’ and Americans who are characteristically course know it simply as, ‘up yours.’ Defiance is a distinct part of the message here.
This is not a woman a guy wants to mess with. She knows just who she is. As I interpret this image for our time, I think she’s telling the world; “Let’s get serious. No more eighty cents on every dollar a man makes for the same job. It’s time for equal pay for men and women, and for blacks and whites as well.”
Stereotypical gender roles are rapidly changing. They’re challenging the way men and women relate to one another. The ‘little woman’ being protected by the ‘big guy’ is now an unsustainable fiction. Women’s safety stratagems that once depended on feminine wiles are antiquated. Tears of helplessness and fluttering eyelids are to the modern woman’s armamentarium for survival as the bow and arrow is to todays fighting Marine. For those guys still clinging to their traditional gender prerogatives, this change in social conventions may come as a shock.
According to New Yorker columnist, Lizzie Widdicombe, Dana Shafman, an Arizona native, is the inventor of the Taser party. Similar to the traditional Tupperware party women hosted in their homes, Shafman’s presentations are not about freezer containers or dishes for leftovers. Her wares are displayed on a coffee table like Tupperware. This is, however, serious weaponry proffered for sale, a lucrative, legitimate business, presented with a characteristically feminine touch: hospitality offered in the hostess’ living room, along with cookies, coffee and demonstrations in the uses of the Taser. This changing convention is not good news for men. It will require men to exercise more caution in the mating game and with women in general. Guns used to be strictly a guy thing. Now Mr. Macho can’t be sure when his disgruntled squeeze may be packing a piece.
The Taser, although ostensibly non-lethal, is a weapon like a gun, used by the military and police to subdue suspects who might become violent. In living room presentations to neighborhood women, Shafman showcases Tasers customized to suit the most discriminating woman’s tastes. The C2 Taser, small, “Virginia Slims” as the model is dubbed, has been developed for civilians and some specifically designed for women. Some come in pink, perhaps anticipating today’s confluence of traditional femininity with some of the instruments historically associated with masculinity. Shafman’s customers are promised that if the first shot doesn’t drop the miscreant, not to worry. The Taser can still be used as a stun gun.” Go for the jugular,” Shafman advises her customers.
It’s a new day.
March eighth this year the world observed International Women’s Day. The timing of the observation came at a particularly advantageous time since the occasion was set in sharp relief by the recent contempt with which the president publically denigrated women. It some ways his attitudes gave a greater impetus for increasing public awareness of the long standing issue of gender inequality. For all the wrong reasons his attitudes may have aided in propelling issues of gender inequality into public awareness.
It’s interesting to note that increasingly men and women are “partnering” rather than entering a marriage. Perhaps “husband and wife” still carry enough of the suggestion of inequality to trouble women in particular. The word partner or co-worker suggests equality.
What about good old-fashioned romance, you ask? That’s a subject for another conversation. My guess is that the glow endures among men and women who regard each other as equals.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.