This Is What a Feminist Looks Like! Photography and American Feminism, 1968–87

Saturday, January 6, 2018
Atrium (Marriott Wardman Park)
Meaghan Beadle, University of Virginia
Through a detailed examination of the ways in which feminist activists deployed the photographic medium, my research explores the political implications of cultural practice between 1968 and 1987. This poster focuses on the National Organization for Women (NOW), examining how feminists portrayed themselves and their movement and comparing their depictions of feminism to those created by feminist artists as well as those in the mainstream media. Its fundamental contribution is in its interrogation of the central role photography played in the self-fashioning and popular envisioning of women’s liberation. This research ultimately proposes that feminists ambivalently developed a visual vocabulary for their movement, thus creating an ambiguous understanding of feminism both in the 1960s and in the decades to follow. It uses organization records and close visual analysis to illustrate the terms through which NOW shaped and demarcated the period’s field of vision in conflicting ways. On the one hand, NOW largely failed to recognize photography’s documentary or evidentiary potential. They rarely deployed photos to validate their cause, and the issues NOW focused most ardently on were ones that proved difficult to portray visually, thus making it hard to construct a strong visual message for their movement. On the other hand, feminist activists regularly wielded photography as a tool of self-expression and visual consciousness-raising. Amateur photography made by activists at rallies, for example, became a common way for feminists to share experiences with women around the country. Similarly, NOW officers and members used photography in slide shows and photo essays they made for recruitment and fundraising purposes. These projects created a new visual history of feminism that strategically aimed to link women to one another as well as to activist foremothers in an unprecedented way. However, many of these photographic forms also served to conflate discrete feminist issues to the detriment of the movement as a whole. Moreover, feminists developed a visual message for their movement that both created and maintained detrimental race and class divisions, thereby narrowing their potential for success in the long run. This project situates visual culture at the center of women’s liberation in order to illustrate the role photography played in shaping the very definition of feminism. In the process, it concurrently interrogates how feminists redefined what it meant to be female in the late-twentieth century.
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