Anna May Wong

anna_may_wong_-_portrait

[A black and white photograph of Anna May Wong looking glamorous as all hell circa 1935. Her gaze is focused somewhere behind her and to her right, creating the illusion of ignoring the camera and her onlookers. This photograph is in the public domain, and was found at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Anna_May_Wong_-_portrait.jpg ]

Today’s post is dedicated to the talented and absolutely fabulous actress known as Anna May Wong. Born Wong Liu Tsong (Yellow Frosted Willow) in Los Angeles early in 1905 to Chinese-American parents who ran a laundry, Wong went on to become one of the only Asian-American actresses of the early to mid-twentieth century in American cinema (Hodges, 1). Beginning her career at a young age, first in silent film and moving into talkies, she worked in the film industry as a renowned actress until her untimely death in 1961.

Her films ranged from 1922’s The Toll of the Sea, 1929’s Piccadilly, 1931’s Daughter of the Dragon, and 1943’s anti-Japanese propaganda film Bombs Over Burma, with her being cast in different “ethnic” roles ranging from Inuit to Mongolian throughout her career. As scholar Anthony B. Chan notes in Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong (1905-1961), Wong’s varied roles were “designed to reveal an exotic, stern, and mysterious Asian being rather than a matter-of-fact person who relished the art of repartee. Her films served to create an aura of aloofness that seemed to encourage a sexual encounter but at the same time pushed aside the possibility of touching and intimacy” (Chan, 193).

Wong was constantly cast as the “ultimate cinematic tease” in Hollywood films (Chan, 193), as a stereotypical “Dragon Lady” in her early years, leading her to leave for Europe in search of more fulfilling roles that did not rely on her playing a supporting “exotic” character. By leaving the United States film industry for the industries flourishing in Europe, she was able to escape being constantly typecast as an exotic supporting role, which came out of a combination of anti-miscegenation laws that disallowed her from having on-screen romances with anyone who was not Asian and from Euro-American actresses constantly being cast in yellow-faced leading Asian roles. Eventually, she was signed on to Paramount in the 1930s and returned to the United States after starring in several European films of varying success. As her fame grew in the United States during the 1930s, she began to advocate on behalf of the Chinese-American community and new Chinese refugees during a time of extreme anti-Asian racism and hostility in the United States that had begun with the California Gold Rush in the mid-nineteenth century and continued on throughout the next century.

Wong’s career spanned a breadth of roles, from stereotypical and offensive to witty and empowering, that constantly subverted Euro-American expectations of (East) Asian-American women. She was an “icon to the people of Chinese North America” who wrote tongue-in-cheek signatures on publicity photos destined for Euro-Americans, such as “Orientally yours” (Chan, xii;  Hodges, xvii). Anna May Wong’s life leads us to interrogate the ways that rebellion and subversion often co-exist with what, at times, appear to be the upholding of oppressive norms. Furthermore, Wong’s “exoticized” beauty forces us to grapple with the ways in which beauty is often weaponized against particular gendered and racialized historical subjects, leading to a forced simplification of an individual’s complexity and humanity. Wong’s sexualized appeal as a racialized subject of White fetishes regarding East Asian women is an essential aspect in understanding the complicated history of media portrayals of Asian women that reverberate into the present day.

We here at the HHBlog have the utmost respect for trail-blazing women like Anna May Wong and hope that in detailing a little bit of her life in all of its intricacies, we have inspired you to think critically about the way women living at the intersections of fetishized and sexualized racism resist, rebel, and survive.

~ M

Bibliography

Chan, Anthony B. Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong (1905-1961). Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2007.

Hodges, Graham Russell Gao. Anna May Wong: From Laundryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legend. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2012.

Tiana (Thi Thanh Nga). “THE LONG MARCH: From Wong to Woo: Asians in Hollywood.” Cinéaste 21, no. 4 (1995): 38-40. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41687420.

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Anna May Wong

Lucy Hicks Anderson

ts-Lucy-Hicks-Anderson

[A photograph of Lucy Hicks Anderson looking fantastic, year unknown]

Lucy Hicks Anderson was a Black trans woman born in Waddy, Kentucky in 1886. She, like many of the people featured on this blog, does not appear in high school history textbooks, or even in most university textbooks either. Instead, her story comes to us through the work of people outside of the academy who work tirelessly to ensure that the histories of their own marginalized communities continue to be remembered and (re)told.

At a very young age, Lucy began wearing dresses and other items of clothing gendered as “women’s clothing” or “feminine clothing.” According to blogger and activist Monica Roberts (aka the TransGriot), an African-American trans woman, “[s]ince the transgender definition hadn’t been coined at that time to diagnose what was going on in [Lucy’s life], her mother took her to a physician who advised her to raise young Lucy as a girl” (Roberts, 2011). Lucy left high school at age fifteen and began working as a domestic worker, eventually leaving Kentucky for Texas. After working for a decade in a hotel, she met her first husband Clarence Hicks, whom she was married to from 1920 until their divorce in 1929.

After her first marriage, Lucy went on to own and operate a brothel, and eventually met her second husband Reuben Anderson. They married in 1944, but unfortunately it was this second marriage that caused her to encounter various legal problems. When it was discovered by a District Attorney that Lucy was not born “biologically female,” she was prosecuted for perjury based on there being no legal objections to the marriage, with the transantagonistic implication that her being a trans woman “should” have caused there to be a legal objection.

Lucy, in response to this obvious pile of hateful garbage, told reporters that she “def[ied] any doctor in the world to prove that I am not a woman. I have lived, dressed, acted just what I am, a woman.” After this initial set of legal problems, Lucy and her husband were convicted of fraud in 1946, as she had received allotment cheques from the American military as the wife of a U.S. soldier i.e., as the wife of Reuben Anderson. Unfortunately, Lucy and Reuben were tried and found guilty, with both being sent to prison. Once Lucy was released from prison, she went on to live in Los Angeles (because she was barred from returning to her previous home by the police commissioner) until her death in 1954.

Today’s post is dedicated to all of the QTPOC who lost their lives in the targeted hate crime shooting that took place in Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub on June 12, 2016. Lucy’s story is emblematic of the ways in which trans and gender non-conforming people have been legally and extra-legally persecuted in the United States, and of how despite this, they continue to resist, thrive, and survive.

~ M

Bibliography

Black Past [Kevin Leonard]. “Anderson, Lucy Hicks [Tobias Lawson] (1886-1954).” http://www.blackpast.org/aaw/anderson-lucy-hicks-1886-1954. Accessed June 25, 2016.

Roberts, Monica. “Black Trans History: Lucy Hicks Anderson.” The TransGriot. http://transgriot.blogspot.ca/2011/08/black-trans-history-lucy-hicks-anderson.html. August 2011. Accessed June 24, 2016.

 

Lucy Hicks Anderson

Terri-Jean Bedford

dominatrix-terri-jean-bedford

[A fantastic photograph of Terri-Jean Bedford with her iconic black riding crop, retrieved from her personal website www.http://terrijeanbedford.com/%5D

Terri-Jean Bedford is a name that many in Canada might recognize, and whom many might question as to whether or not she might count as an “historical hottie” or a contemporary one. We here at Historical Hotties hope to constantly push the boundaries of what constitutes “history” – and that includes forcing us to rethink the lines between past and present, historical and contemporary.

Bedford was born in October 1959, and has spent a large portion of her life working in the sex work industry, most notably as “Canada’s most famous” (in her words) dominatrix and as the former owner/operator of Madame de Sade’s House of Erotica in the Thornhill neighbourhood of Toronto, Ontario. In 1994, fifteen police officers stormed Madame de Sade’s, arresting Bedford (along with several other women) while committing acts of police violence including “pushing and shoving the female dominants, demanding that the accused call them ‘master,’ asking for a demonstration of boot licking, […] ridiculing the sadomasochistic props and clothes” and strip-searching the employees of Madame de Sade’s (Khan, 168). The arrests led to charges of keeping a bawdy house for Bedford. As defined by the Criminal Code, a bawdy house is “a place that is (a) kept or occupied, or (b) resorted to by one or more persons for the purpose of prostitution or the practice of acts of indecency.” However, Bedford and the accused insisted that the legal definitions of prostitution in Canada did not apply, as Bedford specifically mandated that no vaginal or oral sex could take place on the premises (in order to adhere to the law!). During the several trials that resulted from the 1994 arrests made in relation to Madame de Sade’s, Bedford only made legal appearances with her black riding crop in tow, dressed in black leather (like the total boss dom she is).

Bedford has gone on to become prominent in sex work advocacy in Canada and,along with Valerie Scott and Amy Lebovitch, was involved as an applicant in the high profile case Canada (AG) v Bedford, [2013] 3 SCR 1101. In Canada (AG) v Bedford, Canada’s prostitution laws were struck down, with bawdy house provisions being deemed unconstitutional.

Bedford is known in Canada as a vocal advocate for the rights of sex workers, working tirelessly to ensure that sex workers are treated with dignity and respect both in the proverbial eyes of the law and amongst the general public. Terri-Jean Bedford challenges us to reevaluate how we define whether someone is an historical personage or a contemporary one, and whether or not this distinction even matters. Furthermore, her work and the way she has been treated by the law and broader Canadian society forces us as historians to confront how we deal with questions surrounding desire, sexuality, consent, and sex work that bleed from the past into the present day. Bedford is most definitely a Historical Hottie, and one that makes us especially aware of the role “hotness” plays in different historical contexts of desire and (supposedly) deviant sexualities.

~ M

Bibliography

Canada (AG) v Bedford, [2013] 3 SCR 1101.

Khan, Ummni. “‘Putting a Dominatrix in Her Place’ The Representation and Regulation of Female Dom/Male Sub Sexuality.” The Canadian Journal of Women and the Law 21 (2009):  143-177.

Terri-Jean Bedford

Tituba

Histories of settler colonialism and enslavement are inseparable in the Americas. These twin genocides, at once separate and yet indispensable to one another, have forged to create the bedrock of the United States and many other modern-day countries in the Americas such as México and Brasil. Although we know relatively little about today’s historical figure, her life is demonstrative of how histories of settler colonialism and enslavement were intertwined in the Americas in the seventeenth century.

Tituba was an enslaved woman who was the first woman accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials. Her personal history, as with that of millions of enslaved people in the Americas, is murky as to her ethnic background and her exact biographical details. Born in the seventeenth century, there are two main theories as to where Tituba hailed from. The first, as put forward most prominently by the scholar Elaine Breslaw, was that Tituba was an Indigenous woman of Arawak descent, from the present-day region known as Guyana and Venezuela. The second theory was put forth by Peter Hoffer in 1997, and claims that Tituba was a Yoruba woman – as her name is a Yoruba word. Either of these theories could be true, or neither. She could have been an Arawak woman, a Yoruba woman, an Afro-Indigenous woman, or a woman from various other ethnic groups. Regardless, she was enslaved by Samuel Parris in Barbados and forcibly brought to Massachusetts.

In 1692, several young girls and women from Parris’s household – including his daughter Betty and niece Abigail – began to exhibit symptoms that were classified as bewitchment, and Tituba (along with two other women) was accused of witchcraft. Tituba was put on trial, and provided testimony saying that it was “the devil, for all I know” that had bewitched the four young girls/women. Tituba provided one of the longest testimonies in the Salem Witch Trials, one that went on to influence how the rest of the trials were conducted.

Tituba’s life has been subject to the whims of historians, authors, artists, and the general public since the seventeenth century. Her origins, her testimony, her involvement in witchcraft have all been historicized according to the sociocultural and racial context of those writing her story. At times depicted as Indigenous, at other times African, and at other times of mixed background, Tituba’s story has been twisted to suite the modes of the moment in which any given historian, author, or artist has depicted her. Tituba, as with the broader history of witchcraft in the Americas, is a complicated figure. What constituted as witchcraft? What type of person was accused of being a witch during the Salem Witch Trials? How does the perception of Tituba’s “racial” origin matter to accusations of witchcraft? How should we understand her testimony – that of an enslaved woman of colour/Indigenous woman accused of a spiritual, gendered crime? In what ways do particular gender identities become intertwined in histories of colonial witchcraft? Where do Euro-centric understandings and histories of witchcraft fit (or collide) with other ways of knowing and communing with spiritual worlds that originate in Indigenous traditions or West African traditions?

These are questions that continue to perplex historians of witchcraft and practitioners of various traditions referred to as “witchcraft” alike.

~ M

Bibliography

Barillari, Alyssa. “Tituba.” Salem Witch Trials: Documentary Archive and Transcription Project. Accessed April 22, 2016. http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/people/tituba.html.

Breslaw, Elaine G. Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem: Devilish Indians and Puritan Fantasies. New York: NYU Press, 1997.

Hoffer, Peter Charles. The Salem Witchcraft Trials: A Legal History. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997.

 

Tituba

Anne Damer

Anne_Seymour_Damer_self-portraitPhoto of Anne Seymour Damer’s self portrait. By Michalis Famelis (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Each week as I select whom I’m going to feature here on Historical Hotties, I have a kind of inner battle. In the early modern Eurasian context, the majority of the people about whom sources are available belonged to elite strata of their societies; in many cases the (relative) flexibility they enjoyed to do the things that makes them hotties was (in part) a result of social inequalities of various kinds. I was inspired by Monique’s spirit of historical enquiry in her post on Ah Toy last week, so today I’m featuring Anne Seymour Damer, an elite widow, sculptor and accused lesbian (if you’ll pardon the anachronistic term) who lived in 18th and early 19th century England.

Anne was incredibly well-connected. She was born into a noble, whig family, and she counted among her friends David Hume and Horace Walpole. But one of the things that makes Anne fascinating is that, though she has been overshadowed by her male friends (thank you, Great Man history), she was more than a socialite. Anne was an incredible sculptor (she was also an author), and, unlike many elite women who enjoyed fine arts as hobbies, she took up sculpting as a vocation, attaining a high level of training and accessing fields of artistic study typically closed to women, notably anatomy.

Because of her social circle Anne lived in the public eye, and her virtue eventually came under public attack. Less than a decade into her marriage, Anne left her husband (though they did not divorce). She was then widowed in her late twenties when her husband committed suicide. Anne never remarried. On the contrary, because of her noble station she was able to enjoy a degree of independence as a widow (i.e., comparatively free from the control of a father, husband or male relative) that many contemporary women could not achieve. Anne was notoriously independent, and, in addition to her elite male friends, she was also close with several famous women. It was these relationships that attracted ungenerous attention, even when her husband was living: several verse libels were published in the press that questioned Anne’s sexuality, suggesting that she had seduced her female friends. Despite the attacks on her character, once widowed Anne did not take refuge in a second marriage. She continued to use her social position and widowed state to pursue her own goals and desires.

Historical figures like Anne raise so many questions about how to do history in a just way. On the one hand, she was absolutely pushing boundaries of what was considered acceptable for women in her time and place. On the other, she was able to do so because of her elite social station. Undoubtedly, her working-class contemporaries had far less social, political and financial leeway (to say nothing of how the craft work of poor women is rarely regarded as “art” in its own right). Anne has been eclipsed as a historical figure by her male contemporaries. When studying Anne and women like her, the question becomes important: whose lives do theirs obscure?

~S

Damer, Anne Seymour (1749–1828),” Alison Yarrington in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, eee ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004); online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman, January 2008, http://www.oxforddnb.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/view/article/7084 (accessed March 18, 2016).

Anne Damer

Women’s Political Council (WPC)

This week’s post is dedicated to the heroic Montgomery, Alabama-based Women’s Political Council (WPC).The WPC was begun by Mary Fair Burks in the fall of 1946, after Burks spent much of her life protesting Jim Crow laws by refusing to abide by them throughout the city. According to historian Danielle L. McGuire, “[a]fter a run-in with a white police officer… Burks decided to broaden her attack and form an army of women dedicated to destroying white supremacy” (76). In Burks’s own words, she was a “feminist before [she] really knew what the word meant” and felt that she had to spread her lone-woman protest to a broader, community-based one as when she “looked around[, …] all [she] could see were either masks of indiferrence or scorn” (McGuire, 76).

At the first WPC meeting in 1946, forty Black women attended and all shared their stories of experiencing racialized and gendered violence at the hands of White police officers in Montgomery. Initially beginning with sharing their experiences with each other, the women of the WPC spread their activism to include voter registration. It was thanks to these amazing women and their partnerships with other Black organizations that the rates of voter registration increased during the 1950s in Montgomery, Alabama. During the 1950s, the WPC continued to grow in strength and became known as the “most militant and uncompromising voice” for Black Americans in the South.

Although the WPC’s accomplishments in regards to voter registration in the Black community were very important, it was their protest of their mistreatment on city buses that they gained the most attention for. It is thanks to the WPC that the famed Montgomery Bus Boycott took place in 1955. Even before this famous direct action took place, the WPC had been planning a bus boycott to demonstrate against their mistreatment on city buses. The December 1st, 1955 arrest of Rosa Parks finally gave the WPC the opportunity to put their plans into action.

The women of the WPC fought for the dignity and respect that Black women were denied in the mid-twentieth century. Their battles, from voter registration to bus segregation, demonstrate the intersecting systems of oppression that affected Black women. The WPC fought against patriarchy and White supremacy, illuminating the radical and vanguard role that Black women have played in the fight for Civil Rights in the United States. We here at the Historical Hotties Blog tip our proverbial hats to the amazing and inspiring women that often put their lives on the line in their fight(s) against injustice and state-sanctioned oppression.

~ M

Bibliography

McGuire, Danielle L. At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance – a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. New York: Vintage Books, 2010.

Women’s Political Council (WPC)