Women have their day

International Women's Day marked by noon peace vigil and evening UAS lecture on the origins of feminine ideals of beauty

Posted: Wednesday, March 08, 2006

As a teenager in Australia in the 1980s, postdoctoral research fellow Liz Conor and her friends were wrapped up in the new-wave fashions sweeping the planet.

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It was, perhaps, her introduction to the relationship between feminine visibility and identity.

"Part of the condition of being a young woman is confusion about your identity, and how to make sense of it," Conor said. "It's very easy to fall into a sense of yourself that's very visually inscribed. In fact, it's very much part of the definition of being a woman."

Conor explores the evolution of what she calls "the modern appearing woman," in "The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s," a book about the worldwide "look" promoted by the sudden globalization of cinema, photography and mass media in that decade.

She will present "This Striking Ornament of Nature: The Native Belle in the Colonial Scene," at 7 p.m. today in the University of Alaska Southeast Egan Lecture Hall, as part of the university's celebration of International Women's Day.

Also today, there will be an International Women's Day Peace Vigil at noon, across the street from the Alaska Capitol, at Fourth and Main streets. The event is co-sponsored by CodePink Women for Peace, Women in Black, National Organization of Women and Juneau People for Peace and Justice.

At least 104 similar rallies are planned around the world today, including a gathering from 4 to 6 p.m. at Elizabeth Peratrovich Park in downtown Anchorage and a march from the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, D.C., to the White House. For more information visit www.womensaynotowar.org.

Conor's lecture will explore the role of Aboriginal women in 1920s Australian society, and the ways in which they were pressured to conform to the new feminine ideals ushered in by mass media. It's a spin-off of the sixth chapter of her book, "The 'Primitive' Woman in the Late Colonial Scene."

Australian Aborigines were forced from their lands in the 1920s, as whites expanded across the country. Many Aboriginal women ended up as domestic workers. At the same time, many whites developed a fondness for kitsch items with Aboriginal images. Conor hopes to explore the phenomenon in future research.

"It hadn't occurred to me to write about Aboriginal women and how they were seen in this new modern movement, and yet it just kept leaping out at me," Conor said. "The joke that appeared in the print media in these 1920s cartoons was that they were constantly missing the visual cues. They were wearing men's boots with women's petticoats and just sort of not understanding how to look modern."

UAS professor Robin Walz has incorporated Conor's book into the curriculum of a history class he's teaching this spring on gender and sexuality. He discovered the book at Egan Library shortly after he returned from a Seattle presentation by The Modern Girl Around the World Project, a similar research project by six faculty members at the University of Washington.

"In the 1920s, it didn't matter where you were in the world," Walz said. "You could be in Australia, you could be in New York, you could be in San Francisco, Japan, China and India, and you start getting the same woman everywhere. She's slim; she's got her bobbed hair; she uses a whole line of American products.

"They make the claim that this is one of the first waves of the sort of globalization of culture," he said. "Not just the distribution of a single product, but the image of this modern woman came as a whole package and it relied on an entire range of these feminine commodities."

Conor will also visit the University of Alaska Anchorage during her short state tour. Her visit is sponsored by the university system's scholar-in-residence program.

Conor began work on "The Spectacular Modern Woman" while researching the technological advancements of the 1920s and their effect on feminine ideals.

"There's a lot of research out there on the 1920s, precisely because it really resonates," Conor said. "It's like the cradle for our present circumstances. If you look at a lot of the advertising, you start to see the emergence of sanitary napkin ads that are very similar to the present-day ads, and some advertising for plastic surgery. It's almost like looking at a very early version of our present selves."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com

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