Africana Womanism Essay Contest

In celebration of the 40th anniversary of Ms. magazine, a group of Stanford faculty and Ms. editors selected forty iconic Ms. magazine covers for a short-essay contest. Nearly three hundred contestants contributed their thoughts on what these magazine covers meant to them, the issues in their lives, and the changing nature of feminism. These essays ranged from somber to sidesplitting, from theoretical to concrete, from the profoundly personal to the intensely political. 

From Denver to Dublin, the nearly three hundred contestants came from all corners of the world and spanned four generations of women, from age 14 to 81.   As these diverse contestants grappled with topics as various as domestic violence and housework, the virgin/slut dichotomy and body image, they demonstrated that these concerns  affect us all – women and men, young and old--  from all parts of the world. 

From these hundreds of entries, over a dozen judges selected ten essays that gracefully wrestled the issues evoked by covers. The winning were selected for their strength of language, strength of purpose, and sensitivity to feminist concerns.  The winners themselves chose Ms. covers from as early as 1972 and as recent as 2011, demonstrating both the continued relevance of second-wave feminism and the wealth of concerns still left to resolve. 

Spring 1972

The DanceWorn thin, Jane O’Reilly’s housewife gracing the Spring 1972 cover balances baby, beauty, and an array of domestic and office duties.Her spinning plates depict everyday responsibilities associated with the helpmate sex.While the author encourages Ms. readers to register the “click! of recognition” that we are much, much more, the weeping model grasps objects that reinforce the myth that feminism is/was about moderating a narrow private sphere.As a breast cancer survivor, wife, mother, and professional, I’d like to see the housewife—and later, Mom 2.0 (2009)—juggling some of the wider, public issues that Ms. has tackled over time:hands holding medical bills, peace signs, pink slips.In Hinduism, the Nataraja (or dancing “he” Shiva) reveals four outstretched arms holding up the cosmic symbols of creation, protection, destruction, embodiment—all while stamping out (the dwarf of) ignorance. Women have been negotiating the same for centuries. Click!

Cynthia Ryan. Birmingham, Alabama.  Age 48.

May 1974

Revisioning the Madonna, Remaking the Man"Because it dares—without artifice or mockery—to associate manhood with the tender cradling of an infant, this 1974 Ms. cover is as relevant now as was then:It asserts feminism’s capacity to liberate men as well as women from restrictive gender scripts, and reminds us that while feminism must empower women to pick up the pen, the scythe or the sword, it must also empower men to live what Michael Kimmel has called more “emotionally resonant lives” (Ms. 1997).As long as men are socialized to repress human attributes that are aligned with and generally (dis)regarded as ‘feminine,’ patriarchy will endure.Thus this iconic cover both celebrates and anticipates with hope what we have yet to fully achieve—the transformative power of feminism to enable all of us, regardless of sex/identity, to live full and authentic human lives.

Trish Matson. Coquitlam, British Columbia. Age 48.

August 1976

She is the one right next to you clutching the shopping cart and steering it down the aisles, picking up milk, eggs, and the occasional vegetable. She is the woman who goes to church on Sunday mornings. The woman who smiles and waves to you as you leave to run your errands and she is the woman who can be found carefully tending her garden or leading the book group. She is normal, pretty and nice. But this woman bears witness to a secret pain. Normal, pretty and nice is being beaten behind closed doors and her womanhood is being slowly stripped away. And you do not know. You and I do not suspect. But the Ms. Magazine cover exposes the hurt that she experiences on a day to day basis. It uncovers her hidden wounds so that you and I can have the courage to uncover ours.

Angela Banks. Carol Stream, Illinois. Age 25.

September 1977

In September of 1977, while Ms. Magazine reported on women and their bodies, I was fourteen and at war with mine.I weighed 90 pounds and could count my ribs.Eating Disorders were rare in 1977, but Ms. Magazine was keenly aware of the dangerous path women were on.Ms. Magazine recognized a trend, capable of killing women like Karen Carpenter, whose death shocked us into realizing the magnitude of our obsession in 1983.Ten million females suffer from eating disorders today and while we’ve made progress, we still fall victim to an attitude that power over our bodies will somehow empower us.The September 1977 issue illustrates how Ms. Magazine moves the feminist movement forward while making us conscious of the challenges and limitations we’re faced with as women.I salute Ms. Magazine for maintaining its voice and being a positive role model for the past forty years.

Shari Brady. Vernon Hills, Illinois. Age 48.

March 1993

Sweet honey in the rock. Sweet honey in the rock. Sounds rise and warm like morning sun; rhythms pulse within our bodies, between our bodies. A brilliance of color, we sing: we are people of worth. We are history. We are today and tomorrow. We may be beaten, molested,barred from crossing thresholds of opportunity, but our voices will not be stilled. Together we sing. We are women. We are African American. We, mothers and sisters and daughters, knowyour journey is our journey. Come, sing with us. We celebrate though the journey continues, we smile knowing tears will come again. Come, join us in joy. Clap, shimmy, stomp and shake. Raise your voice – for grace is big enough for all of us. Black, not black, women, children and men. Sing for the ones we have lost. Sing for the struggle and for strength. Sing, sing now for freedom.

Audrey Shafer. Mountain View, California.

November 1993

In the early 2000s, pregnant with my first child, I was totally, 100% sure she was a girl. I had a girl’s name picked out, and non-gender-stereotyped, non-pink and purple clothing for my strong non-gender-stereotyped little daughter to wear. I painted her nursery yellow. Nonetheless I was shocked when, a few weeks before she was born, I found out from an ultrasound that she was a boy.On the surface nothing needed changing, but inside me everything did. A friend, a smart, feminist, woman, said, “That’s great! Everyone these days wants to raise strong little girls. Raising sensitive boys – nobody’s into that. That’s not a popular cause.”Two little boys later, I know how right she was. Raising feminist sons: still a minority goal in 2011. Raising little boys who will be seen as fully human, not thugs in training? A risky business indeed.

Elisabeth Cohen. Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania. Age 34.

 September 1994

The first time I saw this cover, I stopped in my tracks.Here was a memorial to my war.The names listed were my comrades-in-arms, except that we weren’t armed.I traced the names and wondered how they died – imaged how they died, until the lines between their loss and my life began to blur and I had to stop.Survivor’s guilt swept over me and all I could do was cry.How did I escape with my life, when countless women around the world have not?In 1994 I was just four years out of the war zone, still shell shocked and learning to live in freedom; still afraid to speak my truth.But here it was, on the cover of Ms., for all the world to see.Name after heartbreaking name – but mine wasn’t on it.And I knew then that I would never go back.

Amy Stewart-Mailhiot. University Place, Washington. Age 42.

 March 1997

We were awkwardly silent as we drove through my University’s Greek Row on a Friday night.My “sisters in Christ” and I did not know how to respond to the busy sidewalks full of sorority women.We only had one category for their peals of laughter, their tottering high heals, and most of all, their short skirts.Melissa finally broke the silence by muttering the word “sinners.”I didn’t yet know how to articulate the problems with the virgin/slut dichotomy, but Melissa’s pronouncement slid unwelcome into my stomach, like slimy, undercooked chicken.As a present-day Christian and Feminist, I rejoice when my religion’s sexual ethic is prodded and challenged, as when Ms. shows up at our chastity rallies.I long for my sisters (in Christ or not) to know themselves as powerful, competent, and trustworthy sexual beings, undeserving of the violence that the virgin/slut categories enforce.

Christine Canty. San Francisco, California. Age 29.

 Summer 2009

This cover captures the plight of modern women as we juggle multiple discourses of femininity.Traditional expectations of housework and motherhood persist, while new assumptions of financial and social independence accrue.The overlay of these discourses, each pulling the woman in a different direction, each conflicting with another version of herself that she must simultaneously maintain, causes her to appear monstrous, recalling the infamous Octomom, a grotesque parody of what happens when women cannot maintain the balance.Moreover, she looks away; rather than involving the viewer, she bears her struggle alone, claiming only the attention of the person on the phone, a narrow audience for a universal problem.In our third wave zeal to celebrate difference, must we expect women to embody so many differences at once?Is this woman, so troubled by her attempts to “be it all,” the 21st Century version of the problem that has no name?

Rebecca Burnett. Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. Age 30.

 Spring 2011

It was in the magazine rack of the university’s Women’s Center exactly when I needed it—when giving up seemed wise.Another audience had responded with disbelief to my revelation that coerced sex is rape. I felt like I was back in that metal chair at the police station, trying to explain to the detective why the bruises on my body weren’t “evidence of passionate love making.”At such times, when it’s clear that those in power just don’t get it, the fight against rape seems endless.In 2011, lawmakers reminded us that they didn’t get it when they quietly tried to affirm the FBI’s distinction of real rape as “forcible.” Yet also in 2011, Ms. reminded us that anti-rape work has not been in vain. Survivors aren’t alone anymore; those who abuse power—in the back of a car or from behind a government desk—will be called out.

Andrea Harris. Beavercreek, Ohio.  Age 36.

Honorable Mention:

Lisa Parisio. Winooski, Vermont. Age 25.

Michelle Parrinello-Cason. St. Louis, Missouri. Age 26.

Anna Oleson-Wheeler. Berkeley, California. Age 26.

Ann Tyler Moses. Stanford, California. Age 20.

Gillian Collins. New York, New York. Age 19.

Katherine Schneider. Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Age 62.

Janani Balasubramanian. Stanford, California. Age 19.

Kay Bruce. Santa Barbara, California. Age 61.

Jessamyn Fairfield. Dublin, Ireland. Age 27.

Elise Jajuga. Lansing, Michigan. Age 28.

Anne Walsh Kelley. Boulder Creek, California. Age 68.

Lisa Mendelman. Los Angeles, California. Age 29.

Eryn Oag. Belleville, Ontario. Age 24.

Cynthia Mammen. Stanford, CA. Age 19.

Cindy Luo. Storrs, Connecticut. Age 20.

The purpose of this research project has been to shed light on the experiences of Black women in Afrocentric groupsâ Nation of Gods and Earths, the Black Panther Party, and Rastafariansâ that operated on the fringes of society during the 1960s through the early 2000s. This work articulates the gender dynamics between the men and women of the groups. In it, I trace the history of Black nationalism and identity in the United States in the late 19th century to the 20th century which set the framework for the formation of the Nation of Gods and Earths (NGE), the Black Panther Party(BPP), and Rastafarianism and its members to see themselves as a part of the Black nation or community and the women of these groups to see their identity tied in with the goals and desires of the group not as one set on individualistic ambitions.

The Africana womanist did not see herself as an individual but rather a vital part of the entire Black community. From a feminist perspective, it would appear as though the women of these Afrocentric fringe groups were marginalized and oppressed by the men but this perspective fails to give credence to the fact that Rasta women, Earthsâ the female members of the NGEâ and women Panthers saw race and racism as a more pressing issue than that of sexism. That is not to say that women in these groups did not question or challenge some of the sexist actions of their male counterparts. When there was a challenge it was done so in a way that reminded the men of the tenets of their respective group and their responsibility to uphold those principles; principles that required the men to consider the women as equally valuable in the cause of the group and deserving of just treatment.

While adhering to a gender order that afforded the male members a more visible position, the women of this study did not view their positions as mothers, wives, and sister members as a hindrance to their own personal joy or freedom. In fact, using an Africana womanist point of view, they would argue that it was in the best interest of the entire Rasta, NGE, or BPP and by extension, the Black community for them to own their statuses as a form of empowerment. For it was through their wombs and nurturing that the next generation would be born, through their providing a stable home that would allow their husbands to focus their attentions on the issues concerning their communities outward and through their role as supportive â sistersâ encouraging the men that the community could advance socially.

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