Thursday, January 15, 2015

Today in Herstory: Unknown Asheville Woman in Photo #18 Circa 1904

Today, the Carolina Public Press published a story about a unique find of a 1904 photo album of Asheville. Here is the link to that interesting piece. Don't miss reading it and seeing the entire collection for yourself. It's quite a journey.

After marveling at the architecture, some of it lost to time and circumstance, I began to notice a pattern: all the photos are of men and male children, both Caucasian and African American with only one exception. 

Photo #18. 
Previously unknown photo from 1904, now in the North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Library.

One day in 1904, a woman in Asheville, who might have been anyone, chose to take a walk in Riverside Park on the footpath next to the lake. There an unknown photographer was to capture her image: white starched shirt with its neck high collar, respectable ankle length skirt, requisite day hat perched horizontally atop her pouf, carrying a practical umbrella.

This single woman is placed in a diminutive position in the left margin of the photo of the lake. In terms of placement, the left margin is a weak position on the page. Notice that her figure is both at the margin of the lake, often in Western Literary tradition symbolizing emotional weakness and disappointment, and also at the margin of the frame, her features undiscernable. 

She is quite literally marginized, and somehow associated with nature, something else to be plundered and pillaged as a resource for a world of men, by men, and for men.

When we next consider the large numbers of men gathered around a fountain on Pack Square, or the inclusion of the African-American YMCA, the all-men's Asheville Social Club, and the Men's Temperance Union-founded Normal College, also known as Weaver College," we become aware of a gender-centric depiction of locations and organizations systematically excluding women.

One hundred and eleven years later, the view of women and their issues and viewpoints continue to be marginalized in a male-dominated world view. As women are no more full citizens than they were in 1904, let's put this photo somewhat into context.

When photo #18 was taken in 1904, women had no rights at all, having been specifically excluded from the language in the 13th and 14th amendments. Historically, women have been considered social, legal, and economic extensions of the male members of their households: husbands, fathers, sons, something that remains the case in the underlying assumptions of much legislation being crafted today. Something seen by 21st male politicians as desirable to maintaining the status quo, while women's citizenship, equality and autonomy are depicted as undesirable, and the legality of gender discrimination is dismissed in an offhand manner by Supreme Court Justices.

Unlike freed slaves, women remained the property of their husbands, who also retained ownership of the children, all marital  property, and were subject to decisions made by men. The 19th amendment and the exclusive right to vote would not come until 1920, and in many states, the right to own property in one's own name would come later. The treatment of women as property and without the rights to make their own decisions about their health care, choice to not have children, say no to sex, continues. To date, the right to vote is the only guaranteed right women are granted under the constitution. To get anything else, we are expected to ask, beg, bed, plead, cajole, and play nice. If we don't, we are "unwomanly." Generations of our gender have heard these arguments before us.

In 1904, Helen Keller graduated from Radcliffe. The first wave of suffragettes was on the wane; it was two years after the death of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and two years prior to the loss of Susan B. Anthony.  The second wave was stepping into those spaces and working to fill the void. 1904 was the year Anna Howard Shaw became president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in order to to free up Carrie Chapman Catt to join British women's rights activist Millicent Fawcett in the formation of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance. Our unknown woman on her solo walk had likely heard of such matters, but had likely been told not to worry her head about those pernicious ideas which would be the ruin of Society as she knew it.

Lastly, in this cursory treatment of these topics, we must not ignore the matter of race as opposed to gender as it may be viewed in this collection. Media critics trained academically would likely tell you that noticing the difference in scale in the depictions between white and black subjects in the photos is important. And it is. The differences in ethnicity are measurable, literally that the African Americans in the photos mostly appear smaller in scale, and that the Caucasian men are more prominent and appear larger, more numerous, and more affluent in comparison. But one amazing thing to me is that African American buildings and architecture is represented so significantly in a collection of photos taken professionally during this period. Photo #18 leads me to believe these men of color already rank higher in the social strata than women of any origin. After all, slavery was abolished by the 13th amendment in 1865, and citizenship followed soon thereafter in the 14th amendment in 1868. African American men were granted the right to vote in the 15th amendment in 1870, 34 years before these photos were taken. They were included, separate, but with rights as full citizens. Women, on the whole, were not included. They did not, and do not, have rights as full citizens.

Isn't it time women belong only to themselves?

This essay represents views of Asheville National Organization for Women chapter president Sherri L. McLendon, and does not necessarily reflect the views of individual chapter members.

1 comment:

  1. There does appear to be at least one woman in that racially mixed circle of men around the fountain....right side. I wonder who she was!